Seminal Work: Interview with Dr Vandana Shiva

Author, environmental activist and food sovereignty advocate Dr Vandana Shiva talks to IEMA CEO Sarah Mukherjee

Based in Delhi, Vandana Shiva is a board member of the International Forum on Globalization, and founder of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology. She has a PhD in the philosophy of physics and in 1991 founded Navdanya, a movement to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources, especially native seeds. Shiva has contributed globally to changing the practice of agriculture and food; Time has identified her as an environmental hero and Forbes called her one of the seven most powerful women on the globe.

Has COVID-19 given you cause to review your work?

No, it has deepened my evolution of thought and, in fact, converged the foundational principles. My early work began with the Chipko movement in the Himalayas. The Chipko women knew exactly how natural forests and the oaks and the rhododendrons were connected to their water flow, to stabilising the mountains and to basic needs. There was no opposition between the needs of nature and their needs. They worked in harmony. 

I wrote a book on this called Soil Not Oil. I wrote Annam: A Manifesto on Food for Health on how industrial or processed food, the same food system that’s giving us climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, is also giving us the chronic disease epidemic.

“Climate change and extinction are not two separate processes – they’re just two separate expressions of the same process”

When the pandemic hit, I went through all of my learning of the past. So much literature has recognised that invasions into the forests are at the root of a splurge of new pandemics, so when I go back and read my work from the 1980s, the basic principles are there – the diversity of knowledge, the diversity of economy and, of course, the law of return, which I began thinking about in terms of organic farming but is really now the basis of my economic thinking.

Systems are being destroyed, species are being driven to extinction and the dial is not moving. Why?

First, it’s not the case that nothing has changed. We put in place the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. They actually started to put the limits in place, recognising that you have to conserve, and there can’t be a destruction of, biodiversity. International, national and participatory movements grew, and biological diversity reached the villages. 

This had an impact. Mike Moore, then director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), came to India and asked to meet me. He said: “I’m getting all these letters in Indian languages. Please, can you stop them?” I said, “Why would I stop the letters? They’re coming from autonomous village communities and you have a duty to reply. As the letters told you: ‘Come and sit under the banyan tree in our village, which is how we settle disputes and conflicts. We are willing to listen to you.’” We changed the WTO rules; I got exclusions on the patenting of life.

We need not just an environment programme but a global environmental institution. Deregulation right now is on fast forward. Look at Brexit, what is it but deregulation? Climate change and extinction are not two separate processes – they’re just two separate expressions of the same process. 

We are so clearly on the brink. I have written a new book called Oneness vs 1%. If we don’t shift and find new democratic energies to be able to bring accountability to the 1%, we can be absolutely sure that the human species will become extinct. 

“I think that the three things that can’t be taken away from you are your inner freedom and your conscience, your commitment to freedom, and your relationships of compassion”

Jeff Bezos has made US$64bn since the lockdown began. I don’t talk about greed as the economy, because economy is managing our home, the earth. When you’re managing your profits and greed at any cost, you are basically just stealing.

The agricultural community might say we can feed people through methods such as gene editing, to increase the range of crops we can grow. What’s your view?

I have more than a view on that, because I’ve spent literally the last 36 years researching this question. Chemical agriculture was introduced into India in the 1960s. In effect, chemical industrial agriculture is, ‘Honey, I Shrunk The Plants’. Then you go ahead and say, “Honey, I used glyphosate, I sprayed out everything – honey, I shrunk the ecosystem. Now, honey, I’m shrinking the planet in terms of the habitable space, ecological space for diverse species.”

Starting the Navdanya movement and saving seeds, I built up a farm for conservation and teaching and research and it grows organically. In just one square foot of our farm – where we have no chemicals, we spray no Roundup – I found 12 edible plants that are growing wild, and they’re nourishment. 

We started measuring nutrition per acre, health per acre. We looked at biodiversity analysis, and interestingly, the more the breeding has happened, the more nourishment has gone out of plants. We can feed two times India’s population if we conserve our biodiversity and stop using chemicals that exterminate biodiversity.

People don’t connect the beginnings of ‘science’, or the ‘masculine birth of time’ as Francis Bacon called it, with the historical time of the enclosures of the commons in England, the colonisation of India and the Americas, slavery and the burning of witches ­– but it’s one phenomena, of violent attempts to conquer for greed, power, control. 

The world and its ecosystems and species are interrelated. To lack understanding of those relationships is to lack knowledge, to ignore the health of our body and our gut microbiome – we are fed with any stuff, with any GMO, with any chemical. This is the reason for chronic diseases. We cannot afford this ignorance. 

“I don’t talk about greed as the economy, because economy is managing our home, the earth. When you’re managing your profits and greed at any cost, you are basically just stealing”

Are we beginning to listen to those views, or is there still a very mechanistic view of the world?

Before the deregulation of commerce, things were far more level, far less polarised. It’s not just the defeminisation of knowledge and science, it’s the defeminisation of the economy, because this system doesn’t count women’s work as producing. GDP says that if you produce what you consume, you don’t produce. The defeminisation of the economy has brought us to poverty, to hunger, to dispossession – it is behind the refugee crisis.

Independent scientists who were looking at the gut microbiome 10 years ago suddenly found, “Oh my God, this is where earth begins.” Ayurveda said it 5,000 years ago, and in a way, the new sciences are confirming it. Grandmothers always said it – “you are what you eat, be careful”. The grandmother’s knowledge, ancient traditions like Ayurveda and the cutting edge, independent ecological sciences are starting to wake up to a feminisation of knowledge. 

As a long-time campaigner, how do you fight against the concentration of wealth and power to fewer and fewer people?We need the whole world. Patenting means you can prevent anyone else 
from using what is patented. The objective was to prevent farmers from having their own seed. 

All the lessons of India’s independence movement came back to me, the idea of self-rule and self-making – that’s why Gandhi pulled out the spinning wheel and said, “We will not be dependent on manufacting textiles.” I said, “Okay, I’m doing the nonviolent farming, but now I will save seeds.”

The tech economy doesn’t make anything real that feeds us or nourishes the earth. I think the young people are catching on. Just yesterday, a young man who made a film on us said, “10 years ago, I came to your farm and you inspired me. That film shifted me and now I’m so happy. I’m growing my wheat and baking my bread, and nothing disturbs me because nothing can be taken away.”

I think that is the freedom of today. What is in you that can’t be taken away? I think that the three things that can’t be taken away from you are your inner freedom and your conscience, your commitment to freedom, and your relationships of compassion.

Are you optimistic about society and sustainability in the next five to 10 years?

My PhD, on the philosophy of quantum theory, taught me potential. A very important lesson of quantum theory is uncertainty, because it’s all about potential. 

The chemical industry did not anticipate the consequences of using chemicals. That’s what created the potential for organic farming. The industrial food system did not anticipate the killing of the gut microbiome. Now there’s an awareness, and people are becoming conscious of healthy eating, and making different decisions than the mechanical imposition being forced on them. 

I see with pain the harm being caused to the earth and people, but I look forward with hope to another world we could shape. 

26% Food accounts for 26% of global GHG emissions

70% of global freshwater withdrawals are used for agriculture

50% Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture


For more information on Navdanya –a network of seed keepers and organic producers spread across 16 states in India visit: 

The views put forward in this article are personal to the interviewee and are not necessarily endorsed by IEMA or by Transform magazine.

Picture Credit | Alamy
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