Greening agriculture: a conversation with Dr Vandana Shiva

After the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation’s Courageous Conversation titled “Ecological apartheid: good food for all”, which took place on 28 July 2021, Foundation CEO Piyushi Kotecha sat down with scientist and food activist Dr Vandana Shiva to explore the concept of ecological apartheid. Below is an edited version of their conversation. 

Kotecha: You blame ecological apartheid – the notion that humanity is separate from nature – for the economic disparities we see in the world: poverty, hunger and dispossession. Can you explain?

Shiva: Apartheid is the Afrikaans word for “separateness” and “apartness” and the political system of apartheid was founded on notions of racial superiority and inferiority based on the colour of the skin. However, the real story of apartheid is colonialism and colonialists grabbing the lands of indigenous peoples, uprooting them from their homes and leaving them without resources, livelihoods and an economy that had had sustained them over millennia.

They now had to work as slaves, as plantation workers, as mine workers in the extractive economy of the coloniser. Economic disparities and racial discrimination flow from ecological apartheid. Eco-apartheid is the false and arrogant assumption that humans are separate from nature, that we are her conquerors, masters, owners, and the denial of the fact that we are part of nature, not separate from her. This is in the same vein as human [political] apartheid, which is domination and discrimination based on the false assumption that the colonising peoples are superior to other cultures and most human beings, including the indigenous, the non-white and coloured, women, farmers, peasants and workers.

This false assumption of superiority is also used to enclose the commons [the cultural and natural resources that were originally accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water and a habitable environment]. Enclosures allow the extraction and appropriation of resources that sustain all life, including human life. Unequal access to resources engendered by ecological apartheid is the basis of economic social disparities, inequality and polarisation.

Kotecha: The so-called Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s dramatically increased agricultural production. What was the cost?

Shiva: The Green Revolution was not green or revolutionary. It was imposed by the United States and chemical corporations to create markets for the chemical industry, which had leftover war chemicals to sell. Contrary to the narrative that it increased overall agricultural production and food production, it merely increased chemically grown, globally traded commodities, while destroying and displacing the biodiversity of foods and local food economies based on internal inputs. It increased monocultures of wheat and rice at the cost of more nutritious crops like millets, pulses, oil seeds, greens and indigenous wheat species that are much more nutritious.

As my work has shown, “yield” is a mismeasure because it does not measure the total productivity and output of a farm, it does not measure the health of the farm or the health of the farmer, it does not measure the health available in the food. The Green Revolution has decreased the nutrition available in food and is producing nutritionally empty commodities at very high financial, social and ecological costs. Chemicals purchased as external inputs, such as fertilizer, cost money. Many indebted farmers have committed suicide. The Green Revolution increased the use of chemicals, but since chemicals destroy the soil, productivity is decreasing.

Ever since the advent of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, India’s government supported chemical fertilizers through a subsidy system. The amount of subsidy on synthetic fertilizers, domestic and imported, in India during the last three decades has grown exponentially from a mere 60 crore rupees [600-million rupees] in the 1976-77 period to an astronomical 40 338 crore rupees between 2007 and 2008. In 2009, it shot up to 96 606 crore. These subsidies are a drain on national budgets and go to the chemical industry.

Plants grown using chemical fertilizers need more irrigation. Water is disappearing. Monocultures attract pests, so more pesticides are used. Pollinators disappear. A cancer epidemic has started.

Africa should take lessons from the high costs of the Green Revolution in India.

Kotecha: You advocate a return to traditional cultures and food traditions. Why?

Shiva: Protecting the planet and ensuring food for all are not in opposition to one another. The industrial system that is destroying the health of the planet is also causing hunger, malnutrition and disease. Industrial agriculture has clearly failed as a food system.

Small farmers are providing 80% of global food using 25% of the resources that go into agriculture. Industrial agriculture is using 75% of the resources to create a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, while providing only 25% of our food. If the entire globalised, industrialised food system is taken into account, it is contributing 50% of total greenhouse gases. This commodity-based agriculture has caused 75% of the destruction of soils, 75% of the destruction of water resources, and pollution of our lakes, rivers and oceans. Finally, as I set out in my book, Who Really Feeds the World? [Zed Books, 2015], 93% of crop diversity has been pushed to extinction through industrial agriculture.

At this rate, if the share of industrial agriculture and industrial food in our diet is increased to 45%, we will have a dead planet. There will be no life, no food, on a dead planet. That is why rejuvenating and regenerating the planet through ecological processes have become a survival imperative for the human species and all beings. Central to the transition is a shift from fossil fuels and dead carbon to living processes based on growing and recycling living carbon.

Kotecha: Tell us about your Navdanya movement.

Shiva: Navdanya means “nine seeds”, and symbolises biodiversity. In 1987, when I was attending a conference on the “laws of life”, on the new biotechnologies, I first heard the “poison cartel” (a group of chemical companies, including the erstwhile IG Farben) attempting to define living organisms, and seeds, as machines that they had invented and wanted to patent. I was aware that the seed is not a machine assembled by chemical corporations. It is the embodiment of biodiversity and nature’s urge to reproduce, renew and multiply. Genetically modified seeds are seeds pirated from farmers, and modified with genes of naturally occurring bacteria. The only “invention” is that in a laboratory scientists “shoot” genes into these seeds with a gene gun, or infect a cell with Agrobacterium, a plant cancer. Patenting seeds is ecologically, ethically, ontologically wrong. It is a wrong that must be corrected. Thirty-three years ago, I began my journey to protect biodiversity, the integrity and diversity of seed, and to prevent biopiracy and patents on seeds.

Navdanya grew from this commitment to biodiversity. The movement has reclaimed seed as a commons, and created 150 community seed banks. Across the world, we have inspired the seed freedom movement. A new consciousness has grown about seed sovereignty.

Our actions have led to laws being passed and treaties signed, all to protect biodiversity. The Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 witnessed the emergence of a new legal framework for the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Kotecha: At your Earth University/Bija Vidyapeeth, you teach Earth Democracy, which you define as “the freedom of all species to evolve within the web of life, and the freedom and responsibility of humans and members of the Earth family to recognise, protect and respect the rights of other species”. How do you do this?

Shiva: Beginning with saving seeds and biodiversity, over the years Earth University/Bija Vidyapeeth has evolved as a learning centre. Life evolves in diversity and democracy. At the Earth University, plants are teachers, soil is a teacher, seed is a teacher, pollinators and bees are teachers, earthworms are teachers, farmers are teachers.

Kotecha: You describe Earth University/Bija Vidyapeeth as a “biodiversity farm”. What is meant by this?

Shiva: The Navdanya biodiversity farm evolved through our work in conservation of seeds. We grow 750 rice varieties, 250 wheat varieties, a diversity of beans and pulses, indigenous vegetables and tree crops.

Kotecha: You say that at Earth University/Bija Vidyapeeth students learn from nature and farmers, but also from cutting-edge ecological research. How do you combine the two?

Shiva: Nature works according to ecological laws. At the cutting edge, sciences are ecological, not mechanistic and reductionist. We learn from nature by seeing and doing. The same lessons are being confirmed by emerging sciences – that biodiversity produces more, that pollinators contribute one-third of the food we eat, and that healthy soils produce healthy plants.

Kotecha: You teach the link between seed sovereignty, food sovereignty and intellectual property rights issues. Explain why.

Shiva: Seed is the first link in the food system. Without seed sovereignty, there is no food sovereignty. Corporations have tried to control the seed through patents and intellectual property rights to make seed non-renewable, force farmers to buy seed from corporations every year, and collect royalties. I see this as seed slavery. That is why I started Navdanya.

Kotecha: You teach Gandhi’s principles of swaraj (self-governance), swadeshi (local production and self-reliance), sarvodaya (well-being of all) and satyagraha (non-violent civil disobedience). Tell us more and about their possible application in our African context and globally.

Shiva: Gandhi evolved these principles in Africa. He brought his experience of colonial South Africa to India in 1915. Taking inspiration from his deployment of satyagraha against colonial forces in India, we started the seed satyagraha, saying nature and our ancestors have given us these seeds for free. We have a duty to conserve them in their diversity and integrity and pass them on to future generations. We will not obey any law that prevents us from saving seeds as our ecological and ethical duty.

The poison cartel, which through a series of mergers has been reduced to a cartel of four poison makers – Bayer [Monsanto was sold to Bayer in 2016], DowDuPont [dissolved in 2019, and now two companies: Dow Inc and Corteva], BASF and Syngenta ChemChina – after World War ǁ repurposed the chemicals they had developed to kill humans as pesticides to be used in industrial agriculture. They then tried to take control of our seeds through genetic engineering and patenting. But there is a way to reclaim our seeds: through seed freedom, where the control of seeds lies with farmers, instead of a system that views seeds as corporate intellectual property.

Every place and every plate can be the site of a revolution against the poison cartel.

Kotecha: Tell us about restorative agriculture.

Shiva: Regenerative, restorative agriculture restores the potential of seed to renew, of the soil to be fertile, of the land to produce an abundance of good food for all.

Kotecha: It is estimated that the global population will peak in the 2060s, at nearly 10-billion people. Already the Earth struggles to sustain all of us – almost all of the arable land is cultivated and irrigation accounts for around 70% of freshwater use. Added to that, there is growing demand for animal protein, and climate change is affecting the production of staple crops. How will we provide for them all using only traditional or organic farming methods?

Shiva: Our practice and research in Navdanya has shown that by intensifying biodiversity, and measuring nutrition per acre instead of yield per acre, we can provide twice the amount of nutrition that the world needs.

Biodiverse organic farms produce more food and higher incomes than industrial monocultures. Mitigating climate change, conserving biodiversity and increasing food security can thus go hand in hand. Three decades of Navdanya have shown that using native seeds and practicing agro-ecology, the small farmers of India can produce enough healthy, nutritious food for two Indias, and by not spending their precious money on buying poisons, and poison-producing genetically modified seeds, they have the potential of enhancing their incomes tenfold and stopping farmer suicides. A poison-free, debt-free, suicide-free, hunger- and malnutrition-free India and world is what I work for.

Kotecha: You advocate a paradigm shift in which the “gifts” humanity has received from nature and from our human ancestors are viewed as “commons”, meaning that they cannot be owned by anyone or any entity. What is meant by “commons” and how would we bring about such a radical shift in the way humanity has operated, in some places for hundreds of years?

Shiva: Commons are every aspect of life that sustains life and society. Commons have to be cared for and shared for the common good of all. Water, land, forests, pastures were all commons. Navdanya has reclaimed seed as a commons. The enclosures of the commons began in England, but was part of colonialism across the world.

The displacement of people from the land was one interconnected violent global process taking place at the same time across the world. The peasants in India, Africa, America and England were victims of the colonial process of enclosing the commons to create private property .

According to English common law, the enclosure of a common required the unanimous consent of the entire community. Even one member of a community could block an enclosure. This right was fundamental and inalienable. Between 1628 and 1631, head-on clashes took place between the peasantry and the lords of the manor on attempts to enclose the land. So, Parliament started to pass laws to enclose the commons and undermine the rights. A total of 3 380 bills were passed between 1770 and 1839 to enact the enclosures of the commons. It took two centuries of violence to enclose the commons in England.

Before colonialism, in India and indigenous cultures across the world, land was a commons, not private property. The British colonists violently destroyed our diverse, decentralised, democratic self-governing community structures and imposed private property rights. The same land grab through privatisation of the land as commons took place in Africa and continues today.

Kotecha: In your many years of advocacy, you have taken on global giants, such as Monsanto [now Bayer], and won? What have you learned from these battles?

Shiva: Never be afraid of brute power, or the economic power of corporate giants. Truth has its own power.

Kotecha: The new United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report deals with the physical impact of climate change. The link between climate change and its effects on all aspects of our lives, including food production, is unquestionable. In your view, what will it take and how can we move towards a more sustainable socio-economic framework of action?

Shiva: We need an ecology of climate change, not just the physical impact. We need a biology of the links between the biosphere and atmosphere. Since most emissions come from an industrialised, globalised food system that is also spreading chronic diseases, changing the food system is the most important place to begin to address climate change.

Kotecha: The issues of hunger, food production, care of our earth and planet are all clearly interrelated. Thank you for participating in our August 2021 Courageous Conversation and sharing your philosophy, and your model of activism and education in this illuminating interview.