"The growing “bio-economy” is based on control, manipulation and commodification of life… things like microbial factories that are producing industrial food products, that will make fuels and pharmaceuticals, seeds and now even species.” —Gopal Dayaneni
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Dr. Vandana Shiva, the internationally known author, scientist and advocate for small farmers and agroecology, spoke with Gopal Dayaneni of Movement Generation at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, California in September 2013. This conversation was part of a series of conversations hosted by the group synbiowatch.org that expose the growing “bio-economy,” which Dayaneni calls “an economy based on control, manipulation and commodification of life… things like microbial factories that are producing industrial food products, that will make fuels and pharmaceuticals, seeds and now even species.” U.C. Berkeley, The Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, and the private corporations that are subsidized by it, are central to this developing bio-economy. The federal government and multinational corporations see the bioeconomy as a new frontier to be conquered.
Vandana Shiva: I was trained as a physicist. The reason I started to work on agriculture in 1984 was the violence of the Green Revolution. Thirty thousand people were killed in Punjab. What was done there could be more appropriately named the ‘Brown Revolution,’ in terms of desertifying fertile land, or the ‘Red Revolution’ in terms of shedding blood. There was nothing green about it.
I started to look at how much the so-called green revolution farms were growing of what. They were only growing rice and wheat. We did a calculation. If we grew as much rice and wheat with that much land and that much irrigation, with organic and native seeds, would we have less or more? It was the same. So it wasn’t miracle seeds. It was land grabs. Since then we have been saving biodiversity and calculating the output per acre. It turns out when you intensify biodiversity and intensify ecological processes, you can double, treble, increase five-fold the nutrition and food output.
But authors of this system on which the Green Revolution, biotechnology and synthetic biology are based, don’t look at life. All they can see are commodities. So they have reduced the biodiversity of the planet to the four commodities that can be patented, genetically engineered. They are barely bringing us two to three percent of the food—that to unwilling consumers who don’t know they are eating GMOs. This is not food. It’s not a food system. It’s a commodity production system. And it’s a control system. In the Green Revolution they could own the plants, but they told us a lie that they would produce high-yielding varieties. There was nothing about the varieties. Because if you don’t have the chemicals, if you don’t have the irrigation, they give you nothing.
Green Revolution Increases Costs, Pests and Pesticides
What’s the result of biotechnology in agriculture in these 20 years of commercialization? Before they commercialized, they said we’ll grow food on the moon, in the Sahara Desert, and on toxic dumps. There will never be food scarcity again. And every trait we will be able to engineer.
All they have managed to engineer is herbicide resistance, and Bt toxic traits. None of the [engineered crops] have increased yields. There’s a very good study by the Union of Concerned Scientists about their failure. They haven’t reduced chemical use. They have actually increased it, because when you shoot a gene, you make the plant more vulnerable. And when you put the toxin into the plant, the toxin is doing the work and the plant isn’t doing its own resilience work. As a result of this, new pests emerge. And as a result, the old pest, the bollworm, becomes a super pest. So you’ve got to spray more and more. In India, [we see a] 300 percent increase in non-target species that have become pests.
These biotech patents result in seed costs that jump 8,000 percent, and pesticide use that increases thirteen-fold. You are talking about an unbelievable jump in the cost of production. Farmers can’t pay for it, and when the creditors who are the sales agents of the seeds and chemicals come to say, “You haven’t paid your debt, your land is my land,” that day the farmer will go to the field and consume a bottle of pesticide and end his life. And then the widow is told by some neighbor, “Your husband is lying in the field.” That’s when she comes to know she has lost her land, she has lost her husband, and they are still in debt.
This process has triggered, according to Indian data from the National Bureau of Crime Records, 284,000 farmer suicides from 1995 to 2012. And this is an under-estimate, because this is only the suicides that the police record; not the suicides that were attempted, taken to hospital and saved in time; not the suicides of the women. It doesn’t include the suicides of the tenants who didn’t own the land but were tilling, because they too are not treated as farmers. So this is a very small fraction of what’s really going on.
Growth as a category came from the war, because they had to mobilize finances for military processes. They worked out the system of national accounting based on GDP. And GDP doesn’t count as production that which you produce for yourself. When you produce what you consume, you don’t produce. That is the definition. So a forest working to maintain an ecosystem doesn’t produce. A community that grows its wheat, and processes it, and mills it, there’s a bakery, and there’s real food out there, there’s real work in those economies, but it doesn’t get counted.
So ultimately, growth only measures the destruction of nature and counts people’s economic output to convert it into commodities and cash. So far, the expropriation of nature has been done in some sectors here and there. The bio-economy would like to do it across the planet on a global scale, and do it using two sorts of power. One is violent invasion. The second is the power of money. Both of them are illegitimate because people have existed on these lands and have taken care of them. And to count them as non-existing is to go back to the old colonial category of “terra nullius.” When colonialism first started ,they created a jurisprudence of empty lands. If land was not occupied by white people, and ruled by white Christian princes, it was empty. So this land was empty because the Native Americans weren’t white! They were Red Indians. Our land was empty, Australia was empty. In a way, what they are doing is they are combining “terra nullius” with a “bio-nullius” That it’s all empty—till We do something to it.
Gopal Dayaneni: Even in our progressive movements we talk about the limits of growth. We talk about how you cannot have endless growth on a finite planet. But I think one of the things we are actually missing in that is that every bit of the planet is in use. And so growth inherently leads to a paucity of diversity. It has to convert what is already being used and what already exists, into something else. So growth by definition will erode diversity. It has to, because there’s nothing that is being used (Shiva interjects: by nature or people) by nature or people... so it must take land. Growth will always erode diversity.
Shiva: And it will create poverty, because there is such a tiny proportion of people who make a living in the global economy, and an even tinier proportion who hang around in Wall Street and play the casino. And the real economies are economies where local biodiversities provide for local needs. So I call these biodiversity economies. But by appropriating these biological resources, you basically deprive local people. Which is why the first movement I got involved in was Chipko—the “hug the tree” movement—because commercial forestry was robbing the local communities of their food and fodder, and the ability of the ecosystems to provide.
Dayaneni: Where do you see some of the most exciting, vibrant examples of social movement work, both north and south?
Shiva: Some of the very, very exciting work that’s been done is looking honestly at farming systems, and realizing that small farmers are actually the backbone of food security. They provide 72 percent of the food. When you measure commodities, they don’t count. But when you measure food, they are the primary reason that we get food. The 28 percent is industrial farms. GM corn and soya is less than five or ten percent. So when you start to honestly look at systems, you find that the solutions really come from the earth and the people.
The second thing that is very exciting to me is this deep convergence between new ecological knowledge, good science, and traditional knowledge. We now have the new ability, for example, to look at the soil and its living systems without the microscope. We didn’t have the capacity to look at interactions. Now we do, and every practice gets validated by ecological science. On the one hand you have bad science and failing technologies parading as a “science.” On the other hand you have all of people’s knowledge and the new ability of ecological science to give us the real answers. And the real answers show us that, contrary to what is claimed, you have a project where the whole planet is needed to run five companies for a handful of people to push products that nobody wants, through subsidies.
You also have systems that use very few resources: You shrink your footprint, but you enlarge your output. But most importantly, you enlarge your solidarity, both with the earth and the beings, as well as the human community. What we should evolve towards is so clear. All we have to do is deal with the lies, the collusion with the state and its military and financial power, and these emperors with no clothes—and have the capacity to both speak the truth, and defend our commons.
Dayaneni: One of the questions we are always called on to answer is, “How does all this local economy, living right with the land, add up to dealing with ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’ or all of the global-scale problems that are described?”
Shiva: The issue of scale also comes from a kind of blindness to seeing that multiples of the small are bigger than one giant. Let me give you a simple example of this. When I heard the biotech industry talk about their vision of the future, GMOs, patents, TRIPS, GATT, WTO, I said, “This is so wrong. But how do I deal with it?” And to my mind came Gandhi, pulling out a spinning wheel and starting to spin cloth.
What the Green Corridor [a collaboration of five East Bay governments] is to become, is the equivalent of the Lancastershire and Manchester of that time. And we were told that everything happened because of Manchester; it was a miracle, industrialism, etc. The reality was, people were captured in Africa, and brought here as slaves to cultivate cotton. Indian farmers were forced to grow indigo for their textile industry. And our master weavers, because they continued to weave better muslin than the factories in Lancastershire and Manchester, their thumbs were cut so they couldn’t teach the next generation to weave. So we have had this kind of violence to destroy the alternative.
Colonization...Gandhi took out the spinning wheel and everyone laughed at him and said, “How do you think some pieces of wood could bring you freedom?” because of the issue of scale. And his response was what inspired me to start Navdanya and seed-saving. He said because the spinning wheel is so small it can be in the hands of the lowest person, and being in the hands of the lowest person, the poorest of women and the smallest of huts, it can be part of the freedom movement.
So the multiplication capacity of the small is what made it large. There is the bigness of the big but that’s what makes it small. What we are talking about is the smallness of five biotech companies controlling seed, two or three guys.
Value resilience. This system has zero resilience, and it will take one little financial crisis, one climate catastrophe, one social upheaval for it to collapse. Resilience is both the ecological resilience in our biodiversity and seeds, and the social resilience of communities cooperating with each other to be able to ride out every kind of disaster that we are facing and will increasingly face, because that is the situation in which we live…We have a very urgent choice between extinction and survival. Survival was always made to look inferior, and tendencies for extinction were celebrated. And that is why we have this rule of stupidity. We need to push survival and sustenance, at the center, of how we think, how we relate to each other and how we relate to the earth. Survival is not a bad idea.
Based on a livestream broadcast hosted by synbiowatch.org and KPFA radio.
Transcribed by Preeti Shekar, edited by Jess Clarke.