“Food is everyone’s business,” said Dr Vandana Shiva, addressing the 580 people at Public Interest Alberta‘s Calgary keynote event. As founder of the Navdanya (seed savers) movement in India, Shiva has made a career of challenging major agricultural and pharmaceutical makers — in the field now called “Life Sciences” — over their attempts to patent traditional medicines like the Neem tree, to promote Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) products, and to seize control of seeds so that farmers have to pay whatever price they want to charge. 

Canadian educated (PhD in quantum physics, UWO), Shiva is a frequent visitor to Canada. This visit to Alberta is particularly timely in light of the Harperite government’s new Omnibus Bill C-18, which the National Farmer’s Union fiercely opposes. C-18 would, among other things, allow companies to charge royalties on the crop as well as charging for the seeds. 

“The primary purpose of the C-18 measures is to increase revenues for seed companies,” writes Randall Affleck, an NFU Board member. “Farmers will eventually be bound to yet another agri-business profit centre, this time via the seed. Litigation and the gradual de-registration of publicly available varieties will help persuade farmers to replace farm-saved seed with seed purchased from the company every year. Farmers are being promised more variety research and development, and more innovative new varieties through this privatized system. However, farmers will simply end up paying more royalties with no say in how these funds would be used.”   

In India, more than 280,000 farmers have committed suicide because of expensive, unreliable patented seeds. “Patenting seeds has huge costs for farmers, biodiversity, and the ecology,” said Shiva. “Fifty percent of Monsanto’s seed price is profit. That represented a 8000 percent price jump for Indian farmers.”

Monsanto justifies the price increase by saying farmers will save money on other supplies, such as fertilizer and pesticides. “But despite Monsanto’s promises, the patented seeds do not eliminate the need for pesticides,” said Shiva. “[Monsanto’s] Bt seeds are failing now in Pakistan. It’s a failed technology.”

“Patenting seeds makes farmers consumers instead of producers, never able to keep up,” she said.

The result in India is that “the same farmer sometimes buys seeds three times in a season, which for him is an unpayable debt. When the company agent comes to take the land because the farmer can’t afford to pay for the seed — land that may have been in his family for many generations — the farmer goes into the field and drinks a bottle of pesticide.”

Canada’s Bill C-18 would give seed producers the right to confiscate farmland for seed nonpayment too. 

Shiva cited Mahatma Gandhi’s summation of ecological justice: the earth has enough for everyone’s needs but not for some people’s greed. And she asked: “How did we reach a stage where greed, once seen as a perversion, has become something to celebrate?”

“For most of history, everything that has been vital to living has been held in common. Governments and others are taking the commons, which are the property of all life, and turned them into private property.”

To forestall public resistance, she said, “every enclosure of the commons has been justified on the grounds of progress.” She offered the story of the Kerala women’s campaign against the Coca Cola plant as an example. Writer Anita Roddick described the sheer destructiveness of the plant, which displaced thousands of agricultural workers from prime farming land,  

“As soon as the first nail was hammered, the plant was in violation of India’s Land Utilization Act, which forbids agricultural land from being converted for non-agricultural use. Where thousands of locals once worked the land for a living, just 100 local residents are employed at the plant, and another 150 as casual labourers who have no job security or appreciable benefits.

“The plant drilled more than 60 deep wells on the land in two years, and extracts between 600,000 and 1.5 million liters of water each day, at absolutely no cost to Coca-Cola. The aquifer is so over-tapped, the water table has dropped below a measurable level in many areas. The three agricultural reservoirs in the region have dried up completely. What remains of the groundwater is polluted by runoff and rampant dumping along the banks of canals on the plant property.” 

With their water polluted, the locals have few options besides purchasing pricey bottled Dasani water from the very plant that destroyed their farmland and their natural water supply. “Anywhere Coke lands, it lowers the local water table.” said Shiva, who worked with the local women to shut down the Kerala plant. She brought a greeting from one of them: “Tell them when they drink Coca Cola, they are drinking the blood of our people.” 

Coke follows a familiar two-step pattern to create local markets, similar to the Shock Doctrine: first environmental disaster, then high prices. “In every enclosure of the commons,” said Shiva, “the first step is an enclosure by pollution, as Coke did, by allowing dumping into the local water supply. Then after you’ve created a scarcity, the next enclosure is privatization.”  

Such tactics have backfired in India, though. “The World Bank’s demand that India privatize water caused so much civil unrest that the Delhi government had to backtrack. In India we feel that water is our sacred commons, and not a commodity. The River Ganges is Mother to all of us. Village after village blocked privatization of their water tanks.” 

Air rights are undergoing a similar corporate grab for natural resources. “With the enclosure of the atmospheric commons,” said Shiva, “first polluters dumped excess greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere that their stacks didn’t have the capacity to reuse. Then, once the climate destabilized, they used the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change work and the UN convention to say, ‘Now we can privatize — through emissions trading.'” 

“I come from the area of the Himalayas that feeds all the branches of the Ganges. The glaciers there are retreating at a rate of 23 metres a year, 50 metres a year. This may not seem obvious, but hydro dams are part of emissions trading. There were 500 dams planned for our region. They only built 50, but those 50 destabilized the whole river system. The rivers rose 20 feet. My whole office was under four feet of water. Our region lost 20,000 people to the flood this year.” 

Linear, profit-oriented thinking has shown its limitations — and its intentions. In her 2005 book, Earth Democracy, Shiva argued that “…globalization’s transformation of all beings and resources into commodities robs diverse species and people of their rightful share of ecological, cultural, economic, and political space. The ‘ownership’ of the rich is based on the ‘dispossession’ of the poor — it is the common, public resources of the poor which are privatized, and the poor who are disowned economically, politically, and culturally.” 

Shiva has opposed globalization since even before the 1999 popular uprising in Seattle. Moreover, she has an outstanding track record of mobilizing the people who are most vulnerable to displacement during economic development programs — the (often indigenous) peoples who make their living through subsistence farming and sharing. The 1993 Right Livelihood Award Committee called her record that of a “totally committed, very productive and effective activist-advocate-intellectual,” and gave her the prize “for putting women and ecology at the heart of modern development discourse.” She has of course picked up many other awards since then. 

Shiva is equally effective in proposing alternatives to the corporatism she opposes. “Another human future is being born,” she wrote in Earth Democracy, “a future based on inclusion, not exclusion; on nonviolence, not violence; on reclaiming the commons, not their enclosure; on freely sharing the earth’s resources, not monopolizing and privatizing them…” 

Instead, she calls for “living economies, living cultures, and living democracies” to emerge synergistically. “A global economy which takes ecological limits into account must necessarily localize production to reduce wasting both natural resources and people. And only economies built on ecological foundations can become living economies that ensure sustainability and prosperity for all….We are the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe. And reclaiming democratic control over our food and water and our ecological survival is the necessary project for our freedom.” 

No wonder then, that PIA invited Shiva to be keynote speaker at a conference called, “Re-asserting the Public Good in a Corporatized World” (in Edmonton at the Chateau Lacombe this weekend). Well, there are also a couple of decades of shared campaign history with PIA Executive Director Bill Moore-Kilgannon.

Also on the dynamic conference line-up are former Clerk of the Privy Council Alex Himelfarb; long-term Director of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit Martha Friendly; anti-tar sands activist Crystal Lameman, from the Beaver Lake Cree Nation; and Dr Craig Holman, Public Citizen’s government ethics lobbyist in Washington, DC.   

Food is everyone’s business, as Shiva said. One small step towards reclaiming control over our food would be to heed the National Farmers’ Union, and sign their petition against Bill C-18.

Penney Kome

Penney Kome

Award-winning journalist and author Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column...