I met Vandana Shiva in the airport. When the automatic sliding doors at the arrivals gate revealed her luggage cart and her orange sari, I half expected a beam of light to illuminate her, such is the legend that surrounds her. Of course none did because Vandana Shiva is just a human being and not a saint. But what a human being she is.
After studying physics in her undergrad she received her Master's in philosophy and her Ph.D. in quantum physics. (She also received an honourary doctorate from the University of Guelph). In 1982 she set up the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, where researchers work with local communities and social movements to address important ecological and social issues. In 1991 she established Navdanya, a movement to protect the diversity of living resources, especially seeds, and to advocate for organic farming and fair trade. And like clockwork, a decade or so after that, she founded Bija Vidyapeeth, a sustainable living college. She has taught at universities, written books, and serves on the board of a number of organizations concerned with women, organic farming, and international property rights, among other issues. She is now working with the government of Bhutan to ensure that the country is 100% organic.
So why was she talking to me? Well she wasn't really. She had flown from New Delhi to Toronto to give a lecture at her old alma mater on The Right to Food - Women, Development, and the Global Economy. I was just lucky enough to have a discussion with her in the car.
I understand that on many farms in India, women are responsible for sowing and harvesting seeds and crops, in the domestic end of food production. Have you seen an increase in women being involved in the public end, in marketing and distributing food?Oh yes. You know, there are vegetable markets where there are only women. In Bangalore, where I spent three years in, I would walk to the local market every evening and it was all women selling vegetables. And they had grown their own vegetables. And the market in Manipur, only women! And they're protesting there because they want to tear down the market to create a highway that cuts through northeast India, Burma, and China to move goods. Agriculture and food is women's economy until its hijacked by corporations. By and large, the only thing that men do in traditional agriculture is plant. Everything else women do. In fact for the UN, for the Food and Agriculture Organization, they wanted me to make a report on women in agriculture. And by the time that I had finished looking at the data, I had to give the title, "Most Farmers in India Are Women." And most of the work is done by women.
Do you feel like since you've been doing this research and working in this field, that women's roles have changed?Oh yes, women have been displaced hugely. They've been displaced from seed, they've been displaced from agriculture. A lot of women's work and employment in agriculture is weeding. And you know weeding is not a wasteful activity - at one level it's harvesting. When you get plants that are not part of your planted crop, they're either food (some of the most nutritious foods are defined as weeds), fodder, or medicinal plants. Now when Roundup invades, all of that goes. With it goes nutrition, with it goes healthy animal food, and worse, what goes with it is women's work. Sadly corporations like Monsanto which sell Roundup... In the early days I remember seeing these big billboards that said "Liberate yourself, use Roundup," as if disposability is liberation. And in food processing, our policies to globalization were: food is too important to life and economy that it should not be industrialized. So our policies were that it should be contained to the small scale sector. And the small scale sectors were women working. So all processing was done by women, and it was delicious, healthy processing. And with globalization, food standards change, food safety changes, subsidies change. Pepsi gets subsidies and a small unit doesn't. I just came back from a soil pilgrimage and Mahatma Gandhi, the prophet of non-violence in our times, he promoted artisinal processing in contrast to industrial for livelihoods, for work, for keeping wealth in community. Because when farmers shift from growing food and processing it, they basically end up making cheap commodities for industry. And they get poorer. There's no value added to the community, there's only exploitation. And literally, the Pepsis and Nestles of the world have cooked up these new food safety standards and have shut down the virgin cold press oil mill at Mahatma Gandhi's ashram. So I'm going to back in January to work with them. And when you realize that industrial oil is produced with so many chemicals - most of it is GM soil, using hexane for the soil extraction, it just displaces the really healthy oils. And with it women's knowledge and women's work. Because I kind of lived through long enough period to have witnessed India in the pre-globalization period and the post-globalization period, the changes are huge.
Women by and large don't turn to crime, but you know, none of these policy makers see the connection between the growth of violence and crime - and in particular more violence against women - and the destruction of economy and livelihoods. And you know the GDP is a completely cooked up number. You're quantifying the wrong thing. If I cut that tree I have growth, but if I let it grow, I have zero growth. If people are feeding themselves and children are healthy, nutrition is available, no growth. You create malnutrition, you create disease, there's growth. I work with the government of Bhutan and they decided in the '70s that they weren't going to measure growth in the typical way. And instead of GDP we're going to maximize the gross national happiness.