[Image: Vandana Shiva]
Above: Vandana Shiva, philosopher, scientist, environmental activist, and eco-feminist. Photo by Elena Tubaro

Vandana Shiva: ‘Staying alive’

by Bhavani Prakash for Making It Magazine

In this interview by Bhavani Prakash, Vandana Shiva discusses her work in seed collection and returning to traditional, organic farming to reverse the detrimental effects of genetic engineering on farming and farmers, in India and worldwide. Vandana Shiva will expand on this during her keynote speech, "The Green Revolution and Genetic Engineering: A Design for Hunger and Ecological Disruption" at the 2011 IDA Congress. A moderated panel including Anthony Dunne (United Kingdom), Cory Kidd (United States/Hong Kong) and Susan Szenasy (United States) will respond to her address, exploring the edges between design and biotechnology from their respective disciplines.


Navdanya is a movement that I started in 1987, and here at the Navdanya farm (Uttaranchal, north India), the first thing that we do is to save seeds. We have saved more than 1,500 varieties. It is also a place where farmers come to get seeds. In addition, it is an organic farm, and I am happy because when we started it was a eucalyptus ‘desert’, and because we have practiced organic farming now the soils are alive, the pollinators have come back, and the butterflies are busy. It has become a biodiversity sanctuary. The third thing that we do is knowledge generation, both in terms of training and research. Our research shows that ecological, biodiverse systems can produce two to five times more food per acre than the industrial monocultures. The lie of industrial farming and the lie of genetic engineering have been put to rest by the practices of this farm. From the seed we learn renewal, generosity, multiplicity and diversity.

“We have to save seeds”

There is a global emergency because seeds have been appropriated and colonized. Corporations have declared that seeds are their intellectual property, and the only way that they can get the intellectual property is by modifying and mutilating by genetic engineering. So we have a double hazard – the hazard of genetic engineering and the hazard of seed patenting.

We have seen what this combination does in the area of cotton. India is the land of cotton. We used to grow 1,500 varieties. This is the land where Gandhi spun freedom through cotton…. The seed is today’s spinning wheel, but today the seed is under threat, because all the cotton we can spin now is genetically engineered Bt cotton, under the control of one company, Monsanto. That’s why, if we don’t save seeds, all the diversity will be gone forever, and with it the memory that is in the seed – the ecological memory and the cultural memory. And with it will go the livelihood of farmers. The takeover of Bt cotton has pushed farmers into such deep debt that they are now committing suicide. We have had 250,000 suicides in the last decade in India. We can’t see that happen with the growers of corn, of tomatoes, of onions, of rice. We have only had experience with one crop – cotton – and we have seen what it does. It devastates Nature. It devastates farmers. It devastates agriculture. We have to defend life. That’s why we have to save seeds. We have to defend our freedom. That’s why we have to save seeds.

Working with Nature

Ecological farming, organic farming is working with Nature and that means that first of all you protect Nature. You are not at war with Nature because industrial agriculture has come out of war and it perpetuates a war against Nature and the Earth.

Secondly, it is farmer-friendly. An agriculture based on war sells war-chemicals to farmers, and sells genetically modified, patented seeds to farmers. Those farmers get into debt and either they leave the land and become refugees or migrants, or they end their lives. An agriculture that is ecological works with internal inputs that the farm provides, that the Earth provides. The soil fertility comes from the crops that the Earth provides, and the pest control comes from the diversity that the Earth gave. You don’t need to buy anything in the market. The Earth is generously saying, “Take everything from me”.

Thirdly, it is beneficial for the person eating because when you produce food in Nature’s way, you produce healthy food, delicious food, diverse food, nutritious food….

Genetic engineering

Let’s look at the science of genetically modified crops. Genetic engineering only relocates a single gene with a single property. The only genes that have a single property are toxic genes for producing toxins. Everything else that has a positive property – yield, resilience to drought and to floods – or that relates to issues of colour, flavour, and taste – they are multiple genes. You can’t relocate multiple genes through genetic engineering. It is a highly crude tool. It is like with a gun, all you can do is shoot. With a ‘gene gun’, all you can do is shoot one gene with one trait. Life is too complex. You cannot shoot life’s complex, self-organizing capacity. You can love it, maintain it, be aware of it, but you cannot shoot it. It is a primitive and crude technology.

The promise that genetic engineering would produce more food – which was a lie technically from the beginning – has now been exposed. In India, they said that the cotton that had been genetically engineered would provide 1,500kg per acre. But the company, after lying to farmers, pushing them to suicide, had to admit that it is only 500kg per acre. Our varieties exceed this! We have just distributed traditional cotton varieties to farmers in the ‘suicide belt’, and they have a higher performance. They don’t grow in a monoculture.

The only two applications that have been spread in the world – because of the crudeness of the technology – are for herbicide-resilient crops and Bt toxin crops. One has a toxic gene for tolerating high doses of the company’s own herbicides, and the other has a toxic gene to produce a pesticide inside the plant. One was supposed to control weeds, the other to control pests. One has given us ‘super-weeds’ – so serious is the damage that millions of acres in the United States are now devastated, and Monsanto is bribing farmers to go and buy more lethal herbicides to spray on the super-resistant ‘Roundup weeds’. As for the other, the Bt toxin, in India, the bollworm is resistant, and Monsanto is now selling Bollguard II. New pests have emerged everywhere, and farmers are spending more on pesticides.

Genetically modified crops, which were brought in as an alternative to chemicals, have increased the use of chemicals, which is ‘wonderful’ for the industry because the bio-tech industry is the agro-chemical industry. People need to recognize this to know that it is not an alternative. The alternative is ecological farming.

Feeding the cities

The first thing to say about these projections about the growth in the world’s urban population is that they are very patriarchal. They come out a hugely manipulative, controlling, patriarchal mind. They come out of the World Bank saying, “Let’s push the farmers out of the countryside”, saying that there are “too many farmers”. There are never too many farmers! A two acre farmer is not taking anything away from anybody. The person grabbing the land is the problem. The ecological footprint is the footprint of industry, of globalization.

We actually need more people on the land, and I am working for a vision where we won’t have 70% of the world’s population living in cities. But, whatever the numbers, every city should have its own ‘foodshed’. Food should become part of town planning. Not only should cities, according to their size, have surrounding areas that provide food according to the culture, according to the climate, according to seasonality, so that every city is supplied by localized food systems, but also, inside every city, there must be urban gardens.


Re-published with permission from Making It Magazine, Issue 6, 2nd quarter 2011

About Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva is a philosopher, scientist, environmental activist, and eco-feminist. She is the founder of Navdanya, an Indian-based non-governmental organization which promotes biodiversity conservation, organic farming, the rights of farmers, and the process of seed saving. In 1993, she was awarded the Global 500 Roll of Honour by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) for outstanding environmental work. She is the author of many books, the most recent of which, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development, was published in 2010.

About Making It Magazine

Making It: Industry for Development is a quarterly magazine aiming to stimulate debate about global industrial development issues. It is published by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). Each issue of Making It focuses on a specific theme, around which the magazine draws together articles, news, and research of interest that reflect as broad a spectrum of views as possible.



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