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Stolen Harvest

An Interview with Vandana Shiva
CorpWatch
March 17th, 2000

Dr. Vandana Shiva

Internationally renowned environmentalist and feminist Vandana Shiva is Director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy in Delhi. She is a board member of the International Forum on Globalization and the Third World Network. Before becoming an activist, Shiva was one of India's leading physicists. She is author of 13 books. Her most recent is Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply (South End Press) CorpWatch began by asking Shiva what she means by "Stolen Harvest:"


VS: Stolen Harvest is the story of how those who labor, those who grow foods, nature and her amazing creatures, are all literally being stolen by tremendously clever mechanisms being put in place by global corporations trying to find new markets. Mechanisms like genetic engineering which are converting the growing of food from being a peasant, farmer, and women driven activity, to a lab driven, corporate driven activity.

Patents on seed have never existed before. Farmers will be treated as criminals for saving seed. That is a brilliant, new theft of biodiversity that nature has given and farmers have evolved. Global corporations are able to steal the harvest from the producers as well as from consumers and push larger numbers into hunger and poverty.

CW: What has been the role of the WTO, along with corporations like Monsanto, Cargill and others, in stealing this harvest from both producers and consumers?


Global corporations are able to steal the harvest from the producers and consumers pushing larger numbers into hunger and poverty.


VS: The Intellectual Property Rights clauses of the GATT -- now enshrined in the WTO --are precisely the place where the diversity of nature and the collective innovation of millions of farmers around the world are being defined as the intellectual property of corporations like Monsanto. As they have said repeatedly, 'If we control seed, we control the food chain'. Monsanto's spokesman went on record to say they drafted the TRIPS -- the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement -- and the clauses related to living resources. In drafting TRIPS they achieved something unprecedented in the history of international law.

Similarly the agreement on agriculture -- which forces countries to start importing food and destroying local markets, to shift agriculture away from staple food crops to growing luxury crops at low prices for consumption in rich countries--was clearly inspired, crafted by Cargill and the US delegation. They wrote a very, very perverse agricultural agreement which was sold to the world as if it would remove subsidies. But the subsidies for corporations like Cargill have doubled in the US since the closure of the Uruguay round in the last 5 years. Rich countries are subsidizing agribusiness by up to $343 billion a year. While in a country like India, agriculture is negatively subsidized up to minus 23 million dollars a year. This is not about competition. This is about monopolies.

CW: Can you talk about some of the movements, particularly in India, moving from the fringe to the center of the debate, maybe starting with your own group, Navdanya.


Rich countries are subsidizing agribusiness by up to $343 billion a year.


VS: Navdanya, which means "Nine Seeds," was a movement that started in 1987 partly to anticipate genetic engineering and patent monopolies in agriculture. I felt that if we waited until all of this was in place, people would not be able to respond. So we acted ahead of time. We started setting up seed banks, we started shifting to organic agriculture and right now we have thousands of villages in which farmers have basically created what we call "Freedom Zones," those are agricultures that are free of chemicals, free of corporate inputs, free of hybrid seeds, free in the future of patents and genetically engineered crops.

CW: How have you kept biotech agriculture out?

VS: So far, Monsanto has not been successful in introducing genetically engineered seeds into the Indian market because we blocked them at a trial stage. We did massive public education with farmers organizations. Farmers uprooted the crops they had planted. And we have a Supreme Court case to block the trials and to insist that at least five or six years of ecological assessments are done before these seeds and crops are allowed to enter the market. We do not think genetically engineered seeds of Monsanto or genetically engineered foods can survive the scrutiny of ecological and safety tests.

CW: Let's talk a little bit more about the level of grassroots resistance by farmers in India. Certainly there has been some attention drawn by the farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka who have actually burned some of the Monsanto trial crops.

VS: The resistance is huge. Like Gandhi told the British, you cannot have salt monopolies, you cannot force us to stop producing our own salt. Nature gave it for free, we have always made it, and we need it for survival, and your laws cannot come in the way of our fundamental rights. We will continue to make salt and violate your laws. And that's how Gandhi literally triggered the downfall of the British Empire.


More than 3000 villages have declared that they will never obey laws that create monopolies on seed.


Using that as the inspiring model of politics more than 3000 villages have declared that they will never obey laws that create monopolies on seed. They will never adopt genetically engineered seed. In most villages, I can tell you, no matter what Monsanto does, and no matter how much they corrupt the government of India or elements of the government of India to push these laws through, they will not be able to push them on the people of India.

CW: What are the possibilities of some international alliances between small farmers in India, and both farmers and consumers in Europe, the United States and elsewhere?

VS: Well actually, what we've seen happen around the world, whether it's India, Europe or Japan, or now a little late in North America, is a product of international alliances. We would not have been able to do any of this in anyplace if we had not worked strategically with partners.


"Food totalitarianism" for me, is the very simple phenomena that a handful of corporations start controlling the food system.


I started this work in 1987 as a result of a representative of Sandoz stating very clearly that by the turn of the century, there would only be 5 corporations controlling food and health and we will control it through patents and genetic engineering. To me, a statement like that was a dangerous call and I had to do something about it. In the 1980's we were a handful of people. Today there are thousands. But those thousands have been able to get mobilized because of existing alliances through which we can inform our Northern partners about how agriculture actually functions in India; how biodiversity is critical to the sustainability of our food system. Similarly, groups like RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International) can keep us informed about the latest information on "Terminator" technology and "Verminator" technologies. Those alliances exist and they are being strengthened every day.

CW: You talk about "Food Democracy vs. Food Totalitarianism." Can you explain what you mean?

VS: "Food totalitarianism" for me, is the very simple phenomena that a handful of corporations start controlling the food system from seed, beginning with seed as property. Totalitarianism also in the fact that genetic engineering unleashes hazards. So I might want to be an organic farmer, but next to me is a genetically engineered field which contaminates my crop and denies me the right to produce safe, pure organic food for consumers. It's an authoritarian system that takes away my freedom to grow quality food.

In the US about two years ago, the organic standards were attempted to be corrupted and genetically engineered crops and food were going to be identified as organic. That was "food totalitarianism." And fortunately people rebelled, more than 275,000 Americans citizens said, "We will not allow our organic standards to be contaminated by genetic engineering. And today organic is safe.


GE foods were never meant to eliminate hunger.


It is also totalitarian in the way these trade treaties were put into place. They were forced on the world. In India we are being forced to import meat and waste from slaughter houses. We are being forced to import wheat, sorghum and milk, which we produce in abundant quantities. And those imports are destroying our markets, pushing our farmers into suicide. It is a system that is worse than any dictatorship that we are familiar with.

Democracy to me is reclaiming the spaces for farmers to grow food and consumers to have safe food at reasonable prices.

CW: Of course companies like Monsanto, Cargill, DuPont, Novartis tell us that genetic engineering is going to help feed the world, that it's going to eradicate hunger in countries like India. Is that true?

VS: GE foods were never meant to eliminate hunger. The advertisements were about hunger. But, GE has been and will be always, a technology to generate profits for the handful of corporations that call themselves "life-sciences" corporations, which is an insult to life. I would rather call them "death-sciences" corporations. The most popular application, which accounts for about 80% of all genetically engineered crops planted in the world, are herbicide resistant crops. Now, herbicide resistant crops are ecocidal technologies that get rid of the 200-250 crops that are grown in small farms of India. A system which would wipe out the sources of vitamin A in our green vegetables. And then say "It's okay, we provide vitamin A through genetically engineering rice."


The advertisements were about hunger. But, GE has been and will be always, a technology to generate profits for the handful of corporations that call themselves "life-sciences."


Herbicide resistant crops reduce food production because they destroy the biodiversity that accounts for most of the food consumed in the Third World. Bt crops, where pesticide production is built into the plant, is a sure way to have total crop failure. It's not a way to feed the world, because it kills non-target species. We've seen that with bees, we've seen that with the monarch butterfly. No matter how much Monsanto lies, it is the case that Bt in natural form is very different from the Bt in the plants. And the Bt in the plants starts to affect species that were not affected by the organic spray that farmers across the world have used.

And I know that at least for India in the Bt trials, we went down to the fields ourselves and talked to the farmers and in certain cases, the Bt crop, the genetically engineered crop had 75% less production than the conventional cotton that they were growing.

CW: Why do you think it has taken as long as it has, given that some of these corporations like Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland are based in the United States, for people in this country to become aware of the issues around genetically engineered food?

VS: I think there are three reasons why it took so long to build movements in North America on genetic engineering. The first reason is that North American agriculture been monopolized by agribusiness for so long. Farmers here have been devastated so totally, you only have 2% left on the land. In a way, American citizens have gotten used to having their food hijacked. They have gotten used to having agribusiness control their food system. And therefore, the next step of control was not that dramatic in their lives as it was in the lives of Europeans or in the lives of Indians.


American citizens have gotten used to having their food hijacked.


The second issue is the fact that because agribusiness has been contaminating the food system of the US for so long, industrializing food, in a way citizens have lost both the physiology and the culture of food. I know that because when I come to North America, I must tell you I can't eat food here. We come from a poor country but we have fresh food. The food has a taste. And even my little chapatti, my little dhal, I can eat on a daily basis. I just can't eat the foods at the restaurants in this place, because it is so contaminated, you have no idea what goes into what to make what anymore.

And finally, the most important issue is related to the fact that the regulatory agencies that should have been controlling Monsanto, that should have been holding Cargill to account, were actually held captive by these corporations. And on behalf of these corporations, the regulatory agencies in the United States have lied to the American public. They have told falsehoods like substantial equivalents: 'don't worry genetically engineered food is exactly like non-genetically engineered food.' Falsehoods like 'we've tested it all out and it's all safe.' And I really think, if the citizens of this country have to prove that the US is a democracy, they have to hold their government to account, for having misled them on something as vital as food.


The regulatory agencies that should have been controlling Monsanto, that should have been holding Cargill to account, were actually held captive by these corporations.


CW: Where do you see the movement headed internationally?

VS: At one level, I think citizens have won the GE issue intellectually and morally. The place where they will undermine the gains made by all of Europe revolting and saying we won't consume these crops; by Japan is saying we won't; by the US having a downturn in planting and American citizens now waking up and saying we don't want to consume this junk, will be to make it look like it is essential to the Third World.

Aid will be the Trojan Horse through which they will try to extend a lease on life for GMO's when people are saying we don't need this to feed the world. And that is where the future alliances will need to work together to ensure that genetically engineered soya is not dumped on India, as it is being dumped now through free-trade regimes. And not dumped on the victims of Orissa cyclone, where genetically engineered corn and genetically engineered soya has been sold through aid agencies for $4.5 million under the US AID relief. The Third World is where the citizens of the North will have to become active to hold their governments and their corporations accountable.