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Focus On Hunger

By Natasha Burge

19 October, 2010

An interview with Vandana Shiva

Today marks the beginning of my second exploration of world hunger, as part of Conducive Chronicle’s 21 days for Hunger. For these two days I will be focusing on women in hunger, a topic I covered last May in my first souljourn for world hunger. As Kenda mentioned in the Intro to the series yesterday, I work as a women’s rights activist and educator, and the fact that 70% of the world’s hungriest people are women and girls sits uneasily in my heart. It is this fact, and the constellation of injustices that lead to it, that I will be exploring today in my article and in my interview with world renowned food justice activist, global south advocate, and eco-feminist Vandana Shiva.

Everything about world hunger is unfair. The fact that there are nearly 1 billion people starving in the world right now speaks to the vast amounts of injustice that our global system is built on. That 1 out of 6 human beings goes to bed hungry every night while there is more than enough food to feed everyone generously, seems to me the very definition of unfair. When I began my first exploration of world hunger last May, the endless stream of inequality and injustice was enough to make me want to scream. But out of all of the rage inducing facts and statistics, the one that haunts me the most, that makes me lose sleep at night, that I still find hard to believe, is that the people who grow the world’s food, our farmers, are some of the most likely to experience hunger.

In our world, farmer means woman. 80% of the developing world’s food supply, and 60% of the world’s food in total, is grown by women’s hands. Women plant, nurture, and harvest the food we all need to survive, yet they own less than 1% of all farmland, and are generally the last to eat. 70% of those suffering from chronic poverty and hunger are women and girls. They feed us, and while we eat they starve. The industrialization of our food system has led us to a place where we are now so removed from the food we eat that most of us barely know what’s in it, let alone where it came from or who grew it. What kind of life did she live? Was she well fed, able to enjoy the literal fruits of her labor? Or was she drowning in debt, a slave to the chemical and agricultural companies that have quickly devoured our world? Was she able to protect her land and grow her food in the way her mother and grandmothers did for centuries before her? Or has she been forced to pollute her land and her body with the genetically engineered seeds that promise so much, while yielding so very, very little? How much do we know about our food and the people who grow it? Why are they always the last to eat?

In India, 75% of people make their living by farming, and 60% of those farmers are women. These women plow the fields and raise our food, and yet their harvest is being stolen. In 1994, the completion of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) legitimized corporate growth based on harvests stolen from nature and people. The WTO’s agricultural agreements and ‘free’ trade policies allow transnational corporations that do not grow the food or work the land to make super profits off of the small farmers and their back breaking labor. The WTO’s Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement made seed-saving and seed-sharing a criminal act, disrupting millennia old traditions practiced in agricultural communities throughout the world. Corporations are now allowed to monopolize the right to a seed, the basic building block of our food security, by claiming it as their exclusive private property. The Agreement on Agriculture legalized the dumping of genetically engineered foods on countries, and criminalized actions taken to protect the biological and cultural diversity on which indigenous food systems are based.

Under World Bank and International Monetary Fund structural adjustment mandated reforms, India was forced to radically alter the way food had been grown in the country for centuries. Flashy advertising campaigns assaulted the country and images of gods, goddesses, and saints were used to sell new, hybrid seeds directly to small farmers, even as their land was being devalued, redrawn, and sold out from under them. Once the farmers began to purchase these new corporately ‘owned’ seeds they discovered they were highly vulnerable to pests, fungi, and weeds. Encouraged by their government and the corporations, the farmers bought the necessary corporate owned pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides on credit, comforted with the knowledge that these new seeds would produce yields so large they could repay their debts and have money to spare. Unfortunately, the new seeds were a dismal, drastic failure and crops failed throughout the country. Farmers were left with barren fields, polluted waterways, sky high debts, and empty bellies. Since 1997 200,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves, many by drinking the toxic pesticides that were supposed to save their crops. This cycle of debt and loss and more debt and more loss has been termed the ‘suicide economy’ and has created millions of chronically hungry and debt enslaved people throughout India.

Not only does this suicide economy lead to debt and impoverishment created hunger, it also destroys a region’s ancient biodiversity by creating huge swathes of lifeless monocrops in its place. The promises of ‘life science’ corporations like Monsanto are that they will feed the world through their genetically engineered seeds and the resulting higher crop yields. However, the opposite has been true. They have, in fact, created hunger on an unimaginable scale. Whatever higher yields they have been able to display are offset by the fact that they require massively higher inputs. Traditional farming practices have always been highly productive as they utilize a close looped cycle of animal integrated perennial and annual polycultures. When resource use is taken into account, the ‘advancements’ of the Green Revolution is obviously counterproductive and grossly inefficient. More and more land is needed to create adequate harvests under the new methods, along with more water, more money, more time, more effort, all of it for slightly more food, and far more hunger.

“However, this phenomenon of the stolen harvest is not unique to India. It is being experienced in every society, as small farms and small farmers are pushed to extinction, as monocultures replace biodiverse crops, as farming is transformed from the production of nourishing and diverse foods into the creation of markets for genetically engineered seeds, herbicides, and pesticides. As farmers are transformed from producers into consumers of corporate-patented agricultural products, as markets are destroyed locally and nationally but expanded globally, the myth of ‘free-trade’ and the global economy becomes a means for the rich to rob the poor of their right to food and even their right to life.” Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest

It was in this environment, to fight these wrongs, that world renowned global south activist, physicist, and eco-feminist Vandana Shiva created Navdanya. Founded in 1984, Navdanya is providing an alternative to the modern global food system by promoting biodiversity conservation, farmer’s rights, and organic farming methods, with an emphasis on seed saving. Navdanya means nine crops, in reference to the nine crops that represent India’s collective source of food security, and it is this self-sufficient food security that it hopes to preserve. Over the past 26 years, Navdanya has created an ever expanding alternative to the culture of death and debt pushed by the transnational corporations. Dedicated to the preservation of nature and the people’s right to knowledge, water, and food, Navdanya promotes global peace and justice through the conservation, renewal, and rejuvenation of the gifts of biodiversity. Navdanya has helped to create 54 community seed banks throughout India with the intent to rescue and conserve crops that are being pushed to extinction by monoculture farming practices. 3,000 varieties of native rice, 12 genera of cereals and millets, 16 genera of legumes, and 50 genera of vegetables have so far been saved due to their efforts. More than 500,000 farmers have been trained in organic and sustainable farming methods and more than 50 international courses have been offered on biodiversity, food, biopiracy, water, globalization, business ethics and more. Navdanya focuses on empowering local farmers to resist patents on seeds, and struggles to keep India free from GMO crops by recognizing humanity’s inherent right to food, water, and seed sovereignty.

One of Navdanya’s specific goals is to empower women and to keep food security in their hands through a network of women’s producer groups (Mahila Anna Swaraj). Navdanya views women as the caretakers of biodiversity, the providers of food security, and the conservationists of the cultural diversity of food traditions. By keeping women’s food knowledge and expertise alive they hope to guarantee food security for generations to come. Navdanya’s gender program, Diverse Women for Diversity, works on a local, national, and international level as a global campaign for women to resist monoculture monopolies and celebrate food security and biodiversity. Leaders in the food justice movement around the world recognize that it is women who hold the key to fighting the global hunger crisis, and it is this topic that I wanted to focus on in my interview with Dr. Vandana Shiva.

Burge: In 1998, India was forced to open up its seed and farming sector to global corporations like Cargill, Monsanto, and Syngenta by the World Bank’s structural adjustment policies. Can you explain how it is not natural disasters like drought and famine that cause the majority of hunger, but man-made economic policies like these? Why must a resistance to globalization form such a necessary part of food security and bio-diversity?

Shiva: The main causes for hunger are industrial agriculture and globalised trade in food. Industrial agriculture creates hunger both by destroying the natural capital for producing food and locking farmers into debt because of its high cost of production. Globalised trade creates hunger by diverting fertile land for exports, promoting dumping and unleashing speculative forces. In industrial agriculture and globalisation also contribute 40% to green house gas emissions that are leading to climate change which in turn is destroying agriculture and food security. The rules of globalisation both in the structural adjustment programmes of the world bank and the free trade rules of WTO promote industrialisation and trade liberalisation. Resisting such corporate globalisation is necessary for food security and biodiversity.

Burge: Since 1997, 200,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide after being forced into inescapable debt by pesticide and seed companies, in what has been termed a ‘suicide economy’. Do you think this kind of unending debt is a political tool consciously designed to keep the people powerless and desperate, or is it simply an unintended tragic consequence of misguided economic policies?

Shiva: The corporations and governments that are designing high costs agriculture systems to maximise corporate profits are simultaneously designing the debt trap for small farmers. This debt trap is what is leading to farmers suicides. Pushing small farmers to extinction is very much part of the corporate design of industrial farmer. It is not merely an unintended consequence. As a US agriculture policy person said: “farmers must be squeezed of the land like the last bit of toothpaste is squeezed out of the toothpaste tube”.

Burge: What do you say to critics who claim that with the global population nearing 7 billion people we need industrial agriculture and genetically modified foods to feed everyone?

Shiva: Industrial agriculture actually reduces nutrition per acre since it destroys the biodiversity which maximises nutrition per acre. Industrial agriculture is artificially projected as being productive through the monoculture of the mind and a focus on the monoculture yield of handful of globally traded commodities. That is why hunger and malnutrition has grown in direct proportion to the spread of industrial agriculture. As far as genetic engineering is concerned, it is a not a yield increasing technology. It has only put Bt. toxin genes into plant or genes for resisting toxic herbicide. This has increased the yield of toxins not of food. The Union of Concerned Scientist report “Failure to Yield” and Navdanya’s reports “Seeds of Suicide” and “Biodiversity Based Productivity : A New Paradigm for Food Security” have the data that shows that genetic engineering has not contributed to increase in production.

Burge: Women grow the majority of the world’s food and 60% of India’s farmers are women. Women also make up 70% of the world’s chronically hungry people. Why is it that women, the people who grow the majority of the world’s food, are the last to eat?

Shiva: Just as farmers who grow the food are the largest number of hungry people in the world, women who produce and process food constitute the majority of malnourished people. The denial of food to the producers of food is a result of the injustice built into industrial food systems and social discrimination.

Burge: Navdanya calls itself a ‘women centered movement’, holds female heritage learning and preservation classes known as Grandmothers’ University, and has a gender program, Diverse Women for Diversity, that is a global campaign of women advocating for bio-diversity and food security. Could you tell us why it was so important for Navdanya to focus on the empowerment of women? Why do you consider the partnership of ecology and feminism to be a partnership of liberation?

Shiva: The dominant model of agriculture has come out of capitalist patriarchy and is based on war. These wars begin as wars in the mind, become wars against the earth, and result in wars against our body. Women need to lead the movement for a non-violent food system because they have not been part of the war economy. Grandmothers hold the heritage of non-violent knowledge which protects the earth and our health.

Burge: In your book Stolen Harvest you describe a ‘hijacking of the global food supply’, as corporations that do not grow the food or work the land reap the obscene profits of the farmers’ labor. When people are kept so poor they can barely feed themselves, and the multinational corporations are unimaginably powerful and wealthy, how can the common people find the resources to stand up to this injustice?

Shiva: Since each of us eats everyday food can become the site of a revolution for justice. If we say no to GM foods, if we commit ourselves to eating organic, we build another food system which is controlled by people and not by giant corporations.

Burge: In describing the implementation of ‘free-trade’ policies upon an unwilling population, you have said that the moment the will of the people is ignored it becomes a dictatorship. In light of the unfathomable levels of violence being perpetrated against an almost powerless population (and at a time when an agricultural company like Monsanto hires the services of the private army Blackwater), why do you and Navdanya remain committed to a non-violent resistance strategy?

Shiva: We in Navdanya stay committed to non-violent resistance strategy because it has more power and more resilience.

Burge: The women you work with through Navdanya’s various programs and Diverse Women for Diversity often have their lives profoundly changed when they are given the tools and resources for self-empowerment. Can you tell us of an instance when you saw a woman, a family, or a community transformed?

Shiva: Twenty years ago, a women called Bija came to me to find work as domestic help. Bija means the seed and I asked her if she would help me in Seed Saving and she immediately agreed. For two decades Bija has worked as Navdanya seed keeper. She holds classes for scientists on the conservation of biodiversity, she received the Slow Food Biodiversity Award on behalf of Navdanya in Porto Portugal in 2001. The potential Bija achieved is the potential in every peasant woman and it is this potential Navdanya seeks to unleash.

Burge: What kind of future is envisioned by the women of Diverse Women for Diversity? How will a world premised on food security, bio-diversity, and sustainability look?

Shiva: The future envisioned by Diverse Women for Diversity is a future in which every species and every person has space to evolve to their highest potential, live in mutuality with each other and create a world of peace, justice, and sustainability.

Burge: How can we in developed Western nations stand in solidarity with the women in India and throughout the world who are facing chronic hunger and poverty, and assist them in their struggle?

Shiva: There are three ways in which you can support our work. You can support our programs by making donations to Navdanya. You can attend our courses at Bija Vidyapeeth – The School of the Seed and visit our programs on seed saving and organic farming as solutions to hunger. You can spread the principles on which our work is based.

“Women were, really, in my view, the ones who domesticated plants, created agriculture. And as long as women were controlling agriculture, agriculture produced real food. Agriculture was based on [women's learned and passed on] knowledge. A Women’s centered agriculture never created scarcity. As long as women controlled the food system you did not have a billion people going without food and you didn’t have 2 billion going obese and w/diabetes. This is the magic of patriarchy having taken over the food system. Earlier, patriarchy left food to women, modern patriarchy wants to control food . . . women’s knowledge has been removed from agriculture . . .we can only have a secure food culture if women come back into agriculture.” Vandana Shiva