I still remember the incident vividly because I had run away in fear. It was 1995, and I was walking on Brigade Road in Bangalore, on my way to see the opening of the city’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. I suddenly heard the sound of shattering glasses and then, all hell broke loose. Farmers, armed with stones and sticks had started attacking Bangalore’s first KFC outlet to protest against Cargill, the introduction of an American sub-culture, and a new agricultural policy in Karnataka. ‘Over the last two decades, food dictatorship has outgrown food democracy in the world’, says Dr. Vandana Shiva, a global activist who opposes genetically modified organism (GMO) foods and Big Agriculture. After beginning her environmental career as a tree hugger in the Himalayas, Dr. Shiva has devoted her life to the seed and its sovereignty.
The seed is the creator and the preserver. ‘I never thought I would spend so much time looking at food,’ Dr. Shiva, dressed in a sari with a big round bindi on her forehead said, addressing an enthusiastic crowd of youngsters at Arizona State University, the largest public University in the United States. She criticized India’s Green Revolution, orchestrated by the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The Green Revolution introduced high yielding farming techniques in India and won the Nobel Peace Prize. However, Dr. Shiva says its aftermath led to discontented farmers, alien, genetically engineered seeds, violent conflicts, deaths and horrendous side effects from pesticides.
The violence in Punjab in 1984 was the offspring of the Green Revolution, says Dr. Shiva and according to her every major global conflict has its root in food security. The premise is simple. When you put an authentic, nature-created seed in jail and introduce GMOs, you usurp a farmer’s rights. ‘What can one do when you can’t choose what you grow, when you can’t determine the price, and when you are unable to manage your water resources?’ Dr. Shiva asks. Seed diversity is the real insurance of the future. With every fourth farmer being Indian, investing in seed banks and growing non-GMO food is critical, she says.
Throughout her career, she has fought seed piracy and intellectual property laws and patents created by huge global corporations like Monsanto and Cargill. Dr. Shiva successfully won a patent suit against intellectual property rights for Neem, and won the fight against a Texas company’s wishful thinking to patent the word ‘Basmati.’ According to her, the patent system is a minority system causing ecological destruction and a crisis for democracy. She believes the original seed, a gift of nature, determines yield. On the other hand, a GMO destroys its authenticity, invades its space and basically terrorizes the earth and farmers.
However, just weeks after Dr. Shiva’s talk in the U.S, ballot initiatives in Colorado and Oregon that would have mandated labels for GMO foods failed. In Hawaii and California, little headway was made with county-level bans on GMO’s. And, this is happening at a time when the U.S. food industry is planning to pump in another $100 million to support anti-labeling initiatives across the U.S. Dr. Shiva says subsidies to the food industry costs American farmers an extra ten billion dollars annually. According to her, food manufacturers utilizing GMOs make over half of their profits from royalty collection. The global subsidy on food, according to Dr. Shiva is $400 billion.
‘Patents on seed are a Ponzi scheme. Because of GMOs we don’t have food. 70% of food we eat comes from small farmers. There is a higher law that will determine our future not laws created by mortals with greed as the single purpose’ Dr. Shiva declares. ‘The future of a seed democracy starts now in seed banks, seed exchanges and preserving our own authentic seeds.’ However, despite her lofty ideals and Gandhian talk, Dr. Shiva has plenty of critics. There are many who state that her fiery agenda against Big Agriculture is not rooted in facts and scientific reasoning.
An article in Forbes earlier this year dubbed her a wealthy activist who is a poor advocate of the poor. The magazine went so far as to say that she charges thousands of dollars for her speaking circuits in U.S. universities. Irrespective of how the world characterizes her, Dr. Shiva has earned a fan base in the United States. A move towards organic farming and conscious capitalism in different parts of the U.S. has helped her efforts. In India, her organization, Navdanya is working to preserve biological and cultural diversity in agriculture.