Environmentalist Vandana Shiva Excoriates Corporatization of Farming

By Premlata Venkataraman  

Ms. Vandana Shiva, the renowned environmentalist, passionately spoke against the corporatization of farming while speaking to an overflowing crowd of students at Point Park University on November 2, 2011.

Shiva is known for her adversarial approach to encroachments on environment by for-profit multinational corporations grabbing resources in the name of progress. In a free-style and passionate address, she enumerated the hidden costs for this “progress” to a young and well-informed audience.

Ms. Shiva cut her teeth in the environmental movement while participating in the 1970s to stop deforestation in the Garhwal region of Uttarkhand in northern India. When loggers were indiscriminately felling trees, rural women organized into groups, literally hugging the trees, thus preventing the loggers from killing the trees. Called the Chipko Andolan, the movement was based on Gandhi’s principle of nonviolence. Her struggle persuaded the Indian government to be vigilant on the activities of the logging industry.

Her address focused on globalization and its negative impact on environment and the working poor all over the world. Current trade regulations and the blatant patenting of intellectual property rights, she told, essentially give a legal cover to rapacious multinational corporations to grab resources from unsuspecting citizens, clueless and/or corrupt politicians and government officials, and an indifferent middle class.

Boldly she cited Monsanto, a US-based multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation, as a case in point. It is a leading producer of the herbicide glyphosate marketed as Roundup, and a producer of genetically engineered seeds. Farmers in poor nations are cornered into buying these seeds every planting season touting high yields and resistance to diseases. Because grains harvested using genetically engineered seeds are sterile and hence cannot be used for the next planting season. Soon subsistent farmers become totally dependent on Monsanto to buy seeds every planting season at exorbitant prices. Besides, the crops become vulnerable to new pests. Soon farmers are financially ruined, and in India, many of them killed themselves because of indebtedness.

In addition, the toxicity of the herbicide pollutes the soil, killing the natural biodiversity evolved over tens of thousands of years. The recent diminishing number of Monarch butterflies and the disappearing of bees in the US are attributed to these practices. She pointed that while Earth will withstand these ravages, plants, animals and  humans may not be able to survive the devastation.

“Agribusiness interests have created monocultures in soils,” she said referring to the practice of one or two grains – like cotton, corn and soybeans — planted over large tracts of lands over and over again.

Maximizing profits as their only criteria, soya, corn, canola, and cotton are the only preferred choices. This causes additional financial burden on subsistent farmers who now have to buy all their food. Genetically modified techniques have decimated thousands of varieties of cotton to a handful. Further, feeding cattle soya and corn instead of grass make their stomach more prone to outbreaks of diseases.  

Previously traditional societies used intercropping and crop rotation for naturally enriching the soil of its nutrients. But monoculture of plants was impoverishing both the soil and humans.

“Cultivating diversity in nature is as important as diversity in populations,” she reasoned. Attitudes like, “If you are not with us you are against us,” are as harmful for plant biodiversity as it is for nation-states.

Shiva also stressed on the need for water conservation to ensure everybody has access to it. Companies like Coca Cola have expanded all over the globe, eating up resources. They draw millions of liters of water from wells, thus lowering the water table, impoverishing rural villages. Recently Kerala state in India successfully ousted Pepsi citing wasteful water consumption.

She also touched on the issue of fracking in Pennsylvania for natural gas, which has the potential for poisoning water. She finished her lecture touching on the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is the response of the helpless citizens to the recent trend in the huge inequities in income, wealth and access to resources. Towards the end, the responded to several questions from the students. 

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