Trees in Fort Kochi, Kerala. Firosnv. Photography, Unsplash

Vandana Shiva: “We must give up the monoculture of the mind”

World-renowned environmental thinker on her life, motivation and how to feed India’s 1.4 billion people

Food production accounts for more than a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. But could we really feed the world’s expanding population while lightening our impact on our planet?

If you ask Vandana Shiva, the answer is a resounding yes. The veteran Indian scholar, author and activist has spent decades battling large-scale agribusiness interests and advocating for the rights of small farmers in her home country – who have again taken to the streets to demand fair prices for their crops.

But how did we get here, and is there a way back to food sovereignty and healthy soils for the world’s most populous country?

In this exclusive interview, ThinkLandscape’s Suzanna Dayne asks Shiva about the legacy of the Green Revolution, what the future holds for Indian agriculture – and how India and the world can forge a brighter food future powered by nature.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Vandana Shiva
Vandana Shiva. Heinrich Böll Foundation, Flickr

You have a background in physics. What led you to becoming an environmental activist and leader in the organic agriculture movement?

Agriculture was not my chosen field of study. My chosen field was quantum theory. I did my PhD in non-locality and hidden variables in quantum theory.

But I was compelled to look at the Green Revolution, and I was asking a very basic question as an outsider to the study of agriculture. My mother had opted to be a farmer when she became a refugee during the partition of India in 1947. She had been a very senior education officer, but then she chose to be a farmer.

So, it’s not that I was a stranger to agriculture. I was a stranger to the study of agriculture.

How did your book The Violence of the Green Revolution come about?

In 1984, in Punjab, where the Green Revolution was first applied, deadly violence erupted. I was doing a major program for the United Nations University in Tokyo on conflicts over resources.

I wrote to them – I said, there is a big conflict here. People have been killed, shot dead – 15,000 people, and I want to understand the roots of this conflict. They said, “sure,” so I wrote my book.

In quantum theory, we have systems causation and contextual causation. So, when I called the book The Violence of the Green Revolution, I was looking at the context that led to the violence and the farmers at that time.

It was really a farmer’s protest, and the farmers were saying: “We are living under slavery. We don’t choose our seeds. We don’t choose how we grow our crops.

“We don’t even decide when the waters of our own rivers will reach our farms, and we can’t decide the price at which we will sell what we grow. This is slavery.”

And what did you deduce from your research?

My reflections on the Green Revolution come from three perspectives. First, my ecological perspective, second, my quantum perspective, and third, my systems perspective.

I have never ever seen things in separate compartments. I’ve always seen the relationships of multiple processes and how they interact with each other.

If you say the Green Revolution had a huge positive impact, no, it did not. Because right from the beginning, it shrunk the food base of India. For Punjab alone, 250 species of crops used to grow, and this was reduced to rice in one season and wheat in the next season.

So, I said: no, we can’t look at just monocultures and commodity yields. We need to look at overall productivity and the full biodiversity output. The overall food base actually shrank.

Secondly, the Green Revolution was introduced in India in 1965 – a drought year. Since the 1950s, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the World Bank and USAID had been trying to introduce the Green Revolution package, which was fertilizers and seeds adapted to fertilizer.

But it was the drought that gave them the opportunity, because that year, India wanted to import more wheat under the PL-480 program [a U.S. program, also known as Food for Peace, that provided food assistance on cash or credit terms to countries in need] to stabilize market prices.

It was not about starvation. It was stabilizing market prices, and we were told: “no, you have to change your agriculture. We will not send you more wheat unless you change your agriculture.”

And overnight, India had to adopt chemicals. Nobody was talking about producing more food. They were all talking about selling more fertilizer, and fertilizers required the monocultures. That’s why we lost diversity.

Tea plantation
A tea plantation in Nelliampathi, Kerala. Aboodi Vesakaran, Unsplash

But Norman Borlaug [a U.S. agronomist dubbed the ‘Father of the Green Revolution’] himself admitted that with fertilizers, agriculture needs 10 times more water to grow the same amount of food. That’s why Punjab, the land of five rivers, very quickly moved into water famine.

And around the world, if you just look at how lakes dry up, how underground water disappears – you find industrial agriculture, and the Green Revolution is actually just the name in the ‘third world’ for industrial farming. It’s the same thing.

Industrial farming is using inputs that come from industry, instead of the soil producing its own fertility through the recycling of plant material in organic matter. One of the issues that doesn’t get talked about enough is the worst greenhouse gas: nitrous oxide, which is 300 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.

In my book Soil Not Oil, I assessed that 50 percent of greenhouse gases come from an industrial food system: in production, in processing, long-distance transport, etc. There’s a cancer train that leaves Punjab because cancer has become an epidemic there because of the chemicals.

What inspired you to build the organic movement in India?

After I wrote The Violence of the Green Revolution, I made a pledge. I said, I’m going to seek nonviolent farming systems. If this is too important, I can’t just do a study and walk on. So, I launched the organic movement.

We rediscovered people like Albert Howard [an English botanist who worked in India between 1905 and 1931]. His book An Agricultural Testament created the organic movement worldwide. As he said: “I was sent to improve Indian agriculture, but I could not improve what the farmers were doing. So, I learned from them. I made them my professors.” And he learned the composting system from Indian peasants.

So, I started to build institutions like Navdanya, do the research, and finally do the practice, and it has grown. To date, we’ve trained more than 2 million farmers in going chemical-free.

It’s important that we shift from measuring yield per acre to measuring biodiverse outputs and nutrition per acre. Our work shows that we could feed double India’s population through biodiversity without chemicals when we focus on nutrition rather than yield.

India’s population could have all the nutrition it needs if we grew biodiversity rather than chemical monocultures – and ecological farming produces much more of both.

Farm
Workers on a farm in Sagar, Madhya Pradesh. Raghvendra Dubey, Unsplash

So you’re saying that you could feed the massive population of India organically? How would you achieve that?

You need to give up two things that have become an addiction. One is what I call the monoculture of the mind: when you only see a monoculture and you don’t see the diversity, and therefore, you don’t cultivate it.

The second is the love for bigness. Big governments love big things. It gives them power and control. Corporations love bigness too. That’s why there are five corporations controlling all chemicals inputs and controlling the seed.

If the world had more small farms, we’d have more food for people. But instead, what we are doing is destroying small farms, creating these megafarms that require lots of resources, lots of chemicals and lots of energy inputs. They rely on energy slaves – the invisible people who work to produce the chemicals that drive the mechanization on large farms.

What role could agroforestry play?

My dad was a forester, and he used to tell us there were more trees on Indian farms than in our forests, because our farms were like forests. That’s what Albert Howard learned: farming in India is farming like a forest, and our small farms are full of farm trees. All the needs you have come from the farm trees and agroforestry. We promoted our own farm, which was barren land and is now full of giant trees.

We also did a piece of research two years ago when the heat was very intense. We said: let’s measure the soils around the farm trees and on neighboring farms, which have destroyed their trees and used chemicals. And the results blew our minds.

The temperature difference was 25 degrees Celsius because of the trees on the soil, and the moisture difference was 15 percent. So, if there is a drought, the naked soils will cause the crop to fail. But the trees protect moisture, and the organic matter protects the moisture climate.

So many of the farm trees play such an important role, not just in farming but in all basic needs, like neem trees that provide pest control. It was patented by the U.S. government and a chemical company [WR Grace], and for 11 years, I fought against that. I called it biopiracy, and we defeated a superpower and a big corporation.

If you’re up against these big corporations, how can you spread organic farming methods throughout India?

Look at all the money that goes into promoting large-scale monocultures and industrial farming, and then look at how small organizations like us work. If the resources that are put into creating megafarms were put into promoting ecological organic methods in agriculture, we wouldn’t just cover India. We could cover the world.

It’s not a lack of knowledge, and it’s not a lack of committed people. It is a lack of resources. I can go to 100 villages with the kind of teams that I can build now, but if I had 1 million people, we’d cover all of India. So, the system does not lack the capacity to spread.

They also use the word ‘scaling up,’ a word I can’t stand. In my world, there’s no “up” – there are no hierarchies. We scale out. If you scale up a small farm, it will become a million-acre farm. But scaling out, one small farm can become 1 million farms.

Market
A food market in New Delhi. Stephanie Liao, Unsplash

If you had a magic wand and could do one thing to improve the food supply in India, what would that be?

First, the system must shift to a more energy-dense, not energy-consuming system, and a more biodiverse intensive system. Save the biodiversity of seeds – of open-pollinated, renewable seeds.

Second, let the amazing biodiversity in the soil work with you. Right now, it’s been crippled. Every micronutrient has disappeared. So, I would definitely shift from external-input fossil agriculture to an ecological agriculture where you work with the soil, you work with the plants.

The third thing is to create decentralized markets and buy local. When I go to eastern India, every village has a market, and when you are selling locally, you sell what that community likes: the vegetables they eat in their cuisine. The farmers will grow it; the people will eat it.

It’s a closed cycle, 100 percent moving within the community. Rural areas don’t get impoverished – they prosper. So, seed, ecological agriculture and decentralized market systems: that’s the magic wand.

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