Food as teacher100%1

Dr. Vandana Shiva, physicist, environmental activist, winner of the alternative Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and author of numerous publications on intellectual property rights, biodiversity, biotechnology and bioethics has played a key role in the fight for changes in agricultural practice, women´s rights and food systems worldwide. Here Dr. Shiva argues that the reductionism and fragmentation of narrow disciplinary teaching has replaced traditional holistic education, and she analyses some of the dire consequences of engendering “mental monocultures”.

We are what we eat.

Yet we are increasingly ignorant about what we eat.  We know nothing about how food was produced, how food was processed or how it was distributed.  It is not that agriculture and food sciences are not taught at universities or colleges.  But food as our wholesome source of nourishment disappears under the fragmentation and reductionism of the narrow disciplines which have replaced the holistic education of food.

Since modern industrial agriculture and modern industrial food processing are driven by industry and corporations, the education and disciplines related to food and agriculture create sellers of industrial chemicals and industrial foods, not producers of safe, healthy, nutritious, sustainable foods.

The Green Revolution

The Green Revolution, the name given to industrial, chemical farming in the Third World, reduces soil to an empty container, into which synthetic NPK 1 fertilizers have to be poured. The life of the earthworm and mychorrizae, the source of soil fertility, disappear from education. The living, abundant seed too is emptied of life, of self organization of renewability.

The Green Revolution narrowed the basis of food security by displacing diverse nutritious food grains and spreading monocultures of rice, wheat, and maize, focusing on staple foods and their yields. The genetic engineering revolution is undoing the narrow gains of the Green Revolution both by neglecting the diversity of staples and by focusing on herbicide resistance, not higher yields.

Fifty-four percent of the increase in transgenic crops is for those engineered for herbicide resistance, or, rather, the increased use of herbicides, not an increase in food production. Worldwide, 40% of the land under cultivation by genetically engineered crops is under soybean cultivation, 25 percent under corn, 13 percent under tobacco, 11 percent under cotton, 10 percent under canola 2, and 1 percent each under tomato and potato.  Tobacco and cotton are non-food commercial crops, and crops such as soybeans have not been food staples for most cultures outside East Asia. Such crops will not feed the hungry. Soybeans will not provide food security for dal-eating Indians, and corn will not provide security in the sorghum belt of Africa. Now that corn and soya are being diverted for biofuels, they are causing hunger and food scarcity worldwide.

The trend toward the cultivation of genetically engineered crops indicates a clear narrowing of the genetic basis of our food supply.  In place of hundreds of legumes and beans eaten around the world, there is soybean. In place of diverse varieties of millets, wheat, and rice, there is only corn. In place of the diversity of oil seeds, there is only canola.

These crops are based on expanding monocultures of the same variety engineered for a single function.  In 1996, 1.9 million acres around the world were planted with only two varieties of transgenic cotton, and 1.3 million acres were planted with Roundup Ready soybeans. Currently one corporation, Monsanto, and 4 crops; corn, canola, soya, cotton account for 95% of all GMO’s planted worldwide. As the biotechnology industry globalizes, these monoculture tendencies will increase, thus further displacing agricultural biodiversity and creating ecological vulnerability.

Further, by forcing the expansion of non-food crops such as tobacco and cotton, transgenic crops result in fewer acres in food production, aggravating food insecurity.

Destruction of biodiversity

In Indian agriculture, women use up to 150 different species of plants (which the biotech industry would call weeds) as medicine, food, or fodder.  For the poorest, this biodiversity is the most important resource for survival.  In West Bengal, 124 “weed” species collected from rice fields have economic importance for local farmers. In a Tanzanian village, over 80 percent of the vegetable dishes are prepared from uncultivated plants. Herbicides such as Roundup and the transgenic crops engineered to withstand them therefore destroy the economies of the poorest, especially women. What is a weed for Monsanto is a medicinal plant or food for rural people.

Since biodiversity and polycultures are an important source of food for the rural poor, and since polycultures are the most effective means of soil conservation, water conservation, and ecological pest and weed control, the Roundup Ready technologies are in fact a direct assault on food security and ecological security.

Genetic pollution

Genetically engineered crops increase chemical use and add new risks of genetic pollution. Herbicide-resistant crops are designed for intensive use of herbicides in agriculture. But they also create the risks of weeds being transformed into “superweeds” by the transfer of herbicide-resistant traits from the genetically engineered crops to closely related plants.

Research in Denmark has shown that oilseed rape genetically engineered to be herbicide-tolerant could transmit its introduced gene to a weedy natural relative through hybridization. Weedy relatives of rape are now common in Denmark and throughout the world. Converting these “weeds” into “superweeds” that carry the gene for herbicide-resistance would provoke high crop losses and increasing use of herbicides. For these reasons, the European Union has imposed a de facto moratorium on the commercial planting of genetically engineered crops.

In many cases, the weeds that plague cultivated crops are relatives of the crops themselves. Wild beets have been a major problem in European sugar-beet cultivation since the 1970s. Given the gene exchange between weedy beets and cultivated beets, herbicide-resistant sugar beets could only be a temporary solution.

Superweeds could lead to “bioinvasions,” displacing local diversity and taking over entire ecosystems. The problem of invasive species is being increasingly recognized as a major threat to biodiversity.

Farmers suicides

In India, genetically engineered Bt-cotton is pushing farmers into debt and suicides. More than 250,000 farmers have committed suicide in the last decade. Since corporations like Monsanto started to introduce non-renewable seeds and establish seed monopolies. In the seed too, fertility has been robbed.  Non-renewable terminator seed is the aim of industry. Here too, genetic reductionism promotes the destruction of diversity and destruction of living renewable seed.

In March 1998, the USDA 3 and the Delta and Pine Land Company announced the joint development and patent on a new agricultural bio-technology benignly called “Control of Plant Gene Expression.”  The new patent permits its owners and licensees to create sterile seeds by selectively programming the plant’s DNA to kill its own embryos. The patent, which has been applied for in at least 78 countries, applies to plants and seeds of all species. The USDA, a government agency, receives a 5 percent profit from the sales of these seeds, which it considers a built-in “gene police.”

The result? If farmers save the seeds of these plants at harvest for future crops, the next generation of plants will not grow. Pea pods, tomatoes, peppers, heads of wheat, and ears of corn will essentially become seed morgues.  Thus the system will force farmers to buy new seeds from seed companies every year. This method has been dubbed “terminator technology,” threatening farmers’ independence and the food security of over 1 billion poor farmers in Third World countries. When Third World farmers sow seed, they pray, “May this seed be exhaustless.” Monsanto and the USDA, on the other hand, seem to be saying, “Let this seed be terminated so that our profits and monopoly will be exhaustless.”

Education for Earth Citizenship

“Over the past three decades I have tried to be change I want to see. “

When I found that dominant science and technology served the interests of powerful, I left academics to found the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, a participatory, public interest research organisation.  When I found global corporations wanted to patent seeds, crops or life forms, I started Navdanya to protect biodiversity, defend farmers’ rights and promote organic farming.  In partnership with the Schumacher College in the UK, Navdanya´s now offers a series of transformative courses to groups of all ages to cultivate contemplation, enquiry and dynamic action that aim to inspire participants for a lifetime.

Vandana Shiva

Founder and director of Navdanya International

Courses offered at Navdanya

  • Biodiverse Organic Farming: The Solution to the Food and Climate Crisis
  • Little Ecologist Program for Schools on Envisioning the Future
  • Grandmother’s University: Women’s Traditional Knowledge in Food & Health
  • International Conference on Gandhi, Globalisation and Climate Change
  • Water and Climate Change: Glaciers, Rivers and Dams in the Himalayas
  • International Conference on Himalayan Rivers and Climate Change
  • Web of Life
  • Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Agriculture
  • Women, Health and Environment
  • Earth Democracy: Alternatives to Corporate Globalisation
  • Course on Nano-technology with ETC, Canada
  • The Future of Food : Climate Change, GMO’s and Food Security
  • Gandhi and Globalisation

1 Nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous
2 Canola is one of two cultivars of rapeseed or used to produce edible oil and livestock feed
3 United Status Department of Agriculture