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Food: the currency of life

Dr Vandana Shiva shares why a food system that is at war with the Earth is also at war with our bodies
Dr Vandana Shiva

This article first appeared in our International Women’s Day issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published on 08 March 2023. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

This May I will be in London to speak at Compassion in World Farming’s Extinction or Regeneration Conference.

The important meeting will bring together many of my peers, who are fighting for diversity conservation and regenerative farming around the world, to discuss how we drive transformation of the world’s food systems away from industrial farming and corporate greed for better human, animal and planetary health.

Factory farming/industrial agriculture is not farming, it is a war against the land, small farmers and food democracy, destroying biodiversity and poisoning the land.

Corporate control

I have dedicated my life to saving seeds and promoting organic farming as an alternative to a world dictated and controlled by corporations.

In 1987, at a big conference, the biotech industry laid out its plans – to patent life, to genetically engineer seeds, crops and life forms and to get full freedom to trade through the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations, which culminated in the creation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Our highest duty

The idea of life forms, seeds and biodiversity being reduced to corporate inventions and, hence, corporate property, was abhorrent to me.

Further, if seeds become ‘intellectual property’, saving and sharing them becomes intellectual property theft!

Our highest duty, to save seeds and look after our biodiversity for the next generation, becomes a criminal act.

The legalising of owning and monopolising life through patents on seeds and plants was morally and ethically unacceptable to me.

Foods of the future

So I started Navdanya, which promotes biodiversity conservation, and seed-saving and sharing among farmers.

An Earth-centred, women-centred movement, Navdanya has created over a hundred community seed banks through which seeds are saved and freely exchanged among our 300,000 members.

We have brought back forgotten foods like jhangora (barnyard millet), ragi (finger millet), marsha (amaranth), naurangi dal and gahat dal.

Not only are these crops more nutritious than globally traded commodities, they are more resource prudent, requiring only 200-300mm of rain compared with 2,500mm for chemical rice farming.

Millets could increase food production 400-fold, using the same amount of limited water.

These forgotten foods are foods of the future, and farmers’ seeds are the seeds of the future.

For the farmer, the seed is not merely the source of future plants and food; it is the storage place of culture, of history.

The seed is the first link in the food chain, it is the ultimate symbol of food security.

Protecting cultural diversity

The free exchange of seeds among farmers has been the means for maintaining biodiversity as well as food security, and is based on cooperation and reciprocity.

A farmer who wants to exchange seed generally gives an equal quantity of seed from her field in return for the seed she gets.

But this exchange goes beyond seeds; it involves an exchange of ideas and knowledge, of culture and also of heritage.

It is an accumulation of tradition, of knowledge, of how to work the seed.

Farmers gather knowledge about the seeds they want to grow by watching them grow in other farmers’ fields, by learning about drought and disease and pest resistance.

In saving seeds and biodiversity we are protecting cultural diversity.

I helped write laws that recognise that plants, animals and seeds are not human inventions.

We fought cases on biopiracy, the patenting of our biodiversity and Indigenous knowledge.

Through participatory research, we showed that when you intensify biodiversity instead of chemicals, and measure nutrition per acre instead
of yield per acre, we can grow enough nutrition to feed the world twice over.

How to eat consciously

Across the world, especially during the pandemic, there is a growing consciousness that the multiple energies we are living through have their roots in an unjust, non-sustainable, industrial-globalised food system.

And solutions to all the crises lie in creating local, biodiverse, poison-free, chemical-free food systems that increase nourishment for all beings while reducing our ecological footprint.

Eating consciously can be a big contributor to the solutions. What we need to keep in mind is that food is the currency of life. 

Avoid processed food, eat fresh. Avoid anonymous foods where you do not know what went into the manufacture.

All beings are living, all beings are sentient. Eating is a conversation with other living beings. Anonymous foods disrupt that communication and our health. 

At the Extinction or Regeneration Conference I will be on a panel with Olivier de Schutter, co-chair of IPES-Food and UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights; Philip Lymbery, global CEO of Compassion in World Farming; Lyla June, Indigenous musician and scholar and others discussing these ideas.

Come and join us 11-12 May 2023, either at the event in London or live online.

Click here to register or discover more about the Extinction or Regeneration Conference.

In 1991, Vandana Shiva founded Navdanya, a national movement to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources – especially native seeds, the promotion of organic farming and fair trade. In 2004 she started Bija Vidyapeeth, an international college for sustainable living in Doon Valley, in collaboration with the UK’s Schumacher College.

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