[An interview with]

Vandana Shiva

Nov 5, 2011

Artwork by Carl Christensen

“The higher, more distant, level of patriarchy is capitalism. This is what is represented by corporate truth. You don’t see a man beating a wife, but there’s a fictitious man beating all the women, children and people of the world.”

In a world full of powerful agricultural corporations that control biased global trade agreements, bully governments, and systematically claim the lives of thousands of Indian farmers, one woman dares to stand up and fight. She is organic farmings best friend, apathy’s greatest enemy, and a hope in harrowing times. She is India’s very own, Vandana Shiva.

Labelled as an ecofeminist, and environmental activist, Vandana Shiva is a globetrotting warrior for oppressed farmers, and women around the world. Though trained as a philosopher, Vandana Shiva has morphed her expertise from the abstract to the every day. Spurred by her shocking discovery of the bloodshed in India from the industrial agricultural revolution – a.k.a the Green Revolution – Shiva has refocused her energy on fighting against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), bio-piracy, and the patenting of intellectual property rights. Collectively, these three elements have been embodied by the corporate food giant Monsanto, and have thus become Shiva’s public enemy number one. To this day, Shiva monitors Monsanto’s work closely, and strives to undermine their mission of owning everything they can get their hands on. 



Her flagship operation in this fight is her organization called “Navdanya,” which means “nine seeds.” The organization is a network of seed keepers and organic producers spread across 16 states in India. Navdanya protects seed varieties, educates farmers, and supports markets for organic products. Its membership is over half a million farmers.

Shiva has also contributed a vast amount of literature and research to the field. She has authored over 20 books, and 500 academic papers. She frequently travels around the world speaking at universities, and engaging in academic debates.

For her prolific work she has been rewarded accordingly. She is the recipient of a number of esteemed awards, including: the Right Livelihood Award (known as the Alternate Nobel Prize), the Sydney Peace Prize, the Save the World Award, the Calgary Peace Prize, and many others.

There is much I WANNA KNOW from a woman with so much passion and purpose. Her knowledge of agriculture is astounding, and her desire to fight injustice is inspiring. 

I spoke with Vandana Shiva over the phone from her office in New Delhi. She was gracious to answer all my questions.
From Occupy Washington, to farmer suicides, to Monsanto, to Wangari Maathai, to her memories of Canada, we cover it all. 

. . .

Ryan Kohls: You were recently in Washington attending the Occupy protests. What was that experience like? What did you hear and see?

Gandhi being channeled at Occupy Washington

Vandana Shiva: For everyone, the first sense is thank goodness people are rising finally. There has been corporate bullying and bank bullying going on for so long, and there was a need for movements for economic democracy. At least they’ve shown the capacity to do so. The second thing that really impressed me was that they had Gandhi’s painting all over the place, and of course my own activism has been so deeply inspired by Gandhi. I saw this in Seattle (1999) when Gandhi was the inspiration, and now I see it again in Washington.  I wish more people would read Gandhi, then they wouldn’t get so puzzled by “Occupy.” Gandhi always said, “We don’t have to be pyramids in society, we can be ever expanding, never ascending oceanic circles embracing everything.” Sadly, those who got used to “pyramids of power” call this leaderless, but I call it everyone being a leader, and recognizing the leadership capacity of everyone else. So, something tremendous is happening here: it’s a deep political shift. For me, it doesn’t matter if six months down the line these parks are not occupied because the potential has been shown that people can organize, and when the need comes they will organize again, and again.


RK: In your personal fight against injustices in the world, you created the Navdanya organization. Can you tell me a little bit about when and why you started this?

VS: Well, I started Navdanya in 1987, but it wasn’t called that then, the name came in 1991. Navdanya means “nine seeds”, it also means “new gift.” Why did I start saving seeds? As you know, I’ve done my PhD on quantum theory from the University of Western Ontario. This is very far from where I’ve trained! I did a book called “The Violence of the Green Revolution,” because the area of Punjab had exploded into violence, 30,000 people died. Punjab’s Green Revolution won the Nobel Peace Prize, but my brain was thinking, this is not peace, the reality and the narrative don’t hang together. My basic question was, a) what is this thing called the “Green Revolution?” and b) why is there so much violence in agriculture? Why is agriculture like war? In the process I realized it’s like war because industrialized agriculture comes from war. So, after I wrote the book, I started to get invited to all these agricultural meetings.


Navdanya Store – India

At a meeting in Geneva in 1987, the industry that was the old chemical industry was recreating itself as the bio-tech industry. They were saying that they were too small, and needed to become bigger. They said companies would survive and be successful if they had a large number of patents in their hands (those on seeds and life). In order to do this they would need genetic engineering to claim they’d made something new, and to do this on a world scale they would need a free trade treaty. This is why they brought a treaty of forcing patents on life, and having no restrictions on agriculture, into what was then the Uruguay Round of GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). This was the first time I heard that they wanted to bring intellectual property trade worldwide. I basically felt this was a dictatorship over life. So, I thought again of Gandhi who pulled out a spinning wheel to deal with another empire, but that was an empire of textiles. This was an empire over life, and I thought of what would be the equivalent spinning wheel, and I thought of seeds. That’s why Navdanya was started. It’s deeply linked to the illusion that free trade is about freedom, it’s about corporate dictatorship. As a result of this, I followed every step of where the WTO was going. I organized in India half a million farmers on the streets of Bangalore to tell the government not to do this.
RK: On a day-to-day basis, what do the operations of Navdanya look like?


Navdanya Seed Bank

VS: The Navdanya Organization does three main things. The first is seed saving. We’ve set up more than 60 seed banks across the country where farmers have there own seeds as a common; they can save it and share it in total freedom. We also believe in Gandhi’s non-cooperation with patent law. Basically we will never recognize patents on life because they’re invented. Life is not an invention, seeds are not an invention. Collecting royalties and killing farmers is absolutely unethical.


The second part of Navdanya is that we save seeds through production. We help farmers move to oraganic, and we help them to eat healthy themselves, and then directly market their produce. Navdanya has emerged as the largest networks of marketing organic farmers.

The third thing we do is massive training. Farmers come to our school, and we have up to five interns at a time. I called it the school of the seed. It’s my inspiration on how to be free.


RK: In your fight against industrialized agriculture your biggest battle has been against Monsanto. Currently your home country is suing this corporation. What is the status of this case?


VS: The first thing is that Monsanto was able to enter India because of that rotten free trade agreement. They came in 1995, by 1998 they were introducing GM seeds illegally. I took them to court, and they were stopped from introducing GM seeds in 2002. By then they started the right applications and managed to get approvals.


Leo Saldanha

The highest rate of farmer suicides are in the cotton belt, and Monsanto now owns and controls 98 per cent of the cotton seed, it’s all GM. So, if you think that most of the suicides are in the cotton belt, and most are Bt Cotton, then Monsanto is deeply implicated in this huge tragedy.

Last year, they tried to introduce a GM eggplant. We mobilized against this, and fortunately we had an enlightened foreign minister who at the hearings heard the people and said, “nobody wants this, let’s put a moratorium.” Monsanto always claims that they are creating every trait in what they create. They engage in bio-piracy. In the case of the eggplant they basically stole native varieties. A former associate of Navdanya, Leo Saldanha, found this out from the farmers, went to the bio-diversity board of his state, which then complained to the national bio-diversity board. The recent environmental minister has announced they are starting the proceeding because we do have a bio-diversity act. It says no one can use bio genetic material without permission. In the case of farmer varieties, they need the farmer’s permission.


This case has exposed two things: First, Monsanto is not an inventor, it’s a pirate. It’s a pirate when it claims ownership over drought-resistant, flood-resistant seeds – those are all pirated from farmers. The second thing it shows is that we have our own genetic material. We should be doing our own participatory building. We don’t have to hand over the entire ownership of our genetic wealth to a corrupt corporation.


RK: You mentioned farmers suicides, and their links to Monsanto. Many people do not know how serious of an issue this is. Can you elaborate on this phenomenon?


VS: Yesterday, the government data came out saying that there has been a quarter million farmer suicides. We’re not even talking about how many have been displaced. You could see this coming. Fortunately, the farmers we work with, which is a network of nearly 500,000, have their own seeds, do their own farming, and are never in debt. They don’t have to commit suicide. Their incomes are five times higher than any GM farmer, or chemical farmer.


The widow and children of a Indian cotton farmer who killed himself

The widow and children of a Indian cotton farmer who killed himself
I started to study the suicides as soon as they started which was 1997. This was the same year Monsanto started to try and take over the seed supply. They started pushing hybrid seeds in areas where farmers grew organic crops for food security. These are dry areas that need irrigation, hybrid seeds need irrigation. The first suicides were totally because of the introduction of cotton mono-cultures. The thing with Monsanto’s control over the seed supply is that it destroys alternate seed supply, and government seed supply. It locks up local companies in licensing arrangements. So, all seed in the market is only theirs. The companies are not to sell anything else, including varieties that did very well. Seed costs jumped 8000 percent from 5 to 10 rupees a kilogram, to 3,000 to 4,000 rupees a kilogram. This 8000 per cent jump is an annual jump because you have to buy it every year, you can’t save your seeds. Contrary to Monsanto’s claim these seeds do not resist pests, they actually create new ones. Our surveys have shown a 13 fold increase of pesticide use because of the newly created pests. As a result of all this, farmer’s get into deep debt. This debt drives the suicides.


In areas where the government has stepped in and offered seeds there are no suicides, and the yields are higher. Wherever Monsanto has taken over the farmers are in debt! It’s all false promises. They promise 1,500 KG per acre for the farmer, it averages three to five hundred. The farmers go in thinking they’re going to make so much money, you know? It’s one big scam. Because they bribe every government it never gets scrutinized publicly. It’s left to movements like us, who do the scrutiny.


RK: One of your critics, Ronald J. Herring from Cornell University, believes that GMOs are actually highly beneficial, and remain shrouded in a misunderstood discourse. How do you respond to this?


VS: You know, I’ve heard too many academics of America speak as if we are stupid fools. We sit under trees and pray to plants, and that’s all we do. And, we have no science background. All of the science of genetic engineering, including the top scientists, have shown that this is an unreliable, unstable technology. Even the second generation of a genetically modified crop doesn’t have the same genomic structure, it gets reshuffled. If it was reliable they wouldn’t have to have all those anti-resistant products. It’s a crude technology.


Arpad Pusztai

It’s a Wall Street scam. It’s worse and bigger than the sub-prime mortgage crisis. I would really just advise that the people who allocate themselves all the intelligence of the world, and the power to accuse the rest of us of being stupid, to just look at the economics of this. I mean, never, never do they talk about seed monopolies, or have the guts to address the patent issue. They just talk about themselves as the brilliant, cutting edge, scientists. I have said this on debates on Indian TV over the GM Eggplant over and over again: “Those who parade as scientists and are doing this work for Monsanto, just shooting genes blindly, are technicians of the stupidest technology.” They are not scientists. The best scientists are the Arpad Pusztai’s who Monsanto hounds out of their work. Why is Monsanto afraid of real scientists? And, why are these so called scientists at Cornell or wherever, not standing up their colleagues who are being hounded by a criminal corporation?


RK: The debate between industrial and organic farming is particularly relevant with the population now surpassing seven billion people. Some believe we are reaching our carrying capacity. Are you pessimistic about the world’s population and our ability to feed ourselves?


VS: No I’m not because our studies in India, with our kind of farming, show that if everyone farmed the way we do – ecologically, with bio-diversity, with zero external inputs, with farmers having autonomy, and with food and seed sovereignty – we’d double food production. The United Nations report this year has shown that the world can double food production in three years with agro-ecology. The IAASTD has said that the only way to increase food production is through agro-ecology not through the green revolution, not GMOs. That is what the science is telling us. So, humanity has increased its population, but humanity has constantly innovated farming. Genetic engineering is not a technology to increase production because you spray around it and decrease food. Producing more commodities of a toxic kind is part of the food crisis. You can’t rob the lands of India and Africa to solve that problem.


Wangari Maathai and Vandana Shiva

RK: Another influential activist who fought for an ecologically sustainable future was Wangari Maathai. She passed away recently, and I was wondering what her loss means to you?


VS: You know Wangari was a dear personal friend, and sister. Both of us emerged on the global scene together in 1985 when we jointly launched the world rain forest movement for protection of the tropical forests. We launched that campaign with Friends of the Earth. That same year was the big women’s conference in Nairobi, and Wangari and I were invited to lead the first workshops on the environment. The environment was not an element of the feminist discourse before that. Wangari and I planted a tree in Uhuru (Freedom) Park, Nairobi.


We’ve done lots of things over the years. Yes, it’s a sad loss, but she’s been suffering for a year, and we lost her.


RK: Last year, Forbes magazine named you one of the most powerful feminists in the world. As someone who leads the feminist movement, what do you see as the biggest obstacles still remaining for women’s equality?


Women members of Navdanya

VS: The higher, more distant level, of patriarchy is capitalism. This is what is represented by corporate truth. You don’t see a man beating a wife, but there’s a fictitious man beating all the women, children and people of the world. That’s what the Occupy protests are about. I do think it’s time for the North to stop thinking that women’s problems are a Southern problem. Sadly, this year’s Nobel strengthens that image. So many of the people in the Occupy movement are women, and they are there for their empowerment. Economic empowerment has always been kept out of the articulation of women’s freedom. In my view, I’ve written many books on this, globalization has made the situation of women much worse, especially those in the developing world. So just like we see a new phenomenon of farmer suicides, we see a new phenomenon of female infanticide in high growth, rich areas. 35 million girl children have not been allowed to be born. That’s because of globalization. As long as globalization keeps destroying security, livelihoods, and productivity, the situation of women and children, and the planet, will all keep getting worse.
RK: In the face of all the oppression you see, what keeps you optimistic enough to carry on your work?
VS: The first thing that keeps me deeply optimistic is that, while I’m deeply aware of the corruption of corporations, that’s not where my mind and heart is at all the time. I give a little bit of my mind to look at them, but most of the time my mind is in the inspiration of nature’s potential and people’s potential. When I started saving seeds people would say, “there’s nothing left to save,” or “what’s the point of saving ancient seeds, you can’t do anything with them?” Today, we’ve saved 3,000 seed varieties, helped 500,000 farmers, provided tsunami rehabilitation, during droughts we give food to people, and our seed banks are distributing seeds to farmers in suicide prone areas.
Again, coming back to the Occupy movements, that’s what they are saying: “we have the power.”

Vandana Shiva protesting in Ottawa

RK: You have a storied history with Canada. I was wondering what are some of your favorite things/memories about Canada?


VS: I’ve spent the longest time abroad in Canada. My favorite thing about Canada was that I could keep my apartment open! When I cross the border and go to New York my passport gets robbed, the car I was in gets stolen, and everybody gets three levels of security locks. That difference really hit me. In a funny way Michael Moore presents that in his film, “Bowling for Columbine.”


The fact that your newspapers don’t have locks. There’s still integrity, and the recognition of integrity in Canada. I must say another thing, as a student we had 100 per cent medical coverage. I had an infection once in California on my foot. I had to go through this whole process through their privatized system.


The Canada I knew then was all about health, or honesty, or openness, or caring and gentleness. I don’t know what globalization has done there now.

For More on Vandana Shiva:
1) check out the Navdanya website: www.navdanya.org
2) follow her on twitter @drvandanashiva


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.