I’m very happy to be at the Oxford Real farming conference. And at the immigration counter, the officer wanted to know what conference and when I mentioned it to him, he says real? I said yes, real.
Welcome to this special episode of Farmerama, featuring a conversation with activist and writer Vandana Shiva recorded at the 2023 Oxford Real farming conference. Vandana Shiva was giving one of the keynote speeches at ORFC. She was looking back at her more than four decades of work was an advocate for farmers’ rights, indigenous knowledge, food and seed sovereignty, diversity and localisation. Her visit to ORFC came shortly after the publication of her memoir, Terra Viva. It’s a retrospective of her life and work, from her childhood in post-partition India, to her studies and physics to her involvement with the Chipko Andolan, a pioneering conservation movement led by rural women in northern India, an experience that laid the groundwork for her own life of environmental and political activism.
It’s amazing in a sense, how wide ranging your your work is. And I think that that’s sometimes a criticism that, you know, you can’t be knowledgeable about all these different areas.
But I think that is at the heart of the issue. I consciously chose to study quantum theory. And in the process later, I realised that the idea of separation in the ontological world, in the real world has its reflection in separation along disciplinary lines, because if you create a reductionist mechanistic world, everything’s divided into parts. And this idea that somehow, the less you know, of the whole, the more you know, it’s just epistemological nonsense. And I gave up an academic career, which is where you must necessarily be within the boxes of the discipline. Because I was getting involved in environmental movements. You know, one day I was asked to look at mining one day, I was asked to look at dams. And these studies had huge policy consequences. And I’m a believer that the human mind is so fertile, that there’s no point in life when you stop learning. I have not developed my inquiry, just for the sake of indulgence, and I’m not playing a glass bead game. Every trauma that I have witnessed has compelled me to look, the disaster of Bhopal, the disaster of Punjab forced me to look at agriculture. The manipulations related to genetic engineering and the idea that you somehow invent life because you can add one gene, that led me to the GMO question. And when they said they will create a law to make it impossible for farmers to save seed and criminalise seed saving. And that was the GATT and the trade related intellectual property rights. On the one hand I started to follow globalisation, intellectual property rights was not a discipline I’ve been trained in, but when life is at stake, you learn what it is. And most importantly, I said, I’m never going to allow the highest freedom of the farmers to have their own seed to be turned into a crime. And I’m grateful that because I wasn’t stuck in a silo of a discipline, I went wherever the Earth called me and society called me. And frankly, the biotech industry is hardly in a position to judge people’s intellectual capacity because they live by public relations. They live by propaganda, they don’t do science. Part of my ethical being is – and this is why I refuse to be imprisoned in a silo – first, I find out why why the violence, why the harm, and then I want to seek. How can you do it better? What’s the non-violent way that protects the earth and protects people’s lives and livelihoods? Because for me, it’s not an academic exercise, you know, I chucked university 1982. Now, for me, it’s, it’s exploring the least harmful path of living on this earth.
Moving on to something that you mentioned a moment ago, which is the question of gene editing. And it’s particularly relevant just now here because of the genetic technology bill on the deregulation of, of gene editing. What do you make of the argument that gene editing CRISPR, for example, that it’s fundamentally different to what we previously called genetic modification, that it’s really just an extension of traditional breeding practices that have existed forever?
Well, you know, having worked on these issues so long, I remember when we were negotiating the Convention on Biological Diversity. And in those days, in the early 90s, they were very few people looking at what was happening in biotechnology. But because of a meeting I’d been invited to in 87, where the industry laid out its plan of genetically engineering organisms in order to own patterns in order to own the seed and life on earth. At that time, when we were insisting we need to have assessments of impact, they used to say exactly the same for the first generation GMOs, they’d get up and give speeches in the UN negotiations, that the new genetic engineering is exactly like your mother’s yoghurt, and your grandmother’s cheese. And then we would go through the process that goes by technologies by technologies, of course, technologies that modify biology, those biotechnologies and new genetic engineering, extremely different. And on the counts on which the new genetic engineering of the first generation is different from ecological, but technologies. It’s shared by the new GMOs, because, first of all, they deny the complexity of the organism. They deny the self organisation of the organism, they deny that tampering with the genome has huge consequences. Now you can tamper with the genome through transgenic manipulation, or you can tamper by doing the so called gene editing. In either way, it’s a denial of the organism as a self organised entity. And that foundational scientific error is then what leads to all the failures of the first generation, they had only two pathetic applications, toxic applications, BT toxin crops and Roundup Ready crops. One was supposed to control pests, the other was supposed to control weeds. The first gave us super pests like the bowl worm, is resistant in India, and the super weeds can’t be controlled in the American farmland. The deal, genetic engineering is already showing its huge side effects that one tampering of one gene editing has 1500 unpredictable impacts in other places in the genome. So, the denial of the complexity, self organisation, and the holding together of the genome, that reductionism is still guiding this technology. So at the very foundational level, it is already proving that it is having huge impacts, it is not a precision technology, and it’s definitely not a breeding technology, breeding is done by whole organisms, with whole organisms. So, earlier, shooting genes in petri dishes, didn’t give you the plant or the organism and therefore you had all the problems. But editing on a computer is even more removed. And we already have a) enough proof that the idea that it’s natural, because you won’t be able to identify it, that’s been countered. That’s been countered by scientists who found new ways to be able to identify gene edited GMOs. And the second that this is natural, no, because nature is not a word programme that can be cut and pasted. It has huge implications to think that way.
Another very well worn argument is that a technology like gene editing is necessary that essentially it’d be really irresponsible not to take advantage of it, especially in the context of the climate crisis and world hunger, you know, that we have a moral responsibility to use this technology. What do you say to that?
You know, when they started to bring genetic engineering, and for me, they’d first stated it’s all to do patents and own the seed, and to make it illegal for farmers to have seed sovereignty, which is why I save seeds, which is why we’ve created 150 Community seed banks in India. But even then, they use exactly the same argument for anyone who thinks the gene editing arguments are totally novel, exactly this was tried, you know, it’s responsible. And because I’d done the study on the Green Revolution, I would ask exactly those questions. You know, if we know monocultures actually biologically produce less, just because in commodity terms, they produce more, it’s wrong to equate a commodity with a biological output. The same applies for gene editing. We now have 50 years of experience with industrial agriculture, 30 years of experience with GMO-based industrial agriculture, for this argument to be totally backwards, because at the systems level, none of these changes have led to more productive systems with better use of ecological resources, the sunshine, the photosynthesis, the soil organisms, every one of them is killing the very base that makes food systems work. We now have enough evidence that only the tool you’re using has shifted slightly. But the mentality you’re using, and the ignorance of systems in directions that you are, you’re basing your whole technology on ignorance, that that still stays. And that’s why all your claims of feeding the world just don’t work. And even if it was true, if you’re doing something so good, and so right, yes, then the least you do is say, yeah, I will be regulated. For good work, you shouldn’t be shy of being regulated. To me the highest criteria of whether you’re doing right or wrong, is do you accept regulation? Or do you want to escape from it?
Another question I had was a more general one, I suppose, which is, you know, we’re here in Oxford, you’ve travelled here from India? What opportunities do you see for solidarity between farmers and food producers here in the UK and elsewhere in the world, and particularly what we might call the global majority world? What can that solidarity look like?
You know, now, having studied agriculture in practice, alternative ecological agriculture, since 84, which is 38 years, I’ve realised that food as a system, is a living system. And it already is a result of solidarity between the soil and the plants and the farmer who’s taking care of them. And for a conscious eater, who knows that their health is related to the health of the soil, and to the care the farmer gives to the soil. So first, we need a solidarity everywhere. In every economy, every locality between the Earth, the producer, and the eater. And second, we need a whole new solidarity between the culture of taking care of your particular place, and a planetary responsibility. And the two go together, as I’ve articulated in my book, Earth Democracy, the local, as ecological is the basis of the planetary. Farmers everywhere you know, I was part of a International Commission and we wrote, we wrote a manifesto on the future of food and farming. And out of that grew the whole process by which peasants of the world started to come together. I organised farmers against WTO, and GATT and out of that grew the movement Via Campesina because we brought everyone who was fighting against globalisation and trade liberalisation. So, there are those elements of solidarity, but just like in disciplines, you cannot have silos. Knowledge cannot be fragmented, society cannot be fragmented. Food is the currency that connects us. And therefore we must have more and more conscious creation of relationships that allow the farmer to produce, allow eaters to create economies where the farmer has a place, the bee has a place, the earthworm has a place. When I started, there was no consumer power in India, it was really farmers power. But in these 20 years, 30 years of globalisation, the consumer has a big role. In the West, of course, farmers have always been marginalised for a while. So the shift will include the solidarity across the food web, across the food system.
Especially in the context of Terra Viva and this retrospective, how have you managed to stay motivated for so long? Where does that motivation come from?
My motivation comes from a deep love and passion for life and living systems and the earth. And cultures that are vibrant. People smile, people have a twinkle in their face. And having had enough experience of that, and having had enough experience with the light being taken away from people – that to me is a brutalisation of humanity. So my, my regeneration of my energy comes from a deep sense that I’m not separate, and therefore feeling the pain of the earth is my pain. But my pain is also shared with others. And therefore, you know, Gandhi he had a beautiful prayer – The Divine is the person who feels the pain of the other. That’s not sitting up there in the skies, it’s feeling the pain of the other. And for me, that compassion, that compassionate oneness becomes the basis of the courage to resist. For me, this is not being an activist outside life, this is life.
The final thing I wanted to ask was really just bearing in mind Farmerama listeners. It’s mainly targeted at farmers themselves, but a lot of our listeners are maybe people who aspire to become farmers or go into food production. Or I’m trying to think of a different word for activists now, but they are people who are, you know, maybe campaigning on land rights, things like that, or just people who eat food and are engaged and concerned about it. What message would you like to give them?
That eating is an ecological act, eating is a political act. Eating is a Health Act. And eating is an act of solidarity, because the minute you’re conscious of how your food was grown, and how it’s been distributed, and what it’s doing your gut microbiome, you are already engaging in the process. And, you know, my mother, who was highly educated, broke every glass ceiling in her time, became an inspector of schools, and then the partition hit and I’ve written about it in Tera Viva, and she had to come back to India as a refugee. And she said, I’ve broken all the glass ceilings. Now I’ll be a farmer. Because it’s the highest vocation, and I’ve done my physics I’ve done my PhD. So I’ve done my trainings in nuclear. And at the end of it, I’ve realised that the highest vocation is to be a farmer who’s a farmer growing food. So everyone is a farmer, potential farmer. And I think the process of transformation we need when they keep talking about transforming the food system. To me, the vital part of transforming the food system is to allow systems where the partnership between the soil and humanity is reestablished, because the only way we will be able to deal with the multiple crises is through that relationship of care and regeneration.
Vandana Shiva’s ORFC presentation is titled: In The Name of the Farmer, Vandana Shiva recalls a lifetime of campaigning for small scale farmers. You can watch it back by visiting the ORFC website, orfc.org.uk. And you can find out more about her memoir, Tera Viva on the Chelsea green website. Chelsea green.co.uk. This episode was produced by me Katie Revell. Thanks as always to the rest of the Farmerama team. Abby rose, Olivia Oldham Joe Behrens, Fran Bailey, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins, Dora Taylor and Lucy Fisher. Our theme music is by Owen Barrett. If you’d like to support what we do, you can become a patron at patreon.com/farmerama and a big thank you to all of our patrons.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai