Food by VICE

We Spoke to Vandana Shiva About the Future of Food

Indian environmental activist and fiercely anti-GMO campaigner Vandana Shiva has dedicated her life to championing organic agriculture as the only solution to global food scarcity—a viewpoint not all share.

by Rebecca Hobson
Oct 7 2016, 1:00pm

It's Saturday night in Lodhi Estate—Delhi's leafy, administrative hub.

In the splendid auditorium of the India International Centre (a 1960s building commissioned by India's first Prime Minister, it has much in common in both design and the crowd it attracts with London's Barbican Centre), Vandana Shiva is introducing the final act of Bhoomi 2016, the annual festival held by her seed bank organisation Navdanya.

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Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva at Bhoomi 2016, an annual festival in Delhi held by her seed back organisation Navdanya.

Dressed in a midnight-blue embroidered sari, the 63-year-old environmentalist looks elegant and relaxed, if a little tired—a subdued version of the woman I met with yesterday, when she fiercely condemned organisations like Bayer and Monsanto as "the old poison-makers of IG Farben, of Hitler's concentration camps" and calling the latest application to commercialise a GM mustard hybrid in India deeply corrupt.

"It is basically a terminator technology. One of the genes introduced is designed to make the plant sterile, and then another gene is added to bring back fertility according to when the breeder wants it. But now your plant has a sterility trait. Then it has this glufosinate-resistance trait. Why is that wrong? It's wrong in any country.

"America has giant-sized farms, they spray Roundup [a herbicide] from aircraft. Today they're not controlling weeds, they're controlling superweeds, so as a technology it has failed."

READ MORE: Future of Food on MUNCHIES

But tonight, Shiva's focus is on the entertainment, which is Vidya Rao—her favourite Hindustani classical singer who always performs at Bhoomi.

And after a full day of panel discussions featuring India's new Environment Minister Anil Madhav Dave, the French environmentalist Nicolas Hulot, and the president of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements Andre Leu, Shiva is very nearly off-duty.

That's assuming she knows what off-duty means. Over the last 30 years, Shiva has built Navdanya into a powerful movement responsible for preserving 10,000 indigenous seed varieties, and for leading the fight against genetically modified organisms being farmed in India.

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Shiva at Navdanya's Living Foods Centre in Delhi.

When I meet her—a day earlier, at the inauguration of Navdanya's Living Foods Centre—she has just landed back in Delhi after visiting Oxford, California, and Madrid in the last five days. Is her schedule always so busy?

"My life is typical of multi-variety, of diversity," she tells me. "So tomorrow, I'll be organising this annual festival of Navdanya—this year, the theme is healing the planet and healing the food. Then I'll go to Dehradun, where we're offering a one-month course on the A to Z of agricology. There's no typical day for me. But each day is a day I try to live to perfection for the moment and the community where I am."

Bhoomi is actually the second festival Shiva is attending this week. The other was the countercultural arts festival, Symbiosis Gathering in northern California.

"I actually addressed a music festival," she says, her face lighting up "and then I addressed a conference on women of Africa organised by the former deputy prime minister of Spain, on issues of the challenges we face today: economic polarisation and inequality, and political polarisation and divide in society."

Shiva's ability to move seamlessly between these contrasting worlds is testament to both her credibility as an environmentalist and a scientist, but also her uncompromising confidence. This is a woman who takes on the world's biggest and richest companies, after all.

But it's a fight she's both winning and losing. While no genetically engineered food crops have been planted commercially in India, the country does have one GMO: Bt Cotton, a strain developed and produced by the agribusiness Monsanto.

Grown throughout India, the US, and China, Bt Cotton is genetically engineered to release a naturally occurring toxin that kills the common bollworm pest that feeds on it. As a result, fewer pesticides are needed to protect the crop. Since its introduction to India in 2002, it has taken over 95 percent of the market.

Shiva and her supporters maintain that Monsanto brought Bt Cotton into India illegally.

"I was part of a national working group on patent law, which worked with parliament to make sure plants were need not treated as human inventions, because they're not," she says. "Monsanto came in illegally and I sued them. For five years, they were in the courts with our case."

And did she win?

"We won the case in a sense, [Monsanto] were forced to go to the government to get approval because they were working without approval."

Shiva also links India's chronic rate of farmer suicides with the introduction of Bt Cotton, arguing that Monsanto has inflated the price of the seed to such extent, cotton farmers have become saddled with debt and driven to killing themselves.

As you might expect, Monsanto refutes all these claims. Its supporters say the price of seed corresponds to the higher yields Bt Cotton generates and to costs of innovation, while farmer suicides are caused by a range of multiple, complex factors that began before Monsanto entered the market.

The war between this David and Goliath shows little sign of abating, however, and Shiva is now part of a group of organisations holding a citizens' tribunal investigating Monsanto for crimes against humanity later this month.

"I think it's time they lost," she says.

"GMOs are just the next icing on that industrial agriculture poisoned cake."

Shiva was 35 when she began physically collecting and preserving indigenous seeds. The daughter of feminists "before the word was invented," she grew up in the foothills of the Himalayas, in Dehradun, where her father was a forest conservator and her mother a farmer—a vocation she chose by choice after fleeing Pakistan and leaving a high-level government job.

Despite growing up in and around nature, Shiva says she was drawn to science first, and that Einstein was her inspiration as a child.

"I chose to be a physicist. I went to convent schools where they didn't teach science," she explains. "I taught myself science, I would go find a university professor in my town and spend evenings and weekends teaching myself."

Shiva went on to study particle physics at Panjab University before moving to Canada, where she completed a PhD in the "Hidden Variables and Non-locality in Quantum Theory" from the University of Western Ontario.

Much has been made of these postgraduate studies. Shiva's critics argue that her PhD focuses on a philosophical debate of physics, rather than the study of physics itself.

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Organic pulses and spices.

It is one of many areas where Shiva fiercely divides opinion. In 2014, The New Yorker published a profile of the activist entitled "Seeds of Doubt," calling out many of her views, including the claim that Bt Cotton had caused the price of seeds to rise ("In fact, the prices of modified seeds, which are regulated by the government, have fallen steadily") and her confusing of "correlation with causation" when stating that glyphosate weedkiller had caused increased in Alzheimer's rates in America.

While Shiva posted a furious rebuttal to the piece on her website, many still question the science behind her rhetoric.

Shiva's turning point towards environmentalism came in 1987 when, as a young scientist, she attended a meeting of the biotech industry and heard delegates "talk about owning seed, patenting seed, genetically modifying seed [and] having trade treaties to control seed."

The meeting had a profound effect on her and she made a conscious decision to dedicate the rest of her life to "non-violent agriculture."

Shiva has since become a star among environmental, activist, and anti-corporate circles. Veteran journalist and commentator Bill Moyers called her "a rock star in the global battle over genetically modified seeds," while scholars around the world both applaud and critique her unwavering stance against GMOs and multinationals like Syngenta, Monsanto, and Bayer.

In 2010, Forbes identified Shiva as one of the "Seven Most Powerful Feminists on the Globe." She has won countless awards, of which she deems The Right Livelihood Award she won in 1993 for "for placing women and ecology at the heart of modern development discourse" highest.

"It is alternative Nobel Prize. It is a very thoughtful prize. It is not the fashion-of-the-moment prize," she says.

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The new Living Garden at Navdanya's Living Foods Centre.

Shiva's battle with agribusinesses like Monsanto is long and complex.

"My life doesn't begin with GMOs, nor does my critique of that system," she tells me.

Her critique begins with what she believes is the false claim that industrial agriculture has improved food security.

"GMOs are just the next icing on that industrial agriculture poisoned cake," she adds.

And then there's the patent issue.

"I was at a meeting where the industry said we have to do genetic engineering in order to claim we made a new life form, in order to gain patents, because seeking royalties is our objective. This is where our future profits will come from," she says. "The GMO is the door through which you enter this space, but the space is the monopoly on life and the false claim on that."

As for the latest application to cultivate the GM mustard hybrid—DMH-11—Shiva points to its glufosinate-resistant trait as being potentially extremely harmful.

By genetically engineering plants to be resistant to herbicides like glufosinate, farmers can use herbicides freely to kill surrounding weeds. This encourages monoculture farming (the cultivation of a single crop), which many argue erodes soil nutrients, is damaging to wildlife and requires chemical fertilisers to be sustainable.

All this is completely at odds with Navdanya's commitment to naturally sustainable farming practices. Shiva is adamant that diverse, organic agriculture is a sustainable practicality that's capable of feeding the world's growing population, and says she has the research to back this.

She also believes that current population estimates are flawed.

Shiva and Jérôme Douzelet at the inauguration of the Living Foods Centre.

"The assumption of population increase is based on an assumption of uprooting people," she says. "The biggest population control measure is to allow people to be on the land and this has been proven by the state of Kerala, which implemented land reform—even for the urban slum-dweller, they ensure that the piece of land on which the hut is belongs to that woman. The result has been the population decline."

Back at the Indian International Centre, Vidya Rao is singing Gandhi's favourite hymn, "Vaishnava Jana To."

The crowd sits silent and enraptured. Watching Shiva a few rows in front of me, I'm struck yet again by her formidable presence and I contemplate our discussion yesterday and, in particular, her parting words.

I had asked Shiva about Golden Rice, a genetically modified variety of rice developed to contain beta-carotene in the edible part of the grain, which then converts to vitamin A when consumed.

According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 250 million pre-school children are vitamin A-deficient, and an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.

Growing and distributing Golden Rice, say more than 100 Nobel Laureates, could dramatically reduce the malnutrition brought on by vitamin A deficiency in the developing world.

Shiva is unconvinced: "The monocultures of rice are the beginning of malnutrition. If you were not growing rice alone, if you were not spraying pesticides in those rice fields, there would be fish, there would be greens.

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A seed shrine to Ghandi at Bhoomi 2016.

"You can have all the vitamin A if you haven't destroyed it with monocultures and chemicals. So promoting a model that is destroying nutrition as a solution to malnutrition is the first place wrong."

I suggest, tentatively, that perhaps it could work as a quick fix of sorts?

Bad idea, Shiva grows incensed at my suggestion.

"It is not a quick fix for 20 years!" she says, referring to the amount of time it's been under development. "A quick fix is a good meal from the garden—that is a quick fix!"

READ MORE: The UK's Most Widely Used Weed Killer Could Be Making Bread Toxic

I try to interject that not everyone has a garden, but by now she is practically shouting.

"Twenty years of a failed experiment is not a quick fix—your readers should know that! It is 20 years of bad research," she says, calming down as quickly as she flares up, and now laughing. "Twenty years is a lifetime. And if a generation has grown in a lifetime, that generation's vitamin A could have been solved by the gardens we create [...] and you don't have to mobilise 107 Nobel laureates who have nothing to do with plants to tell you this is important.

"All you need is talk to one wise woman."

Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Find out more here.