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.
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.
"war" is destroying soil, wasting water and other resources, polluting
the planet and devaluing and destroying human life and work. And for no
"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.
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
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
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.
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."