the politics of convenience

Vandana Shiva fights for basic rights: vegetables, seed & access to whole foods

illustration by raymond biesinger,

A few years ago in a library in Delhi, I came across a book edited by Vandana Shiva called Minding Our Lives: Women from the South and North Reconnect Ecology and Health. It engaged me so smartly, I was intrigued to know what motivates this woman to maintain the passion that leaps out through her writing. And then I saw her speak...

Her clarity and force of conviction electrified my mind as she deftly unraveled the powers at play in the world of indigenous farming and competing corporatization of water and seeds. The presentation left me darkened and inspired Ė by the reminders she provided of destruction and greed in action around the world, and of ordinary people uniting against those forces to maintain their livelihoods and to survive. I can still remember the dazed feeling I had on my walk home that evening through dusty smoky Delhi streets, under bright little stars. The world felt bigger and smaller at once, deeply but subtly realigned, like my body after a long run.

As her lifeís work, again and again Dr. Shiva mobilizes herself, all the resources at her disposal, and communities of ordinary citizens. She educates and inspires people to protect and fend for their livelihoods, and to put ideals of peace, sustainability and health into action, often in the face of seemingly insurmountable corporate resistance. By her work she lives a daily practice of integrity, and it has a tangible impact.

Dr. Shiva is a firecracker of an international activist, public speaker and feminist. Leaving behind the comforts of what she calls a ďmonocultural lifeĒ many years ago, she has had no trouble keeping busy and inspired to action. Her work takes many forms as she challenges the dominant economic model, international law, genetic engineering and biopiracy. An accomplished scholar and prolific writer, she holds a masterís degree in particle physics, and a Ph.D. in the philosophy of science. Her work has been recognized by numerous prestigious awards, including the Right Livelihood Award, known commonly as the Alternative Nobel Prize. Born in northern India, today she directs the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, as well as numerous other initiatives, from Delhi.

Dr. Shiva was profiled in the winter 2002 issue of ascent. This past August, ascent followed up with her to take stock of current sustainable food efforts, and to catch up with her work. I reached her at her home in Delhi, just as she finished meeting with a group of parliamentarians to draft a response to proposed seed legislation. Ė SM.

Shandi Miller†† There seems to be a growing awareness of issues of ecological sustainability Ė thereís more interest, better education. But do you see much change in behaviour at the individual level?

Vandana Shiva†† I think a few people who translate their awareness into action and lifestyle choices are definitely making a shift. But for a lot of people, ecological awareness is like water on a duckís back. And the addictiveness of consumerism on the one hand, and complacency on the other, allows the majority of people to be driven by market models, production models and development models, that are threatening life on this planet. They are addicted to what they think are the goodies but are actually the toxic outputs.

For me, the fact that you canít go and buy your vegetables next door, and must drive to a supermarket, is not a benefit, itís a curse. But it is not presented as such. Wal-Mart has been visiting India to open up stores, to make it look like shopping in a horrible, giant-sized supermarket is a bigger treat than having fresh vegetables brought to your doorstep by a vegetable vendor. So these addictions, linked to illusion that corporations create, definitely come in the way of making change at the personal level.

SM†† In that climate, can public education be successful? What is an effective way to get through to people?

VS†† I take the lessons of our Gita, from the Mahabharata, very seriously: you have to do what you know is the right thing to do. How effective it will be is another process. It doesnít mean you deliberately work on things when you know there is no hope, but you canít guarantee change to make change. You have to make change for the mere fact that it is the right thing to do. To live the right way, to consume resources in an equitable way, a sustainable way, and to spread the joys of simplicity and conservation as far and wide as you can Ė thatís something we must do. Then there is a chance that public education will be more powerful than advertising and the manufacture of illusion. But even if it is not, we cannot sit back and let powerful corporations continue to spread the mythology of consumerism.

SM†† You are talking about illusions actively created by corporations. But what role does illusion play in terms of what we feed ourselves on a cultural or intellectual level, which also allows for so much destruction and excessiveness?

VS†† I think there are a number of other subtle processes that have become naturalized in society that are not at all natural, and are kept in place by extremely corporate workings. Processes like genetic engineering, property rights like patenting of seed and life forms, knowledge and medicine are human-based activities involving human choices and human consequences. But they have been abstracted from their human embeddedness and transformed into absolutes working beyond human control. The market is one of these mystifications; technology is another.

People have automatic blinders to technological progress. They think they canít question it because itís inevitable, itís deterministic, itís beyond their control and it is inherently good. When chemicals and genetic engineering were brought to agriculture, people just assumed it would be better because itís new. Synthetic molecules were brought into health care and everyone thought this must mean that yoga is primitive, outdated, outmoded, unscientific, and that this scientific (deadly) drug is better. This constantly invades our minds and our bodies, causing on the one hand the disease that is so rampant today, and on the other hand, a population that is collectively intellectually anesthetized.

SM†† Do you see us moving more toward sustainability, or toward destruction?

VS†† You know, I think both forces are at work. The forces of destruction are powerful, they are organized, they are united. There are forces of creative action, for conservation, for justice, for peace, which are huge in magnitude, but they are fragmented. Still, there are times when this energy of the people crystallizes in particular moments and brings enormous change.

I feel that a big shift is taking place right now, and that the potential for change is great. People are not arguing endlessly over texts; they are not arguing endlessly over the perfect manifesto, the perfect guideline for mobilization. People are experiencing another life. The tiniest organic farms and the smallest of food distribution centres for the poor are creating another experience that has more conviction than a thousand books and a thousand manifestos.

SM†† What can ordinary people do, to wake up to these efforts, or to contribute more actively?

VS†† I often think that ordinary citizens today are so privileged. Every citizen can intervene in every dimension of everyday life. Donít go like a zombie through a supermarket picking up unlabeled genetically modified food; do not support Wal-Mart. Do support local farmers; do create alternative systems of distribution. If laws get in the way, change them or fight them or donít cooperate with them.

And I donít think thereís a limit today about what citizens can do because everyone has to make choices four, five, six times a day about what they will eat or drink. Every moment of choice is a moment of political decision. Do I support the planet and its people and the life of all beings? Or will I support short-term profits for a handful of corporations? Thatís a daily choice in everything we eat, everything we drink, everything we wear, everything we do.

SM†† To some extent, organic food and natural fibres have come to represent a lifestyle as much as a socially conscious choice. What are your thoughts on this symbolic level of food, or those values as identity?

VS†† This is the state of our current economic system Ė things that are ecological, safe, low cost in production, ecologically and financially, end up being the lifestyle expression of the rich. Ironically, it is cheaper to grow organic cotton and very costly to grow genetically engineered cotton doused with pesticides, so why does the chemical cotton end up being cheaper and why does the organic cotton shirt end up being more expensive? Because the organic cotton grower has no subsidy, whereas the toxic growers of cotton in the US, for instance, receive $44 billion in subsidies for 2500 farmers. In Africa, this leads to the destruction of $250 million in lost livelihoods and lost income for cotton growers. That is the kind of equation that is taking what should be everyoneís choice out of his or her hands.

There is a second precept at work when any system is made to bring public support. When public money is put toward the poor or disenfranchised, itís often institutionalized in programs like food stamps, health care systems, food at school programs. But those funds are not used to make the ecological alternative more accessible to people. It goes toward making the chemical alternative more accessible to people.

I mentioned that we are working with an organization of the street dwellers on water issues, but weíre also starting to market organic produce and run cafeterias with them. We do not want the illusion that organic is only for export and for the rich. My philosophy is that organic is for all, good food is for all, good health is for all. And the public systemís duty is to make these good systems reach all. If the poor are being driven into what are called low-cost options, itís because of the way the system subsidizes costly options. This locks the poor into the Coca-Cola and McDonaldís life, a life that is hazardous, non-sustainable, and without quality and nutrition.

SM†† How are you involved with the Slow Food movement?

VS†† We are, in fact, the Slow Food movement in India Ė Navdanya1 has just been appointed the Slow Food Movement for India. We had Carlo Petrini2 here to give our annual lecture on organic agriculture last year. I am on the international council for Slow Food, and we work very closely with them, and India is the first Third World country where it is starting. The Slow Food movement could see that they need to be in the South, they need to be with the producers; it canít be a one-sided movement. It has to be a biodiversity movement and sustainable farming movement. And so it has to include the farmers and the producers.

SM†† And you see that happening?

VS†† Thatís exactly what weíre working at. October 2006 will be the next gathering of peasants, or Terra Madre. And by then we hope through Indian mobilization to have evolved a Slow Food model for the poor, for the peasant, for the producer.

SM†† You have made connections between spiritual and ecological vacancy. How are people instilling a sense of the sacred back into their food, into their daily life?

VS†† There are, of course, two aspects to this issue. One, for societies like India where ordinary peopleís lives are permeated by a spiritual ethos. The peasant will worship the cow in the street, and will thank the Earth every morning and be grateful to the sun. They were never saying, ďShine on me and make me happy and prosperous.Ē They say, ďShine on all, bring prosperity and happiness and joy to everyone.Ē That is threatened, and I think the contribution that we make is to reinforce the cultural base of those spiritual values.

The same is the issue with patents on life. To me, patenting of life is a deeply unethical idea. The very fact that it could even be imagined is unethical, but it is doubly criminal for it to be forced on countries like India with the kind of brute force of the TRIPS agreement (trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights). The only way to resist patents on life is on spiritual grounds. If you do not see integrity of creation in every life form, if you do not see every expression of life as charged with the sacred, you have no grounds on which to claim that patents on life are unethical and unacceptable.

Todayís distribution and production system, we could say, poisons people with mad cow disease, gives them allergies, gives them E. coli, gives them obesity and diabetes, and then takes away their rights to protect their own health. You cannot fight that kind of system without first going back to the connections we have to our food, our environment, and biodiversity. From those connections, we can claim the sacred. To me, the sacred is that which is inviolable because it is interconnected through the complex web of life, through the complex processes that maintain this beautiful cosmos and planet for us. That awareness is the highest energizer to deal with an economy that has become a criminal economy.

SM†† What motivates your work today?

VS†† What motivates my work today? Itís first of all just the joy of being alive and wanting everyone to live and to be healthy. Secondly, itís that I cannot accept the destruction of life. Besides that, itís the love, just the love Ė of biodiversity, to see different trees, to see different seeds, to see rivers flow, to see children laugh and be happy. Thatís what keeps me going.

Shandi Miller recently moved across the pond to study urban planning at the London School of Economics. Because itís all yoga, baby.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life