I met Vandana Shiva in the airport. When the automatic sliding doors at the arrivals gate revealed her luggage cart and her orange sari, I half expected a beam of light to illuminate her, such is the legend that surrounds her. Of course none did because Vandana Shiva is just a human being and not a saint. But what a human being she is.
After studying physics in her undergrad she received her Master’s in philosophy and her Ph.D. in quantum physics. (She also received an honourary doctorate from the University of Guelph). In 1982 she set up the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, where researchers work with local communities and social movements to address important ecological and social issues. In 1991 she established Navdanya, a movement to protect the diversity of living resources, especially seeds, and to advocate for organic farming and fair trade. And like clockwork, a decade or so after that, she founded Bija Vidyapeeth, a sustainable living college. She has taught at universities, written books, and serves on the board of a number of organizations concerned with women, organic farming, and international property rights, among other issues. She is now working with the government of Bhutan to ensure that the country is 100% organic.
So why was she talking to me? Well she wasn’t really. She had flown from New Delhi to Toronto to give a lecture at her old alma mater on The Right to Food – Women, Development, and the Global Economy. I was just lucky enough to have a discussion with her in the car.
I understand that on many farms in India, women are responsible for sowing and harvesting seeds and crops, in the domestic end of food production. Have you seen an increase in women being involved in the public end, in marketing and distributing food?
Oh yes. You know, there are vegetable markets where there are only women. In Bangalore, where I spent three years in, I would walk to the local market every evening and it was all women selling vegetables. And they had grown their own vegetables. And the market in Manipur, only women! And they’re protesting there because they want to tear down the market to create a highway that cuts through northeast India, Burma, and China to move goods. Agriculture and food is women’s economy until its hijacked by corporations. By and large, the only thing that men do in traditional agriculture is plant. Everything else women do. In fact for the UN, for the Food and Agriculture Organization, they wanted me to make a report on women in agriculture. And by the time that I had finished looking at the data, I had to give the title, “Most Farmers in India Are Women.” And most of the work is done by women.
Do you feel like since you’ve been doing this research and working in this field, that women’s roles have changed?
Oh yes, women have been displaced hugely. They’ve been displaced from seed, they’ve been displaced from agriculture. A lot of women’s work and employment in agriculture is weeding. And you know weeding is not a wasteful activity – at one level it’s harvesting. When you get plants that are not part of your planted crop, they’re either food (some of the most nutritious foods are defined as weeds), fodder, or medicinal plants. Now when Roundup invades, all of that goes. With it goes nutrition, with it goes healthy animal food, and worse, what goes with it is women’s work. Sadly corporations like Monsanto which sell Roundup… In the early days I remember seeing these big billboards that said “Liberate yourself, use Roundup,” as if disposability is liberation. And in food processing, our policies to globalization were: food is too important to life and economy that it should not be industrialized. So our policies were that it should be contained to the small scale sector. And the small scale sectors were women working. So all processing was done by women, and it was delicious, healthy processing. And with globalization, food standards change, food safety changes, subsidies change. Pepsi gets subsidies and a small unit doesn’t. I just came back from a soil pilgrimage and Mahatma Gandhi, the prophet of non-violence in our times, he promoted artisinal processing in contrast to industrial for livelihoods, for work, for keeping wealth in community. Because when farmers shift from growing food and processing it, they basically end up making cheap commodities for industry. And they get poorer. There’s no value added to the community, there’s only exploitation. And literally, the Pepsis and Nestles of the world have cooked up these new food safety standards and have shut down the virgin cold press oil mill at Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram. So I’m going to back in January to work with them. And when you realize that industrial oil is produced with so many chemicals – most of it is GM soil, using hexane for the soil extraction, it just displaces the really healthy oils. And with it women’s knowledge and women’s work. Because I kind of lived through long enough period to have witnessed India in the pre-globalization period and the post-globalization period, the changes are huge.
Women by and large don’t turn to crime, but you know, none of these policy makers see the connection between the growth of violence and crime – and in particular more violence against women – and the destruction of economy and livelihoods. And you know the GDP is a completely cooked up number. You’re quantifying the wrong thing. If I cut that tree I have growth, but if I let it grow, I have zero growth. If people are feeding themselves and children are healthy, nutrition is available, no growth. You create malnutrition, you create disease, there’s growth. I work with the government of Bhutan and they decided in the ’70s that they weren’t going to measure growth in the typical way. And instead of GDP we’re going to maximize the gross national happiness.
How is your approach to these topics different than your peers? Non-environmental activists?
My formal education is physics, except for that year I did at Guelph which I’m very grateful for because you know I think that philosophical reflection is so important because people become like automatons, you know? Just replicating something without thinking. And you know before I came here, I used to think that you could live life through equations. I thought writing was a waste. But you know one had to write to papers and later on philosophy. I think that’s when I realized that writing isn’t such a waste. How is my thinking different? First because a lot of the work I do today… I haven’t been groomed in it in a linear, one dimensional way. I’ve addressed as an issue in nature. I see an ecosystem collapse and try to get what’s really happening. And in reality things are connected. My Ph.D. thesis, which I did at Western, was on non-locality and non-separability in quantum theory, so even science tells you that everything is related and yet we have a reductionist paradigm which pretends that everything is separate. Sadly most trainings are in that one dimensional groove and then when you get into the academic track, you want your publications, you want your tenure, then you have to continue in that. So a lot gets left out. Just like GDP leaves out so much of reality. Reductionist approaches don’t look at interdisciplinarity, don’t look at interconnections. They leave out a lot.
They’re exclusionary in nature.
How did you transition from physics to agriculture? Was there any backlash from your colleagues when you made that move?
No no. Even when I decided to come here to do my higher studies it was with the conscious choice that I didn’t want to be a mechanical physicist. And I didn’t want to just be a cog in a machine. For me, since I was a little child, physics was about understanding how nature works. And that understanding was what I followed all the way, especially why I specialized in the foundations of quantum theory, already by that time I was walking alone. So my trajectory was a trajectory which I was carving out for myself. When I went back, I mean I had the options to continue with physics institutions and I consciously chose to join an institute where I could look at interactions between science and society because I’ve always been very troubled by in congruent messages. We are all always told, “Science removes poverty.” And India has the world’s third largest scientific community and this point one of the highest rates of poverty and malnutrition. And it didn’t hang together. Just like when I did my work on the Green Revolution… The Green Revolution was given the Nobel Prize for peace and in ’84, Punjab was a land of violence. And Canada’s connected to that because the Air India flight that was blown up over Ireland was part of that whole extremist action. It didn’t make sense to get a prize for peace, but then there is violence. I was working for the United Nations university at the time and I said, “You’ve got to look at this.” The pressure really came at two points – not from any peer groups. Like I said in physics I’d already gone my own way. That’s when I found out about the World Bank. I was in Bangalore and every day I saw more eucalyptus planting on the farmland and I couldn’t figure it out. So I told the institute that I was working for that we must investigate, something’s very funny. And of course we found out that the World Bank was behind it, funding the growth of eucalyptus for raw material for the pulp industry and calling it social forestry because we had come up with that phrase with Chipko. The study made a huge impact and the farmer’s movement emerged around it and the regional parliament had huge discussions about it and rejected the plan. You know I think it was one of the first major studies that shook up the system. And the director of my institute was very fond of me and respected me and he says, “I so love the work you do and I’m so proud of you. But the World Bank’s been putting the pressure on me saying “We will cut of this funding and this funding and this funding” if you ever do research like this.” His name was Dr. Ramasan. I said, “Dr. Ramasan I’m not going to change. Any research for me is to find the truth. And no power in the world can suppress that urge in me. And instead if you losing grants for the institute which you need I will create a space where I can work independently.” Which is why I created the Research Foundation, I left the institute. The next round of intense pressure was not from peers, but from Monsanto and its lobbyists. They’re not fellow scientists, they’re journalists, they’re literally available for hire to do any nasty job. You have a fellow here in Canada who pretends to be a Greenpeace guy and I checked with Greenpeace and he entered once and they threw him out. I don’t call them peers.
How can we all be sustainable in our food consumption practices?
I think the way to be sustainable in food consumption practices is to be sustainable in food production. And non-sustainability is built right into the industrial agriculture model because it uses ten times more inputs than it produces, it uses ten times more energy that it produces as calories, it uses ten times more finances for purchase of internal inputs than what farmers can earn which is why farmers go under, get into debt and leave the land or in the case of India commit suicide – 300,000 of them. So it’s not sustainable. But fortunately we have better ways to produce. And the three things that – and this is the work that I’ve been doing through Navdanya the movement I’ve built over the last thirty years – is that we have to move from mono cultures to diversity, we have to move from chemicals and external inputs to ecological processes, internal inputs, what is called agro-ecology, we’ve got to move from globalized trade to local distribution. So that wealth gets distributed and more nutritious, healthier, fresher systems improve.
Solar power has long been talked about in the Arab Gulf and in particular Saudi Arabia, as a greener energy resource. However just recently a major project in the kingdom has been pushed back eight years. Have you ever worked with environmental activists in the Middle East and what do you think the viability is for solar power and other more sustainable energy producers in this part of the world?
I’ve been to the Middle East, including for a sustainability conference because I’m a counselor for something called The World Future Council and we have been invited by Abu Dhabi, and I find it extremely strange that here we are in a desert which has a very low population and then we find oil. And now they’re building these mega cities for which they need lots and lots of resources. The entire economy is – you bring in migrants to work for this economy, you bring in migrants to serve the other migrants under slave conditions. Those communities come out to talk to me and you kind of get to know something beyond the glossy papers. But I just find those huge mega cities extremely ugly in terms of the context of the desert. And to then say that you’re going to turn to solar… You know I think the Middle East, at least those rich oil countries, although I have done a new manifesto called “Terra Viva” that looked at the whole Syrian uprising and it’s totally related to land degradation, desertification and climate change. Because in 2009 a million farmers moved to the city and that’s when the violence started. And then the global powers started to equip the rebels they call them because they wanted to Assad to go. There was no ISIS in 2010. It’s been created by arming people. Once all this money and all these weapons are floating around an entirely new phenomena has come up. And now you have Russia entering the scene so it’s not going to be pleasant at all. For that group of countries with their artificial cities popping out of the desert. They’re having to do violence to Africa now – they’re doing a lot of land grab for their security. I do think those countries need to have a re-think you know, “We are this many and let’s have sustainability on the basis of those populations rather than bringing the world here.” In the desert to attract those populations with a luxury lifestyle – it cannot be sustainable.
And they’re consuming so much.
They are consuming so much. I see ads in India, “Go for a shopping trip to Dubai.” And they have giant malls. The whole thing is a consumer hub. So it’s not only the energy question of oil to solar but it’s the artificial attraction. The total polarization between the super wealthy migrants and the shoppers and the construction workers.
Well they even have different labels right? White middle or upper middle class migrants are called expatriates or expats, while labourers are called migrants.
I was very disturbed to read in The Economist about this issue. Instead of talking about the Middle East, they’re saying Muslim countries. Because it’s totally rife for Islamophobia and it’ll feed more into it. They’ve left the label of the Middle East.
And now to totally switch gears. You’ve done so many different things in your life, one of them being gymnastics. Why didn’t that pan out?
Well you know someone cooked that up. I was never a gymnast. I was a very good athlete. I was the top basketball player and throw ball player…
Oh you know, you throw a ball over a net.
Kinda like volleyball?
Yeah it’s like volleyball. I was a very good sprinter. I loved it, I loved the challenge of sports. Two years ago when the Monsanto lobby started to work, they got rid of all my physics degrees on my Wikipedia page. And replaced everything about the work I’ve done. And I don’t edit my Wikipedia page, other people do that. And somebody replaced athletics with gymnastics. My son and his friends started to work on changing it back, but within a second it would change again. And we’ve got scientists who are attacked by Monsanto in a systematic way. They’ve hired Conde Nast, which bought up The New Yorker, they had a hatchet job done on me. They’ve got armies of people that are just there to change Wikipedia pages! And Seralini is one of the top scientists who’s done research on organ disruption with glyphosate and Roundup Ready and GMO crops, he’s a top scientist in France with articles in huge publications, part of a big, big, big research team. They went through a whole process of trying to get his article retracted, the journal refused, so they changed the editor. And the Wikipedia page is the “Seralini affair.” There were ten people behind each of us that was paid to just keep the narrative that Monsanto has built. You can correct it and it bounces right back. They can hire armies – we work on our own steam. I have to say it’s criminal actions. I’ve spent so much time in the agricultural movement and you have to deal with dam companies, there’s always a vested interest. Pure scientists never face this. The first scientist who was asked to study the effects of GMOs by the UK – his lab was closed and he had a stroke. He came from Hungary as a refugee and he went back to Hungary because there was more freedom there.
Do you ever feel paranoid?
No. I’m realistic. I’ve had enough experience. For example I’ve sued Monsanto and I’ve had an amazing number of threats to drop the case. So what I did was make twenty copies of the writ and tell twenty friends, If I don’t show up in the court you’ve got to go!” They want us to be afraid.
Do you have any advice for any future agricultural activists?
One is, you’ve got to do the work that will take care of the Earth and of food. And just because those who are destroying the planet and preventing our right to food have huge amounts of money, be guided by your conscience. And be resilient.