Vandana Shiva speaks in Cambridge

(Munich 2005 Right Livelihood Award, photo © Orla Connolly)

We met Jamey Lionette just in time to find out that Vandana Shiva would be in town on Monday and we went to her talk, which is about a new book she (and he!) put together called Manifestos on the Future of Food. (South End Press, 2007, $10 ) The event was sponsored by an organization called the Center for New Words, which used to be a feminist bookstore but has evolved into an organization that creates spaces where women’s words matter. (An interesting response to the decline of book sales.) As usual, Shiva provided cutting edge insight into the machinations of globalization and industrial agriculture. The person who introduced her commented that she is a paradigm changer, and I realized that is really true, Vandana has done exactly that. What contributions she has made to our ability to find a path! Here are some of the points we thought were particularly valuable:

She pointed out that under a new secret trade agreement between the US and India, India is importing US wheat, despite having a surplus of 5 million tonnes. When the first of the imported wheat arrived in Madras port, it was rejected on the grounds of such excessive pesticide residue and also the fact that it contained 19 weeds, a threat to Indian agriculture. She explained that the global agroindustrial system is pushing bad food all over the world. She says that they give foodstamps to encourage people to buy the very worst food. She says “public money is the biggest mover of bad food”. The World Food Program buys from Cargill. Cargill doesn’t even produce food; they make their money by “grabbing someone else’s market”. (If you are not familiar with how Food Aid programs undermine local farmers, see World Hunger: 12 Myths. Basically, international Food Aid dumps subsidized first world overproduction into a 3rd world economy way under the price of production. This makes it impossible for local farmers to sell in their own domestic market and thus it makes recovery from drought, famine and other crises impossible. Food Aid intervenes in time of crisis to DESTROY what is left of local agriculture and produce long-term dependency on imports. That is how it is a means to “grab markets”.) She expressed grave concern about the diversion of food crops to biofuels, and the way that the new US requirement of biofuels content is distorting economies everywhere as countries exploit their resources to get part of that market; Indonesia is now cutting its rainforest to plant biofuels. And it turns out that it takes more fossil fuels to produce biofuels than they actually produce!

She also expanded on the story of the banning of India’s own domestic edible oil industry. Supposedly on the basis of a case of “contamination” India passed a law requiring oil pressers to have on duty 2 chemists and a packaging machine. This promptly put out of business 1 million enterprises, largely women-owned, using sustainable technologies. She added something to the story that we had not heard before, which is that on the very same day that the “contamination” was announced in the press, duty free imports of Soya Oil entered India. She explained that along with women organizing in the slums, India’s mustard oil producers defied the law and the mustard oil industry is flourishing, although the processing law is still on the books.

People made it unenforceable. Walmart is now trying to enter India (“as if we can’t sell our own vegetables!”), and has been met with the Movement for Retail Democracy and the banning of corporate retail in 6 states. Working with the Commission on the Future of Food, (“a very subversive organization”), Shiva and others have succeeded in getting 43 European governments to refuse to allow the sale of GMO (biotech) foods. She emphasized that the discourse around TRIPs (the WTO’s Trade Related Intellectual Property agreement) deviously combined two previously separate issues, the rights of artists to control and benefit from their “intellectual property” and the industrial system of patents. While distracting everyone with the idea of artists’ rights, the real issue was the establishment of industrial patents on life, or what she called “corporate rights over life itself”. Of course companies are now patenting everything, from “chai” (the indian word for tea – any tea) to flour as a process of grinding grain. Of course those patents claim “invention” of nature’s diversity and farmers’ careful breeding over millennia – certainly not the entitlement of current corporations (Shiva has such nonsense this ‘biopiracy’.) She also encouraged animal rights activists to organize around the “violence” of biotechnology, which can only rearrange genes by violent means, either a gun or a virus and reminded us that the biotech lamb, Dolly was the only (and only temporarily) success of 273 trials, the rest of which were mutants, with eyes and feet.

What we appreciate so much about Shiva’s voice is her ability to show the third world as the source of sanity and dignity, and to reveal with such clarity the operations of the first world as predatory and corrupt. She explained that prior to the WTO Indian law required food to be produced at a small scale, for two reasons: to protect livelihood and to protect quality. She said “whatever needed to get traded long distance was getting traded before WTO, before colonialism! Trade has not needed the coercive, distorted rules that the WTO enforces, which in fact are extinguishing alternatives, banning artisanal production.” At the local level in India, the Navdanya project is defiantly saving seed (members sign an agreement to protect the gifts of biodiversity and refusing to respect patents) and passing local laws asserting that farmers rights can never be alienated. Working in the seed saving movement, she says is the most exciting work she has ever done. She points out that she preferred physics to biology in school, because it was cleaner. But now “peasants are my biology teachers”. She urged the audience to use this year, the centennial of Gandhi’s first satyagraha.