You don’t have to look far to find the essence of life, says Vandana Shiva. But in a society caught up in the blur of technological advances, bio-hacks and attempts to improve ourselves and the natural world, she fears we are relentless in destroying it.
“Everything comes from the seed, but we have forgotten that the seed is not a machine,” says Shiva. “We think that we can engineer life, that we can change the carefully arranged DNA of a living organism, and there will be no wider impact. But this is a dangerous illusion.”
For nearly five decades, Shiva has been deeply engaged in the fight for environmental justice in India. One of the world’s fiercest environmentalists, she worked to save forests, close down polluting mines, expose the dangers of pesticides, inspire the global campaign for organic farming, promote ecofeminism and against giant chemical corporations.
Her battle to protect the world’s seeds in their natural form – rather than genetically modified and controlled commercial versions – continues to be her life’s work.
Shiva’s anti-globalization philosophy and pilgrimages across India have often been compared to Mahatma Gandhi. But while Gandhi was synonymous with the spinning wheel as a symbol of self-reliance, Shiva’s emblem is the seed.
Now 70, Shiva – who is divorced and has chosen not to have children – has spent her life refusing to conform to the patriarchal norms so often imposed on women in India, especially in the 1950s. She has published more than 20 books and when she is not traveling the world for workshops or speaking tours, she spends her time between her office in Delhi and her organic farm at the foot of the Himalayas.
She credits the spirit of resistance to her parents, who were “feminists at a higher level than I’ve ever known – long before we even knew the word ‘feminism'”. After 1947, when India gained independence, her father left the military for a job in the forests of the mountainous state of Uttarakhand, where Shiva was born and was always raised to believe that she was equal to men. “The forests were my identity and from a very young age I was captivated by the laws of nature,” she says.
There was a race to develop and patent GM crops, but no one wanted to ask: what impact will it have on the environment?
She was about six years old when she stumbled upon a book of quotes by Albert Einstein placed in a small decorated library in a forest lodge. She was moved, determined against all odds to become a physicist. Although science was not taught at her rural convent school, Shiva’s parents encouraged her curiosity and found ways for her to learn. By the time she was in her 20s, she had completed her PhD in quantum physics at a Canadian university.
But as logging, dams and development wreaked ecological havoc on Uttarakhand’s forests and local peasant women rose up to fight against it – a movement known as Chipko – Shiva realized, on her return to India, that her heart was not in physics. quantum but with another variation, a nagging question. “I couldn’t understand why we were told that new technology makes progress, but everywhere I looked, local people were getting poorer and landscapes were being destroyed as soon as development came this or the new technology in,” she says.
In 1982, in her mother’s cowshed in the mountain town of Dehradun, Shiva established her research foundation, exploring the intersection between science, technology and ecology. She began documenting the “green revolution” that had swept rural India since the late 1960s, where the government had pushed farmers to introduce technology, mechanization and agrochemicals in an effort to increase crop yields and to avoid famine.
He encouraged her to oppose industrial interference in agriculture throughout her life. While it is acknowledged that the green revolution prevented widespread starvation and introduced some much-needed modernization in rural communities, it also marked the beginning of a persistent system of monoculture in India, where traditional indigenous farmers were forced to abandon and instead plant a few high-yielding ones. wheat and rice crops in rapid rotation cycles, burning the stubble in their fields in between.
It also created a reliance on subsidized fertilizers and chemicals, albeit expensive and environmentally destructive, that continues to this day. Fertile states like Punjab, once known as the breadbasket of India, have been stripped of their rich soil minerals, with watercourses running dry, rivers polluted with chemical runoff and farmers in a constant state of crisis and anger.
Shiva’s skepticism about the chemical industry worsened when, in the early 1990s, he came into contact with some of the first multilateral discussions on agricultural biotechnology and plans by chemical companies to alter crop genes for commercial purposes.
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“Companies were racing to develop and patent these GM crops, but no one wanted to ask: what will be the impact on the environment? How will they affect diversity? What will this cost the farmers? They just wanted to win the race and control all the seeds of the world. To me, it just seemed wrong,” says Shiva.
In 1991, five years before the first genetically modified (GM) crops were planted, she founded Navdanya, which means “nine seeds”, an initiative to save India’s native seeds and spread their use among farmers. Eight years later, she took the chemical monolith Monsanto, the world’s largest seed producer, to the supreme court for importing its GM cotton into India without permission.
Monsanto became famous in the 1960s for producing the herbicide Agent Orange for the US military during the Vietnam war, and later led the development of GM crops in the 1990s. He moved quickly to enter the international market with his privatized seeds, especially in developing countries, mainly agricultural countries.
The company, which was bought by the German pharmaceutical and biotech company Bayer, in 2018, became involved in legal action. In 2020 he announced an $11bn (£8.7bn) payment to settle claims of links between his herbicide and cancer on behalf of nearly 100,000 people but denied any wrongdoing. In 2016, dozens of civil society groups staged a “people’s tribunal” in The Hague, finding Monsanto guilty of human rights violations and developing an unsustainable farming system.
Shiva says that he felt Monsanto to go to court against mafia and alleges that there were many attempts to threaten and pressure her not to file the case.
Monsanto finally got permission to bring GM cotton to India in 2002, but Shiva kept up his fight against multinational chemical companies, which Shiva refers to as the “poison cartel”. Currently more than 60% of the world’s commercial seeds are sold by just four companies, which led to the push for patent seeds, which commanded a global monopoly on certain GM crops such as cotton and soya and sued hundreds of farmers on a small scale to save seeds. from a commercial crop.
“We took on these giants when they said ‘we made rice, we made wheat’, and we won,” she says.
She is convinced that the GM crop has failed. But while the legacy of GM-resistant cotton in India is complicated and pesticide use is on the rise, not everyone agrees that the issue is black and white. Indeed, her vague and often incomprehensible positions on GM organisms and globalization have earned her many powerful critics and enemies.
She has been accused of exaggerating the dangers of GM and of simplifying facts about the direct correlation between farmer suicides and genetically modified crops, and has been called an enemy of progress for her anti-globalisation rhetoric, given the threats ahead the world.
Related: ‘Mind-boggling diversity’: the food crusaders preserving India’s heritage
As the world population has increased to 8 billion people, and the climate crisis is disrupting agriculture, even some prominent environmentalists have shifted their positions and argued that GM crops can support food security. Countries including the United Kingdom, which imposed strict laws regarding GM foods, are now pushing for more gene editing of crops and animals. Last year India approved the release of new GM mustard seeds.
Shiva is alarmed by this renewed push for GM organisms, arguing that much of the gene-editing process is still “very dangerous and unpredictable” and calling it “ignorance” to think that climate-adapted crops can only come from laboratories industrial.
“Farmers have already bred thousands of climate resilient and salt tolerant seeds; they were not the invention of a few big companies, no matter what patents they claim,” she says.
For Shiva, the global crisis facing agriculture will not be solved by the “poison cartel” or the continuation of fossil-fueled industrial farming, but instead by a return to local, small-scale farming that no longer relies on agrochemicals. “Globally, the subsidies amount to $400bn a year to operate an unsustainable agricultural system,” she says.
“This industrialized globalized food system is destroying soil, destroying water and generating 30% of our greenhouse gases. If we want to solve this, we have to switch from industrial farming to ecological farming.”
However, while her crusade against the power of chemical corporations will continue, Shiva considers her most important work to be her travels through the villages of India, collecting and saving seeds – including 4,000 varieties of rice – establishing more than 100 seed banks, and helping farmers. return to organic methods.
“My proudest work is listening to the seed and its creativity,” she says. “I am proud that a lie is a lie, no matter how great the power that tells the lie. And I am proud that I have never hesitated to speak the truth.”
• Vandana Shiva’s latest book, Terra Viva: My Life in a Biodiversity of Movements, is published by Chelsea Green. Shiva will speak at the Extinction or Regeneration conference at the QEII Centre, London, 11-12 May