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Environmentalist Vandana Shiva Explains Where The Food We Eat Really Comes From

Photo: Via @vandanashiva1.
Dr Vandana Shiva is an Indian scientist, environmental activist and world leading expert on food sustainability. At the age of 63, she has spent four decades studying where our food comes from, who is reaping the benefits of various farming methods, and what certain "developments" in agriculture are doing to the environment. In her new book, Who Really Feeds The World?, Shiva lays the problems with our current food system before us, and it's not looking good.

She starts off by explaining that 70% of the world's food comes from small, independent farms, while the other 30% comes from big, industrialised farms, the kind that will employ chemical fertilisers and use genetic engineering. The problem here is that the energy consumption of that 30% creates a whopping 40% of the world's greenhouse gasses, contributing significantly to climate change.

Now, by Vandana Shiva's own admission, farming and agriculture are hardly sexy topics – they don't make headlines and they're not on a lot of people's agendas. Especially when you live in a city or country where agriculture doesn't play a big part in the economy, or when you can afford a diet of convenience, buying everything you eat from the supermarket. And then there's the fact that it's hard to get people to engage with climate change, because it feels like a remote fear that we can dismiss as having no impact within our own lifetimes.

However, if we continue to source food in unsustainable ways, the negative effects will have more short term impacts, says Shiva. As mechanised farming wins out over farming by hand, more small farmers will be displaced, lose their homes and jobs, and become economically unstable. As processed or modified foods become cheaper and more prolific than organic foods, our diets will lead to more obesity, cancer and heart disease. And as food generally becomes more of a competitive commodity, hunger will spread among the poor.
And so, bleak as it may seem, we are at a sort of tipping point, whereby we must decide whether we are going to take more responsibility for our food choices, our farming methods, and our collective eco-footprint. Granted, a lot of this responsibility falls on the heads of big corporations and governments. But what can we as individuals do? To find out, I picked up the phone to speak to Vandana Shiva in India.

Hello Dr Shiva. Firstly, was there anything while you were growing up that made you want to study the environment?
Well my father served in the British army but when he married my mother she convinced him to leave and he became a forest conservator. My mother was an inspector of schools in what became Pakistan, and wrote a book on feminism under Gandhi. If my father hadn’t have brought her across the border, I may never have been born. They were both hugely ecological, plus I grew up in the Himalayas, trekking with my dad, so even though I chose to be a physicist and went to university to train in atomic energy, this ecological tract was always in me.
If you trained to be a physicist how did you get into environmental activism?
I became involved even as a student in the first big environmental movement of India. It was called the Chipko movement, against logging in the Himalayas, which was eventually banned. Later, I was working for the Ministry of Environment in India and they asked me to do a study in my home valley on the impact of mining , so I came back and did the study and we stopped the mining. I said, “Well if one study can do so much, then I should dedicate my life to research!” And so I started the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology. Every vocation of mine since the '70s has been shaped by the environment; as a scientist I didn't want to work on the patriarchal paradigm of knowledge for power and domination, but the service of the earth and humanity.
You’ve written over 20 books on the environment and agriculture. Why did you decide to write this book, which is a sort of overview of food sustainability today?
It made good sense to take stock today because it was about 20 years ago that genetic engineering was promised to be the next miracle in agriculture after the Green Revolution. But 20 years have shown us it's not really working. Genetic engineering has given us super weeds, super pests and more than that, so much democratic structure and real science has to be destroyed to keep pushing GMOs. Labs have been shut simply because their research has shown that there were health impacts from genetic engineering! I’m passionate about nature, justice and the search for truth – which is what science should be about. The book is intended to speak the truth about the last 20 years of industrialisation and GMOs, from my experience on the ground and from speaking to farmers.

The book essentially warns of the dangers of industrialised farming – what should we be most afraid of?
Corporations only want to gain from the industrial model, which involves chemical inputs, fossil fuels, and the patenting of seeds to sell to farmers. We’ve lost 300,000 farmers who’ve committed suicide after globalisation of cotton farming in India. It’s not right! One generation of agriculture should give rise to next generation, one generation of breeding should give rise to next generation; the industrial system is not developed from within the field of agriculture itself but developed from war. The chemicals it uses were used in concentration camps; the pesticides have origins in poison gasses and nerve gasses and that’s why they continue to do harm.

There’s a fantastic book called Molecular Vision of Life, which works on the archive of the Rockefeller Foundation and looks back at how engineering humanity to adapt to industrial system of farming was the most important aspect of biology. It started as eugenics and went on to be manipulation of plants. Most of the same chemical companies were making chemicals for war, but they’re also the ones that make pharmaceuticals. 75% of the diseases we have in society today are related to food – to toxins in food or nutritionally empty food – as more kids get cancer, obesity, depression, the more profits pharmaceutical companies make in selling their drugs. It's win, win, win... Which is why this machine can’t be stopped. The only countervailing force today is the people – and how we can make healthy choices and shrink our footprint in the way we gain food.
You have a chapter called "Women Feed The World"... which they do, since more women work in agriculture than men, statistically. But you also say we need to focus on a "female model" in agriculture. What does that mean?
The masculine model of agriculture is based on domination, militarisation and monoculture; for example the idea of patenting seeds to sell to farmers, or the idea of using chemicals that were extermination technologies used in the extermination caps of Nazis. I really don’t think that’s where our food and agriculture system should go. Which is why I work with women and I see leadership of women in agriculture of the future. Women are left to take care of so many responsibilities – they work the field, care for the seed, take care of babies; they have by nature the ability to think through diversity, what women bring to agriculture is the conservation of biodiversity. We can’t allow our bodies and the earth to be destroyed and devastated by a violent system, we need a peaceful system that nourishes our earth and nourishes our bodies.
A lot of our readers are based in the West – what can we do to improve our diets or support more sustainable types of farming?
I don’t think we can meet this challenge as dumb consumers – we have to be what I call active earth citizens, which in when you know you’re sharing the planet with other beings and that any chemical that’s killing bees shouldn’t be used in our food, and any chemical that’s giving cancer shouldn’t be in our food. The beautiful thing about the boycott of poisons is that it improves our wellbeing! But we have to spend that much more time cultivating the alternative.

I think we're in an exciting moment, the industry told us agriculture can only be done in the large farms of Midwestern America, but everyone’s realised food can be grown everywhere – even in cities. A brilliant French film called Tomorrow has amazing footage of England, town to town, growing food locally, streets becoming gardens. The success of this is just exploding. It’s a joy. Because it should be a pleasure to grow food. It’s not just a product, it’s about connecting back to the power it brings people. I feel it’s tragic that England is only growing grass... I don’t see grain in the fields of England, so we need communities of farmers and city dwellers to connect.

And finally, I do think we have to start becoming far more democratic. You just had a vote for Brexit... the real vote we need is a vote to exit the poison system, which would mean your taxes, your leadership and your policies should favour the growing of healthy food.

Who Really Feeds The World? is available here.