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Q&A: Dr. Vandana Shiva, social activist, on the importance of saving seeds

Q&A: Dr. Vandana Shiva, social activist, on the importance of saving seeds

Posting in Environment

Biosafety regulations barely exist in the United States, but this might not be for long. Will seed politics ignite change?

With a PhD in the foundations of quantum theory, Dr. Vandana Shiva has led an unusual life for a physicist in the 21st century.

Thirty years ago, Dr. Shiva dedicated her life “to the seed.” She founded Navdanya, the movement for seed saving in India. And the movement has since gone global. Seed saving has gained agricultural and political importance as the international farming industry has shifted from annually harvesting seeds to purchasing irreproducible patented seeds from commercial suppliers.

Shiva spoke with SmartPlanet from Florence, where The European Commission has just approved a law that would make seed saving by farmers illegal.

In the United States, Monsanto has had the monopoly on patented seeds for some time, which was verified once again by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling against Vernon Hugh Bowman, a farmer who attempted to reproduce a patented genetically modified soybean.

We spoke to Dr. Shiva about her newest campaign, Seed Freedom, and what role the United States might play in protecting global biodiversity.

Tell me about the Seed Freedom Campaign.

It’s a global campaign fighting against patent threats, against new laws that are constantly being put into place to close the space for freedom of the seed as well as the freedom for farmers to save seeds.

Thirty years ago, what was it about the seed that led you to where you are now? Why have you dedicated your life to the seed?

It was in 1984 in India that I started to look at what was going on with agriculture. I already had an activist background related to protection of diversity -- but in the context of the forest. I was involved with the Chipko movement, the initial hug-the-tree movement where women came out and said, “We’re going to hug the trees. We won’t let you cut them.” We were having tremendous floods and the forests regulated the water. After ten years of nonstop direct action, from about 1970 to 1981, the government had to recognize what the women were saying about the ecological services of forests.

Now in 1984, the combination of the Bhopal disaster [a chemical leak from an insecticide plant then called "the worst industrial accident in history"] and the Golden Temple Massacre in Punjab [in which Indian troops stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the Sikhs' holiest religious shrine, leading to assaults on the Sikh community within India] forced me to sit up as a scientist. When the pesticide plant leaked in Bhopal, 3,000 people died immediately, 20,000 people have died since, and hundreds of thousands are crippled. I call the Golden Temple Massacre six times 9/11, but nobody even remembers that there was extremism in Punjab at that time. So I needed to understand the phenomena of violence, specifically in my field of agriculture.

I was consulting with the United Nations University at the time and I published a book called The Violence of the Green Revolution. This research revealed two important things: the non-sustainability of chemical industrial agriculture and the unproductivity of chemical monocultures.

I could see with my own eyes that these monocultures were producing very little compared to the rich farms in areas where there was still mixed farming and agroforestry. So I started to do calculations on productivity.

Because of this work I was invited to a meeting in 1987 in the United Nations with scientists and biotechnology industry representatives –- all players in the agrichemical industry.

It was an intimate meeting and the attendees spoke plainly. They said, “We need genetic engineering to grow our patents on seeds.” They said they needed immediate international law on intellectual property in order to impose patents on seeds worldwide. This is what became the trade-related intellectual property rights agreement, later becoming the agreement at the WTO.

I asked all kinds of questions about the safety of GMOs and they said, “We can’t stop to look because if we stop to look we lose our market share.”

I immediately committed myself to saving seeds. That’s how the organization Navdanya got started.

Do you think the attendees of this meeting had altruistic beliefs?

The pretense of altruism –- the public relations spin about saving the world with food and nutrition -- all came much later. At that time is was extremely clear: the next stage of our growth can only come through control of the seed and collecting rent from marrying seeds to our chemicals -- like herbicide-resistant crops and Roundup-ready crops [crops which have been genetically modified to tolerate Roundup, a strong weedkiller]. So their intention was control, and through that control, profit. Of course, in the intervening years the public relations machinery has clouded these intentions. In the beginning they were very honest about it.

Now the European Commission has just approved a law that would make seed saving by farmers illegal in Europe. This is coming from another perspective: health. The reform is from the European Union’s plant and animal health legislation in a bid to enhance food safety. How has the discussion entered this territory?

Well it’s really interesting. Europe has very strong biosafety regulations, unlike the United States. Because [the agrichemical industry] can’t directly sell patented GMO seeds and collect royalties, they are accessing another way saying, “Okay, let’s assault the independent seed supply.” Varieties that are vital to organic agriculture.

They are using the language of health at this point partly because the director of the commission who has proposed this law is the [director] related to consumer issues and public health. Both the directors of agriculture and environment said no to this legislation. So health is becoming a pretense.

It’s a very fascinating time. [We at] Seed Freedom Alliance [have] just announced that we’re going to start a major non-cooperation movement against the European legislation. We’re going to do this through saving seeds and cultivating gardens of resistance and hope.

In 2004 a similar law was attempted in India. We did a Gandhian-style noncooperation movement and the government was forced to withdraw the Seed Act of 2004.

Is the Gandhian style of action planting gardens?

Yes it is. Based on two aspects of Ghandian nonviolence. First, to make a commitment to do the positive constructive action –- like planting a garden. Saving seeds is a constructive action. It is also building resistance to unjust law, which Ghandi called satyagraha -- the fight for truth.

This was exactly the kind of thinking that was behind the civil rights movement in the United States. If Rosa Parks hadn’t refused to cooperate with racial laws, we wouldn’t have had the trigger we had.

For us it is the fight for the truth of the seed: seed reproduces, seed multiples, seed is shared. That’s the truth of the seed.

In legislative terms, is it too late for the United States? We know that farmers who buy Monsanto’s patented seeds sign a contract not to save seeds, which means they have to buy new seeds every year. On May 13th, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously [in Monsanto vs. Bowman] that farmers could not use Monsanto’s patented genetically altered soybeans and create new seeds without paying the company a fee. On legislative terms, is it too late for the United States? What’s happening in Europe has already happened here.

The United States is of course the most advanced in creating laws for corporate monopoly on seed and denying laws that would protect farmers’ rights to save seeds. Monsanto vs. Bowman was an example of this. But citizens rights to know what they are eating is also denied.

No one panicked when we were asked to put labels on nutrition facts. Suddenly there’s panic by the industry that claims safety of the GMOs [genetically modified organisms] –- they are panicking because their research tells them that they could have huge issues of liability if the labels are there.

Now I don’t believe at any point, in any society, anything is so far gone that you can’t create freedom. So, yes, the United States is very advanced in total corporate control over the seed sector –- Monsanto being the big giant that controls the seed as well as the issues of biosafety. But the movements we started two decades ago are now growing.

The seed savers of the United States are very vibrant and I believe they are going to be a big player. The Bowman case should be a wake-up call. Monsanto patents a gene, and then they claim they invented the soya bean –- forget China, forget Japan, from where it evolved. Now they claim that even ten generations down, no one can pick up a grain of soya and plant it in their field. This is the ultimate colonization of life.

The United States is fundamentally a democratic country. I cannot imagine how Americans will keep going down the road of the denial of seed and the denial of healthy food.

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Sonya James

Contributing Writer

Sonya James is a multimedia producer based in New York. With creativity and innovation in mind, she speaks to diverse voices on topics from racism in the art world to the patriotic nature of southern food. She holds a Masters Degree in Community Development. Disclosure