Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are constantly in the news these days. Scientists debate the safety of engineered foodstuffs, consumer advocates demand GMO labeling, and farmers and gardeners decry the emergence of corporate seed monopolies that limit what we can do in our own dirt. It is with this food sovereignty controversy in mind that we recently spoke with veteran anti-globalization campaigner Vandana Shiva.
Vandana Shiva is the founder of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology and the Navdanya organic seed network. She is a pre-eminent advocate for the preservation of food sovereignty, civil liberties and biological diversity. The author of almost 30 books, she also initiated the global Seed Freedom movement to organize events and celebrate seed defenders (learn more at Seed Freedom). Shiva began her journey by defending oak forests with the Chipko movement in northern India. Chipko — meaning “hug” in Hindi — was a 1970s campaign to protect villagers’ rights against corporate and government intrusion, specifically the stripping of local forests sanctioned by the Uttarakhand state forest department. Shiva has followed her calling to protect natural resources and indigenous agrarian traditions to this day, albeit on a grander scale.
MOTHER EARTH NEWS interviewed Shiva to discuss the importance of food policy and how it affects what’s on your plate and what’s in your garden.
MOTHER: Genetically modified (GM) crops are promoted as essential for an ever-growing population. How do you respond?
Vandana Shiva: Genetic engineering hasn’t demonstrated increased yields as promised by biotechnology corporations. (See the report Failure to Yield from the Union of Concerned Scientists.)
MOTHER: Despite this, GM crops account for more than 80 percent of North American crop acreage. Why did farmers adopt this controversial technology?
Shiva: Farmers do not choose GM crops. The industry destroys all options. In India, in the case of cotton, the industry blocked public research and locked companies into licensing agreements to sell only Bt cotton, a variety genetically modified with Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria. Increased seed costs and yield failures pushed many farmers into unrecoverable patterns of debt, triggering a wave of suicides. In the United States, independent researchers can’t even study GM seeds because the biotechnology and chemical firm Monsanto won’t allow them to obtain seeds. When I once asked a group of U.S. farmers why they grow GM soy, a farmer replied, “The companies have a noose ’round our neck. We can only grow what they sell to us.”
MOTHER: Do you think sustainable agriculture can scale up to replace the current industrial system?
Shiva: Yes, scaling up can be done if society has the will and commitment.
MOTHER: In the essay “For the Freedom of Food,” you wrote, “Food has become the place for fascism to act.” What do you mean by that statement?
Shiva: I describe what is happening as “food fascism” because this system can only survive through totalitarian control. With patents on seed, an illegitimate legal system is manipulated to create seed monopolies. Seed laws that require uniformity — which criminalize diversity and the use of open-pollinated seeds — are fascist in nature. Suing farmers after contaminating their crops, as in the case of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, is another aspect of this fascism. Pseudo-hygiene laws that criminalize local, artisanal food are food fascism. And attacks on scientists and the silencing of independent research, as in the case of Árpád Pusztai and Gilles-Eric Séralini, are examples of knowledge fascism.
(Árpád Pusztai is an internationally esteemed biochemist who was censored and dismissed after 36 years at the Rowett Research Institute because he publicly discussed his research demonstrating the harmful effects of GM potatoes on rats. Gilles-Eric Séralini is a professor of molecular biology at the University of Caen whose published findings on the toxicity of the herbicide Roundup and Roundup-resistant corn were uncharacteristically retracted by the science journal Food and Chemical Toxicology.)
MOTHER: What do you see as the biggest barrier to building a more sustainable food system, in the United States and globally?
Shiva: The biggest barrier is government support of industrial agriculture and GMOs through favorable legislation and direct subsidies. That is why I talk of food democracy. Creating better food systems should be a fundamental goal of democratic societies.
MOTHER: On the topic of governance, how does international trade and investment policy affect everyday farmers and gardeners?
Shiva: The disaster in India with farmers’ suicides is a “gift” of the previous round of free-trade treaties that created the World Trade Organization. India was forced to allow seed giants, such as Monsanto, to enter the market. We were forced to remove import restrictions, resulting in a huge agrarian crisis. “Free trade” means freedom for corporations to destroy the planet, our economies and our democracies. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is currently negotiating U.S. participation, is even more disastrous, because it heavily promotes corporate intellectual property rights and GMOs. Monsanto wrote the intellectual property rights clauses and the massive multinational corporation Cargill wrote the agriculture treaty. Worse, the TPP agreements contain investor-state clauses that would allow corporations to sue governments. (Learn more about the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade negotiations.)
MOTHER: Do you believe this tide of corporate globalization can be turned back by the cooperation of grass-roots organizations?
Shiva: This type of globalization is collapsing. The challenge is to build alternatives before it’s too late.
MOTHER: As for alternatives, what are the most concrete things we as individuals can do to restore food sovereignty and build a sustainable society?
Shiva: Save seeds and grow a food garden.
To learn more about food sovereignty, seed saving and the dangers of GM crops, check out the following websites:
Moyers & Company
Food Democracy Now
Thaddeus Christian is an editor with MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. Right at the moment he is up to his knees in chickens, babies, and news articles. Find him on Google+.