by Chris O’Neal
Eco-activist Vandana Shiva on fighting against GMOs
Vandana Shiva, Ph.D., has been described as “Monsanto’s worst nightmare,” having fought the industrial giant, among many others, in and out of courts for decades over farmer’s rights and the proliferation of genetically modified organisms, also known as GMOs. Her foundation, Navdanya, is a network of seed keepers and producers in 18 Indian states, promoting “seed freedom” and battling “biopiracy” while promoting biodiversity in both the field and on the table. Ojai-based Becket Films is producing The Seeds of Vandana Shiva, a documentary on Shiva’s life and activism, due out by the end of 2016.
Shiva will be the keynote speaker at Ojai’s annual Earth Day Festival on Saturday, April 23, at Oak Grove School, which takes place between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Shiva will speak at 2:30 p.m.
She spoke with the VCReporter from her home in New Delhi, India.
VCReporter: What is seed freedom?
Vandana Shiva: Seed freedom is, first, the freedom of different species to evolve without being wiped out. The contemporary industrial agriculture model is a model pushing species to extinction. Look at the monarch butterfly, look at the 93 percent of all varieties of vegetables gone; every one of those seeds and every one of those butterflies had a right to live. Second, seed freedom is the right of the seed to be able to renew and reproduce because that is what the seed does. Seed freedom is also the right of farmers to sale, exchange and grow; this is what they’ve done throughout history, this is the basis of all the seeds we have including the GMO, which have a new gene in it but the basic seed material have evolved from farmers varieties. All patent laws, all GMOs are an attempt to take away the farmers right to save and exchange seeds. I’m very, very proud in India. I was appointed to draft the law on plant varieties and we actually have a clause on farmer’s rights. The farmer’s right to sale, exchange and breed a seed is in our law. Seed freedom is also the right of the eater to diverse, healthy and safe food.
What is biopiracy?
Biopiracy is when companies or individuals claim as their invention that which exists in nature or exists in indigenous cultures. Four examples of cases we have fought and won: the first is the case of neem, a tree that we have used for pest control. My mother used it, my grandmother used it, and [in 1995] a company called WR Grace patented the use of neem to control fungal diseases. We challenged and in 2005 we won it. This patent was held jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The second was the biopiracy of basmati. A company in Texas called RiceTec claimed to have invented the basmati — its aroma, the seed, the method of planting, the method of cooking, something I learned from my grandmother. Then Monsanto patented ancient Indian wheat that does not contribute to gluten allergy and we challenged that one, too. Because of farm workers in India, such patents were rejected.
What do you say to critics who would say GMOs are necessary to feed our growing population?
If GMOs increased production, we might engage in a debate, but 90 percent of the corn is going for animal feed and biofuel so that argument doesn’t work. Secondly, no GMO increases yield; the yield comes from the original material bred by farmers, or bred through conventional breeding. Yield is not a genetically engineered trait. [Bacillus thuringiensis] toxin is. Herbicide resistance is. These are not yield increasing technologies. They are toxin increasing technologies. . . . In India, there was an 80 percent decline in production in cotton this year because of white fly attack on the Bt cotton, and the pink bollworm for which the entire Bt cotton was designed has become resistant and is destroying the crop. If we are worried about feeding the world it is entirely the wrong way to go if you look at the scientific facts.
Are there any instances that you think a modified organism could be beneficial?
Not any of the technologies we have at hand. Not the Bt toxin and not the herbicide resistance and they don’t have anything else so far. . . . The fields of GMO corn have pathetic production and the fields with non-GMO are doing very well. Whether you look at vulnerability to pests and diseases or climate change and drought, we are talking about a failed technology.
What advances are you most excited for at the moment?
Agro-ecology, the use of biodiversity intensification and ecological intensification. It means you don’t intensify monocultures; you plant more diversity per acre, which starts to do all kinds of things for you. When you have lots of friendly insects and pollinators, your production increases. You won’t have pollinators in GMOs or where neonicotinoids have been used in agriculture. When you have good organic farming, you return organic matter to the soil, the result of which is more soil organisms which then creates the beneficial processes to prevent nasty bacterial and fungal disease and you don’t have to spray fungicides or pesticides. Third, organic agriculture increases the water holding capacity of soil. That is the answer to drought. . . . In India, Monsanto is in the courts today because of this royalty issue, which got farmers into debt and indebted farmers committed suicide. . . . We’re talking about a drain of farmers’ income and wealth by these giant corporations . . . In our experience in India the combination of seed sovereignty, agro-ecology and fair trade has increased farmers’ incomes 10-fold.
How do you move away from GMO crops if they’re so ingrained in agriculture at the moment?
By building food communities and creating local markets. Look at the explosion of [community supported agriculture] in the United States. . . . America is the capital of food-related diseases and people are doing something about it, we just have to keep doing more. One important figure from the U.N. —– this industrial system in which GMOs are a part has destroyed 75 percent of the planet but only gives 30 percent of the food we eat. Seventy percent of the foods we eat come from small farms, which actually use only 25 percent of the land. . . . If a system that gives us 30 percent of our food and has destroyed 75 percent of the planet and was allowed to go to 40 percent or more, it would leave us with a dead planet and that is not an option.
What is the future of global food production?
We have two clear scenarios: If we go down the path of more industrialization of agriculture, more industrialization of monoculture and everyone’s being force fed GMO foods we will have a very toxic and a very dead planet. For Earth Day, we should wake up to this fact that the single biggest force of destruction on this planet is industrial farming, the chemical industries that drive it and the fossil fuel industry that fertilizes it. This chemical model only has a 50-year-old life and has destroyed so much. It came out of the war and is perpetuating a war against the planet, our bodies, the farmers and the land. The future of food has to be to grow real food. Real food is the currency of life, toxins are not. . . . The pollinator that touches the pollen should not be killed because the pollen was Bt Cotton; the monarch butterfly should not be pushed to extinction because the milkweed has been killed; the future of ag is the diversity of 300 million species and human beings working in deep love and respect, being co-creators, co-producers. We will have more food, better food; we will protect the planet in the process of getting the best that our bodies need.
Ojai Earth Day will take place at Oak Grove School, 220 W. Lomita Road, in Ojai from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit www.ojaiearthday.org. For more information on The Seeds of Vandana Shiva, visit www.vandanashivamovie.com.