As hunger levels soar, the 'Gandhi of grain' warns against false solutions

Vandana Shiva at the Société de Lecture (Courtesy of Société de Lecture/Rebecca Bowring)

As the world grapples with how to respond to hunger and the environmental crisis simultaneously, Vandana Shiva is on a mission to expose the dangers of industrial agriculture and promote a return to a food model that is respectful to nature.

From battling loggers in her home state of Uttarakhand in Northern India in the 1970s, to nuclear physicist, Shiva has become one of the faces of a global movement that counters genetically-modified organisms, or GMOs. She has been called many times the “Gandhi of Grain” for advocating for civil disobedience to fight environmental injustice.

The activist has written books and articles and has been featured in several documentaries to preach the benefits of organic farming and warn about the hazards of GMOs. Her outspokenness has earned her both praise and criticism on a highly divisive issue within food rights groups but also the scientific community.

While the rapid decline of biodiversity has been forcing countries to take a hard look at how they produce food and consume it, soaring levels of hunger partly due to the war in Ukraine are now compelling them to review their misgivings about genetically modified crops whose proponents say can be made to be climate resilient. 

Shiva, who was in Geneva in March to speak at an event organised by the Société de Lecture and the Geneva International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights, told Geneva Solutions why GMOs are not the answer.

At the helm of India’s anti-GMO movement

Shiva began locking horns with the agrochemical industry over 20 years ago, when Monsanto first introduced a genetically modified cotton variety known as Bt cotton in India without government approval. “I filed a case against Monsanto for illegally introducing Bt cotton and to the government for sleeping and not noticing that a giant has come into your country,” she said.

That worked for a few years until the firm obtained the permits and Bt cotton took over the Indian seed market, now accounting for at least 80 per cent of cotton production. Since then, a battle of narratives has ensued between those who sing the virtues of the pest-resistant cotton variety and those who blame it for the demise of many farmers.

GMOs are organisms whose DNA has been altered with technology, usually to enhance a certain trait such as resistance to pests or herbicides, or higher yields. By producing more food on less land, GM crops have spurred hopes that they could be the key to solving the hunger crisis. But many questions remain regarding their long-term benefits and their potential adverse effects on human health and the environment, with environmentalists warning that they threaten plant diversity. 

Critics like Shiva argue that they have actually driven up the use of chemicals, which are produced by the same companies that own most GM seeds such as Monsanto and Syngenta. When it comes to describing these firms, Shiva doesn’t pull any punches, referring to them as a “cartel of poisons”.

More importantly, Shiva blames them for trapping farmers into debt and driving them to suicide. “Corporations are trying to addict farmers to seeds that will not renew, therefore getting them into debt,” she said, citing hundreds of thousands of Bt cotton farmers who have killed themselves because of debt since 1995 – an assertion disputed by some research studies that didn’t find any evidence linking the crop to a surge in suicides but did find that Bt cotton in some areas has driven up costs.

Despite strong opposition from environmentalist groups like Greenpeace, governments across the globe reeling from the global economic slowdown and struggling to feed their populations have started to reconsider their resistance to genetically modified foods. Kenya, where millions of people suffer high levels of food insecurity due to years of drought, lifted last year a 10-year ban on GM maize, which has been shown to produce higher yields than its non-GM counterparts. Recently Argentina, followed by Brazil, authorised trials on GM wheat, a world first.

The European Union, where several countries have a ban on GMO cultivation, is also mulling over whether to ease restrictions on genome-edited crops that could better provide resistance to droughts and high temperatures. As opposed to genetic modification, gene editing fiddles with the genes of a species but doesn’t mix DNA from different species. For Shiva, this technique “is the new GMO sold as natural”.

Shiva warns against what she calls “biopiracy” as companies seek to flood the market with seeds that they own through intellectual property rights. Rights groups have warned that IP rights prevent or restrict farmers from saving and replanting patented seeds, forcing them to buy more seeds from the breeder. 

To counter this dependence loop, Shiva’s organisation Navdanya International has set up a network of indigenous seed banks in India and Bhutan.

“Seeds saving and ecological agriculture have become a survival imperative for the Indian farmers,” she said.

More food is not more nutrition

Shiva questions the health benefits of growing more and faster. “Both hunger and ecological damage by industrial chemical agriculture are part of the same process,” she said. “The Green Revolution was the first step at forgetting what food security really is. Food security is the nutrition in your food. Empty commodities will still leave you with malnutrition.”

Scientists have found that the levels of vitamins, minerals and other nutrient content in foods have dropped sharply in the last 70 years, according to National Geographic. While producing higher yields, intensive agricultural practices such as the use of chemical fertilisers and irrigation, have also depleted the soil of its nutrients.

“We've got to stop seeing food as a commodity. The first purpose of food is to nourish us and to regenerate the planet,” she said.

For Shiva, a part of the answer lies in millets, which the UN has decided to honour this year to promote the superfood known for its nutritional value. The starchy, protein-rich grain is widely grown and consumed in parts of Africa and Asia, including India. “If we were growing millets we wouldn't be having a nutrition crisis and food insecurity because millets are so sturdy, they can grow everywhere,” said Shiva.

But agroecology faces obstacles of its own before it can become widespread. Shiva admits that distribution is the weak link in the system. “Farmers can shift (to agroecology) but then they're left to fend for themselves. So we need farmers’ markets everywhere where the farmers just come and sell what they've grown within a 100-mile limit for example,” she said.

Agroecology has also suffered from some bad press recently after Sri Lanka’s overnight ban on fertilisers went awry and plunged the country into an economic crisis. Accused of encouraging the government to take this measure, Shiva denies playing any role in the debacle. “It was an abrupt ban made by an irresponsible president who had brought the country into a debt crisis and that's why his people, his own people drove him out,” she said.

“A six-month ban is not an agroecology policy. An agroecology policy is training in extension, research and creating the economic policies that support the transition to agroecology, removing the subsidies for chemicals, and removing the incentives for farmers to grow only a few crops.”