Read, Debate: Engage.

“People in the industrialised world are living in the past. They will be forced to change.”

December 09, 2021
topic:Sustainable Agriculture
tags:#food security, #industrial agriculture, #Sustainable Development, #COP 26
by:Ari Libsker
Before giving her speech at the Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Dr. Vandana Shiva, one of the most influential environmental activists in the world, in an exclusive interview with the Calcalist supplement, explains why industrial agriculture is one of the biggest threats to the environment, how it creates hunger without offering a solution and how we will be able to escape this vicious cycle.

Dr. Vandana Shiva doesn’t leave any room for doubt. “Industrial agriculture is a terrible disaster,” she concludes in an exclusive interview with the Calcalist supplement. “According to the World Food Programme, around 80 percent of the world’s food needs comes from small farms. So industrialising more and more agriculture in small communities means making more and more people hungry. Industrialising agriculture turns it into a commodity, and a commodity feeds the meat and energy industries, not people.”

Why them?

“Over the last 20 years two types of crops became stronger and stole the land, corn and soya, and both of them are very common in how they underwent genetic modification. 90 percent of the growth of these plants is for feeding animals (cows alone need around 2.8 billion tons of grain and fodder per year), and for fuel production (in 2019, fuel from plant origin formed nearly 30 percent of global fuel output), and only 10 percent for feeding humans. So it’s simply not true to say that if we increase the amount of agriculture we will succeed in feeding more people.”

Shiva, who was educated as a physicist and did her PhD in the philosophy of science, is a leading researcher in the field of ecological farming and is one of the most influential environmental activists in the world. Her war against industrialised farming and genetically-modified seeds has earned her the nickname the “Gandhi of grain” and a leading place on the ‘most influential’ lists in publications such as Time, The Guardian, and Forbes.

In 1993, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award (a Swedish prize which has been labelled the “Alternative Nobel”) and in 2010 the Sydney Peace Prize. This year her life story and struggle were covered in a fascinating documentary film, The Seeds of Vandana Shiva, which will be screened at the Tel Aviv Cinemateque’s International Spiritual Film Festival (for screening times see the Cinemateque website). 

Last month, Shiva spoke at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, an event with great historical significance that is seen as the last opportunity to stop global warming and to save the planet, if this is even still possible. “There I will explain what intensive farming is and about global food systems, about the central role they play in ecological problems, and why ecological farming is so important,”  said Shiva a week before the event.

Is there any point to this? Many people claim that it’s already over, that it’s impossible to rehabilitate the planet, and that even if we stop polluting it this evening it will only slightly delay the end.

“They are pessimistic because they live in an industrialised reality. The culture that invented the fossil fuels invented the machines, and therefore its thought is mechanical. But we, who live with the forests, can solve this. The Earth knows how to rehabilitate itself. In places where ecological farms operate, I measured a fall in temperatures.

“The Earth didn’t create the problem, humans did. For a native from the Amazon who demands his forest back it’s definitely not ‘going back in time’ but ‘marching to the future’: I want to live, I want the forest where I live to stay alive. People who come from the industrialised world need to understand that they live in the past, and that they have no choice: they have to change.”

“In academia they taught me to change nature, but they ignored the results of the change.” 

Shiva was born in 1952 in Dehradun, in the Himalayan foothills, close to Rishikesh. Her father, a forest conservator, gave her a love of nature on countless hikes and trips; her mother, a farmer, gave her a connection to the land. “I was raised in a forest. My childhood was surrounded by trees, rivers, wild nature,” she says. She was educated at Catholic schools in the Himalayas, where she emerged as a maths and physics prodigy. Because of her admiration for Albert Einstein, she studied physics at the University of the Punjab, and shortly after finishing her degree she began working at the Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) in Mumbai, the most important center of its kind in India. 

The first turning point in her life came in 1978, after a day at work when she was forced to deal with a fault in the particle accelerator. “I came home and I met my sister Mira, who is a doctor. I told her what had happened, and she asked me about the medical impact of atomic energy. I didn’t know how to answer. I understood that they had only taught me how to change nature, but not about the damage this causes. The science that I studied looks only at one effect, and neglects the rest.”

This insight turned into a decisive point in her life. She abandoned her dream of becoming an atomic scientist, and moved to Canada, where she completed a master’s degree and a doctorate in the philosophy of science, doing her research in quantum theory. 

Supporting the world's first 'tree huggers'

Before traveling to Canada, though, she wanted to say goodbye to India, and she visited one of the places where she had spent her childhood in the Himalayas. She discovered that large swathes of the forest that grew there had been cut down. “It was the first time that I experienced something that had been a part of me ceasing to exist.” When she asked the locals what had happened, she discovered that lumber companies used criminal methods to prevent local residents, mainly women, from collecting firewood, weeds and roots. “The assembling [of the firewood] and the forest were part of their way of life, and in order to struggle against the tree cutting, they hugged them [the trees] when the woodcutters arrived.” They called this tree-hugging, which was later adopted around the world, Chipko, and the name was adopted by the movement against cutting down trees. “Since I know how to read English and to draw graphs, the Chipko women were extremely happy that I joined them, and that’s how I found myself both teaching at a university in Canada and coming to the Himalayas to support the struggle.”

The Chipko women’s struggle, which began in 1972, found success in 1981, after floods between 1971 and 1980, mainly in northern India, killed around 12,000 people and left around seven million people homeless (according to the statistics of the ADRC, the Asian Disaster Reduction Center). Only then, Shiva explains, did the government listen to the women, who maintained that the cutting of trees led to flooding and destruction. “It convinced the government that the cost of rehabilitation would be far greater than the income from cutting down trees, and it forbade cutting trees above a certain height in the mountains, and also in at-risk areas.” 

Since the Chipko struggle, tree-hugging became a global practice in the ecological struggle. Shiva led the struggle on the path of activism. After finishing her doctorate, she returned to India, and in 1982 the Indian Ministry for the Quality of the Environment asked her to carry out research about the damage caused by quarries in the Doon Valley, where she was born. “The goal was to help tourism, the mining there had cleared the mountain range,” she says. “From my collaboration there with the Chipko women I understood that the best way to understand what is happening in the field is to speak with the local women, and they revealed to me that the problem wasn’t with the landscape, but with the water that was being polluted by the quarries. Water pollution destroys whole villages. The quarries also employed people in awful conditions. The leaders of labor unions were murdered.” 

You weren’t afraid of confronting people like that?

“That same year I gave birth to my only son and I walked around with him in the villages. I received threats to his life, and I was forced to leave him with my 80-year-old father. My father told me not to flinch.” 

In order to struggle against the quarries, she made a cold, economic calculation. “My research showed that water pollution would make it necessary to extract water from the Ganges, and the costs of an extraction like this would be far more expensive than the leasing rights,” she says. The road to convincing the government took her to the Supreme Court, which was also convinced that extracting water would cost more. “Six months of research can save an entire valley from an irreversible ecological disaster,” she concludes. 

When she understood that she needed funding from independent sources, free of corporate interests, she founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE). “As I went more deeply into the research, I understood that what we call 'science' is really a narrow point of view, which is driven by an old conception of ‘ownership of nature.’ It’s the ideology of the start of the Industrial Revolution: during this period combustibles and fuel was needed, and the conception of ‘ownership of nature’ served the tree-cutters. Something similar happened later, with the geological research that served the interests of the owners of the mines and the cement industry.”

Your research, despite this, didn’t focus on industry but ecological character.

“Yes. My goal in founding the institute was to show the damage caused by that same industry.”

“The Green Revolution won the Nobel Peace Prize, but it started a war.”

In 1984, a violent revolution that shook India was ignited in the state of Punjab: Sikh separatists took over the Golden Temple, their religion’s holiest site. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent in the army, who took control of the site; in response, her Sikh bodyguards murdered her. India rapidly sunk into a violent ethnic conflict, during which at least 8,000 Sikhs were murdered and around 50,000 lost their homes. 

At the same time, Shiva worked on research for the United Nations University dealing with conflicts caused by a lack of resources. This research opened her eyes to the true background regarding the massacre of the Sikhs: “All of the newspapers and reports related the riots to a religious-ethnic conflict, but that’s not true: the background to the conflict in Punjab was the agricultural crisis and the struggle over sources of income,” she says. “There were many reports and documents documenting conflicts over access to water and land. I found that the people who were murdered were owners of seed banks, owners of lands, people who built irrigation canals from the river. Those who were murdered held key positions of bureaucratic strength.”

In December of that year, one of the most serious industrial disasters in history took place when, in the middle of the night, around 40 tons of gas leaked from a pesticide-producing factory in the city of Bhopal in central India. Hundreds of thousands of people who lived in the slums surrounding the city were exposed to the gas; at least 3,700 of them died in the two weeks following the incident, but in the face of the terrible injuries, the overall number of deaths is estimated at 16,000. “Between what was happening in Punjab and what was happening in Bhopal, my head was in a spin. I understood that the two events were connected. Bhopal is the capital of the ‘Green Revolution’ in India.”

The Green Revolution is the name that is given to the agricultural conception that conquered the world in the 1960s, and made traditional agriculture more efficient by transitioning to monoculture (growing one crop at a time, instead of polyculture, the growing of two or more crops), reducing the number of varieties that are grown, the mechanisation of agricultural labour and using pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

The Green Revolution led to great success in closing the gap between the production of food and the global population growth rate, and prevented mass hunger and international crises, particularly in the developing world, achievements that won the developer of the idea, the American Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1970. 

But the disaster in the pesticide factory, and the ethnic-economic clashes, convinced Shiva that the Green Revolution was a double-edged sword. “The Green Revolution was supposed to bring more food, more profit, more peace, and here we see war and death. And for that they gave them the Nobel Peace Prize,” she said. “I decided to turn my research to the Green Revolution, and I found that it led to the destruction of land and rivers, because of the use of polluting pesticides and fertilizers. Around 25 percent of the small farms in India were annihilated.”

Shiva published these conclusions in research with the UN University, and afterwards in a book that reverberated around the world, The Violence of the Green Revolution (1989), in which she exposed the way in which the struggle over resources has been presented as an ethnic struggle. 

“Seed monopolies are pushing the farmers to the edge of suicide.”

The success of her book turned her into an international star, and she was invited to agriculture conferences around the world. At one of them, which was held in Geneva, there was a presentation about the future vision of the industry: the distribution of genetically-modified seeds throughout the developing world. “I understood that there was a spin: ostensibly they were saying ‘we are coming to feed the world,’ but at the end of the day this is about control of food.”

As an example, she mentioned the wheat grown by Monsanto, which developed seeds that can survive in a field in which every other crop is exterminated through spraying. Shiva’s fear was that whole countries would become dependent on one company, and that the variety of food seeds in the world would disappear.

According to Shiva, the cost of seeds in India led to huge numbers of Indian farmers sinking into massive debt: according to Indian government statistics, nearly 75 percent of the debts of villagers today come from loans - and in order to understand how many people we are talking about, it’s worth remembering that around 60 percent of the 1.3 billion residents of India make a living from agriculture. “In their rush to gather profits from royalties, seed monopolies destroyed natural alternatives and led to agrarian distress that resulted in suicides.”

This conference, which announced that the number of species was falling, spurred her to action. “At this point in time, around 80 percent of the strains came from the farmers themselves and around 20 percent from the government. But, because I was at the conference, I knew what was going to happen. I said if we waste [time] until the next disaster, there will be nothing left to do.”

Shiva understood that it wasn’t enough to write critical articles, and that she had to fight. She returned to the Himalayas to gather seeds, and she convinced locals to grow them. “The men said, ‘No, we want to grow potatos and soy beans, that’s what sells at markets.’ But many people came to me and said, ‘I have these seeds, and all sorts [of others].’ I encouraged them to grow them and to preserve them.” This step led her, in 1994, to found Navdanya, a non-governmental organisation that works to gather seeds, preserve biological diversity, promote organic farming and protect the rights of farmers. “For me it wasn’t a museum for collected seeds but an attempt to create seeds that would also be suitable during climate change.” So far, she says to illustrate, the organisation has preserved around 2,000 varieties of rice. “The Green Revolution still hasn’t succeeded in destroying all the varieties of rice.”

The Indian farmers’ struggle hasn’t only been limited to the subject of seeds. Over the last 10 months they have carried out wide-ranging strikes in a protest against the government’s plans to reform the subsidy for the purchase of grain from the farmers.

In the last month, the rebellion deteriorated and the farmers even blocked access to the capital Delhi, leading to violent clashes with the police and to the death of eight farmers.

According to Shiva, this is a struggle that has been going on for more than 100 years: “In 1857 the Indian farmers rose up against the East India Company (through which Britain controlled the Indian economy). These companies’ control of India ended, but then the ‘Green Revolution’ came. For three decades we succeeded in preventing corporate control that would lead to a business and agricultural monopoly, but in 2020 they carried out a legislative trick: in the framework of three emergency orders from the corona lockdown period, they adopted the World Bank’s program to end agricultural regulation. This opened the door to international corporations with great power - Bayer, Monsanto, Cargill, PepsiCo, Amazon, Walmart and others, in partnership with Indian corporations - in order to conquer the Indian market with ease. This is the new colonialism: they don’t only control our food and land but also [our] water and seeds. They trap farmers and enslave them to debts.”

Why doesn’t it fill you with despair?

“I am optimistic thanks to my research, which also presents a feasible practice. I collect seeds every day, and with this information it is possible to save the planet. It’s possible to achieve health for people, there can be more variety and more food. This is what I have already been doing for 47 years. I’m optimistic, because I take the planet seriously.”

This article originally appeared in the Calcalist supplement

Image by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.

Article written by:
Ari Libsker
Embed from Getty Images
Vandana Shiva during a conference in Rome, Italy.
© Andrea Ronchini/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images
The cost of seeds in India have led to huge numbers of Indian farmers sinking into massive debt.
© Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Call to Action
One Acre Fund ends hunger by uplifting rural farmers
Support now