Environmental Activist and Physicist, IN

Published Date: 8th March 2012

Open Windows | In Conversation

Environmental Activist and Physicist, IN

March 8th, 2012

GMO’s [Genetically modified organisms], growth hormones, synthetic foods, and hospitals refuse to make a connection with “natural” health. Instead, fresh fruits and vegetables, and open fields in countless shades of green symbolize health. Often, farmers, in India, don't have a traditional education , but what they have in surplus is knowledge of the earth. Sadly, the greedy keep people ecologically illiterate, while increasingly pushing farmers to suicide. Life-giving are forcefully life-snatched.

I spoke with nuclear physicist and environmental activist, Dr. Vandana Shiva, on the plight of farmers in India. Her reservoir of knowledge educates us on issues ranging from the orchestration of deceit between corporations (to process people for monetary gains)to land grabbing and hijacking the rights of farmers.

Dr. Shiva, how does economic growth affect food production?

Economic growth is calculated only in terms of economic transactions—the more economic growth that takes place, the more fertility is extracted from the soils, the more biodiversity is replaced with monocultures. Because commercial agriculture is about commodity production, and commodity production requires monocultures, and because monocultures then need industrial systems you have the chemicals, the fertilizers, the pesticides, which start to further affect the biodiversity of our pollinators, our soil organisms.

These kinds of monocultures also severely impact our forests, as we can see with the Amazon being cut down for the expansion of the soy commodity production. And the Indonesian rainforests are being cut down for palm oil production. So at every level, economic growth, calculated in terms of the flow of money, undermines growth in terms of biodiversity and ecosystems.


One hears a lot about India’s economic growth. Who is gaining from this economic growth and who is suffering?

The people who are gaining out of this growth are first and foremost the emerging oligarchs. Never before has India had billionaires, and never before have Indian billionaires been counted in the top billionaire’s list. Wealth has become concentrated in their hands; they control one-third of the Indian economy now while it is highly distributed and highly decentralized.

The second group of people who gain hugely is politicians, and that is why we see all these scams. We have a telecom minister in jail, the Commonwealth Chief was in jail, and another politician was in jail for the cash-for-vote scam because the nuclear deal (which was pushed by the US nuclear industry through the US Government) to India could only be won by buying votes in parliament. And the man who acted as a conduit is in jail now, but the people who paid the bribes are not in jail. So those are the two groups that have really gained.

Who has lost? The tribal has lost; the farmer has lost. Every day, I get a phone call from one part of India or another. They say: “Please come here another farmer has been shot dead, please get over here, tribals have been arrested.” And we see in India, this economic growth has unleashed a resource war and a land war against ordinary people who want to make their living on a little piece of land, have never disturbed the world, have never damaged the economy and now are being treated like disposable people. And if the current MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) for land grab is taken into account, we are going to have in five years 100 million displaced people. Add to that 60 million who have been uprooted since independence.

We are talking about a massive uprooting of India and pushing of people into destitution. While a few handfuls of people gain hugely by grabbing their land, grabbing their water, grabbing their food, grabbing their electricity—grabbing everything that should be a public and common good.


You say farmer suicides in India started in 1997, and the suicide rates have gone up since. First, why is the year 1997 significant? And second, how are farmers and the farming community as a whole affected when global corporations push farmers to suicide?

First, the issue of the farmer’s suicide itself—where is it coming from? Indian farmers have never committed suicide. They have been resilient. They have been strong, but that is because they controlled their destiny. Today their fate is controlled by seed corporations like Monsanto, who come with things like BP cotton seeds, promise miracles, promise you are going to become a millionaire. The agents encourage the farmers to mortgage their land to get the new seeds on credit. The new seeds get new diseases, so farmers also have to take pesticides on credit, and before you know in one, two years’ time the farmer gets into such deep debt that he knows he is going to lose his land, he commits suicide. I am saying “he,” because mainly it is the men who go into town and get news about the new miracle seed. Women are the ones who find out that they are in debt the day the farmer commits suicide. So here you have widows, and the government figures are more than 200,000 since 1997.

So you have a widow who has lost her land, who has a debt and now has lost her husband and has to bring up her children alone. Also, I want to point out two interesting planted stories and studies Monsanto planted a study saying the women are gaining a lot from BP cotton, which is the genetically engineered cotton they have introduced, and they are saying that more and more women are working in the cotton fields, picking cotton. Cotton picking was an indication of slavery in the United States. It was not considered a liberating job. And in India, if women are working in cotton picking, it is because they have lost their lands, and they are not growing anything for themselves anymore. And the study of Monsanto says that therefore the men are probably in the kitchen and bringing up children when they jolly well know that men have committed suicide.

The other new study that was planted, interestingly a second time by Monsanto, about suicides in two villages, but there are not suicides. So they plant the story, you have millions of dollars for advertisements, planted stories, no one is going to challenge, and no one will check. But you know, we check. The movements on the ground are checked, and we are going to issue a very detailed report about Monsanto’s manipulation about these two villages.


Would it be accurate to say that the larger corporations manipulate information and play with the public mindset and use public relations for private gains?

Definitely. For example, Tata Steel, which is expanding its empire by acquiring land from tribals in Kalinganagar, killed 12 people. But their advertisements have tribals saying how much they have benefited from Tata Steel. So every corporation, especially corporations related to natural resources but even others, have a spin, and public relations has totally replaced facts.


What does the common man do?

The common man fights. Tagore [Rabindranath Tagore] wrote an amazing essay called the “The Robbery of the Soil” to show that the common economic system of today is based on the theft of the soil. This is happening today, people are being killed; people are being jailed. Every day where the ordinary person goes, there is only one option left—fight.


Why do countries import food, and how does importing affect the self-sufficiency of countries?

One, you import what you do not grow, which is what countries have done. After all, colonization was based on countries coming to India because they could not grow spices. And I often joke, poor Christopher Columbus landed on the wrong continent and called the native American’s Indians because he thought he was sailing to India to grab the spice trade.

What we see in the name of free trade is forced trade based on dumping. Dumping means the combination of collecting massive subsidies, billions of dollars, and using trade laws like the WTOs [World Trade Organization] to force countries to open up their borders to dump. We can see what it does just by looking at India and Mexico. India was entirely self-sufficient in corn, but it was forced to open its borders, and subsidized corn was dumped. In the first year, 2 million farmers were uprooted. And today, Mexico is totally dependent on imported corn, which is not even suitable for their food because it is cattle feed, and it does not make appropriate tortillas.

In India, as I mentioned, Soya oil was dumped. The international price was $150 a ton, the subsidy behind it was $190 a ton. It wiped out our oil seed economy, and because they also use laws on so-called safety and sanitary measures, shut down local processing. My calculations are that we lost 5 million farmer livelihoods and a million tiny processors that make virgin oil—wiped out in one season with one crop. Our calculations are that in India we are losing $25 billion worth of farm income because of imports and dumping.


The soil is stolen from the farmers. Food is also stolen from the farmer.

Yes, food is stolen from the farmer in so many ways. The first way in which it is stolen is by preventing the farmer from growing crops that give the farmer nutrition and a good income. And by replacing farmers’ diversity with monocultures of commodities, you lose food on that level too. But because these monocultures need chemicals, you steal food from the farmers by locking him into debt and credit. So the farmer grows a cash crop like cotton and is then selling all the cotton just to pay back the debt. And the farmer is in this terrible treadmill of never having enough to eat. The third way in which food is stolen from the farmer is through the global trading system, which dumps subsidies. The rich countries give $400 billion in subsidies a year. If Soya oil is dumped, and it was dumped on India in 1998, not only are the farmers who grow oil seeds in India, the mustard growers, the coconut growers destroyed, but that entire economy gets wiped out.


How many hands does food pass through before it reaches our kitchen, and who ends up making the most profit?

Well, there are three kinds of food economies. One is entirely local ecological economy, like tribal economies or indigenous communities, where food is produced and consumed. These are the most sustainable economies. Unfortunately, they have been treated like non-production, because if you consume what you produce, you are not producing.

Then you have large ancient economies like India, where you have very, very large distribution chains, but no one person in the distribution chain takes more than 2 percent. That has been the traditional norm, 2 percent. If a trader buys grains from the farmer it is 2 percent; then that trader sells on to another trader for wholesale. That wholesale trader sells it to retail, and at every point, it is 2 percent. And the difference, from our research, between the farm price (what the farmer gets) and what the retailer pays, has not been more than 6 percent till globalization brought the big players in.

The big players pretend they are getting rid of middlemen because they are only one. You have the seed corporation, which has turned the seed into a commodity and intellectual property—they make huge profits. Every year Monsanto was extracting 10 billion Indian rupees from cotton alone. Can you imagine if every crop was genetically modified and patented? This industry has set $1 trillion as annual royalty profits. Then you have the global trading giants like Cargill, ADM, CONAGRA, and they make enormous profits by changing the distribution systems. First making third world countries dependent on import, even when they were making enough for themselves. I had to file a case against imports of wheat, a few years ago when we were growing enough wheat and instead of paying the farmers, the government under US pressure was being asked to buy from Cargill. We stopped that, but Cargill, of course, had its tentacles everywhere.

The next group who make huge profits are the processors, people like PepsiCo, who take potatoes and turn them into chips. Well, potato farmers were committing suicide, and analysis found evidence that farmers were spending 300 Indian rupees and you know, the company supplies the potato seeds, they supply the pesticide on credit. Farmers were spending 300 Indian rupees per 100 kilograms of potato and selling it at 30 Indian rupees for 100 kilograms, so they were selling it at one-tenth the price. That is making money from the seeds, through the pesticides and also through buying.

I calculated one packet of chips that sells for 20 Indian rupees gives the farmer only .08 Indian paisa. No wonder these companies grow bigger and bigger. If you add all of this, and you get vertical integration, then you have the retail giants, like Walmart, trying desperately to enter the country pretending that they will prevent waste. They make it look like India is wasting everything. And I always say that in India nothing gets wasted. You eat it, if it’s not the best quality, it will be sold at a somewhat lower price, someone else will eat it. And if you cannot eat it, the cow is there to eat it, and if the cow does not eat it, it goes into the soil as food for the soil. Our calculations are what was a 6 percent difference between farm prices, and retail prices are now 80 percent difference, and it is the multinationals who are collecting that profit.


Fertilizers and chemicals are given Indian names with positive interpretations to mislead the poor farmer. What prevents governments from demanding appropriate labeling?

The first thing is that governments are part of misleading. Pesticides should be called poison. In Hindi it would be jahar (poison), is called dawai (medicine) in the official language. When it is dawai, it is something that cures you, and of course, the multinationals are very clever in giving very Indian names to most of their seeds, to most of their chemicals. Part of the problem is that when these corporations become as big as they do, they appropriate parts of government and that part of government starts to work for them. It stops being a regulator of pollution, of spreading poison, and it becomes a promoter.

We are fighting a new bill called the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Act of India; we have a very strong, a very good environment protection act and extremely strong rules for regulating GMOs [Genetically Modified Organisms]. The government would like to see its own laws destroyed to give Monsanto a free hand— in effect the corporations have hijacked our governments.


How do multinational companies play with the internal functioning of the third world and developing countries, to sabotage local produce and introduce their products?

There are a number of ways they do it. They are very, very smart, what is called lobbying. It is legal in the United States and illegal in India—in India we still call it bribing. Walmart has just gone on record, 11 million dollars for trying to get the Indian government, India officials and an Indian economist to forge false papers that giant retailers are better than primary retail—11 million dollars.

We do not know how much Monsanto has spent, but they have spent a hell of a lot. Because not only have they grabbed the monopoly on the cotton seed supply, they are now writing MOUs [Memorandums of Understanding] with every government and taking over all the tribal areas, which are sovereign in seed supply. Therefore, they are targeting the areas where there will be no seed left, and then those will also become dependent on their hybrid seed, GM [Genetically Modified] seeds.

Then they are replacing crops. For example in Rajasthan, you had wonderful Jawahar and Bajra, which are highly nutritious. They are replacing them with corn, and again, in India, the corn they are selling is not corn for human consumption, it is corn for animal feed. So first they replace foods of local communities, they replace seeds of local communities, they change cultivation patterns and make farmers totally dependent on the purchase of seed and sales of produce. That is how monopolies get established.


Food trends seem to be constantly changing and subtly pushed in the media and by doctors. Is there a connection between food corporations, the medical industry, and the media? Is there collusion between them to misinform the public?

The first thing to recognize is, what is today’s seed industry is the same industry that sold us agrichemicals—the poisons, the pesticides, herbicides, and it is the same industry that is involved in pharmaceuticals. So there is a very close and intimate nexus between these three sectors.

Agriculture that feeds agrichemicals, agrichemicals that create disease give you cancer, and you have got the same companies that sell you toxic chemicals and toxic seeds, and then Novartis is ready with patented drugs to cure you of cancer. A big fight is going on in India right now, where Novartis is suing the government of India because we do not give patents for fake novelty—we give it for real novelty. And they want to do evergreening, which is just refurbishing an old drug and destroy the India drug industry. It is a very, very intense, huge case.

The media is deeply involved, The Times of India put a full page of what looked like news, and it was called: “Reaping Gold through Bt Cotton.” It has now been found out that Monsanto planted this article, and the journalist who wrote it, posted it like it was an ad.

There is this thing called paid news where the boundaries between advertising and news are disappearing because companies are paying for news to be planted at advertising rates and unethical media is only too happy to take this up.


Why are we constantly pushed to embrace products that kill germs—household cleaners, detergents, and pesticides?

Basically, the toxic industry, which sells poisons, has made us afraid of the living world. Of course, the living world has bugs, but we have immunity to bugs. Of course, the living world has insects, but insects balance each other out with predator relationships. So they have turned the living world into a threat and the toxic chemicals into the solution. Whereas, it is the toxic chemicals we should be worried about and get rid of in our life through organic farming, organic eating and celebrate the biodiversity.

The more biodiverse our world, the more healthy our world, the less we will have dangerous bacteria, the less we will have dangerous fungi in the soil, the less we will have diseases of food.

I quote you from Stolen Harvest: “In a complimentary system of agriculture, the cattle eat what humans cannot. They eat straw from the crops and grass from pastures and field boundaries. In a competitive model such as the livestock industry, grain is diverted from human consumption to intensive feed for livestock. It takes 2 kilograms of grain to produce 1 kilogram of poultry, 4 kilograms of grain to produce 1 kilogram of pork and 8 kilograms of grain to produce 1 kilogram of beef.”

Why do first world countries blame increased food demand on countries that are predominantly vegetarian? And also, do cows in factory farms contribute significantly to greenhouse gasses?

The first thing is cows grazing in a field or on pasture do not emit methane in the same way as cows in factory farms do. So factory farming is implicated in climate change and green house gas emission. But factory farming is also implicated in the creation of hunger—70 percent of American corn goes to feed animals.

And again, because they are more profits in that kind of farming, they are pushing it everywhere. They have pushed it into Eastern Europe, where Eastern Europe did not have factory farms at all. These factory farms become a source of diverting food from the hungry, a source of climate change and a source of massive water pollution, as now all that waste is thrown into the ground water and watersheds, and it is becoming a major pollutant, for which water-deprived people are fighting.


How does a country like India, which claims to worship cows, trade and ship out its “sacred cow” for consumption and economic growth?

I will give you an example. Way back when they were starting this, the World Bank wrote a report on the future of India’s livestock industry and said that the idea of the sacred cow is a big cultural impediment to the growth of the livestock industry.

The economic interests are trying to dismantle the idea of the sacred cow. Trying to dismantle the idea of a non-violent farm economy.

Thankfully I work on total ecological principles. But you know when some local grown-ups try to save cows, immediately there is an accusation of “Oh my god, this is a Hindu enterprise,” therefore anti-Muslim, which is not true because for the Muslim farmer, and the Hindu farmer that cow is equally vital for a sustainable economy. I think there is a massive assault on all the values that have provided organizing principles for a sustainable India.

And my work in Navdanya is not only actually to do the work of seed saving and do the work of organic farming, but also do the work of cultural defense of those categories of our thought that allow us to live in peace with other species.


Which quarters do you receive maximum support from and where do you experience real change?

I think the real forces of transformation are women, indigenous people, small peasants, and the poor; most of my support comes from them.


When the largest participation and change comes from the poor, why do the wealthy often pretend to participate?

It always happened in history that there will be an attempt to appropriate struggles and give them another direction and another dimension. And that is why the excluded, the poor, have to maintain the leadership of their struggles and define them on their terms.


What are your views on public figures and companies that “talk PR green” but their lifestyle and operations are antithetical of environmental wellness?

You know we are reaching a very serious crisis where this pretend green—where you talk a bit of green, and you green wash a bit of green—will not work anymore. The situation is so severe that the authentic green of the earth, of the poor who depend on the earth, their struggles will show the way forward.


This question is not directly connected to food rather to a bigger picture of wellness. What is the scale of human exploitation when garments are sold at extremely low prices?

There are two levels at which textile becomes so cheap that someone can wear a shirt for one day and throw it away. It is more costly to have it cleaned, it is more costly to repair a button, and it is all because of this perverse situation. First, we exploit the cotton farmers for the fiber, and that is why the farmers commit suicide—farmers are not making enough. The second is exploiting of labour. Look at Walmart, they get very cheap jeans from China.


Is the human race becoming increasingly destructive?

It is not the human race that is destructive; it is a tiny portion of the human race that is destructive. And that is the portion that controls the capital of the world; that is the portion that is highly patriarchal. This capitalist patriarchy is destructive.

But the indigenous person in the rainforest—the Amazonian forest was not destroyed by the native inhabitants—it has been destroyed by Cargill; it has been destroyed by the hydropower companies. Women have not been leading agents in this destruction. So I would not define the human race as intrinsically destructive, but a tiny group in powerful positions that have tried to redefine what it means to be human and they have proven to be destructive, and we need to reclaim being human to be creative, to be non-violent, to be at peace.


When irregularities and uniqueness add to diversity, in people and plants, why are we constantly brainwashed to choose uniformity?

We have been brainwashed to choose uniformity partly because a militarized mind thinks in terms of uniformity. And what big industry is thinking through is a militarized mind of violence and control.

The second reason we are being made to think only in terms of uniformity is because it totally suits centralized control. Diversity requires decentralization and democracy. Uniformity requires centralized control and dictatorship, and because they want to establish a food dictatorship, food uniformity is the ultimate instrument.


We are often influenced by captivating packaging, which makes us overlook the contents. How can we make better choices?

The first thing I would say to anyone is do not go for the cosmetic appearance because food is not cosmetic. It is not a little rouge on your cheek—it is food that will become your blood, and it has been extracted as blood from some community.

There are two ways in which we can eat consciously. First, figuring out everything about everything you eat, which is very tedious. The other is to eat locally, where you know how the farmer grows the food. So food responsibility and food freedom require responsibility in terms of knowing where your food comes from and how it is produced.


What advice would you give to young people who are bombarded with messages to consistently consume and discard?

I would say to young people that we have been given a very beautiful and a very bountiful earth. Begin by recognizing how much potential is being destroyed by our aggression, by our pollution. Do not become part of the destruction of the earth, make the conscious choice for the earth and the rights of mother earth.

You talk about reclaiming knowledge. How can women reclaim knowledge when they are not permitted to own their thinking?

Well, the point is that there is a patriarchal system that would like to shut women out, but women have not stopped thinking. And all the movements I have worked with in more than 40 years of activism have been women-led. What was happening when Chipko movement started to stop the logging in the Himalayas, and it was started by women. Or when women of Bhopal are still fighting against the toxic pollution by Union Carbide, which is now Dow. So everywhere women are very, very active.

And in Navdanya, we have done two things to celebrate the knowledge of women and reclaim our knowledge. First, there is a movement called diverse women for diversity. What we are fighting is masculinity for monocultures and monopolies, and we celebrate diverse women for diversity. And the second, we run the Earth University in Dehradun, on the Navdanya farm, where every year we do a grandmother’s university, a course dedicated to knowledge, wisdom, skills of our grandmothers.


Your presence seems to agitate men. Dr. Shiva, is your knowledge a threat?

Oh, knowledge is considered a very big threat, and knowledge in women is a double threat.



To learn more about Dr. Vandana Shiva please visit her website.