On rebuilding and food politics with Vandana Shiva

"We always saw eco feminism as the alternative to capitalist patriarchy, the convergence of an economics of greed with patriarchal power."
On rebuilding and food politics with Vandana Shiva

Sinem Uğurdağ

Professor Dr. Vandana Shiva, an Indian eco-feminist, scientist, and environmental activist, is widely recognized for her leadership in the global food ecosystem and her advocacy for seed rights.

Dr. Shiva has been instrumental in organizing popular movements aimed at preventing deforestation and the construction of large dams. In the 1960s, she spearheaded the establishment of seed banks across India, with the objective of preserving the country's agricultural heritage and promoting sustainable farming practices among farmers. Her advocacy work has centered on issues such as global trade agreements, corporate domination, and the privatization of water resources, all of which pose threats to biodiversity. Through her critical examination of these issues, Dr. Shiva has sought to promote realistic solutions to these pressing challenges.

In recognition of her work, Dr. Shiva was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the "Alternative Nobel Prize," in 1993. She is the author of more than fifteen books and has published over 300 scientific articles.

During the Izmir Economy Congress, we had the privilege of engaging Dr. Shiva in a conversation that touched on various subjects, including ecofeminism, post-earthquake reconstruction, and Turkey's food policies. In particular, we sought Dr. Shiva's insights on the policies that Turkey could implement to promote sustainable food practices and the methods that proponents of seed autonomy could employ to advance their cause.


I read your Ecofeminism book six years ago, and it's actually been 30 years since you wrote the book with Maria.

How do you see the ecofeminism movement evolving in response to the urgent ecological challenges? And what role do you see for ecofeminism in shaping a more sustainable future?

Ecofeminism was evolved, i would say, in response to the roots of the multiple crises we faced. And of course the crises have become deeper now. We always saw eco feminism as the alternative to capitalist patriarchy, the convergence of an economics of greed with patriarchal power, because every structure of the greed economy is patriarchal and formed from the cooperation to the idea of competition rather than cooperation. So ecofeminism's relevance grows with the crisis, but also as another way of thinking and living in this world. That doesn't cause harm.

As you said, disasters’ magnitudes have increased: earthquakes, some ecological crises like environmental crises… In Turkey, we had a horrific disaster last month, and how do you think that territory can promote, somehow sustainable agriculture development?

Well, first, I offer my solidarity and my pain, shared pain for those who either lost their lives through the disaster or were suffering, the continued consequences. From what I have read, it's your new structures that collapsed, that villages survived. And that means two things, that first we have to rein in the unregulated cement suffocation of the mind. Because I have seen earthquakes in my own region, it is the cement that killed people. That was not the earthquake.

And so we need to take much more respect to indigenous building systems, and more involvement in planning. And when you say, how do you rebuild agriculture, well, the Earth is still there, the Earth is still waiting to be taken care of. So ecological agriculture  will always be relevant and even more relevant, because part of what has happened in the last 30 years since we wrote the book is globalization has pushed people off the villages by making agriculture unviable, pushed them into the cities and then you have this explosion. But that process cannot carry on wood because cities have a much bigger footprint than a village. But we need people in the countryside to regenerate the countryside. You know, people have hands, people have minds, people have hearts, and all that needs to be put to work to be able to have a renewal.

I see your point. And I think that's actually the way to go, but because of this whole economic collapse and the comeback of the current situation. It would probably be hard to imagine, I suppose. And at the same time, the feminist movement, some sort of injecting this whole situation of feminist or eco feminist movement would be much harder, I think. And how did you see this same perspective in India?

There are times when there's closure. And when I say closure, I mean, but the mental closure to not see that there are alternatives, but also political closure to not allow plurality of voices to emerge. But that's precisely the time when you need staying power. Because, for me, at least, my thinking and ecofeminist philosophy, or feminist movements are timeless. They are, they're the convergence of how nature works, and how women have sustained society through care. Even when, during the wars, how was food reaching the table? You know, the woman was still finding ways to put together something for the family to eat. So that economy of care and humility, in the context of nature, are even more important today. The fact that there is a closure for a short time, doesn't mean that we have to stop our thinking, we have to stop our speaking, we have to stop our mobilization, we have to continue.

You have written extensively about the importance of preserving the traditional seeds, seed varieties, and promoting agroecological practices. How do you believe these approaches can empower women farmers and contribute to gender equality in terms of agriculture, especially in developing countries, such as India and Turkey?

I knew when I started to save seeds, because I heard the corporation's talk about owning the seeds through patterns. And through genetic engineering, and having laws like the intellectual property laws of GATT and WTO. To make it impossible for farmers to save seeds, that's the day I decided I would save the seeds. I didn't do it with any idea other than the idea of freedom, that farmers' freedom to save and exchange should not should not be taken away. This has seeds of energy. This is the basis of agriculture. But now that we've done this since 87, that's when I started, we find that the old seeds have much more nutrition. So if you want food, you'd better use old seeds, because the new seeds have been bred for chemicals. Second, the old seeds are much more climate resilient. So we are living in times of climate change. 

We were just saving what we caught in the seeds we had saved for salt Aldrin seeds, and then the cyclone game in 1999. We could build back agriculture, tsunami came, we could build back agriculture. And the third most important part is nutrition is linked to taste and phytochemicals. So I have helped Indian farmers become seed savers. But when I went into the villages, at the end of the day, to the women who had the knowledge, they've always been seed savers, they've always been seed breeders. So women have a very important role right now to to change the idea that they do not have expertise. They are the ultimate experts on seed. The second is they're the ultimate experts on how to grow biodiversity and know the different uses of biodiversity. And that's the way we can feed the world, address climate change, and reverse biodiversity erosion. So women will be in the lead in this transition.

I see but at the same time, because of the policy making regarding the seed situation, especially with the corporations and how they sell the seed and return it to the developing countries in a way trying to ameliorate the system but make it worse.  What do you suggest to policymakers in this situation?

Well, you know, I feel very grateful and very blessed that I was able to play a role in India, not just with the farmers and to create 150 Community seed banks. But with our policymakers, a Parliament, Parliament would invite me to talk about trade, Eurasian intellectual property rights patenting GMO, and ridotto law on battens, which says plants, animals and seeds are not human inventions, therefore, they cannot be patented. That's something Turkey should do. You know, this parliament should pass a law that plants, animals and seeds are not human inventions. Therefore they are not patentable. But the second was. We talked to our policymakers about how farmers have been the real breeders of every seed we use, you know 0.1001% work has been done by the corporations, most of it has been in but not by nature or traditional farmers. So I always say the farmers are the first breeders.

So we managed to write a law and UPOV is the international law on Breeders' Rights, which is like patent rights. And I  managed with the government to write a log on. The government invited me to be an expert in writing this law on plant variety protection of powers, right? So we have an article 39, which says farmers are breeders, the right to save, exchange, improve, sell seed can never be taken away. And that has meant that when Pepsi tried to sue Indian farmers for saving, put it, you know, they have faced chips. And they've sued Indian power for farmers for 40 million rupees. And when I read this in the newspaper, I immediately sent my book on intellectual property to the lawyers and the judges. I see, but they can't they can't sue the farmer because the writer is an alien. So article 39 of that law. That's something definitely parliamentarians and policymakers of Turkey, those both laws, you know, should with the farmers of this country be molded in appropriate context, for Turkey. I've just had a wonderful lunch, full of diversity. Breakfast, they laid out, I think, 20 kinds of olives. I've never seen 20 kinds of olives. I go to Italy all the time, green, olive, black, over 30 kinds of olive. You are so rich in biodiversity, and protecting your farmers rights to continue to evolve biodiversity is very important for the future sovereignty of Turkey.

You've been a passionate advocate for sustainable agriculture, social justice, eco feminism, and all these amazing things. I'm really curious, in the last few years, have you ever experienced anything that changed your perspective that took you from one point to another, quite strictly?

My perspective just got deepened. I took on the biggest giants, the Monsanto's of the world. And you don't like it because they set their mind on a monopoly, all seats will be theirs. And when I interfere in their project of total monopoly, of course, they're not happy. But every time they do horrible things, I learn a little more about how unjust, undemocratic Victorian dictatorial system works. So, then you learn how your principles don't change. But your strategies understand their mind deeper. Because we are dealing with an economics that is like mafia economics, you know.

So, to stay true to your knowledge, and your values and your choices, in the context of market economics, of course, means that you just have to become more plural in your ways.

I couldn't agree more. Finally, last but not least, what are the current projects that you're working on? What do you want to achieve in the upcoming years?

You know, I don't really like to use the word achieve, because I work on important issues, irrelevant of what the outcome will be, because, you know, you have to do the right thing. Because you know, I have done my PhD in quantum theory. And there's always multiple parts, you know, it can be a particle, it can be a wave. But if you keep putting your weight behind the right action, then the right action becomes part of the outcome. So what am I, you know, I'm continuing to save seeds. It has so happened that women have been the most committed in this movement, even though I started the farmers as a whole but it's the women farmers who are really, totally committed to this. And we've just finished a celebration last week on 450 farm women, 400 farmers, and 50 women from around the world on the future issues and they've just done their manifesto. But what I can see is like seed was to be monopolized. They are those in Silicon Valley, who would like to take over our food and, and make lab food. So all the delicious tastes I had this afternoon, you know, would be totally gone. And you know, a Coca Cola is not like a fresh juice. It's not the same. It's still a drink, but it's not the same.

So we know ultra processed food has already caused 75% of the chronic diseases we face. If all food is ultra ultra ultra processed in the lab, two things will happen, agriculture will become more monoculture to produce raw materials and commodities. And therefore biodiversity will go, energy use will increase So climate change will increase. And worse, food will lose its quality of taste, of diversity, of culture. Food is culture. Food is life, they lose life. So when I see Silicon Valley, putting money into fake milk, fake meat Impossible Burger patterns, 14 patents on Impossible Burger, you know, my work on seed, that ultimately food begins with seed. So the outer circle becomes real food and real farmers. So I'm just hoping that just like we were, our young children's health was destroyed with junk food, that our future will not be destroyed with thick food that for me, truth is absolutely non negotiable. And the truth in food is the very basis of the health of the planet. Thank you so much. A junkie can play a very big role by defending its real farmers and celebrating its amazing food.

Thank you so much for answering my questions.

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Sinem Uğurdağ

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Weekly politics publication focusing on Turkey, city agendas, and international policy.