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GM Seeds and the Militarization of Food – and Everything Else

Vandana Shiva in Hawaii. (Photo: Kai Markell)

Indian physicist and philosopher, activist and ecofeminist pioneer Vandana Shiva talks with Truthout in Hawaii about GMO, the militarization of agriculture, the politics of occupation and the primacy of biodiversity.

Foot soldiers in the battle against corporate globalization and the privatization of commons like land and water have long been aware of Indian physicist and philosopher Dr. Vandana Shiva. An ecofeminist pioneer, today she is best known as an outspoken opponent of the GMOs (genetically modified organisms) being developed by transnational biotechnology and chemical corporations like Monsanto and Dow.

Shiva disputes the notion that patenting genes and controlling the world’s seeds, and thus much of its food supply, will better serve humanity. Biotech companies claim their genetically engineered (GE) crops are able to withstand threats from insects, disease, and man-made pesticides and herbicides while making a serious contribution to feeding an increasingly hungry world.

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Such claims are straight-up fabrications – lies – according to Shiva. GMOs, she says, destroy the natural web of life, threaten biodiversity and the environment, and are a scourge for human health and society.

Raised by conservation-minded parents (her father was a forest conservator, her mother a farmer) in the foothills of the Himalayas, Shiva was at the heart of the original “tree hugger” Chipko movement.

After earning a Ph.D. in “hidden variables and non-locality in quantum theory,” Shiva branched out from science and academia to environmental activism and helping small farmers in India and around the world save seeds – a practice that puts her in direct conflict with biotech giants who insist their GE seeds are protected by patents.

It was at a biotechnology conference at which Shiva had been invited to speak that a representative from the chemical firm Ciba-Geigy (which later merged with other companies to become biotech giant Syngenta) told her that its goal was to control health and food by the turn of the 21st century.

“That’s the day I decided I was going to start saving seeds,” Shiva says.

Since then Shiva has founded Navdanya, a network of seed keepers and organic farmers that offers an alternative vision of a GMO-free future.

As an author, activist and advocate for the protection of human and earth rights, and a globally respected philosopher famous for articulating the nature of complex human, scientific, ecological and ethical issues, Shiva has received numerous awards including the 1993 Right Livelihood Award, also called the “alternate Nobel Prize.”

In January, Shiva traveled from India to Hawaii at the invitation of Hawaii SEED, a coalition of grassroots groups that opposes GMOs and open-air testing conducted by “the big five” biotech firms (Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences, Dupont Pioneer and BASF) for which Hawaii has proven fertile testing ground.

After addressing audiences at the University of Hawaii and for the opening day of the Hawaii state legislature’s 2013 session, Shiva traveled to the island of Kauai, where she spoke before some 1,800 people on the same day as the 120th anniversary of the US military overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. Asked later if she thought the timing was coincidental, she said, “I think it’s coincidental in the human scale but not in the cosmic scale. The universe,” she said, “conspires in its own way to make things meet at the right moment.”

Anti GMO demonstration in Hawaii. (Photo: Kai Markell)Anti GMO demonstration in Hawaii. (Photo: Kai Markell) The day after her talk, I caught up with Dr. Shiva on Kauai’s north shore, not far from Hawaii’s most productive taro fields. With the backdrop of a powerful winter swell rolling into Hanalei Bay, we talked about Hawaii’s role as a testing site for both GMO crops and the military. We also discussed Hawaii’s relationship with Asia, the increasing ferocity of storms and other violence, and the largely unspoken connection between GE crops, climate change, militarism and what she calls “a war against the earth.” Excerpts from the interview follow.

Jon Letman for Truthout: The Hawaiian Islands are one of the most heavily militarized places on the planet. They’re also an epicenter for GMOs. Can you talk about the connection between military and GMO testing in these islands?

Dr. Vandana Shiva: War and agriculture came together when the chemicals that were produced for chemical warfare lost their markets in war, and the industry organized itself to sell those chemicals as agrochemicals. Then, when gene splicing was worked out as a technique in public systems, the corporations realized here was something that would work wonderfully for them. Not only would they get to sell more chemicals, but now, by genetically modifying seed, they could for the first time say, “We are creators and inventors of plants,” and redefine seed as an invention covered by patents and therefore collect rents and royalty. If every farmer, every year has to buy seed – which is the main reason for pushing GMOS – it’s huge profits.

The techniques themselves are militarized, come from war, including the fact that the only way you can move a gene that doesn’t belong to an organism and you have to cross the species barrier – which can’t be crossed by reproduction – you can only do it by using a gene gun, which is war at the genetic level, or infecting a plant with cancer, which is biological warfare. So the war mentality is at the heart of the technology.

And then the industry that grew powerful and rich through wars (Monsanto and Dow Chemical both manufactured Agent Orange) is its final step of the militarized mindset, the militarized world coming together, is that imposing these toxins, the GMOs – an agriculture that nobody wants, food that nobody wants – can only go the next step by an absolute militarized society, where police states are created to police farmers.

JL: So military testing and GMO testing in Hawaii is . . .

VS: . . . is a continuum. It’s a continuum in terms of the personalities involved; it’s a continuum in the world view involved; and it’s a continuum in the implications.

JL: In Hawaii, what vulnerabilities, unknown or under-known, do you think the biotech companies and military have?

VS: I think the first vulnerability the seed companies and military have is they’ve violated every natural law. I became a physicist because I really believe the laws of nature are how we should live. The laws of nature I studied were the laws of quantum theory; the laws of ecology are laws of nature. Every violation of the laws of nature is a violation. Therefore the more we can point this out, the more people realize this is illegal from the perspective of nature, it’s illegal from the measure of people. I really do believe the vulnerability comes from the fact that the [GMO] industry and the military have set their own rules as if there was no higher law. That is their vulnerability.

JL: Geographically, culturally, historically, Hawaii shares much with other Pacific islands, and yet it’s very different because it is governed as an American state. What do you think Hawaii has to teach other island nations, and what can and should it learn from them?

VS: I think the most important thing Hawaii has to teach other island states is how, when the master takes over – the military is here; GMOs are here – how that is an occupation. And anytime anyone is told “We’ll bring you money; we’ll bring you employment,” when they bring you death and destruction; the intensity of the GMO seed production, as well as the intensity of the militarization of Hawaii, can teach.

Now, they can’t make up what’s the new empire, and they keep saying, “Oh, the center is shifting to Asia.” And they keep talking about an Asia that is doing all the dirty work for the old empire. All the pollution, all the destruction of workers’ rights, all the pollution of the rivers, the killing of our farmers. That’s not Asia. Asia is diverse; it’s pluralistic, and when you describe the Polynesian islands, it’s a continuum from Asia. Christ, Buddha, Sikhism, every religion of the world started in Asia, but we butchered up Asia and said “it’s Middle East, Southeast, Far East, Indochina, South Asia . . .”

In this continuity from Asia to Polynesia to Hawaii is the other way of thinking about ourselves everywhere, including in Hawaii – that we are an interrelated part of a beautiful planet which organizes herself, and that is the Gaia theory.

I think these militarized borders and militarized takeovers, those who have practiced it for the last century think it’s going to be the way of the next century. It’s not going to be the way of the next century. The way of the next century has to be making peace with the earth.

JL: Hawaii is so biologically rich, and we have so many rare plants. How can preserving Hawaii’s native plants – the native biodiversity – how can that help ensure a healthier, more diverse agricultural crop community?

VS: We were repeatedly told diversity is a luxury – industrial monoculture, chemically fed and now genetically modified – is the way we get our food. Nothing could be a bigger lie. When food becomes a commodity, it goes where profits can be made, and if there are more profits in biofuel, that’s where it will go. If there are more profits in animal feed, that’s where it will go. So we have to reclaim our sources of food and our sources of food are biodiversity. The work I’ve done over the last 25 years with protecting biodiversity shows that the more intensive the biodiversity, the more food you’ll have and the less you have to hurt the earth.

There are no wars between the domesticated biodiversity and a wild biodiversity. If I grow a native plant as my food, I am encouraging native species to weave the web of life. There are that many butterflies; there are that many bees. There is that much more pollen available. And we’ve done studies that show that native rices support so many more species than the chemically-fed rice, where all soil organisms, all pollinators, all beneficial insects are killed.

Those chemicals that were designed to kill human beings and are designed to kill certain pests end up killing beneficial insects, destroying the web of pest-predator balances which then creates more insect pest attacks. You spray more; you get emergence of resistance, and you are on a chemical treadmill.

The harm of pesticides doesn’t stay on farms alone. The highest ocean pollution is coming from fertilizer runoff creating dead zones. All of those pesticides being sprayed on the seed farms of Monsanto and Syngenta and BASF are running down and killing the fish life because nature is integrated at every level – plant, insect, soils, marine.

JL: Can you clarify the connection between climate change and GMOs?

VS: GMOs are part of the package of industrial agriculture that is chemically intensive, loaded with toxins, loaded with pesticides. Now if you do an analysis of fossil fuel use, whether it is fossil fuel use for the making of chemical fertilizer or the fossil fuel used in transporting food – 90 percent of the food of the Hawaiian islands comes from outside -and then shipping these toxic GM seeds thousands of miles away, we are talking about 40 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions coming from an industrial model of farming.

In our work we have seen two things. One, the more biodiverse any system is, the more it can survive a drought, a flood, unseasonal rain, cyclones – so diversity is a cushion in times of climate change. But not just any old diversity, native diversity even more. Why does native diversity exist where it is? Because over millions of years it had the capacity to adapt. It had the capacity to change with change.

I have watched farms using green revolution methods fail 100 percent with one drought. I have watched after the tsunami and the cyclones and the salt water came, only local species that were salt tolerant were able to bounce back. So native species are vital for climate adaptation, a connection that still needs to be made in a serious way.

JL: Around the world we see horrific violence by people against one another. Every week we seem to reach a new low. My question is simple: What is wrong with people today?

VS: I don’t think it’s people who are the source of these cycles of violence. They’re caught in them. It isn’t that violence hasn’t existed before our times – it has. But it was always localized. I think the violence in our times is global in scope – because the military and the economy are now globally organized, and they feed on each other, and the military has become the last economy.

Those wars in Iraq and Iran are not just wars; they are not just wars. They are about control over resources. They are about giving contracts. They are about opening up Iraq to the GMO seeds of Monsanto. There was an Iraqi Order 81 that [L. Paul] Bremer passed making it illegal for Iraqi farmers, who are the heart of the source of agriculture, the Mesopotamian Civilization: They could not use and save their own seeds. And in the big seed freedom report we have prepared – and anyone can download it from the Navdanya website – we have a contribution by a journalist who found out that Abu Ghraib, the jail from which all the scandals came, used to be the seed bank of Iraq, and Abu Ghraib the name came from one of their most precious wheat varieties. Now, a changing of a name that was a wheat variety, a place that held the biodiversity heritage of a civilization into a jail for torture, that mutation is what we must understand to understand the deepening violence.

We have had a gang rape of a girl in Delhi, which has hit the news all over and protests haven’t died. I am asking myself why is it getting more and more frequent and why is it becoming more brutal? It’s a bit like climate change – it’s not that we haven’t had storms before, but the Katrinas and the Sandys are new in terms of their impact. We have had drought before, but the drought that is wiping out such a large bit of the corn and soy supply of the US and killing the animals is a new intensity. And it’s that intensity and scale that is changing.

I think we need to ask today why are people who live peacefully side by side, killing each other? Why did the Arab Spring become the Arab Nightmare? I think there are a number of causes. That first trigger of the Arab Spring was a young man who wasn’t able to sell vegetables. Now, if you push people to such a corner there are only two things they can do: either rebel to change it and say I will get justice; I will have work, whether I am a Shia or Sunni, and we will stand side by side and we will sell vegetables. I will have work whether I am a Hindu or Muslim, and we will work together, or the system that has hijacked a Democracy and turned representative Democracy into “of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations,” must win its votes on basis of divide: “You know the real threat is the immigrant; the real threat are those Christians; the real threat are those Hindus,” and you create a ground for insecurity and hatred of a volatile nature.

There is actually a huge economy in selling arms and dividing people, and it needs people fighting each other.

I remember Syria before the way it’s gone. There was a year of drought, and I’m just saying if those farmers had been given the kind of seeds that could survive the drought, they’d have been doing farming. They were displaced; they were angry; they were protesting. Before you knew it, they became sectarian protests; before you knew it, different sides started to arm, and American arms are everywhere.

So I think it’s all of these convergences that are brutalizing, particularly the men, who are now just finding one place to find an identity: how to be the more vicious killer. We won’t be able to reclaim our humanity through narrow identities. We can only reclaim it through a very broad universal human identity and even broader earth identity. That’s why I talk of Earth Democracy.

The challenge is really reclaiming our humanity to be able to live in peace with each other.