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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Globalization and Agriculture

Air Date: Week of

The globalization of agriculture is ruining sustainable farming in the developing world, according Dr. Vandana Shiva (VANdana SHIva), director of the New Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy. The author of “Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply” discusses how this is affecting India.


TOOMEY: In India, activists are pledging to mount a new round of civil disobedience to protest genetic engineering, environmental destruction, and other impacts of what they call the globalization of agriculture. One of this movement's leading voices belongs to Vandana Shiva. She heads the New Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy, and her latest book is called "Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply. " Our interview with Ms. Shiva begins by her describing the food in her grandmother's kitchen. It was a time before the so-called Green Revolution in which, she says, science was used to increase the productivity of the world's farms in the name of progress.

SHIVA: Well, the memories I have of my grandmother's kitchen is the bathwaga saag [phonetic spelling] she would make. Bathwa [phonetic spelling] is the chenerpodium [phonetic spelling] that grows as a volunteer in our wheat fields. And till the Green Revolution came, it used to be the only so-called weed, a very useful weed, and she used to cook it in an earthen pot, all day long. And it is the most delicious saag, or green, that I have ever eaten. And I remember my grandmother cooking and talking about the food dancing -- the music in the food -- because she used to talk to the food. She used to literally have conversations with her pakoras and her parathas and her pooris.

TOOMEY: What would she say?

SHIVA: She would basically encourage them to dance more, and tell them the rhythm was wonderful, or tell them, scold them and say, "No, no, no, you didn't come out right this time."

TOOMEY: You mentioned until the Green Revolution happened. Talk to me about the effect of the Green Revolution on so-called weeds.

SHIVA: The weeds that have nourished us, that have been the greens, the sources of vitamin A, iron, growing freely in our fields, with the Green Revolution became competitors of the wheat or the rice, and had to be wiped out with herbicides. The Green Revolution in fact declared a war against biodiversity -- both in terms of plants that nourish us, like bhatwa [phonetic spelling], and in terms of the diverse species that maintain sustainable agriculture -- through pesticides.

TOOMEY: You write in your book, "The seed is not merely the source of future plants. It is the storage place of culture and history." What do you mean by that?

SHIVA: In the area which is the home of rice, called Chatesgar [phonetic spelling], the tribals have a festival called Achti [phonetic spelling]. And in that festival they all bring their rice varieties together -- hundreds of rice varieties in one village. They offer it to Creation and say we've received this diversity from you, we give it back to you, with remembrance that this is our collective heritage. When they plant the seed after that ceremony in their fields, they're not just planting a biological species. They're replanting their culture. And the fascinating thing I found in India is women never perform ceremonies with hybrid seed and introduced seed. They only use their own farmer's varieties.

TOOMEY: You tell the story of basmati rice and the patent that has been taken out on a certain variety. If you could, explain that to me.

SHIVA: Actually, the patent is not just on a certain variety of basmati rice. The patent claim says that Rice Tech, this Texas-based corporation, has made an instant invention of another rice line. Now, the basmati that they have used came from Pakistan and India, and they have just interbred it with the semi-dwarf varieties to be able to cultivate this in Texas. But in the attached claims to the patent, they say any rice with qualities similar to theirs, which means qualities of aroma which they pirated in the first place, will be treated as an infringement. Their patent claim has defined itself in such a way that even the traditional basmatis, because they have similar qualities, that will be treated as piracy of this proprietary product, which is now the private property of Rice Tech. The aroma of the basmati that evolved in my valley, Verdun [phonetic spelling], is the private property of a Texas company.

TOOMEY: So is this Texas company going to march into that valley and play crop police?

SHIVA: They would like to do that. Otherwise, they don't have to waste their time with patents. The only reason the company takes patents is so that they can exclude others from making, selling, distributing, producing the product which is patented. And that is the reason we have this huge movement in India to say we do not recognize patents on life. We do not recognize claims that plants and seeds are inventions of corporations. And we will never be reduced to being forced to pay royalties. We will not be treated as criminals for doing our duty with respect to the earth, and our ancestors and future generations.

TOOMEY: And talk to me about seed sharing and the criminalization of that.

SHIVA: Once you have a patent on seed, since a patent is an exclusive right to make, sell, produce, the moment the seed makes itself on a farmer's field, and the farmer harvests not just the crop but also the seed for the next season which is the way plants have regenerated themselves over millennia, that act of saving seed is now being redefined as a crime and as a theft. Similarly, even when farmers exchange seed with each other, it is being treated as a theft and piracy from the company.

TOOMEY: You have an organization which is actually committing civil disobedience with regard to seed-sharing.

SHIVA: Well, in 1987 I took a decision that, if this was the world the corporations wanted, then I would spend the rest of my life creating seed banks for civil disobedience so that farmers would continuously save seed and exchange seed freely. I also know that, in spite of eight years of fighting, attempts to change our national laws, introduce patents in seed, introduce breeders' rights that would exclude the farmers from being able to save seed, we have struggled on this for eight years. The corporations are desperate to change the Indian laws. We still have Parliamentary debates around this. But if tomorrow they actually institutionalized those laws, we are ready to continue to commit civil disobedience. And that is what our movement, called the bija satyagraha is about, just like Gandhi, picked up salt from Dondi [phonetic spelling] Beach and told the British that he would never obey salt laws that made salt a monopoly of the British, to generate higher revenues for their armies. Every year, on the anniversary of the salt satyagraha , we take a pledge across thousands of villages that we will never obey laws that treat seed saving and seed exchange as a crime.

TOOMEY: When you speak in those terms, you really do make this issue sound as critical as the issue of independence that Gandhi was dealing with.

SHIVA: It's even more critical than the period in which Gandhi lived, because after all, what they had taken control of was clothing, and therefore Gandhi created a movement for independence around the spinning wheel, around our spinning our own cloth. Today, what agribusiness and the biotechnology industry is trying to control is not just our clothing, but our food and our biodiversity, the very basis of life. It is more critical, because the technologies are becoming more life-threatening. The monopolies are even harsher. And the assault is on the very basis of life. Because it's a deeper level of attack, this freedom movement, for freedom of different species to stay alive, freedom of biodiversity to flourish, freedom of small farmers to be able to save their seeds and be economically viable and grow food, freedom of consumers, for consumers to have good, accessible, low-cost food according to their cultural priorities, these many freedoms are what seed saving has become.

TOOMEY: Vandana Shiva is the director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resources. Her new book is called "Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply." Thank you for talking to me today.

SHIVA: Thank you to you.



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