Bill Moyers talks to scientist and philosopher Vandana Shiva, who’s become a rock star in the global battle over genetically modified seeds.
Bill talks to scientist and philosopher Vandana Shiva, who’s become a rock star in the global battle over genetically modified seeds. These seeds — considered “intellectual property” by the big companies who own the patents — are globally marketed to monopolize food production and profits. Opponents challenge the safety of genetically modified seeds, claiming they also harm the environment, are more costly, and leave local farmers deep in debt as well as dependent on suppliers. Shiva, who founded a movement in India to promote native seeds, links genetic tinkering to problems in our ecology, economy, and humanity, and sees this as the latest battleground in the war on Planet Earth. Footage from Bitter Seeds courtesy of Teddy Bear Films.
BILL MOYERS: We turn now from one champion of the public interest to another. From Sheila Bair fighting for greater oversight of the big banks to a global advocate for social justice named Vandana Shiva.
VANDANA SHIVA: We need a new paradigm for living on the earth because the old one is clearly not working.
BILL MOYERS: The last time we spoke with her, she was battling Coca-Cola and other multinational giants over the privatization of water in her native India—including the waters of the sacred river Ganges. Since then, Vandana Shiva has become a rock star in the worldwide battle over genetically modified seeds. Those are seeds aggressively marketed around the world by big companies like Monsanto to not only increase, but also to monopolize food production and profits. Opponents challenge their safety, claim they harm the environment, are more costly, and leave local farmers deep in debt and dependent on suppliers.
Following Europe’s example, many American consumers are demanding that food products made from genetically modified seeds be labeled. Monsanto, the world’s largest supplier, claims intellectual property rights over its seeds and usually wins when it takes farmers to court for patent infringement. But in India, Monsanto claimed its seeds would produce bountiful crops and when the results fell short, many bankrupted farmers reportedly killed themselves.
Vandana Shiva, founded India’s Navdanya movement to promote the use of native seeds, and she has become a formidable figure in all these battles. Trained in physics, she’s an activist and prolific author whose books include “Earth Democracy,” “Soil Not Oil,” “Water Wars,” and her latest, “Making Peace With The Earth.” I talked with her again recently, when she came to New York to be honored by Union Theological Seminary.
VANDANA SHIVA: Wonderful to be back with you.
BILL MOYERS: It’s an uphill battle you’re waging. How do you keep doing it? What drives you really?
VANDANA SHIVA: You know, we have this very beautiful text in India. We have the Gita.
BILL MOYERS: Bhagavad Gita?
VANDANA SHIVA: The Bhagavad Gita. And there’s a very simple lesson that Krishna gives. That you do not measure the fruit of your action. You have to measure your obligation of action. You have to find out what’s the right thing to do. That is your duty. Whether you win or lose is not the issue. The obligation to do the right thing, for me, you know, I’ve grown up as an ecologist in a major level, from my very childhood.
And for me, the diversity of species, their intrinsic value, their integrity is vital. The rights of our farmers to be able to have seed, the most fundamental source of livelihood in a poor country. Eighty percent of the food of the world is even, today, produced by those small farmers of the kind that we have in India. Our small farmers are feeding 1.2 billion Indians. We forget the scale of what smallness means multiplied many times. Because we’ve got used to the dinosaur mentality. We only see the big. We forget that dinosaurs go extinct.
BILL MOYERS: You have obviously seen things differently. Because you studied nuclear physics, right?
VANDANA SHIVA: I studied nuclear physics. But I also studied quantum theory. My thesis was on non-separability and non-locality in quantum theory.
BILL MOYERS: Which means?
VANDANA SHIVA: Which basically means everything is connected. Because the industrial revolution and the scientific revolution gave us a very mechanistic idea of the universe. First, we were told “Nature is dead. There’s no living Earth. How can you even imagine the Earth lives? How can other species– they’re just inferior creatures of God. And you’ve got to have man’s empire over God, over the Earth.”
The idea that everything is this hard matter, unrelated to each other is still guiding a lot of science. And genetic engineering is based on that hard matter, genes in isolation, you know? Genes determine everything. There’s a master molecule that gives orders. Old patriarchal stuff. The real science–
BILL MOYERS: Patriarchal?
VANDANA SHIVA: The real science is the science of interconnection. Whether it’s going to–
BILL MOYERS: Of what?
VANDANA SHIVA: Of interconnectedness, of non-separation. That everything is related.
Farming, for example, you must see the soil, the plants, the pollinators, the food that’s produced, all of it in the whole.
BILL MOYERS: Let’s take that to the system of economics. Because some people have said that globalization, the movement of ideas, of people, of money, across arbitrary boundaries, as if they didn’t exist, also reflects the interconnectedness of everything. That globalization is an economic equivalent of what happens in the world of nature in that everything is connected. And you can’t stop it Vandana Shiva. This is the way the world rocks.
VANDANA SHIVA: First of all, this is not interconnectedness of the ecological level. It’s an extremely artificial, corporate rule on a planetary scale. Some corporations get to control the world. And then all that’s flowing around is commodities. Commodities that don’t have to be moving. It’s still the old, hard, billiard ball model. You know?
You load the ships from China for cheap consumer products in Wal-Mart here. That is not a world of interconnectedness. The world of interconnectedness would recognize that the rivers of China need to flow, clean and free. It would recognize that the people of China need to exercise in work, in freedom, not as slave labor in factories to produce cheap goods.
This corporate globalization, based on more, higher, a deeper reach of corporations in fields where they had no role, food, water, the air, all into commodities—you know, transforming the Earth into commodities. That flow is not a flow of interconnectedness. And in fact, it is leading to a disconnection. If you look at the violence being perpetuated.
The reason I’ve written my new book, “Making Peace with the Earth,” is because I’m watching every day. I get calls every day from remote areas. “Please come down. They’re shooting us. They’re trying to tear down our sacred mountain of Niamgri, which has– for aluminum. We have an iron ore in our mountains. They’re displacing us.” Every day there’s a land war. Every day there’s a water war. Because of the appetite of this global commodity-producing, consumption-based interconnection.
And I often say that what we have is an interconnectedness of the world through greed, which is not how nature works, which is not how humanity works. And an exclusion of people, a killing of their humanity. It is not an accident that with the rise of corporate globalization and economic globalization, we have seen the rise of religious conflict, ethnic conflicts, where people get divided, more and more and more.
So we’re seeing human divisions. You’re seeing a deeper division between human beings and the Earth. And all you see is a global reach. We are seeing a drop in our sense of a common humanity, and definitely a collapse in the planetary consciousness that we need to have. And for me, those are the two elements of making peace with the Earth. Reclaiming our common humanity and reclaiming our recognition that we are Earth’s citizens.
BILL MOYERS: The last time you were here, you were fighting Coca-Cola in India over the privatization of water. Now your bulls-eye is on Monsanto. Why is Monsanto so crucial to this fight overseas?
VANDANA SHIVA: Monsanto is crucial to this fight because they are the biggest seed company now. Monsanto is privatizing the seed. They control 95 percent of the cotton in India, 90 percent of the soy in this country. They’ve taken over most of the seed companies of the world.
BILL MOYERS: You say it’s all about seeds. And that it comes down to corporations wanting to patent seeds. How does that work? What do you mean it comes down to seeds?
VANDANA SHIVA: Well, it comes down to seeds for the simple reason everything begins a seed. The food on our plate. You and me were seed at one point. The little calf that becomes the cow. Seed is the source of life. And seed is the source of renewal of life. That is where life gets renewed in perpetuity.
BILL MOYERS: So what does it mean when a corporation patents the seed?
VANDANA SHIVA: The first thing it means is a lie. That “I have created it. I have created life.”
BILL MOYERS: “I, the corporation.”
VANDANA SHIVA: The corporations claim that– and, you know, we joke and say, a G.M.O., a genetically modified organization, which was the path to get patenting on seeds– I sat at meetings where the corporations said, “The reason we’ve got to do genetically modified organisms is because it’s the only way we can claim a patent. A patent is a claim to invention, a claim to creation. And it brings with it an exclusive right to exclude anyone else from using, having, distributing the patented product.”
BILL MOYERS: What’s the claim? Speak from their side. What are they claiming?
VANDANA SHIVA: Well, they’re claiming intellectual property. And they changed the language. They say the seed is no more a seed. It’s an intellectual property. They make the society shift its thinking of what is at stake. Seed is the first link in the food chain. And therefore, when you control seed, you control food.
BILL MOYERS: You say that corporations have hijacked our food system. How so?
VANDANA SHIVA: Well I come from a country where there were no corporations in the food system until 20 years ago. They weren’t allowed to be. Our rules said food was too precious. It was an important source of livelihood. So we had to protect our small farmers. Every law protected the small farmer, land rights, markets, prices, everything worked so a small farmer could have a living. Food processing stayed in what we call the cottage sector, the small scale sector. That’s why we didn’t have junk food and processed food. Globalization changes the rules. And agriculture agreement is written by a former official of Cargill to represent the U.S. public.
BILL MOYERS: Cargill–
VANDANA SHIVA: Is the world’s biggest grain trader. The second is the intellectual property treaty controlled and written by Monsanto. And then you have the so-called food safety agreement called The Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement. Every one of these are very highly complex names. Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights, Sanitary and Phytosanitary. All of them are basically saying, “Let there be a monopoly of a corporation to have– to write the rules so that only they can be players in the food system.”
And the final step is the retail, where food reaches our table, Wal-Mart wanting to have foreign direct investment in retail. A big issue in India’s parliament, a very big issue on the streets of India. So from the seed to the table, corporations are saying, “We want to be the only players.” Five in seed, five in grain trade, five in processing, and five in retail. That is a corporate hijack of our food and a corporate dictatorship over our food system.
BILL MOYERS: But here’s what you’re up against. Several activist organizations—some seed businesses, some farmers, organizations like yours—filed a suit here in New York, challenging Monsanto’s seed patents. And the U.S. district judge here in New York threw it out, saying it was “a transparent effort to create a controversy where none exists.”
VANDANA SHIVA: Yes, that case has been a sad ruling, a very sad ruling. In my view, it’s the same kind of status that says corporations have freedom of speech and therefore they can hijack our democracy. Let them spend as much money as they can to literally buy elections. But for every case of this kind, there are other cases being won.
We have won cases against Monsanto in India.
BILL MOYERS: But if something like this is as bad as you describe it. If it’s a monster roaming the countryside. How is it getting away with it?
VANDANA SHIVA: Well, it’s getting away for two reasons. First, freedom, democracy, and choice is taken away. It’s taken away from the farmer, by not allowing them to have their seed. It’s taken away from the consumer by not letting them have labeling to say what they’re eating. If there was labeling of G.M. foods, no one would eat it.
BILL MOYERS: Genetically modified–
VANDANA SHIVA: Genetically modified foods. The second deeper tragedy, which is why I link this always to democracy, is the fact that governments are being hijacked and governments are being influenced.
We stopped a whole agreement in Nepal by building a movement. Haitian farmers said, “We don’t want this stuff.” And they took it after the earthquake. The French have said, “We don’t want this stuff.” And the WikiLeaks show the ambassador saying, “We need retaliation.” This is a seed war. This is a war.
President Bush and our prime minister signed an agreement on agriculture, on the board of which sit Monsanto and Wal-Mart. And they then sit and dictate the policies. That means that much more work for us to reclaim our democracy and our freedom. So they’re getting away, because they’re using governments to shut down alternatives and push seed against the will of people.
And President Bush is on record in a film called “The World According to Monsanto,” senior President Bush, asking Monsanto, “What do you want us to do?”
MAN 1 in The World According to Monsanto: And I would say quite frankly, we have no complaints about the way the USDA has handled it. They’re going through an orderly process. They’re making sure as they deal with these new things they do them properly. No, uh, if we’re waiting until September and if we don’t have our authorization we may say something different.
VICE PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH SR. in The World According to Monsanto: Call me. We’re in the dereg business. Maybe we can help.
VANDANA SHIVA: In India, Monsanto, in effect, controls our agricultural ministry and our prime minister’s office. And so very, very often, we have to work very closely with our state governments, which are our regional governments, to defend our constitutional rights.
To say, “Why should we be force fed a genetically engineered B.T. eggplant, when we have the most delicious eggplants, 4,000 varieties?” It took a movement, 13 governments, 7 public hearings to put a moratorium. The advisors from here flew in to try and undo that moratorium.
BILL MOYERS: Monsanto advisors?
VANDANA SHIVA: U.S. Government advisors.
BILL MOYERS: On the side of Monsanto?
VANDANA SHIVA: On the side–the White House, the USDA–
BILL MOYERS: Department of Agriculture?
VANDANA SHIVA: And the Department of Agriculture and the FDA all have a revolving door with Monsanto. And this is all on record. So on the top, there’s Monsanto, hijacking all our governments. And through that, trying to hijack our food supply. And from the ground, farmers, consumers, regional governments saying, “We want a Monsanto-free food system. We want Monsanto-free, G.M.O.-free, patent-free seed.”
BILL MOYERS: Now Vandana, the other side of the argument is made by people like Bill Gates. Bill Gates says that genetically modified seeds are necessary to prevent starvation in poor countries because they enable farmers to double and triple their productivity.
VANDANA SHIVA: Unfortunately, he’s so totally wrong on this assumption that genetically modified seeds produce more. In India, Monsanto came in with a claim of 1,500 kilograms of cotton per acre with their genetically engineered cotton. The average yields are 400 kilograms. Our studies show that. The government studies confirm this.
When you grow just genetically modified cotton, you destroy all the associate crops that were feeding the poor families. So it actually leads to less food. When you spray roundup and kill the greens that are necessary for women to have iron, for children to have vitamin A, you’re creating hunger. You’re creating disease.
Super weeds taking over your fields are a recipe for hunger. Pests overtaking your fields are a recipe for hunger. But worse, seed, patents are a way of getting money out of poor people. This is not a solution to hunger and poverty. This is aggravating the crisis poor people already face.
BILL MOYERS: You know, many people will hear you as they have the others who come on this, at the table and describe what’s going wrong in the world. And they always– they often write me on the web or stop me on the street and say, I heard that diagnosis. But what can I do?
VANDANA SHIVA: I think first thing is each of us has to daily ask a question, “Where am I complicit in a war against the Earth? Where are my daily actions part of a devastation of the planet and with it, a devastation of the lives of people.” Because the two go hand in hand. A war against the Earth is a war against people. Peace with the Earth is peace among people.
Getting rid of the inequalities, the violence, the exclusions. And I realize that food is a place where we can all begin. Food is a place which is so loaded with dishonesty and is what keeps a false economy of food alive. The subsidies that go to industrial agriculture.
BILL MOYERS: Subsidies we taxpayers–
VANDANA SHIVA: Taxpayers pay. A high-cost system, which uses a lot of wealth of society, then uses our wealth to cheat on the prices and make costly food look cheap. So our choices are distorted. We go and eat the junk food that then creates the high cost of disease, the high cost of obesity, the high cost of diabetes at an early stage, the high cost of environmental devastation.
And so we need an honest system. And we can begin by creating that honesty and that peace by relating more directly to the food we eat, to the people who grow our food.
To me, the beauty is, every time I come back to this country, there are more farmer’s markets. There is more commitment to local food supply. Even in the city of New York, people are saying, “We’ll make local food. We’ll grow local food.” It is an easy step, but it is a very far-reaching step.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve spent time in this country, you know that in inner cities it’s almost impossible to buy fresh fruits and fresh vegetables.
VANDANA SHIVA: That’s the challenge we have. It’s not that there isn’t a food stamp system. Public money is being spent on feeding the poor. But then it’s insuring that the only access the poor have with the money they get, again from public money, is to bad food. We could divert this to good food. There’s no rule in the book that says healthy food should be a luxury for the rich. Healthy food is a right for all.
BILL MOYERS: For the last 20 years, we’ve heard and read report after report of progress in India, the creation of a middleclass enjoying its new prosperity. At the same time, we read and hear and see stories of people deprived of their livelihood and their homes from huge environmental projects, big dams, big mines, big infrastructure. I mean, it’s always been a lot of poverty there. But are you becoming– is that great gulf becoming a permanent feature of India in this modern world?
VANDANA SHIVA: Well, you know, my small effort is to not allow it to become a permanent feature. But it’s not that these are two separate worlds. They’re separated in terms of the status of people, their dignity, their rights. But they are deeply connected at the levels of the Earth’s resources.
The reason you have a few families joining the ten richest billionaires of the world in the Forbes list is because they’ve grabbed the land, the electricity, the resources, the oil, and that is what has left the other India poorer. It wasn’t that the other India was left out. They’ve been pushed out. And that’s why while we have some of the highest growth rates in the conventional measure of economic progress, which in my view is not a very reliable measure, we also have two of the most outrageous indicators that are linked to that model. The first is the quarter million farm suicides. If a quarter million farm–
BILL MOYERS: Those have been documented?
VANDANA SHIVA: They’re documented. This is Government of India data. This is not our data. It’s official statistics. And you can do an overlay. And the highest rates of suicides are in the cotton belt, 95 percent of the cotton today is Monsanto’s cotton. So there is a link.
Today ever fourth Indian is hungry and every second Indian child is wasted or stunted, which in effect means that half of India is being robbed of its future. And to me, this is not acceptable. That is why we try and build a kind of agriculture that allows farmers to have a livelihood, for the poorest child or the poorest household to have nutritious food. It is not easy because the whole system is weighed against alternatives that would work for everyone.
It’s partly because of the pressure of the corporations, but partly because of not thinking, of just being blind, of having been so fed by what I have called monocultures of the mind, you know, just turning to recipes from somewhere else. And of course the chemical industry will tell you only chemicals grow food. Chemicals grow toxics. Chemicals don’t grow food.
That only Monsanto seeds will be able to remove hunger. And all of this new mythology becomes part of the policy framework. But I am deeply committed to make sure that this terrible brainwashing that is robbing our present generation and our future generations, that we are able to work collectively to change it. Because while in your parents’ generation, your generation, and in my generation, the doors of a growing economy were constantly opening up, today we are in a period, where for the majority, the doors are shutting down.
I work with people in Spain, with people in Italy. I advise the governments there, work with the movements there, or Greece, or the Occupy movement right here. They are realizing that what has been created is not going to provide opportunities for all.
BILL MOYERS: As you talk, I remember reading somewhere that Einstein had a big influence on you, right?
VANDANA SHIVA: Yes, I became a physicist because of him. I mean, you know, even as children, you get to, you know, if you read Nightingale, you want to be a doctor or a nurse. I read stuff Einstein wrote and he wrote simple stuff that you could read it. That’s why I wanted to be a physicist.
BILL MOYERS: And he said once, I’m paraphrasing it, but “Unless an idea is at first absurd, it has no chance of success.”
VANDANA SHIVA: Absolutely. He also said that you cannot solve the problems you face through the same mindset that caused those problems.
BILL MOYERS: Vandana Shiva, thank you very much for being with me again.
VANDANA SHIVA: Thank you, Bill. It’s always such a pleasure.
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