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'Food Hero' says to Value Soil, Not Oil
Factory farms extending reach of global hunger crisis, she says.
GOSHEN - Vandana Shiva was on the fast track for a career as a nuclear physicist in the 1970s, working in an atomic research center in Bombay in her native India.
But when her sister, a medical doctor, pointed out Shiva's lack of understanding of nuclear hazards, she planted a seed in Shiva's mind. That seed took root and eventually caused Shiva to abandon her nuclear ambitions and dedicate her life to what she calls "sciences that defend life."
In particular, she focuses on food security and sustainable farming to protect and promote the most elemental form of life: the seed.
In a speech titled after her latest book, "Soil Not Oil" (South End Press, 2008), Shiva, whom Time magazine calls an environmental hero, told a full house at the Goshen College Church-Chapel during a recent talk that the world should be focused on food security instead of devoting limitless resources to oil and unsustainable energy production that threaten to devastate the planet and its people if left unchecked. She explained parallels she sees between her past career and her present work.
"Feeding ourselves has become like warfare," she said, citing 1 billion people worldwide going hungry, recent riots in more than 30 countries because of increasing food prices and violent conflicts erupting when industrial farming companies displace traditional farmers in emerging countries like India. Additionally, Shiva mentioned literal wars fought today over oil and water, such as the conflict in Darfur that began with the effects of a drought.
Even the elements of war and food have become the same, she pointed out, with leftover chemicals from weapons - nitrogen, Agent Orange and DDT - being used to fertilize and treat crops. "Agriculture begins to look more and more like war against the earth," she said.
This "war" is destroying soil, wasting water and other resources, polluting the planet and devaluing and destroying human life and work. And for no more food.
"We've been sold a major myth on the grounds that the application of chemicals will improve yield. It's not true," she said. "It will kill soil."
Shiva pointed out industrial farming uses 10 times as much water as ecological farming. And industrial agriculture is inherently wasteful because it takes 10 kilocalories of energy to produce 1 kilocalorie of food, she explained. Industrial farming of animals is even less efficient and requires 100 kilocalories of energy to produce 1 kilocalorie of protein.
"If you're living on a planet of shrinking resources, it doesn't make sense," she said. Especially when this wasteful, polluted farming has replaced the perfect cycle of traditional farming that created no emissions, waste or conflict, she said.
Calling out industrial farming corporations, Shiva explained these companies are destroying biodiversity that is critical for sustainable farming. Instead, they focus on crops Shiva called "non-foods" and "commodities" such as corn and soybeans that are slipped into many food products. These commodities are not nourishing, she said.
"You can have more commodities, but less food," she explained, pointing out that 50 percent of what's grown is for animal feed or fuel for cars. Further, half of the 1 billion hungry people in the world are food producers.
Industrial agriculture companies' practice of modifying and patenting seeds goes against nature, she said. It stifles innovation because researchers won't share knowledge until it's patented; and a genetically modified seed is "not a true invention." Especially when a seed has been developed to terminate the embryo, the life inside itself, instead of propagating the way nature intended. A seed rendering itself sterile is a "war against creation," Shiva said. "If these seeds escape, you'll be terminating life."
One of the most devastating points of Shiva's talk was her explanation of a trend that started in India after farmers started engaging in industrial farming practices. Because those practices create debt, many farmers eventually lost their land and their livelihoods. This powerlessness led to 200,000 suicides by small farmers in one cotton-growing area of India, she said.
Her solutions? Through her organization Navdanya, Shiva has created a network of seed banks (www.navdanya.org/earth-democracy/seed-sovereignty) and organic producers (www.navdanya.org/organic-movement/organic-production) in India. Navdanya has trained more than 500,000 farmers in seed sovereignty, food sovereignty (www.navdanya.org/earth-democracy/food-sovereignty) and organic farming in the past two decades, according to her Web site.
Navdanya's seed-saving program has proved crucial with the upswing in violent weather conditions such as cyclones and tsunamis due to climate change. These storms moved salt water farther inland, which affected the soil of farms that had previously never dealt with this problem. Fortunately, Navdanya was able to distribute seeds that were resistant to saltwater to help farmers get back on their feet more quickly.
Another small but important solution in promoting soil over oil is appreciating food. "Celebrate food," she said. "Bring back the spirituality of food; recognize the sacredness of food."
Those concerned with food security solutions need to ask themselves, "Earth, how do I serve you?" she said.
And don't underestimate individual or small efforts, Shiva said. "The beauty of seeds is it multiplies. From one, you can make millions. All you need is patience."