Vandana Shiva: Why We Face Both Food and Water Crises
Commentary: A truly superb interview with Vandana Shiva.
This basically wraps it up! A must read.
Shiva, a physicist, defines her "Earth Democracy"... arguing that
the globalized economic structure is simply incompatible with the
basic physics of the planet and the principles of democratic
See list of Vandana's books:
Why We Face Both Food and Water Crises -- May
Policy-makers are finally grappling with the growing global food
and water crises that are upon us. While they grope for answers,
Vandana Shiva reminds them that it was their wild economic schemes
that created these crises in the first place.
The globalized economic structure is simply incompatible with the
basic physics of the planet and the principles of democratic
governance, she says. And until we align the economic system with
those of the ecological system, the problems will only get worse.
While many of Shiva's books address some aspect of this fundamental
problem, one title captures it most succinctly, Earth Democracy,
Justice, Sustainability and Peace.
Shiva is a physicist, author, director of the Research Foundation
on Science, Technology and Ecology and the founder of Navdanya.
AlterNet: Much of your writing and speaking has focused on
our economic structure's incompatibility with the ecological
functioning of the earth. Talk about that incompatibility.
Vandana Shiva: One aspect of the inconsistency is between
the principles of Gaia, the principles of soil, the ecology,
renewability, how the atmosphere cleans itself and the laws of the
global marketplace. The global marketplace is driven by the World
Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the illogic of
so-called "free trade," which is totally not free. [The result of
this incompatibility] is the current food crisis: The more
agriculture is "liberalized," the greater the food scarcity, the
higher the food prices and the more people will go hungry.
Never has there been this rate of escalation in food prices
worldwide as we witness now with the global integration of the food
economies under the coercive and bullying force of the WTO.
AlterNet: You have said, in the past, that these activities
are done in the name of improving human welfare. But instead,
poverty and dispossession have increased. Where do we see this the
VS: We see the worst dispossession in the countries of the
South -- tragically -- those countries that could feed themselves.
India, for example, was food self-sufficient. We were able to feed
our people with a universal distribution system, affordable food
for all, and agriculture policies that put food first. Small
farmers could make a living.
But a decade and a half of globalization's perverse rules have led
to 200,000 farmers committing suicide because they can't make a
living anymore -- all their money goes to make profit for Monsanto
or Cargill. Meanwhile, with the economy's so-called growth, people
are starving. Per capita entitlement to food has dropped in a
decade and half from 177 kg to 152 kg per year.
This contradicts the false propaganda being spread about the reason
prices are rising. They say it is because Indians are getting
richer and Indians are eating more. Well, some Indians are getting
richer, but they're not eating more. There's a limit to how much
you can eat. And the handful of billionaires buys a few more
private jet planes and builds a few more private mansions. [But in
reality], the average Indian is eating less. The average child has
a bigger chance today of dying of hunger. The Cargill's of the
world have a stranglehold of the world's economy; they're
harvesting super-profits while people die of hunger.
AlterNet: You talk about India being worse off, but many
economists -- including those on the political left -- say that
places like China and India are, overall, actually improving. But
you say that is not true.
VS: It's not true. India, under the perverse growth of
globalization, has beaten out Africa in the number of hungry
people. While we have 9.2 percent growth measured by GNP and GDP,
50 percent of our children have very severe malnutrition. Fifty
percent of deaths for children under five are due to lack of food.
That's about a million kids per year.
AlterNet: That is a considerable change that I don't think
the world is seeing.
VS: That's because the media orchestrates every analysis and
interpretation. They would like this crisis to look like a success
of globalization, and they would like to offer more globalization
as a solution. In fact, the World Bank has said there should be
more liberalized trade. Before the WTO was formed, we had protests
with 500,000 farmers on the streets of Bangalore in 1993 to say
that this is a recipe for starvation, for destroying agriculture,
self-reliance and food security. And the General Agreement on Trade
and Tariffs -- before the WTO was born -- had a press conference to
say that globalization will make food affordable for all.
They forget that food ultimately is not produced in the speculation
and commodity exchanges controlled by Cargill in Chicago. It is
produced by hard working women and men working with the soil and
sun. And if you destroy the capacity of the people to work the land
and the capacity of soil to produce, you're going to have hunger.
The tragedy is that the hunger of today and the rise of food
[prices] is the result of globalization policies, and it is being
implemented on a global scale. Unless we bring local food
sovereignty and "food democracy" back into the picture, we will not
have a solution to this.
AlterNet: You're talking about basic ecological principles
here. But there are two other aspects about food shortages that are
being discussed. One of them is that among some societies, such as
China, the diet is changing, which contributes to food shortage.
Reportedly, after being exposed to western diets, they are eating
more meat which requires an enormous amount of grain -- normally
fed to people -- to instead be fed to cattle. Do you see this as
part of the problem?
VS: Well, I can definitely say that is not true for India.
Vegetarian India will stay vegetarian India -- rich or poor,
integrated globally or not integrated globally. And the Chinese
have always eaten meat. The difference is that now they are
integrated into the global production system: It is factory farming
that feeds grain to chicken and pigs and cows.
No indigenous culture -- not China or India -- has fed grain to
animals. Animals have fed on what humans could not eat. Global
agribusiness, which makes huge money out of the feed industry, is
creating this pressure while destroying what I would call the "real
free economy" -- the free-range cattle, the free range chicken --
and replacing it with prison factories for animals. In fact, in my
interpretation, even the Avian flu is being used to violently shut
down small economies, the free economies of Asian peasants, and
turning them into Tyson and Cargill factory farming systems.
AlterNet: What about the role of climate change in this
global food crisis?
VS: Climate change and agricultural food crises do have a
connection. In fact, my next book is precisely about this
connection. Industrial farming -- driven by agribusiness in order
to sell more chemicals, pesticides, and costly seeds to farmers --
is heavily responsible for emissions of greenhouse gases such as
methane from factory farms nitrogen oxide from chemically
fertilized soil and fossil fuels from mechanized farming systems.
Further, the long distance trade is responsible for adding food
miles, which adds more carbon emissions. Taken together, more than
25 percent of climate instability is being caused by unsustainable
farming that [simultaneously] displaces small peasants, creates
poverty and bad food. So, tomorrow we could solve 25 percent of the
planet's climate instability if we returned to ecological
agriculture as the earth wants it, farming according to 10,000
years of wisdom that evolved from the third world.
Research that we are undertaking now shows a 200 percent higher
level of carbon return and 10 times higher level of moisture
retention. So if increased drought is one consequence of climate
change, what you need is sorted organic matter, not more chemical
fertilizers. We have two issues pertaining to climate change: We
need to get rid of emissions from agriculture and long-distance
This means ecological farming, localization of the food system and
only importing what can't be grown locally -- not forcing imports
as the U.S has done on India. It has forced us to buy wheat, give
up our mustard and coconut oil and to live on soya. These trade
factors are "forcings" that are causing more damage to our climate
and destroying our food culture, nutrition and access to food.
Finally, biodiverse systems actually produce more food. It is an
illusion that because there's a food crisis, we must have
[genetically modified food] spread around the world. First,
genetically-engineered crops don't produce more food. And secondly,
they make the soil more vulnerable to climate change. They are
herbicide resistant and toxin traps. That is not a yield increase.
AlterNet: So the genetic altering of food ultimately
exacerbates the already difficult circumstances with food
VS: Absolutely. I think any recipe today offered in
agriculture should be measured against the test of whether it will
enhance the food production capacity of the poor and if it will
reduce the pressure on the planet.
AlterNet: Let's also incorporate another concept that you
feature in your writing -- "biopiracy."
VS: Biopiracy is the strange phenomenon whereby the richest
and biggest of corporations steal genetic resources and traditional
knowledge from poor little women and peasants who have shared it
for free for over a millennium. The first case I had to fight was
against the United States government with W.R. Grace, which became
infamous in the film A Civil Action, when it polluted the
groundwater outside of Boston.
They stole Neem, which is a tree that gives us [natural] pest and
fungal control through its oil. The USDA along with Grace claim to
have invented Neem. Of course, my grandmother and my mother used
it. Then, I popularized it after Bopal with a campaign called "No
more Bopal. Plant a Neem." When I saw this patent, I had to fight
it. We fought for 11 years, and eventually the biggest governmental
powers and one of the biggest chemical companies were beaten out by
a coalition of civic society groups and movements.
Another case of biopiracy is the famous Basmati rice that comes
from my valley. A company in Texas claims to have invented it. The
third case was Monsanto, which claimed to have invented an ancient
wheat variety, which is very low in gluten. The problem with
biopiracy is not simply that they're taking genetic material and
knowledge for free, but that they are claiming an exclusive right
to it and then demanding royalty, claim and fame from the very
communities and societies [from which they have taken it],
communities that have had this biodiversity and this knowledge for
AlterNet: Speaking of Monsanto, you have done considerable
research on this company and published a report, "Peddling Life
Sciences or Death Sciences."
VS: If I had to rank criminality of corporations, Monsanto
will easily walk away with the highest award. Monsanto has taken
over the control of world's seed supply. It has bought up every
small seed company in India, Brazil and the United States and
become the biggest seed corporation. But its entire model of
functioning is through corruption. They corrupted the United States
decision-making such that U.S. citizens no longer have a right to
know what they are eating, whether milk has bovine growth hormone
in it or if soybeans and corn are genetically engineered. They are
spreading this corruption worldwide.
I am fighting them through three cases in our supreme court. And
we've managed to hold them at the level of Bt cotton. They have not
yet managed to invade into our food economy with genetically
modified food crop. But the worst thing Monsanto is doing is buying
Delta and Pine Land, a company that has the patent for terminator
technology that designs seeds to be sterilized. It is genetically
engineering life for life's extinction.
AlterNet: We should also talk about water scarcity. There
are major water wars occurring and considerable concern about the
future of water. Do you think that water scarcity is being created
largely by the phenomenon of privatization or is it resulting from
climate change and other such phenomena?
VS: Water scarcity [is] being created by non-sustainable
systems of production for both food and textile. Every industrial
activity has huge water demands. Industrial agriculture requires
ten times more water to produce the same amount of food than
ecological farming does. And the "green revolution" was not so
green because it created demand for large dams and mining of
Industrial agriculture has depleted water resources. In addition,
as water has become polluted and depleted, a handful of industry
saw water as a way of making super-profits by privatizing it. They
are privatizing it in two ways. The first is through buying up
entire civic, municipal distribution. The big players in this are
Bechtel, Suez and Vivendi.
And interestingly, wherever they go, they face protests. Bechtel
was thrown out of Bolivia. Suez wanted to take Delhi's water
supply, but we had a movement for water democracy and did not allow
them to take over. But there's a second kind of privatization,
which is more insidious -- and that is the plastic water bottle.
Coca-Cola and Pepsi are leading in this privatization. But in India
where Coca-Cola was stealing water, I worked with a small group of
village women, and they shut their plant down. Across India, these
giant corporations are taking between 1.5 to 2 million liters of
water a day and leaving behind a water famine.
AlterNet: Given what is happening as a result of climate
change, would we still face a water crisis without these practices?
VS: We would not be facing water problems if people have
been allowed to have their economies, to practice sustainability
and to live their lives. Every step in the water crisis is due to
greed. As the water becomes increasingly scarce, the corporations
who control the water become richer. It is the same with food. As
food becomes scarce, the corporations controlling food become
richer. That is the paradox of the global economy. Growth shows up
in the profits of corporations while in the real world, the
resources from which they make their profits, shrink.
AlterNet: You have also suggested that these same economic
principles are incompatible with the sustenance of democratic
VS: There are many levels at which a market economy called
corporate globalization has to kill democracy in order to survive.
Take the birth of World Trade Organization (WTO), an undemocratic
institution. There are no negotiations on the rules it imposes.
These rules are created undemocratically. Then, every time these
rules are implemented, there are protests. Normally in democracy,
if the will of people say change this policy, governments change.
Unfortunately, governance today is run by corporations not the
people. Every step of deepening the market economy is a depletion
of democracy. Our very governments have been stolen from us, and we
have to use democracy to counter these rules, this paradigm, and
the absolute destruction [it causes].
AlterNet: Describe your alternative vision that could
replace what we currently have.
VS: I try to articulate an alternative vision in terms of a
democracy. Global market economy makes the first citizen the
corporation. The rest of us are slaves, second class citizens.
Secondly, it creates an identity for the human species as consumers
in a global supermarket. We are no longer creators and producers.
We are just consumers of goods that corporations bring to us from
the place where they can manufacture them -- at the highest cost to
the environment and workers.
What we need is a reclaiming of who we are as human beings. We are
first and foremost citizens of this beautiful planet. Our first
duty is to protect this planet. And out of that flows the rights to
the earth, air, water and food that the earth gives us. Those gifts
are common resources, not commodities, private property or
intellectual property. They are the commons of the earth and all of
us have equal access to it. Nobody can interfere in the access of a
person to their share of water, land and air. That interference is
a violation of the rules of Gaia and the rules of democracy.
But the polluting industry has privatized even the air by first
putting their pollutants into it and then by the carbon trade.
They're basically are saying that because we polluted the
atmosphere, we own it. So we can pollute as much as we want and
then buy up clean credits from someone else who is not polluting.
The commons and the recovery of commons is vital to earth
democracy. It's at the heart of sustainability of the earth and
democratic functioning of society.
AlterNet: Do property rights fit into this vision of the
VS: Most private property rights have been carved out of the
shared resources of the earth. In India we say "land belongs to
creation." We can use it and have "use rights," but that is
different from ownership and tradable rights. It is British
colonialism that created private property in land the way it is now
Now, the World Bank is trying to create private property in land
among indigenous communities. Water was never property either, but
today, they are trying to change that. Seeds were meant to be
shared and distributed, not treated as property. Intellectual
property rights are as recent as the World Trade Organization and
need to be eliminated because they are inconsistent with life
[principles]. A world of the future governed by intellectual
property rights over seed in Monsanto's hands is a future where
biodiversity will be destroyed, farmers will be wiped out and there
will be no food worth eating.
AlterNet: You've also been involved in the "slow food"
movement and organic farming.
VS: I was just elected Vice President of Slow Food
[International], and I chair an international commission on the
future of food, a commission started by the region of Tuscany in
Italy. I convinced the [founder], Carlo Petrini, to recognize that
food does not begin in the kitchen or in the chef's hands. It
begins in the farmers' fields. One of the contributions that I and
my colleagues have made in the seed-saving and organic farming
movements is the recognition that biodiversity, organic farming and
small-scale agriculture produces more food. It is a myth created by
industrial agriculture and agribusiness that monocultures and
chemical farming produce more food. They use more energy and
chemicals, and do not produce more nutrition per acre. In fact,
they use ten times more energy inputs than they produce as food. So
with the food crisis, it is vital that we move to efficient food
systems that also give us better quality food.
AlterNet: How would we carry your vision and language into
actual political and farming structure?
VS: In countries like India, it's not a case of vision being
translated into practice. It's defending a practice that's being
destroyed by a perverse vision. For us, it is defending the rights
of small peasants. That's where lot of my energy goes. An India of
the villages was Gandhi's dream and is my dream. But I do not see
India surviving if her villages and her food capacity are wiped
out. In the Northern countries like the United States farmers have
already been uprooted. We need more farms producing more
locally-grown foods. This country that can subsidize biofuel and
chemicals should instead subsidize the return of small farmers to
the land. This would solve much of the unemployment problem too.
Maria Armoudian is a singer/songwriter, a commissioner on
the environment for the City of Los Angeles and host and producer
of the Insighters for KPFK. Ankine Aghassian is co-producer of the
Insighters on KPFK and a human rights activist.
© 2008 Independent Media Institute. All rights
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