By Ariel Vegosen, with an interview of Dr. Vandana Shiva
India — home of multi-colored saris; many languages; pollution; slums; traffic that seems to obey no laws; crowded markets filled with fruits and vegetables grown locally, like eggplant, bananas and neem, plus spices that foreigners deem exotic and long for; beautiful temples; ringing bells; the holy Ganges river; samosas, chutney and aloo tikki chaat; monkeys; Gandhian nonviolence; and 1.27 billion people.
India is also the home of a growing environmental battle between corporations like Monsanto and small-scale farmers. For many generations, the tradition in India was for farmers to save their seeds, grow organically and honor plants like neem, which is considered sacred in Hindu culture. Over the last thirty years, however, farming has changed: more pesticides are being used, and, according to a 2012 India Ink New York Times article, 95% of the cotton being grown is genetically modified, farmers are losing their lands to big agriculture corporations, the rate of cotton farmer suicide is increasing, and many of the local sacred plants are in jeopardy of being patented and genetically modified.
At Navdanya Farm and Bija Vidyapeeth (School of the Seed/Earth University) near Dehardun, the capital city of the state of Uttarakhand in the northern part of India, I had the opportunity to work with, learn from and interview the powerful scientist, environmental activist and founder of Navdanya, Dr. Vandana Shiva. Navdanya was birthed as a response to the growing violence that was happening to the land and the people in the Indian food industry.
“Companies like Monsanto are turning farmers’ self-reliance regarding seeds into a dependency on purchasing seeds. Here is how it happens: Monsanto tells a farmer that his seeds are primitive and he should give them up, calling this transaction “seed replacement,” so that it sounds more scientific. Monsanto will even pay the farmer to give up his seeds. The farmer thinks he can give up his seeds because his neighbor will surely have them. The farmer does not realize that Monsanto has done the same thing to everyone in 100 villages across the region, so as a result there are now no seeds available, and farmers are forced to buy them from Monsanto,” says Dr. Shiva.
This is one reason why the vast majority of cotton grown in India is now genetically engineered. The other is that Monsanto either owns or, through licensing agreements, controls all of the cottonseed companies in India. In addition, intellectual property protection, globalization and pressure on public budgets in India have shifted the balance of plant breeding activity from the public to the private sector. “There are only three sources of seed supply — the farmers themselves, some small private companies and the public sector. When it comes to cotton, Monsanto has knocked out all three and become the only supplier, and it is selling BT cotton,” explains Dr. Shiva.
BT cotton is a genetically modified variety of cotton that produces an insecticide. BT cottonseeds are expensive and lose vigor after one generation, requiring farmers to buy new stock every year. Before BT cotton took over, farmers could save their seeds and did not need to purchase new stock every year. Currently, India is the number-two exporter of cotton in the world, meaning most of the cotton we use is thus GMO. Yet many of the farmers growing this cotton cannot even afford to buy cotton clothes for their own family.
Small cotton farmers caught facing insurmountable debt are committing suicide at alarming rates. Their debt is caused by a combination of factors. In addition to Monsanto’s expensive GMO seeds and the chemical pesticides needed to control pests that formerly were not a problem, other factors include free-market policies that result in global price volatility and routinely push prices below the costs of production, unfair U.S. subsidies for American cotton farmers that further depress global prices, and predatory practices by local money lenders. These farmers are leaving behind families stuck with the harsh reality of poverty and sorrow.
Cotton is not the only plant in India that Monsanto and other big agriculture/chemical companies have an interest in. There have been many attempts to patent, genetically engineer and mass-market neem, bananas, wheat, rice and brinjal (eggplant), too. Dr. Shiva and other activists, through the Navdanya network, have successfully thwarted patents on neem, basmati rice, brinjal and wheat. Currently, Navdanya is working hard to protect India’s bananas. On May Day in 2013, along with numerous other organizations, Navdanya launched India’s “No to GMO Bananas Campaign.” While not the largest exporter of bananas, India is the largest producer of bananas in the world, which means corporations like Monsanto see India’s bananas as the next potential GMO crop to mass export.
“‘Swaraj’ is the idea of freedom. I have a very humble thought: the seeds must be saved and the seeds must be free. Navdanya is based on the philosophy of Earth Democracy, which is based on the reality that we are in community with the earth; in India, there was no divide between humans and nature until corporations started owning the commons. There are aspects of life, which every common law — dating back to Roman times — has said must stay in the commons, meaning owned by the public. Water, air, parks, forests, pastures, drainage systems — these are the commons that have now become commodities. These commons — like the seeds, our life force — are being bought by monopolies and patented,” says Dr. Shiva.
Navdanya and Dr. Shiva serve as a beacon of hope throughout India. Over the past two decades, Navdanya has helped set up 111 community seed banks across the country; trained over 500,000 farmers in seed sovereignty, food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture; and helped set up the largest direct marketing fair trade and organic network in the country. Navdanya is rejuvenating indigenous knowledge and culture, creating awareness about the hazards of genetic engineering, defending people’s knowledge from biopiracy, and securing food rights. Navdanya Farms has its own seed bank and organic farm, spread over forty-five acres of land. So far, Navdanya has successfully conserved more than 5,000 crop varieties, including 3,000 varieties of rice, 150 varieties of wheat, 150 varieties of rajma (kidney beans), fifteen varieties of millet, and several varieties of pulses, vegetables and medicinal plants.
The impact of Dr. Shiva’s work, and that of countless other tireless activists in India and worldwide, to counter GMOs bolsters the hopes of the next generation, and politicians are taking notice. While I was at Navdanya Farms, Prince Charles came to visit, and I had the opportunity to talk with him about the negative impacts of GMOs in both the U.S. and India. He acknowledged that the increasing rate of small cotton farmer suicides was being caused in part by the expenses and difficulties associated with Monsanto’s GMO cotton.
Along with Navdanya, there are many organizations in India doing excellent work on environmental rights. Some of these organizations include: the Hummingbird Project, which focuses on training farmers, students and officials on using organic methods, cultivating a living soil, growing healthy food and capturing renewable energy; and the Rights of Nature movement, whose goal is the recognition that trees, oceans, animals and mountains all have rights and deserve to be honored, just as human beings do.