In the Footsteps of Gandhi

Let the seed be exhaustless, let it never get exhausted, let it bring forth seed next year. ~ Indian peasant prayer

ant and wild lettuce

An ant carrying a wild lettuce seed, a source of food for them that Monsanto seeks to destroy through use of its herbicides.

While Mahatma Gandhi is best remembered for his campaign to end British colonialism a half-century ago, the greater part of his life’s work was devoted to renewing India’s vitality and regenerating its culture from the ground up. He was a tireless champion of what he called swadeshi, or local self-sufficiency.

One of the most prominent of Gandhi’s intellectual heirs is Vandana Shiva, a physicist and philosopher of science by training who has developed a considerable reputation as a champion of sustainability, self-determination, women’s rights, and environmental justice. She has written more than a dozen books, including Monocultures of the Mind, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development, and Biopiracy. She is also well-known in India for her grassroots efforts to preserve forests, organize women’s networks, and protect local biodiversity.

Vandana Shiva is the director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy in Dehra Dun. She is the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, including the 1998 Alfonso Comin award and the 1993 Right Livelihood Award, also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize. David Brower, the late environmentalist, once said that Shiva would be his choice for world president, if there were such a thing.

Interview with Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva

The Gift of Food

In the words of the sacred texts of India, “The giver of food is the giver of life,” and indeed of everything else, says Vandana Shiva.

One of my favourite images in India is the kolam, a design which a woman makes in front of her house. In the days of Pongal, which is the rice harvest festival in South India, I have seen women get up before dawn to make the most beautiful art work outside their houses, and it is always made with rice. The real reason is to feed the ants, but it is also a beautiful art form that has gone on from mother to daughter, and at festival time everyone tries to make the best kolam as their offering. Thus, feeding the ants and works of art are integrated.

The indica rice variety’s homeland is a tribal area called Chattisgarh in India. It must be about fifteen years ago that I first went there. The people there weave beautiful designs of paddy, which they then hang outside their houses. I thought that this must be related to a particular festival, and I asked, “What festival is it for?” They said, “No, no, this is for the season when the birds cannot get rice grain in the fields.” They were putting rice out for other species, in very beautiful offerings of art work.

Each time I see a supermarket, I see how every community and ecosystem’s capacity to meet its food needs is being undermined, so that a few people in the world can experience food ‘surpluses’.

But these are pseudo-surpluses leading to 820 million malnourished people, while many others eat too much and get ill or obese.

We are now working on technologies, based on genetic engineering, which accelerate this violence towards other beings. On my recent trip to Punjab, it suddenly hit me that they no longer have pollinators. Those technologically obsessed people are manipulating crops to put genes from the Bt toxin (the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis) into plants, so that the plant releases toxins at every moment and in every cell: in its leaves, its roots, its pollen. These toxins are being eaten by ladybirds and butterflies which then die.

We do not see the web of life that we are rupturing. We can only see the interconnections if we are sensitive to them. And when we are aware of them we immediately recognise what we owe to other beings: to the pollinators, to the farmers who have produced the food, and to the people who have nourished us when we could not nourish ourselves.

Grain giant Cargill controls seventy per cent of the food traded in the world; and they fix the prices. They sell the inputs, they tell the farmer what to grow, they buy cheaply from the farmer, then they sell it at high cost to consumers. In the process they poison every bit of the food chain. Instead of giving, they are thinking of how they can take out that last bit, from ecosystems, other species, the poor, the Third World.

“Our seeds are smart; we have found new technologies that prevent the bees from usurping the pollen.”

Instead, Cargill says that the bees usurp the pollen – because Cargill have defined every piece of pollen as their property. And in a similar way, Monsanto said: “Through the use of Roundup we are preventing weeds from stealing the sunshine.” The entire planet is energised by the life-giving force of the sun, and now Monsanto has basically said that it is Monsanto and the farmers in contract with Monsanto that, alone on the planet, have the right to sunshine – the rest of it is theft.

So what we are getting is a world which is absolutely the opposite to the ‘giving of food’. Instead, it is the taking of food from the food chain and the web of life. Instead of gift we have profit and greed as the highest organising principle.

Resurgence

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