Emory Report
October 23, 2006
Volume 59, Number 8


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October 23, 2006
Shiva’s food for thought: Eat local, think global

BY kim urquhart

If the old adage “you are what you eat” is true, then some of what Vandana Shiva had to say on “Creating Food Democracy” may have left audience members with a chemical taste in their mouths.

Shiva, a noted physicist, author and internationally renowned justice advocate, links food production with social, ethical and political issues, and calls for dramatic changes in current farming practices.

“Eating is the ultimate ethical act, it is the ultimate political act,” Shiva said, as is an act that ultimately may decide the fate of human health—and the planet.

Shiva made her remarks during a visit to Emory Tuesday, Oct. 17 as the Center for Ethics’ fall keynote speaker. Trained as a scientist, Shiva left academics to start the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, and other iniatives formed to protect biodiversity, defend farmers’ rights and promote organic farming.

Shiva’s comments focused mainly of her homeland of India, where about 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas linked to farming. As background, she spoke of the Great Bengal Famine in 1940s that killed 2 million people, and of the courage of a group of Bengali women who faced the police with only brooms as their defense, and said “we will give our lives but we will not give our rice” to the British Empire.

“The most important outcome” of this period of famine, Shiva said, “was the recognition that those who till the land must be the ones who make the decisions about the land, must be the ones who benefit from the produce of the land.”

She spoke of India’s subsequent history, including the rise of the “Green Revolution” in the 1960s and 70s—an agricultural transformation that led to increased production marked by continued expansion of farming areas, double-cropping existing farmland and using seeds with improved genetics.

In Shiva’s opinion, however, the Green Revolution “was really about deploying weapons of mass destruction into producing our food system. When the markets ran out for selling biological or chemical weapons, for making explosives from nitrogen, the market grew for nitrogen fertilizers called pesticides.” To adapt rice and wheat to chemicals, dwarf varieties were created to circumvent problems with native seeds becoming “too big, too fast” in response to these fertilizers, and started the dependency on external agents, she said.

While the Green Revolution convinced many that “a technological miracle had taken place,” Shiva said that the same increase in rice and wheat – which she attributes to increased land and irrigation for rice and wheat – could have occurred without chemicals.

“The idea that you have to introduce more chemicals and miracle seeds in order to make productivity grow, in order to make rural incomes grow, is just not true, it is a blatant lie,” she said, citing her organization’s reports that show that farms with ecological input and biodiversity can double and triple production of food and draw incomes from any type of crop.

India is now experiencing a second Green Revolution, in the form of globalization and genetic engineering. “I prefer to call it the anti-green anti-revolution,” Shiva said.

Expensive seeds and chemicals have become “a system of debt creation” for farmers, Shiva said. Seeds, she said, are now considered “patented property of corporations.”

“Saving seeds has to be our duty,” she said, and said they should be viewed as “a gift from the past and a gift for the future.”

Shiva warned that global food systems don’t simply affect small farmers in India. They have high costs for the planet as well – their dependence on fossil fuels and long-distance transport is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, she said.

She called for the creation of a sustainable and just agriculture, starting with local initiatives “to overcome this huge illusion that we have to destroy other species and their habitats in order to feed ourselves.”

This food surplus is an illusion. It is really a food scarcity, she said, where “exports are subsidized, making long-distance imports become cheap whereas local supply becomes costly.”

The hungry people of today, she pointed out, are not the urban poor but the producers of food. “Today, the hungry people are growers of rice, who have used chemicals to grow rice, who’ve taken debt, who sell the rice to pay back the credit, and starve themselves.”

Organic agriculture is the answer to rural poverty and hunger, Shiva said. “The biodiverse diet is the place where the health crisis will be solved”—not with genetically modified crops.

Shiva estimated that 50 percent of humanity will always be involved in the production or distribution of food.
“We can either put 90 percent of that 50 percent into destructive work, and have 10 percent working as farmers, or we could 100 percent of that 50 percent into the creative work of creating an ethical, sustainable food system,” she said. “I do hope Emory will move to that 50 percent model. And in that 50 percent model will be created a watershed – a foodshed – around this campus where life flourishes and another model of food and farming emerges.”

Two roundtable events the day after Shiva’s lecture gave faculty, staff and students the opportunity to discuss some of the sustainability initiatives already under way or planned for the future at Emory.