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An interview with Dr. Vandana Shiva

"The deeper you can manipulate living structures
the more you can control food and medicine"

"We have managed to make the celebration
of diversity our mode of resistance."


St. Louis, Missouri


Dr. Vandana Shiva. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke

Dr. Vandana Shiva is a physicist, ecologist, activist, editor, and author of many books. In India she has established Navdanya, a movement for biodiversity conservation and farmers' rights. She directs the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy. Her most recent book is Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. This interview with Dr. Vandana Shiva was conducted in St. Louis, Missouri at the First Grassroots Gathering on Biodevastation: Genetic Engineering, on July 18, 1998. Dr. Shiva was the keynote speaker at the conference. The interview was conducted by In Motion Magazine publisher Nic Paget-Clarke.


In Motion Magazine: Why are patents the new form of colonialism?

Dr. Vandana Shiva: Patents are a replay of colonization as it took place 500 years ago in a number of ways. Interestingly, even at that time, when Columbus set sail and other adventurers like him, they also set out with pieces of paper that were called the letters patent which gave the power to the adventurers to claim as property the territory they found anywhere in the world that was not ruled by white Christian princes.

Contemporary patents on life seem to be of a similar quality. They are pieces of paper issued by patent offices of the world that basically are telling corporations that if there's knowledge or living material, plants, seeds, medicines which the white man has not known about before, claim it on our behalf, and make profits out of it.

That then has become the basis of phenomena that we call biopiracy, where seeds such as the Basmati seed, the aromatic rice from India, which we have grown for centuries, right in my valley is being claimed as novel invention by RiceTec.

Neem, which we have used for millennia for pest control, for medicine, which is documented in every one of our texts, which my grandmother and mother have used for everyday functions in the home, for protecting grain, for protecting silks and woolens, for pest control, is treated as invention held by Grace, the chemical company.

This epidemic of piracy is very much like the epidemic of piracy which was named colonialism 500 years ago. I think we will soon need to name this round of piracy through patents as recolonialization as a new colonialization which differs from the old only in this - the old colonialization only took over land, the new colonialization is taking over life itself.

In Motion Magazine: Just a moment ago in your speech to the conference, you said you'd like to bring in a third world perspective. Can you bring that into this discussion?

Dr. Vandana Shiva: The third world is that part of the world which became the colonies in the last colonialization. It wasn't an impoverished world then, in fact the reason it was colonialized is because it had the wealth. Columbus set sail to get control of the spice trade from India, it's just that he landed on the wrong continent and named the original inhabitants of this land Indian thinking he had arrived in India. Latin America was colonialized because of the gold it had. None of these countries were impoverished. Today they are called the poorer part of the world because the wealth has been drained out.

People have survived in the third world because in spite of the wealth that has been taken from them, in spite of their gold and their land having been taken from them, they still have biodiversity. They still have that last resource in the form of seed, medicinal plants, fodder, which allowed them access to production It allowed them to meet their needs of health and nutrition. Now this last resource of the poor, who had been left deprived by the last round of colonialization is also being taken over through patenting. And seeds which peasants have freely saved, exchanged, used, are being treated as the property of corporations. New legal property formations are being shaped as intellectual property rights treaties, through the World Trade Organization, trying to prevent peasants of the third world from having free access to their own seed, to have free exchange of their own seed. So that all peasants, all farmers around the world would be buying seed every year thus creating a new market for the global seed industry.

80 percent of India takes care of its health needs through medicinal plants that grow around in back yards, that grow in the fields, in the forests, which people freely collect. No one has had to pay a price for the gifts of nature. Today everyone of those medicines has been patented and within five, ten years down the line we could easily have a situation in which the same pharmaceutical industry that has created such serious health damages and is now shifting to safe health products in the form of medicinal plant-based drugs, Chinese medicine, aromatic medicine from India, will prevent the use. They don't even have to come and make it illegal because long before they have to take that step, they take over the resource base, they take over the plants, they take over the supply, they take over the markets, and leave people absolutely deprived of access.

What we are seeing right now is a situation in which the third world, which has been the main supplier of biodiversity, the main producer of food in the world, where the majority of people are engaged in food production, is being attempted to be converted into a consumer society. But you can't have a consumer society with poor people and therefore what you will have is deprivation, destitution, disease, hunger, epidemics, hunger, malnutrition, famine and civil war. What is being sown is the greed of the corporations of stealing the last resources of the poor. It really is seeds of uncontrollable violence and decay of societies on a very large scale.

In Motion Magazine: You touched on it, but what seems key to this takeover is what the RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International) people call the "terminator technology". Can you talk about that?

Dr. Vandana Shiva: When we plant a seed there's a very simple prayer that every peasant in India says: "Let the seed be exhaustless, let it never get exhausted, let it bring forth seed next year." Farmers have such pride in saying "this is the tenth generation seeds that I'm planting," "this is the fifth generation seed that I'm planting." Just the other day I had a seed exchange fair in my valley and a farmer brought Basmati aromatic rice seed and he said "this is five generations we've been planting this in our family". So far human beings have treated it as their duty to save seed and ensure its continuity. But that prayer to let the seed be exhaustless seems to be changing into the prayer, "let this seed get terminated so that I can make profits every year" which is the prayer that Monsanto is speaking through the terminator technology -- a technology whose aim is merely to prevent seed from germinating so that they don't have to spend on policing.

It's not that they don't yet have means. Hybrid seeds are also not good for saving. It was the first time they found a tool to force farmers to come back to them. A market every year. But the difference is that hybrid seeds don't give good seed. It's not that they fail to germinate. They will still segregate into their parent lines. They'll still give you some kind of crop. You will not have absolute devastation.

Patents are also a away to prevent farmers from saving seed. But with patents you still have to do policing, you still have to mobilize your detectives to ensure that farmers aren't saving seeds. The terminator is an extremely secure technology for corporations like Monsanto because neither do they have to do the policing, nor do they have to worry whether some segregation works, now you just basically terminate. But this is not just a violence against farmers whose basic right, in my view, is seed saving. A farmer's duty, is protecting the earth, maintaining it's fertility, and maintaining the fertility of seed. That is part of being a farmer. A farmer is not a low-paid tractor driver, that's a modern definition of what a farmer is. The real definition of a farmer is a person who relates to the land and relates to the seed and keeps it for future generations, keeps renewing it, fertility.

The search for this technology comes out of a violence to that basic ethic that farmers must have if they are to be good farmers. But it is also even deeper because now it is becoming a violence against nature because in a way Monsanto is saying we will stop evolution because evolution creates freedom.

In Motion Magazine: What is the historical connection of genetic engineering to eugenics?

Dr. Vandana Shiva: The image of science, and particularly streams like genetic engineering is always that somehow these things happen spontaneously, it comes out of human ingenuity and brilliance, and someone has a bright idea and new disciplines emerge. Which used to be the case, way back in the past. But since the period of the industrial revolution when Bacon said there's a marriage between knowledge and power that spontaneous emergence of ideas is not the way science has grown. Science has grown through deliberate direction through financing of certain kinds. The roots of genetic engineering go back to the thirties when molecular biology was planted as a new science with no foundations. They didn't know what it would be. They knew two things. One that eugenics had lost repute in Europe and the project of eugenics had to have a disguised presentation to the public. It couldn't be so overtly social. It had to be rooted in a so-called scientific basis. It had to be rooted more in biology. The entire enterprise was financed through the Rockefeller Foundation. It was called the social psychology program. The only thing they knew at that point was let's find something deeper in the way things work biologically to say that this is inevitable. That selection is inevitable. The selection of human beings is inevitable because they are the way they are biologically determined to be -- poor, criminals, etc. -- the kind of arguments they had used for the eugenics movement in Europe in the past.

They first named a theoretical construction biological atoms. They didn't know what it would look like. They just said they are biological atoms that determine traits. It took them fifty years of manipulation, of rewarding, of giving about ten Nobel prizes to themselves as a club of men doing a certain kind of science, connected to each other through the financing. Then you get Watson and Crick being rewarded for the DNA structure. But that the DNA structure is an atom that determines all traits was named fifty years before. If it wasn't Crick and Watson it would have been another group of scientists. But it was being developed in that way.

The two reasons they went this route were first, as I said, to get away from being accused of having social bias. By putting it in biology and putting it into the atoms of biology they could argue that this was in the nature of things. This was the state of affairs and this way they could get away from the political responsibility of engaging in basically political acts and putting it in the domain of science.

The second, and this fed over time into the industrialization of genetic engineering and biotechnology, is that they could see that the deeper you can manipulate living structures the more you can control food and medicine. We're getting that new round of propaganda now which is suggesting that somehow manipulation at the genetic level always gives you superior products, which is not at all the case. It could give you higher risks. They are just using the fact that you are intervening at a deeper level in living structures and equating it with superior, with human progress. There is no correlation between these two things.

The fact that people are not accepting it is clear from the fact that people are rejecting genetically-engineered foods. They are not treating genetic manipulation as somehow a superior food production system. Are we going to see more and more of these kind of questions? I think it is absolutely key to not forget that the roots of genetic engineering are in eugenics and as genetic engineering moves from agriculture to human manipulation we are going to be right back with a very vicious eugenics program.

In Motion Magazine: One of the arguments, when you talk to biogeneticists, is "farmers have been historically changing seeds through how they pick and choose seeds through the years. All we're doing is speeding up the process ." What is the difference?

Dr. Vandana Shiva: It's not true in two ways. First of all, when farmers have been selecting they have been selecting between two boundaries and limits that they set for themselves. The first is the ecosystem limit. Farmers select crops according to the ecosystems in which they produce. No farmer in the world has done seed selection sitting in tropical Africa and trying to grow crops in temperate Sweden. Africans have bred crops for Africa, and Swedish farmers have evolved crops for Sweden.

The second is related to the fact that they have always worked within the limits set by intra-species breeding. You only work with rice to evolve new rice plants. You work with wheat to evolve new wheat plants. You do not try and cross the species boundaries. In fact, even conventional breeding which was not farmers' breeding which had already been taken over by scientists and industry and violated the ecosystem boundary because it tried to breed beyond ecosystem adaptation -- it did still respect the species boundary.

Genetic engineering is violating both boundaries. It's violating the ecosystem boundary. It is generating crops to be planted on millions of acres because there's no point in having patents on a particular Bt cotton if you are then only going to grow it in twenty acres where it suits that particularly variety. As a Monsanto you have to market around the world to maximize the return on your patents, your revenues etc. This means you have to grow it everywhere. You have to violate ecosystem boundaries.

But more important than that, for the first time, genetic engineering is doing something different from what conventional breeders have done. And no matter how many times they tell this lie it doesn't make it a truth. Transgenic organisms are not equivalent to farmers breeding or conventional breeding because transgenic by its very definition means something which has crossed species boundaries, something in which an alien gene has been introduced into a plant. In the case of Bt it is the toxic bacteria gene. In the case of other crops it will be antibiotic genes. There's something in that plant that wouldn't have gotten there if you had just done normal breeding that farmers have done. They haven't just speeded up the process they have crossed a threshold.

In Motion Magazine: Can you talk a little about Navdanya: A Movement for Biodiversity Conservation and Farmers Rights.

Dr. Vandana Shiva: Navdanya is a national program to basically fight the seed monopolies. I started it ten years ago when I could see the emergence of this kind of world of total control. Navdanya means nine seeds. Through it we save native seeds. In India we still have a lot of peasant agriculture. We still have a lot of seed diversity. We do not try and do it as a museum activity. I started Navdanya as a political act so that farmers would have free seed in their hands, using that free seed they would be able to resist the kind of control system that the new corporations, corporate control, was trying to establish in India. Through those seeds they can establish sustainable organic agriculture again.

New seeds are bred for heavy chemical influence and even now when Monsanto says that its genetically-engineered crops don't need chemicals, we hear every where that there's a doubling of chemicals. If they were to bring these seeds into India there would be a twenty-fold increase of chemicals because they'd introduce chemicals into farms that have never used chemicals.

Through the native seeds we can become free of agri-chemicals, farmers can become free of debt, become free of the kind of burden that high inputs are creating. But we can also create freedom for consumers because frankly there's nothing as delicious as the old varieties that have been evolved over time.

Our native wheat sells at twice the price that the high-yielding variety wheat flour sells at because it's much tastier, much nicer for chapatis. It was evolved for chapati making. Our native legumes sell for much more because not only are they organic they are tastier, they are more nutritious. They are better for the earth. They put less pressure on the earth, they put less pressure on the farmer, and they are safer for consumers. It's crazy to still continue to call these wonderfully nourishing seeds primitive cultivas.

Part of our battle has been to give respect again to the innovation of farmers and the diversity that the earth has provided. What I often say is that through the seed saving of Navdanya we have managed to make the celebration of diversity our mode of resistance.

In Motion Magazine: How successful has it been?

Dr. Vandana Shiva: It has been very successful. We're in about seven zones now. We have the native seed supply taking over. I have just started two new seed banks in the heart of the "Green Revolution", one in western Uttar Pradesh, one in Punjab where about thirty farmers are giving up chemicals and getting off the chemical tread mill. They are starting to shift to use of native seeds and organic agricultural methods. The wonderful thing about seed is if you have even one, you have the potential of millions.

Published in In Motion Magazine - August 14, 1998


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