You don’t have to look very far to find the essence of life, says Vandana Shiva. But in a society caught in a mess of technological advances, bio-hacks, and attempts to improve ourselves and the natural world, he fears we are bent on destroying it.
“Everything comes from the seed, but we have forgotten that the seed is not a machine,” Shiva says. “We think we can engineer life, we can change the carefully arranged DNA of a living organism and there won’t be a larger impact. But this is a dangerous illusion.
For nearly five decades, Shiva has been deeply engaged in the fight for environmental justice in India. Considered one of the world’s most formidable conservationists, she has worked to save forests, shut down polluting mines, expose the dangers of pesticides, encourage the global campaign for organic agriculture, champion ecofeminism, and take on giant, powerful chemical corporations.
His fight to protect the seeds of the world in their natural form – rather than genetically modified and commercially controlled versions – continues to be his life’s work.
Shiva’s anti-globalization philosophy and pilgrimages throughout India have often been compared to Mahatma Gandhi. However, while Gandhi has become synonymous with the spinning wheel as a symbol of self-reliance, Shiva’s emblem is the seed.
Now 70, Shiva – who is divorced and has chosen not to have children – has spent her life refusing to conform to the patriarchal norms so often imposed on women in India, particularly in the 1950s. She has published more than 20 books and when she’s not traveling the world for workshops or conferences, she spends her time between her office in Delhi and her organic farm in the foothills of the Himalayas.
She credits her resistance spirit to her parents, who were “feminists at a higher level than I’ve ever known, long before we even knew the word ‘feminism.'” After India gained its independence in 1947, her father left the army to take a job in the forests of the mountainous state of Uttarakhand, where Shiva was born and raised always believing she was equal to men. “Forests were my identity and from an early age the laws of nature fascinated me,” she says.
There was a race to develop and patent GM crops, but nobody stopped to ask: what will be the impact on the environment?
She was about six years old when she came across a book of Albert Einstein quotes buried in a musty little library in a forest cottage. She was paralyzed, determined against all odds to become a physicist. Although science was not taught in her rural convent school, Shiva’s parents encouraged her curiosity and found ways for her to learn. At age 20, she was completing her PhD in quantum physics at a Canadian university.
However, when logging, dams and development wreaked ecological havoc on the forests of Uttarakhand and local peasant women rose to fight it – a movement known as Chipko – Shiva realized upon her return to India that the His heart was not with quantum physics but with a different, nagging question. “I couldn’t understand why we were told that new technology brings progress, but everywhere I looked, local people were getting poorer and landscapes were being devastated as soon as this development or new technology came along,” she says.
In 1982, in his mother’s stable in the mountain city of Dehradun, Shiva established his own research foundation, exploring the intersection of science, technology and ecology. He began documenting the “green revolution” that has swept rural India since the late 1960s, where in an effort to raise yields and ward off famine, the government had pushed farmers to introduce technology, mechanization and chemicals for agriculture.
He instilled in her a lifelong opposition to industrial interference in agriculture. While the Green Revolution is acknowledged to have prevented widespread hunger and introduced much-needed modernization in rural communities, it was also the beginning of an ongoing system of monoculture in India, where farmers were driven away from native varieties and plant instead a few high-yielding varieties harvested wheat and rice in rapid turnaround cycles, burning the stubble in their fields in between.
It also created a dependency on subsidized fertilizers and chemicals that, while costly and environmentally disastrous, persists today. Soil in fertile states like Punjab, once known as the breadbasket of India, has been stripped of its rich minerals, with streams dried up, rivers polluted by chemical runoffs, and farmers in a perpetual state of deep crisis and anger .
Shiva’s suspicions about the chemical industry got even worse when, in the early 1990s, she became privy to some of the first multi-stakeholder discussions about agricultural biotechnology and chemical companies’ plans to alter crop genes for commercial purposes.
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“There has been a race by companies to develop and patent these GM crops, but no one has stopped to ask: what will be the impact on the environment? How will they impact diversity? How much will it cost farmers? They just wanted to win the race and control all the seeds in the world. It all seemed so wrong to me,” says Shiva.
In 1991, five years before the first genetically modified (GM) crops were planted, he founded Navdanya, which means “nine seeds,” an initiative to save India’s native seeds and spread their use among farmers. Eight years later, he took chemical monolith Monsanto, the world’s largest seed producer, to supreme court for bringing its GM cotton to India without permission.
Monsanto rose to prominence in the 1960s for producing the herbicide Agent Orange for the US military during the Vietnam War, and later spearheaded the development of GM crops in the 1990s. It has moved quickly to penetrate the international market with its privatized seeds, particularly in developing, predominantly agricultural countries.
The company, which was bought in 2018 by German pharmaceutical and biotech firm Bayer, has been embroiled in a lawsuit. In 2020 it announced an $11bn (£8.7bn) payment to settle claims about links between its herbicide and cancer on behalf of nearly 100,000 people, but has denied any wrongdoing. In 2016, dozens of civil society groups organized a “people’s court” in The Hague, convicting Monsanto of human rights abuses and developing an unsustainable agricultural system.
Shiva says taking Monsanto to court was like going up against a mob and says many attempts were made to threaten Monsanto into not dropping the case.
Monsanto finally got permission to bring GM cotton to India in 2002, but Shiva continued his fight against the chemical corporations, which Shiva refers to as the “poison cartel.” Currently more than 60% of the world’s commercial seeds are sold by just four companies, which have spearheaded the drive to patent seeds, orchestrated a global monopoly on some GM crops such as cotton and soybeans, and sued hundreds of smallholder farmers for saving seeds from commercial crops.
“We faced these giants when they said ‘we invented rice, we invented wheat’ and we won,” he says.
He remains adamant that GM crops have failed. But while the legacy of pest-resistant GM cotton in India is complex and has increased pesticide use, not everyone would agree that the issue is black and white. Indeed, her outspoken and often hardline positions on genetically modified organisms and globalization have earned her many criticisms and powerful enemies.
She has been accused of exaggerating the dangers of GMOs and simplifying the facts about the direct link between farmer suicides and GM crops, and has been called an enemy of progress for her anti-globalization rhetoric given the threats the world faces .
Related: ‘Amazing Variety’: Food Crusaders Preserving India’s Heritage
As the world’s population has swelled to 8 billion and the climate crisis throws agriculture into chaos, even some prominent environmentalists have shifted their positions and argued that GM crops can support food security. Countries like the UK, which had imposed tough laws on GM foods, are now pushing for more genetic editing of crops and animals. Last year India approved the release of a new GM mustard seed.
Shiva is scathing about this renewed push for genetically modified organisms, arguing that much of the gene-editing process is still “dangerously unpredictable” and calling it “ignorance” to think that climate-adapted crops can only come from industrial laboratories.
“Farmers have already bred thousands of climate and salt resistant seeds; they weren’t the invention of a few big companies, regardless of the patents they claim,” she says.
For Shiva, the global crisis facing agriculture will not be solved by the “poison cartel” nor by a continuation of industrialized, fossil-fuel-consuming agriculture, but rather by a return to small-scale local agriculture, no longer dependent on agrochemicals. “Globally, subsidies amount to $400 billion a year to run an unprofitable agricultural system,” he says.
“This industrialized globalized food system is destroying soil, destroying water and generating 30% of our greenhouse gases. If we want to solve this problem, we have to move from industrial to ecological agriculture.”
However, while his crusade against the might of chemical corporations will continue, Shiva considers his most important work his travels through the villages of India, collecting and saving seeds – including 4,000 varieties of rice – creating more than 100 seed banks and helping farmers return to organic methods.
“My proudest work is listening to the seed and its creativity,” she says. “I take pride in the fact that a lie is a lie is a lie, no matter how great the power telling the lie. And I’m proud that I never hesitated to tell the truth.”
• Vandana Shiva’s latest book, Terra Viva: My Life in a Biodiversity of Movements, is published by Chelsea Green. Shiva to speak at the Extinction or Regeneration conference at the QEII Centre, London on 11-12 May