The time of year when Public Interest Alberta get us together to talk about issues that affect us all is just about here. PIA’s 2014 annual advocacy conference will be keynoted by Dr Vandana Shiva, whose work addressing corporate globalization and genetically modified organisms is widely known and respected. She was nice enough to take a phone call at 11:30 pm from her home in India to talk about her work.
VUE WEEKLY: Your talk is about reclaiming the commons from corporate enclosures. In some of your articles, you’ve mentioned the commons as water, health, education, [and] seeds. Can you give some examples of how people globally are reclaiming the commons?
VANDANA SHIVA: An example, very clearly, is the enclosure of biodiversity and seed through patenting. And genetic engineering is, of course, a root to that. Genetic engineering has no standing in and of itself. I mean, there’s no reason they do it if they weren’t going to get a patent at the end of it. So this, in my view, is the most serious enclosure, which is why for the last 30 years I’ve dedicated my life to reclaiming the commons of biodiversity, knowledge and seed because they are all connected.
In terms of biodiversity and seed, our movement of reclaiming the commons is basically just saying patents are wrong. Seed is not invented, life is not invented and this error has to be corrected. Monsanto just went to the US government, wrote a draft agreement and pushed it on the rest of the world. You can’t have something so fundamental introduced by just one corporate interest. From the beginning of my founding of Navdanya in 1987—the movement for seed saving—our commitment has been we do not recognize these patents, we do not see seed as the invention of a company: we see seed as a gift of millennia of the past and a gift we must hand over to thousands of years into the future. The very concrete way in which this recovery is taking place is through creating community seed banks with a commitment to sharing and saving seed rather than preventing the saving and preventing the sharing of seed through intellectual property rights. That’s why in India we’ve created more than 120 community seed banks. In the last two years I’ve started to take a lot of initiative to spread this globally through the Global Citizens Movement For Seed Freedom, which is both the freedom of the seed to evolve and the freedom of the farmers to have seed, as well as freedom of people to be able to eat food from really good seed rather than toxic GMO seed.
Another initiative of the resistance to the enclosure in this field is all the campaigns I’ve led on biopiracy. The patenting of neem, the patenting of wheat, the patenting of basmati and more recently, a new campaign on the patenting of screening of all the soil varieties of the world because with genetic engineering the soil base has gone so narrow, that they need to get access to the local varieties we’ve saved.
VW: You’ve found that biodiversity and yields decrease with GMO seed, correct?
VS: Exactly, because just as Wall Street speculators can manipulate financial data—and they did, which is how they brought the whole world to collapse in 2008—the genetic engineering lobby, chemical lobby, manipulate the measure in agriculture to make it look like they’re producing more when they’re actually reducing the productivity of land and biodiversity.
If you convert a field which has cotton, along with millet, along with pulses and vegetables, per acre you actually grow more biological material, including food. You turn it into a monoculture of Bt cotton and they say, “Oh, we have more cotton.” Of course you’ll have more cotton! Not because it’s Bt, but because it’s only cotton. This trick of what I have called the monoculture of the mind has been used repeatedly. Just this afternoon I had to give an interview on Indian TV where they were saying, “Well, they’re saying we’re now exporting.” I said we are now exporting cotton for two reasons: first, the subsidies of the Americans were trashed by a case brought by Brazil against US in the WTO. And second, our mills have shut down and all our raw cotton goes to China and then we re-import clothing. This is not a very big gain for the country overall [and] in terms of employment, it’s a loss.
So all kinds of tricks are played to make it look like GM brought benefits and I’m very fascinated to see today a release of a report from the USDA that is admitting what we’ve been saying for about 10 years, that it’s just a tool, it’s not a science. It’s wrong to call it GM science. These are genetically engineered crops using a tool of recombinent DNA that they are failing to control tests. And you’ve noticed in your area how resistance to weeds is taking place with Roundup Ready Canola. The USDA is having to admit that farmers are having to use more lethal chemicals and, in fact, farmers are now starting to lose in [the] United States because of the use of GMOs. So I think within this 20-year cycle, in a way the fairy tale is over. Or should we call it a nightmare?
VW: Why do you think they’re finally admitting it? They can’t see any other options?
VS: The thing is, no one can deny there are super weeds and super pests, that’s all on record. And at the end of the day, the US government has to deal with this problem. The companies that make the money don’t deal with the problem; it’s the public system that deals with the problem.
In India, of course, the big issue has been the socio-economic impact along with the emergence of resistance in the bollworm to the Bt toxin, so they’re having to sell a double gene. The early suicides all started in the cotton area. Ninety-five percent of cotton is now GMO cotton, which is 8000-percent more [costly] and the main reason for farmers’ deaths and a big reason for farmers’ suicides.
One thing the industry cannot tolerate is the repeated studies we do every year and update on suicides. The figures on the national suicides are not ours, they’re the government’s. But what we do is go into the field and actually visit homes, find out why a farmer committed suicide and we have now data from ’98 onward with individual names. The majority of suicides in the cotton belt are because they’re cultivating Bt cotton and getting into debt.
It’s fascinating, I mean the biotech industry has gone into such a tizzy. They’re having to interestingly plant stories against me on the suicide issue and then they put a graph for national rates of suicide. But the country doesn’t grow cotton across the board, the relevant regions are the regions where cotton is grown and where Bt cotton is grown, and there the graph is not static. It is climbing.
VW: They’re often painting the farmers as being greedy and choosing Bt cotton when actually, that’s their only option, correct?
VS: Monsanto has been super, super smart. It first destroys the farmers’ options by telling farmers “Oh, you’ve got primitive seed. Give it up. We’ll even pay you some money. We’re bringing you smart seed.” They then crush the public sector, and this has happened in Canada as much as in India as much as in the US, the public system stops doing its work. Mysteriously, suddenly there’s no public breeding. And third, they buy up, or lock into a licensing arrangement, domestic companies. Sixty Indian companies that used to breed cotton seed are today only selling Monsanto’s Bt cotton and the licensing contracts don’t allow them to sell anything else. Of course, you can understand if the price of the Bt cotton is 8000-percent more than the old alternative, then of course a domestic company starts to make more money even though it’s having to pay a royalty to Monsanto. And that is the logic: it’s the greed of Monsanto and the innocence of the farmer, not the greed of the farmer.
VW: Do you think this comes down to the question of the value of profit over the value of human life?
VS: I think the blind chasing of profit without ecological concern and responsibility, without respect for human life has really become a major threat both to the planet, as an ecocide, and what we witnessed in India with farmer suicides as a genocide. And now when we see the new data on Roundup and glyphosate, you might have noticed new research was done in Sri Lanka where they suddenly found, starting in the ’90s, very high levels of kidney failure; 400 000 victims, 20 000 dead because of kidney failure. The scientists have done a mapping, that show other reasons for problems, but the single most important reason is the use of Roundup which actually locks heavy metals in the process and damages the kidney. The government of Sri Lanka has banned glyphosate.
VW: It seems like often Monsanto and these companies use in their defence that their products are addressing world hunger. What do you say to that?
VS: For three reasons, this is such a false claim. The first reason is the technology is only a technology to move a gene—in the case of Bt, a gene that produces a toxin. It is not a yield-increasing technology, it is just a gene-shuffling technology. The only genes of interest to Monsanto are the toxic genes. So if at all yields are increasing, it’s of toxins. This is not about hunger, then, it’s about disease.
The second is the data is so clear, the two primary crops that have spread are GMO corn and GMO soya. If you were to add canola and cotton, that would cover most of the GMOs planted. None of this is going into food. Canola goes into biofuel, soya goes into biodiesel, animal feed, corn goes into animal feed and ethanol and cotton, of course, is not eaten. So 90 percent of the GMO corn and soya is not in food system, directly eaten.
The third reason why this is so false to claim that this is about hunger is that you are impoverishing small farmers. You’re squeezing royalties out of them. That is not an end to hunger, that is the beginning of a suicide economy.
Public Interest Alberta’s public policy conference is happening from Fri, Apr 11 until Sun, Apr 13. The full schedule is available at pialberta.org.