Vandana Shiva: Why We Face Both Food and Water Crises

Policy-makers are finally grappling with the growing global food and water crises that are upon us. While they grope for answers, Vandana Shiva reminds them that it was their wild economic schemes that created these crises in the first place.

The globalized economic structure is simply incompatible with the basic physics of the planet and the principles of democratic governance, she says. And until we align the economic system with those of the ecological system, the problems will only get worse. While many of Shiva's books address some aspect of this fundamental problem, one title captures it most succinctly, Earth Democracy, Justice, Sustainability and Peace.

Shiva is a physicist, author, director of the Research Foundation on Science, Technology and Ecology and the founder of Navdanya.

AlterNet: Much of your writing and speaking has focused on our economic structure's incompatibility with the ecological functioning of the earth. Talk about that incompatibility.

Vandana Shiva: One aspect of the inconsistency is between the principles of Gaia, the principles of soil, the ecology, renewability, how the atmosphere cleans itself and the laws of the global marketplace. The global marketplace is driven by the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the illogic of so-called "free trade," which is totally not free. [The result of this incompatibility] is the current food crisis: The more agriculture is "liberalized," the greater the food scarcity, the higher the food prices and the more people will go hungry.

Never has there been this rate of escalation in food prices worldwide as we witness now with the global integration of the food economies under the coercive and bullying force of the WTO.

AlterNet: You have said, in the past, that these activities are done in the name of improving human welfare. But instead, poverty and dispossession have increased. Where do we see this the most?

VS: We see the worst dispossession in the countries of the South -- tragically -- those countries that could feed themselves. India, for example, was food self-sufficient. We were able to feed our people with a universal distribution system, affordable food for all, and agriculture policies that put food first. Small farmers could make a living.

But a decade and a half of globalization's perverse rules have led to 200,000 farmers committing suicide because they can't make a living anymore -- all their money goes to make profit for Monsanto or Cargill. Meanwhile, with the economy's so-called growth, people are starving. Per capita entitlement to food has dropped in a decade and half from 177 kg to 152 kg per year.

This contradicts the false propaganda being spread about the reason prices are rising. They say it is because Indians are getting richer and Indians are eating more. Well, some Indians are getting richer, but they're not eating more. There's a limit to how much you can eat. And the handful of billionaires buys a few more private jet planes and builds a few more private mansions. [But in reality], the average Indian is eating less. The average child has a bigger chance today of dying of hunger. The Cargill's of the world have a stranglehold of the world's economy; they're harvesting super-profits while people die of hunger.

AlterNet: You talk about India being worse off, but many economists -- including those on the political left -- say that places like China and India are, overall, actually improving. But you say that is not true.

VS: It's not true. India, under the perverse growth of globalization, has beaten out Africa in the number of hungry people. While we have 9.2 percent growth measured by GNP and GDP, 50 percent of our children have very severe malnutrition. Fifty percent of deaths for children under five are due to lack of food. That's about a million kids per year.

AlterNet: That is a considerable change that I don't think the world is seeing.

VS: That's because the media orchestrates every analysis and interpretation. They would like this crisis to look like a success of globalization, and they would like to offer more globalization as a solution. In fact, the World Bank has said there should be more liberalized trade. Before the WTO was formed, we had protests with 500,000 farmers on the streets of Bangalore in 1993 to say that this is a recipe for starvation, for destroying agriculture, self-reliance and food security. And the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs -- before the WTO was born -- had a press conference to say that globalization will make food affordable for all.

They forget that food ultimately is not produced in the speculation and commodity exchanges controlled by Cargill in Chicago. It is produced by hard working women and men working with the soil and sun. And if you destroy the capacity of the people to work the land and the capacity of soil to produce, you're going to have hunger. The tragedy is that the hunger of today and the rise of food [prices] is the result of globalization policies, and it is being implemented on a global scale. Unless we bring local food sovereignty and "food democracy" back into the picture, we will not have a solution to this.

AlterNet: You're talking about basic ecological principles here. But there are two other aspects about food shortages that are being discussed. One of them is that among some societies, such as China, the diet is changing, which contributes to food shortage. Reportedly, after being exposed to western diets, they are eating more meat which requires an enormous amount of grain -- normally fed to people -- to instead be fed to cattle. Do you see this as part of the problem?

VS: Well, I can definitely say that is not true for India. Vegetarian India will stay vegetarian India -- rich or poor, integrated globally or not integrated globally. And the Chinese have always eaten meat. The difference is that now they are integrated into the global production system: It is factory farming that feeds grain to chicken and pigs and cows.

No indigenous culture -- not China or India -- has fed grain to animals. Animals have fed on what humans could not eat. Global agribusiness, which makes huge money out of the feed industry, is creating this pressure while destroying what I would call the "real free economy" -- the free-range cattle, the free range chicken -- and replacing it with prison factories for animals. In fact, in my interpretation, even the Avian flu is being used to violently shut down small economies, the free economies of Asian peasants, and turning them into Tyson and Cargill factory farming systems.

AlterNet: What about the role of climate change in this global food crisis?

VS: Climate change and agricultural food crises do have a connection. In fact, my next book is precisely about this connection. Industrial farming -- driven by agribusiness in order to sell more chemicals, pesticides, and costly seeds to farmers -- is heavily responsible for emissions of greenhouse gases such as methane from factory farms nitrogen oxide from chemically fertilized soil and fossil fuels from mechanized farming systems.

Further, the long distance trade is responsible for adding food miles, which adds more carbon emissions. Taken together, more than 25 percent of climate instability is being caused by unsustainable farming that [simultaneously] displaces small peasants, creates poverty and bad food. So, tomorrow we could solve 25 percent of the planet's climate instability if we returned to ecological agriculture as the earth wants it, farming according to 10,000 years of wisdom that evolved from the third world.

Research that we are undertaking now shows a 200 percent higher level of carbon return and 10 times higher level of moisture retention. So if increased drought is one consequence of climate change, what you need is sorted organic matter, not more chemical fertilizers. We have two issues pertaining to climate change: We need to get rid of emissions from agriculture and long-distance transport.

This means ecological farming, localization of the food system and only importing what can't be grown locally -- not forcing imports as the U.S has done on India. It has forced us to buy wheat, give up our mustard and coconut oil and to live on soya. These trade factors are "forcings" that are causing more damage to our climate and destroying our food culture, nutrition and access to food.

Finally, biodiverse systems actually produce more food. It is an illusion that because there's a food crisis, we must have [genetically modified food] spread around the world. First, genetically-engineered crops don't produce more food. And secondly, they make the soil more vulnerable to climate change. They are herbicide resistant and toxin traps. That is not a yield increase.

AlterNet: So the genetic altering of food ultimately exacerbates the already difficult circumstances with food shortages.

VS: Absolutely. I think any recipe today offered in agriculture should be measured against the test of whether it will enhance the food production capacity of the poor and if it will reduce the pressure on the planet.

AlterNet: Let's also incorporate another concept that you feature in your writing -- "biopiracy."

VS: Biopiracy is the strange phenomenon whereby the richest and biggest of corporations steal genetic resources and traditional knowledge from poor little women and peasants who have shared it for free for over a millennium. The first case I had to fight was against the United States government with W.R. Grace, which became infamous in the film A Civil Action, when it polluted the groundwater outside of Boston.

They stole Neem, which is a tree that gives us [natural] pest and fungal control through its oil. The USDA along with Grace claim to have invented Neem. Of course, my grandmother and my mother used it. Then, I popularized it after Bopal with a campaign called "No more Bopal. Plant a Neem." When I saw this patent, I had to fight it. We fought for 11 years, and eventually the biggest governmental powers and one of the biggest chemical companies were beaten out by a coalition of civic society groups and movements.

Another case of biopiracy is the famous Basmati rice that comes from my valley. A company in Texas claims to have invented it. The third case was Monsanto, which claimed to have invented an ancient wheat variety, which is very low in gluten. The problem with biopiracy is not simply that they're taking genetic material and knowledge for free, but that they are claiming an exclusive right to it and then demanding royalty, claim and fame from the very communities and societies [from which they have taken it], communities that have had this biodiversity and this knowledge for years.

AlterNet: Speaking of Monsanto, you have done considerable research on this company and published a report, "Peddling Life Sciences or Death Sciences."

VS: If I had to rank criminality of corporations, Monsanto will easily walk away with the highest award. Monsanto has taken over the control of world's seed supply. It has bought up every small seed company in India, Brazil and the United States and become the biggest seed corporation. But its entire model of functioning is through corruption. They corrupted the United States decision-making such that U.S. citizens no longer have a right to know what they are eating, whether milk has bovine growth hormone in it or if soybeans and corn are genetically engineered. They are spreading this corruption worldwide.

I am fighting them through three cases in our supreme court. And we've managed to hold them at the level of Bt cotton. They have not yet managed to invade into our food economy with genetically modified food crop. But the worst thing Monsanto is doing is buying Delta and Pine Land, a company that has the patent for terminator technology that designs seeds to be sterilized. It is genetically engineering life for life's extinction.

AlterNet: We should also talk about water scarcity. There are major water wars occurring and considerable concern about the future of water. Do you think that water scarcity is being created largely by the phenomenon of privatization or is it resulting from climate change and other such phenomena?

VS: Water scarcity [is] being created by non-sustainable systems of production for both food and textile. Every industrial activity has huge water demands. Industrial agriculture requires ten times more water to produce the same amount of food than ecological farming does. And the "green revolution" was not so green because it created demand for large dams and mining of groundwater.

Industrial agriculture has depleted water resources. In addition, as water has become polluted and depleted, a handful of industry saw water as a way of making super-profits by privatizing it. They are privatizing it in two ways. The first is through buying up entire civic, municipal distribution. The big players in this are Bechtel, Suez and Vivendi.

And interestingly, wherever they go, they face protests. Bechtel was thrown out of Bolivia. Suez wanted to take Delhi's water supply, but we had a movement for water democracy and did not allow them to take over. But there's a second kind of privatization, which is more insidious -- and that is the plastic water bottle. Coca-Cola and Pepsi are leading in this privatization. But in India where Coca-Cola was stealing water, I worked with a small group of village women, and they shut their plant down. Across India, these giant corporations are taking between 1.5 to 2 million liters of water a day and leaving behind a water famine.

AlterNet: Given what is happening as a result of climate change, would we still face a water crisis without these practices?

VS: We would not be facing water problems if people have been allowed to have their economies, to practice sustainability and to live their lives. Every step in the water crisis is due to greed. As the water becomes increasingly scarce, the corporations who control the water become richer. It is the same with food. As food becomes scarce, the corporations controlling food become richer. That is the paradox of the global economy. Growth shows up in the profits of corporations while in the real world, the resources from which they make their profits, shrink.

AlterNet: You have also suggested that these same economic principles are incompatible with the sustenance of democratic governance.

VS: There are many levels at which a market economy called corporate globalization has to kill democracy in order to survive. Take the birth of World Trade Organization (WTO), an undemocratic institution. There are no negotiations on the rules it imposes. These rules are created undemocratically. Then, every time these rules are implemented, there are protests. Normally in democracy, if the will of people say change this policy, governments change. Unfortunately, governance today is run by corporations not the people. Every step of deepening the market economy is a depletion of democracy. Our very governments have been stolen from us, and we have to use democracy to counter these rules, this paradigm, and the absolute destruction [it causes].

AlterNet: Describe your alternative vision that could replace what we currently have.

VS: I try to articulate an alternative vision in terms of a democracy. Global market economy makes the first citizen the corporation. The rest of us are slaves, second class citizens. Secondly, it creates an identity for the human species as consumers in a global supermarket. We are no longer creators and producers. We are just consumers of goods that corporations bring to us from the place where they can manufacture them -- at the highest cost to the environment and workers.

What we need is a reclaiming of who we are as human beings. We are first and foremost citizens of this beautiful planet. Our first duty is to protect this planet. And out of that flows the rights to the earth, air, water and food that the earth gives us. Those gifts are common resources, not commodities, private property or intellectual property. They are the commons of the earth and all of us have equal access to it. Nobody can interfere in the access of a person to their share of water, land and air. That interference is a violation of the rules of Gaia and the rules of democracy.

But the polluting industry has privatized even the air by first putting their pollutants into it and then by the carbon trade. They're basically are saying that because we polluted the atmosphere, we own it. So we can pollute as much as we want and then buy up clean credits from someone else who is not polluting. The commons and the recovery of commons is vital to earth democracy. It's at the heart of sustainability of the earth and democratic functioning of society.

AlterNet: Do property rights fit into this vision of the commons?

VS: Most private property rights have been carved out of the shared resources of the earth. In India we say "land belongs to creation." We can use it and have "use rights," but that is different from ownership and tradable rights. It is British colonialism that created private property in land the way it is now practiced.

Now, the World Bank is trying to create private property in land among indigenous communities. Water was never property either, but today, they are trying to change that. Seeds were meant to be shared and distributed, not treated as property. Intellectual property rights are as recent as the World Trade Organization and need to be eliminated because they are inconsistent with life [principles]. A world of the future governed by intellectual property rights over seed in Monsanto's hands is a future where biodiversity will be destroyed, farmers will be wiped out and there will be no food worth eating.

AlterNet: You've also been involved in the "slow food" movement and organic farming.

VS: I was just elected Vice President of Slow Food [International], and I chair an international commission on the future of food, a commission started by the region of Tuscany in Italy. I convinced the [founder], Carlo Petrini, to recognize that food does not begin in the kitchen or in the chef's hands. It begins in the farmers' fields. One of the contributions that I and my colleagues have made in the seed-saving and organic farming movements is the recognition that biodiversity, organic farming and small-scale agriculture produces more food. It is a myth created by industrial agriculture and agribusiness that monocultures and chemical farming produce more food. They use more energy and chemicals, and do not produce more nutrition per acre. In fact, they use ten times more energy inputs than they produce as food. So with the food crisis, it is vital that we move to efficient food systems that also give us better quality food.

AlterNet: How would we carry your vision and language into actual political and farming structure?

VS: In countries like India, it's not a case of vision being translated into practice. It's defending a practice that's being destroyed by a perverse vision. For us, it is defending the rights of small peasants. That's where lot of my energy goes. An India of the villages was Gandhi's dream and is my dream. But I do not see India surviving if her villages and her food capacity are wiped out. In the Northern countries like the United States farmers have already been uprooted. We need more farms producing more locally-grown foods. This country that can subsidize biofuel and chemicals should instead subsidize the return of small farmers to the land. This would solve much of the unemployment problem too.


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