VANDANA SHIVA'S speaking tour hit Waterloo last fall. To audiences across the continent, she exposed the strengthening grip of corporate control on global food systems, and the complicity of Western governments in allowing it to happen. Shiva promotes a re-imagination of the dominant economic, political and socio-cultural systems, into holistic ones that serve people and the planet first – a full-scale transformation she calls “Earth Democracy.”

A renowned scientist and environmentalist, Shiva has devoted her career to social and environmental justice. She won the prestigious Right Livelihood Award in 1993 “for placing women and ecology at the heart of modern development discourse.” Her Navdanya seed network supports local farmers and crop diversity, and defends the rights of people and nature against corporate control of food and resources.

After the Waterloo event, Ellen Desjardins caught up with this unstoppable activist.

Ellen Desjardins You’ve said that Earth Democracy is a form of “action.” What do you mean?

Vandana Shiva Real change can only come from people, I think, because right now governments are either unable to act, or they are aggressively promoting the corporate takeover of food. So, on the one hand we need to say, “This is the food system we want.” But we also need to be aware of what is preventing farmers from selling locally and getting a fair price for what they grow.

It is about our principles, but also those things that we do not recognize because they were not democratically decided. For example, we do not accept patents on life. The only way to deal with this threat is to declare that we will not be ruled by it, because we have deeper democratic obligations.

Desjardins How does Gandhi’s concept of civil disobedience relate to Navdanya, the seed-keeping network you founded in India?

Shiva Navdanya is built on the recognition of civil disobedience as a duty, not just as a right. Every member of Navdanya – all 500,000 of them – has to pledge that they will not recognize patents that would make it illegal to save or share seed. The word for civil disobedience in Sanskrit is satyagraha – “the force of truth” – because when law is used by narrow interests to force society onto an unjust path, it becomes our duty to not co-operate with that unjust and dishonest law. It’s an absolutely permanent tool of democracy.

Desjardins In Canada, people don’t seem willing to work in the fields, so we bring migrant workers in from places such as Mexico. Why is that?

Shiva Well, I have not seen any family farms wrap up because they wanted to give up farming. They gave up farming because of debt. There are many young people in Canada who would love to farm, if they were given the option.

Today’s global economy is unrealistic and unsustainable. The farmer as producer is not getting enough, and the worker is not getting enough. And when people buy any service or goods, they’re paying too much. But if they could go to a farmer to buy directly, it would be affordable.

I think many of the Mexicans who came here to work were driven out of their farms. They didn’t want to leave their homes, but unfair trade turns them into cheap labour. If you were to apply one simple principle – equal work for equal pay – it would not be viable to bring Mexican labour into Canada. They pay Mexicans less because they’re Mexican, and that injustice has allowed an exploitive system to continue generating higher profits for higher margins. We need to allow people to generate and find work as much as possible locally.

Desjardins Canadian wheat prices have fallen dramatically, and farmers are leaving Saskatchewan continuously. What’s happening?

Shiva The reason that farmers in the Canadian Prairies are not able to make a living is the same reason that European farmers are protesting and dumping milk. They’re not able to cover the cost of production. You cannot continue an economic activity if the production costs are higher than what you make at the end of the day.

The global system is designed to make the cost of agriculture high, so that farmers buy bigger machinery and more chemicals. In the meantime, the price of what they produce is being driven down – not because of surpluses, but because of monopoly. Even India is being told, “You don’t need to produce your wheat – Canada will supply your wheat.” They come to India and tell us to become a “high-tech” society. It’s a new strategy to maintain the linear development myth.

First you have agriculture, then you have services, and now you have information. As if you can live on information!

Desjardins Do you feel optimistic about current trends in global food?

Shiva I am a deep optimist because I’ve put my faith and hope in the actions of people. I think their potential is waiting to burst in terms of transformation.

When industry learned that people wanted wholesome food and were creating the organic movement, they used the law to prevent alternatives. This is why courage for civil disobedience becomes vital in our times. Intellectual property law prevents farmers from having their own seeds and forces them to buy Monsanto’s GM seeds. Sanitary and phyto-sanitary laws prevent the alternative of local food processing and production. Wherever people have the energy to build an alternative, industry will try to discredit it. That’s why we need to be prepared for dealing with these issues, and that’s why we need the Gandhian inspiration of satyagraha. 

For more on the movement, read Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability and Peace, South End Press, 2005. For more about Navdanya’s seed-saving research farm and its associated Earth University, visit navdanya.org.

Co-chair of the Waterloo Region Food Systems Roundtable, Ellen Desjardins writes extensively about food security issues. Her current research explores how people respond to a changing food environment. 

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