Vandana Shiva on food sovereignty, seed saving and biodiversity

Sustainable World Radio United States

25 April 2017

“This idea of industrial agriculture, plus free trade and globalization, is a lethal idea which is destroying our planet as well as our diets. What we need is more ecological agriculture, more permanent agriculture, and more localized food systems based on food sovereignty.”

“Pulses are the forgotten richness, both richness for the soil’s health as well as our health, and the reason they’ve been forgotten is because the nitrogen fixing that they do nonviolently in their root systems was displaced with the nitrogen fertilizers that came from fossil fuels and the vitality of growing pulses with your cereals in order to produce nitrogen was considered dispensable.”

“But the second reason why pulses were forgotten is they are really rich protein foods, and with the domination of the factory farming industry and the meat industry they made people believe that proteins can only come from meat. So between the assault of the fossil fuel industry and synthetic fertilizers, the assault of the meat industry, the amazing work pulses do for us has been forgotten, and I’m so glad that the United Nations declared 2016 the Year of Pulses so that we can remember we don’t need synthetic fertilizers that are creating dead zones and giving us nitrogen oxides that are three hundred time s more deadly in terms of damaging the climate than carbon dioxide. We don’t really need to put so may animals in factory farms. A large part of our diet should be plant proteins.”

“There are three ways in which pulses contribute to sustainability. First by fixing nitrogen, they actually enrich the soil because they don’t just fix the nitrogen, they also give organic matter through their leaves, through their leaf form. When you apply synthetic fertilizers, you’re destroying soil health. Pulses improve soil health. Secondly because pulses are part of a carbon cycle, and the nitrogen cycle, they actually fix two broken cycles that industrial farming has broken. Industrial farming has forced the shooting beyond the planetary boundary of nitrogen and carbon, and both of these overloads on the ecosystem and the planet can be totally avoided when we let the pulses work with us to close the cycle of carbon and nitrogen.”

“Pulses help farmers because famers then don’t have to buy urea, which requires more water, and in today’s context of increasing drought everywhere, with pulses in your farming system, you can actually survive a drought because they’re also drought tolerant. India was the largest producer and eater of pulses, sadly globalization and the distortions of free trade have made India an importer. And before that, the Green Revolution based on monocultures of rice and wheat got rid of pulses, and instead of letting pulses do the nitrogen fixing, we started to become dependent on urea.”

“Now India’s been made artificially dependent on imports, and there’s a horrible yellow pea that’s being grown in Canada that’s been dumped on India. It’s 7% protein, when our pulses give us 25 – 35% protein. It is tasteless, so people aren’t buying it, and yet the government is importing it, because that’s how corruption works. I’m on the board of advisors of our auditor general, and our auditor’s office has done a full report on how every year, we’re losing 2,100 growers, which is like 12 billion peas, in terms of corruption linked to these imports. Besides the billions that are going into buying what we should be growing, we’re losing every year 1.1 billion kilograms of soil nitrogen, which our pulses could produce, and one million tonnes of protein that our people could have, because we are importing inferior pulses.”

“After the war, industry that was making explosives and ammunition by fixing atmospheric nitrogen had also developed the capacity to make synthetic fertilizers, and after the war they started to push these fertilizers.”

“All systems of agriculture which are permanent, with internal input systems, are always diverse, where different species play different roles and help each other. But now we have monocultures of rice and wheat, and huge amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, and the more fertilizer you use, the more water you have to use, so we now have a water crisis of a very, very severe kind.”

“When plants get that much water — and under the Green Revolution with chemical fertilizers for the same amount of food production, you use 10 times the water — plants using that much water are more vulnerable to pests because they have more sap in them. Therefore you need more pesticides, and the entire treadmill of poisons keeps expanding. So you’ve lost your water, you’ve lost your soil fertility, you’ve made your fields more vulnerable to pests and diseases, which is wonderful for the chemical industry, but for the farmer he gets into deeper and deeper debt, and the ecosystem gets more impoverished.”

“Traditional agriculture does not mean it’s static. This illusion that if it’s tradition it means it’s stuck is such a wrong illusion, because there have been constant changes to traditional agriculture, otherwise how could traditional agriculture have fed five, six, seven times the population if it hadn’t been evolving all the time? The disruption happens because of the war industry, the chemical industry, and today there are five companies controlling all the seed and the chemical inputs. They’re the ones who gain as nature loses and we lose.”

“I think growing pulses is a very important first step in farming non-violently. Because the alternative to pulses fixing nitrogen nonviolently through the rhizobium in the root system is the violent blasting of fossil fuels at 500 degrees to fix atmospheric nitrogen [into fertilizer]. The violence doesn’t stop there. It began earlier, in the fracking for the gas, the fossil fuel extraction, and it carries on after because the soil organisms die on the application of synthetic nitrogen, the runoff is creating dead zones and the oceans are dying, and the atmosphere is losing its ability to regulate the climate because the nitrogen oxide is destabilizing our climate.”

“The alternative of non-violent farming is farming with the Earth, with the ecological laws of replenishment of water, nitrogen, carbon. Making peace with the Earth is to really recognize that the earth is the first source of all abundance — her soil fertility, her biodiversity, her water — and our role is to protect those systems and be co-creators with the Earth. Making peace with the Earth only means recognizing our creative abilities and not being proud of our destructive capacity.”

“I realized that there were forces of destruction who could make money by destroying nature, and therefore had to give my life in the defence of nature.”

“For me, biodiversity and seed have become the center of my commitment to the protection of the Earth, because on the one side it’s the takeover of seed, it’s GM, it’s patenting that is at the heart of the control of the food system, the heart of the destruction of our biodiversity and our sustainability, pushing our famers into debt and suicide, giving us bad food, toxic food. Look at the fact that the U.S. citizen has to struggle so hard for the simple fact of labeling, when 64 countries have mandatory labeling of GMOs.”

“On the creative and constructive side, seed and biodiversity are the alternative to the world of poisons and pesticide, they are the alternative to the world of poisons and patenting. So it is but natural to dedicate my energy to this.”

Dr. Vandana Shiva trained as a Physicist at the University of Punjab. In 1991 she founded Navdanya, a national movement to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources – especially native seed – and to promote organic farming and fair trade.  

For last two decades, Navdanya has worked with local communities and opposite, serving more than 500,000 men and women farmers. Navdanya’s efforts have resulted in the conservation of more than 3000 rice varieties from across India, and the organization has established 60 seed banks in 16 states across the country.

In November 2010, Forbes Magazine identified Dr. Shiva as one of the Seven Most Powerful Women on the Globe.

Dr. Shiva serves on Prince Charles’s expert group on Sustainable Agriculture and she is a member of President Zapatero’s Scientific Committee in Spain. Dr. Shiva advises governments worldwide, and is currently working with the Government of Bhutan to make Bhutan 100% organic. She is also working with the Governments of Tuscany and Rome to create a hopeful and livable future for young people in these times of crisis.


Published by Sustainable World Radio (24 March 2017). Biography via Text is edited for brevity and clarity. Suggestions, corrections or feedback can be submitted on the contact page.