By Meenakshi Ganguly
Aug. 18, 2002
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Vandana Shiva will never forget a lesson she learned at the age of 13. Her parents, who like many educated Indians had supported Mohandas Gandhi's struggle against colonialism, insisted on wearing clothing made only of homespun cotton. One day Vandana, having returned from a boarding school to her home in the Himalayan foothill town of Dehra Dun, demanded a nylon dress, the fashion adopted by her rich friends. Her mother, a teacher turned farmer, agreed. "If that is what you want, of course you shall have it," she said. "But remember, your nylon frock will help a rich man buy a bigger car. And the cotton that you wear will buy a poor family at least one meal."
Now 50, Shiva still chuckles when she tells the story. "Of course, I did not get that frock," she says. "I kept thinking of some poor family starving because of my dress." True to her upbringing, Shiva has made it her mission to fight for social justice in many arenas. With a doctorate in physics from the University of Western Ontario, she has been a teacher, an ecologist, an activist, a feminist and an organic farmer.
Her pet issue these days is preservation of agricultural diversity. It is under assault, she says, from global companies that encourage farmers to grow so-called high-yielding crops that result in a dangerous dependence on bioengineered seeds, chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides. As a result, hundreds of traditional crops are disappearing. Too many farmers, she contends, purchase expensive seeds that cannot adapt to local conditions and require more investment in chemicals and irrigation. Hundreds of debt-ridden Indian farmers, Shiva points out, have committed suicide during the past five years because of failed harvests.
But there is hope. Many farmers are returning to traditional methods promoted by Navdanya (Nine Seeds), an organization based in New Delhi that Shiva helped found 11 years ago. Navdanya encourages farmers to produce hardy native varieties of crops that can be grown organically with natural fertilizer and no artificial chemicals. The group works in an area for three years, helping local farmers form their own self-supporting organization and seed bank. Navdanya has spread to some 80 districts in 12 states and has collected more than 2,000 seed varieties. It has set up a marketing network through which farmers sell their organic harvest. Farmer Darwan Singh Negi, with Navdanya's aid, switched to organic methods five years ago and grows six types of rice on his three-acre farm in the state of Uttaranchal. His farm's productivity is similar to that of his neighbors' nonorganic farms, but he spends almost 70% less for fertilizers, pesticides and seeds.
Shiva's many detractors call her naive, pointing out that chemical fertilizers, pesticides and genetic engineering rescued India from its eternal cycles of famine and huge debts from importing food. She responds that high-tech agriculture is a short-term solution that will ultimately destroy the land.
Shiva has by no means proved that organic agriculture alone can feed a burgeoning world population. But Navdanya has shown that in some areas, organic farmers with a knowledge of local conditions and traditional methods can achieve high yields at little cost to the environment. In India at least, Navdanya sets an eco-friendly standard that agribusiness must show it can outperform. The challenge for genetic engineers is to create seeds adapted to particular locales that enable farmers to reduce, not increase, the use of chemicals.
If nothing else, Navdanya provides an alternative approach to modern farming. Shiva wants to preserve nature's bountiful variety in a world too vulnerable to humanity's penchant for standardization. She counsels us to be more humble in the care of our environment. "You are not Atlas carrying the world on your shoulder," she says. "It is good to remember that the planet is carrying you."