You don’t have to look very far to find the essence of life, says Vandana Shiva. But in a society caught up in a blur of technological advances, bio-hacks and attempts to improve ourselves and the natural world, she fears we are hellbent on destroying it.
“Everything comes from the seed, but we have forgotten that the seed isn’t a machine,” says Shiva. “We think we can engineer life, we can change the carefully organised DNA of a living organism, and there will be no wider impact. But this is a dangerous illusion.”
For almost five decades, Shiva has been deeply engaged in the fight for environmental justice in India. Regarded as one of the world’s most formidable environmentalists, she has worked to save forests, shut down polluting mines, exposed the dangers of pesticides, spurred on the global campaign for organic farming, championed ecofeminism and gone up against powerful giant chemical corporations.
Her battle to protect the world’s seeds in their natural form – rather than genetically altered and commercially controlled versions – continues to be her life’s work.
Shiva’s anti-globalisation philosophy and pilgrimages across India have often been compared to Mahatma Gandhi. Yet while Gandhi became synonymous with the spinning wheel as a symbol of self-reliance, Shiva’s emblem is the seed.
Now 70, Shiva – who is divorced and has one son – has spent her life refusing to conform to the patriarchal norms so often imposed on women in India, particularly in the 1950s. She has published more than 20 books and when she is not travelling the world for workshops or speaking tours, she spends her time between her office in Delhi and her organic farm in the foothills of the Himalayas.
She credits her spirit of resistance to her parents, who were “feminists at a higher level than I’ve ever known – long before we even knew the word ‘feminism’”. After 1947, when India gained independence, her father left the military for a job in the forests of the mountainous state of Uttarakhand, where Shiva was born and brought up always to believe she was equal to men. “The forests were my identity and from an early age the laws of nature captivated me,” she says.
She was about six when she stumbled on a book of quotes by Albert Einstein buried in a small, musty library in a forest lodge. She was transfixed, determined against all odds to be a physicist. Though science was not taught at her rural convent school, Shiva’s parents encouraged her curiosity and found ways for her to learn. By the time she was in her 20s, she was completing her PhD in quantum physics at a Canadian university.
Yet as logging, dams and development wreaked ecological devastation on Uttarakhand’s forests and local peasant women rose up to fight it – a movement known as Chipko – Shiva realised, on returning to India, that her heart lay not with quantum physics but with a different, nagging question. “I couldn’t understand why were we told that new technology brings progress, but everywhere I looked, local people were getting poorer and landscapes were being devastated as soon as this development or new technology came in,” she says.
In 1982, in her mother’s cow shed in the mountain town of Dehradun, Shiva set up her research foundation, exploring the crossover between science, technology and ecology. She began to document the “green revolution” that swept rural India from the late 1960s, where in a bid to drive up crop yields and avert famine, the government had pushed farmers to introduce technology, mechanisation and agrochemicals.
It instilled in her a lifelong opposition to industrial interference in agriculture. Though the green revolution is acknowledged to have prevented widespread starvation and introduced some necessary modernisation into rural communities, it was also the beginning of a continuing system of monoculture in India, where farmers were pushed to abandon native varieties and instead plant a few high-yielding wheat and rice crops in quick-turnaround cycles, burning the stubble in their fields in between.
It also created a reliance on subsidised fertilisers and chemicals that, though costly and environmentally disastrous, lasts to this day. Soil in fertile states such as Punjab, once known as the breadbasket of India, has been stripped of its rich minerals, with watercourses running dry, rivers polluted with chemical run-off and farmers in a perpetual state of deep crisis and anger.
Shiva’s suspicions about the chemical industry worsened further when, in the early 1990s, she was privy to some of the first multilateral discussions around agricultural biotechnology and plans by chemical companies to alter crop genes for commercial purposes.
“There was a race on by companies to develop and patent these GM crops, but no one was stopping to ask: what will be the impact on the environment? How will they impact on diversity? What will this cost the farmers? They only wanted to win the race and control all the world’s seeds. To me, it all seemed so wrong,” says Shiva.
In 1991, five years before the first genetically modified (GM) crops had been planted, she founded Navdanya, meaning “nine seeds”, an initiative to save India’s native seeds and spread their use among farmers. Eight years later, she took the chemical monolith Monsanto, the world’s largest producer of seeds, to the supreme court for bringing its GM cotton into India without permission.
Monsanto became notorious in the 1960s for producing the herbicide Agent Orange for the US military during the Vietnam war, and subsequently led the development of GM crops in the 1990s. It moved quickly to penetrate the international market with its privatised seeds, particularly in developing, predominantly agricultural countries.
The company, which was bought in 2018 by the German pharmaceutical and biotech company Bayer, became embroiled in legal action. In 2020 it announced a $11bn (£8.7bn) payout to settle claims of links between its herbicide and cancer on behalf of almost 100,000 people but denied any wrongdoing. In 2016, dozens of civil society groups staged a “people’s tribunal” in The Hague, finding Monsanto guilty of human rights violations and developing an unsustainable system of farming.
Shiva says taking Monsanto to court felt like going up against a mafia and alleges that many attempts were made to threaten and pressure her into not filing the case.
Monsanto finally got permission to bring GM cotton to India in 2002, but Shiva has kept up her fight against chemical multinationals, which Shiva refers to as the “poison cartel”. Currently more than 60% of the world’s commercial seeds are sold by just four companies, which have led the push to patent seeds, orchestrated a global monopoly of certain GM crops such as cotton and soya and sued hundreds of small-scale farmers for saving seeds from commercial crops.
“We have taken on these giants when they said ‘we’ve invented rice, we’ve invented wheat’, and we have won,” she says.
She remains adamant that GM crops have failed. But though the legacy of GM pest-resistant cotton in India is complex and has increased pesticide use, not all would agree that the issue is black and white. Indeed, her outspoken and often intransigent positions on GM organisms and globalisation have earned her many critics and powerful enemies.
She has been accused of exaggerating the dangers of GM and simplifying facts around the direct correlation between farmers’ suicides and genetically modified crops, and been called an enemy of progress for her rhetoric against globalisation, given the threats facing the world.
As the global population has ballooned to 8 billion people, and the climate crisis throws agriculture into disarray, even some prominent environmentalists have shifted their positions and have argued that GM crops can underpin food security. Countries including the UK, which had imposed strict laws around GM foods, are now pushing for more gene editing of crops and animals. Last year India approved the release of a new GM mustard seed.
Shiva is scathing of this renewed push for GM organisms, arguing that much of the gene-editing process is still “dangerously unpredictable” and calling it “ignorance” to think climate-adapted crops can only come from industrial labs.
“Farmers have already bred thousands of climate-resilient and salt-tolerant seeds; they weren’t the invention of a few big companies, no matter what patents they claim,” she says.
For Shiva, the global crisis facing agriculture will not be solved by the “poison cartel” nor a continuation of fossil fuel-guzzling, industrialised farming, but instead a return to local, small-scale farming no longer reliant on agrochemicals. “Globally, the subsidies are $400bn a year to make an unviable agriculture system work,” she says.
“This industrialised globalised system of food is destroying soil, it is destroying water and it is generating 30% of our greenhouse gases. If we want to fix this, we’ve got to shift from industrial to ecological farming.”
Nonetheless, while her crusade against the might of chemical corporations will continue, Shiva considers her most important work to be her travels through India’s villages, collecting and saving seeds – including 4,000 varieties of rice – setting up more than 100 seed banks, and helping farmers return to organic methods.
“My proudest work is listening to the seed and her creativity,” she says. “I’m proud of the fact that a lie is a lie is a lie, no matter how big the power that tells the lie. And I’m proud that I’ve never ever hesitated in speaking the truth.”
This article was amended on 28 April 2023. A previous version incorrectly stated that Vandana Shiva had no children; she has a son.