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How Biodiversity - Not Toxic Monocultures - Sustainably and Efficiently Feeds the World

The following excerpt is from Vandana Shiva's new book, Who Really Feeds the World?: The Failures of Agribusiness and the Promise of Agroecology (North Atlantic Books, 2016)


More than seven thousand species have fed humanity throughout history: a remarkable indication of the biodiversity on our planet. In a biodiverse farming system, thousands of insects pollinate our crops and give us food. Friendly insects control pests by maintaining a natural pest-predator balance. Millions of soil organisms work to create life and fertility in the soil. Fertile and healthy soils give us abundant and healthy food. On a biodiverse farm, ecosystem, or planet, the food web is the web of life.

But today, just thirty crops provide90 percent of the calories in the human diet, and only three species—rice, wheat, and maize—account for more than 50 percent of our calorie intake. According to the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, of the 7,098 apple varieties documented in the United States in the beginning of the twentieth century, 96 percent have been lost. Additionally, 95 percent of the cabbage, 91 percent of the field maize, 94 percent of the pea, and 81 percent of the tomato varieties have also been lost. In Mexico, of all the varieties of corn reported in 1930, only 20 percent exist today.

The loss of biodiversity in our food and on our land is because industrial agriculture systems promote monocultures. Monocultures are based on the cultivation of only one variety of one crop, which is bred to respond to externally applied chemicals or toxins.

The rapid erosion of biodiversity has taken place under a food system that sees farms as factories for commodities rather than webs of food production and life. These factories run on chemicals that were once designed for warfare, and are destroying the diverse species that have flourished on our planet for millennia. Biodiversity increases the stability of ecosystems and their ecological functions, whereas a reduction in the number of genes, species, and groups of organisms reduces the efficiency and resilience of whole communities.

Three forces have driven the disappearance of biodiversity across the world, and all three are connected to the corporate control over seed. The first is the entry of big business into the seed market, which has displaced local diverse varieties evolved by farmers with uniform, commercial hybrids and GMOs engineered and sold by corporations. Whereas once we had differently shaped, nutritious, and seasonal fruits, today we have uniform varieties available all year round. The second factor is globalization-driven long-distance trade. Diversity goes hand in hand with local, decentralized food systems, but in a global food system, freshness and softness are replaced by hardness, so that fruits can travel. We are breeding rocks, not fruit. The third factor is industrial processing, which leads to companies like McDonald’s and PepsiCo replacing nutritious, local dishes with junk-food commodities. This then influences what crops are grown. For example, juicy, tasty tomatoes disappear to make way for hard, tasteless ones, because tomato ketchup requires the latter. Today, every cuisine deserves to be recognized as cultural heritage before it is wiped out.

Biodiversity, food diversity, and cultural diversity go hand in hand. Tribals in the heartland of India evolved two hundred thousand rice varieties from one wild grass: the Oryza sativa. Rice is their life, rice is their food, and rice is their culture. I have joined them at Akti, the festival that marks the beginning of the agricultural cycle where they bring their diverse rice varieties, offer them to the village deity, share them with each other, and then sow the rice in their fields. Or take Mexico, where thousands of years ago, peasants domesticated a wild plant called teosinte and transformed and evolved it into the diversity of thousands of corn varieties. Mexicans are the people of corn: corn is their identity, their food, and their culture.

The corporate control of seed that has eroded biodiversity is a result of a paradigm of production based on uniformity and monocultures: what I have called Monocultures of the Mind. A Monoculture of the Mind imposes one way of knowing—reductionist and mechanistic—on a world with a diversity and plurality of knowledge systems. These knowledge systems include the knowledge and expertise that come from practice, experience, and working with nature as a partner: the knowledge of women and workers, and of farmers and peasants. These knowledge systems are multiple and diverse. But as ecological biodiversity is replaced by monocultures of food and crops that can be commodified and patented for profits, and as the rich diversity of food cultures is being replaced by monocultures of junk food, the human mind is also being reduced to a monoculture. Monocultures of the Mind, rooted in a reductionist, mechanistic paradigm, create a blindness to the diversity of the world. Based on mechanistic thought, these monocultures are blind to the evolutionary potential and intelligence of cells, organisms, ecosystems, and communities. They are blind to the ecological functions arising from the relationships and cooperation between diverse living components of an agroecosystem. And in a vicious cycle of uniformity, these Monocultures of the Mind once again perpetuate monocultures of the land.

A mechanistic paradigm of industrial agriculture converts diversity to monocultures by focusing on external inputs of chemicals as well as on uniform monoculture commodities as outputs. We have been falsely led to believe that chemical-intensive monocultures produce more food and are therefore the answer to hunger and food insecurity. The same mechanized thinking promotes the idea that by intensifying monocultures through inputs of toxic chemicals, fossil fuels, and capital, biodiversity will be conserved because less land will be used. This is false.

Chemical-intensive monocultures produce less food per acre than biodiverse, ecological farms when all outputs are taken into account. Monocultures displace diversity on a farm, and according to the UN International Technical Conference for Plant Genetic Resources in Leipzig, Germany, in 1995, 75 percent of all agro-biodiversity has been displaced because of industrial monocultures in agriculture. We can safely assume that this percentage has only grown.

Industrial agriculture is based on external inputs of chemical pesticides as well as GMO crops with pesticides built into them, which kill beneficial species and undermine food production. These chemicals come from war. And through industrial agriculture, they continue the war. The false productivity of industrial agriculture has been manipulated at every level by ignoring the contributions of the biodiversity of plants, soil organisms, and pollinators to agriculture and food production. Through a mechanistic, reductionist framework, a myth has been created that without chemical monocultures we will have no food, and that biodiverse, organic farming is more expensive and a luxury for the wealthy.

We must dismantle these myths. Under the industrial paradigm, toxic chemicals kill the biodiversity of bees, butterflies, and friendly insects. Chemical fertilizers kill soil organisms, destroying the soil and soil fertility. Nitrogen fertilizers create dead zones and kill the biodiversity of aquatic and marine life. Furthermore, because they rely heavily on inputs of deadly chemicals, the cost to both the farmer and the consumer is greater in monoculture farming; the only profits being made are by and large agribusinesses. Monocultures of the Mind focus on only one economy: the global market controlled by global corporations.

They remain blind to the economies of nature and society, to nature’s economy, and to people’s sustenance economy. We need to put an end to monocultures, both on land and in the human mind, and we need to urgently assess the true costs of industrial agriculture and the true benefits of biodiverse, ecological farming.

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