In 1961, the province of Punjab in India produced 1.76 million tonnes of wheat. In 1971, it produced 5.6 million tonnes. The first of the Green Revolutions, which introduced the large-scale use of fertilizers and pesticides, took credit for the unprecedented increase in wheat production in India and Pakistan. In 1970, Norman Borlaug, the “father of the first Green Revolution,” was given the Nobel Peace Prize for developing high-yield and disease-resistant varieties of wheat, and credited with saving millions of lives in the Global South.
Years later, Vandana Shiva (who was doing her PhD in particle physics in Punjab) saw a world around her that wasn’t quite so optimistic, and certainly not very green. “I started my work on agriculture because I was absolutely shocked to see what was happening in Punjab in the 1980s,” Shiva told The Varsity. “I had never looked at agriculture, but I had lived in that society. And I asked, why is this society becoming so violent?”
Shiva decided to examine the Green Revolution and why, despite the numbers quoted by its advocates, hunger continued in the Punjab region while peace remained elusive. Since the 1990s, 200,000 debt-ridden Indian farmers have committed suicide. Shiva blamed the industrial farming practices that were the result of the Green Revolutions. Many farmers had become indebted from buying grain every year from corporations like Monsanto, which required additional purchases of chemical fertilizers for their genetically modified varieties. The cotton fields of Vidharba, now mostly converted to Bt cotton (which is genetically modified and insect-resistant), have an especially high rate of suicide after failed harvests. The Toronto Star reported that according to locals, this year, 250 farmers in Vidharba have committed suicide as of Sept. 1. In some cases, lack of irrigation was blamed.
“The Green Revolution needed much more water per unit production—five to 10 times more water,” said Shiva.
“I think the Nobel Peace Prize was highly inappropriately given, because the jewel in the crown of the Green Revolution is Punjab, and Punjab has seen such huge violence: 50,000 killings. Extremism was so intense that in the early 1980s, the Indian army was brought out and had to invade the Golden Temple,” she said. Almost 300 people were killed in 1984, when the Indian army stormed the Golden Temple held by Sikh militants. The two sides had been battling for two years.
In 1993, Shiva was given the Right Livelihood Prize, dubbed “the alternative Nobel,” for her grassroots work with the Navdanya Foundation. The foundation works to re-introduce organic farming methods, advocates for organic farming, trains farmers, and runs a university.
“If Norman Borlaug could have seen everything his chemicals were doing to ecosystems and people, he would have been a little humbled,” said Shiva. “If he had actually gone and learned from poor Indian women how they feed their children, he might have had a better paradigm of feeding the world.”
Shiva will deliver a talk at the Hart House Theatre Thursday evening, at 7 p.m. She spoke to The Varsity about the Green Revolution, Canada’s role, and why technology hasn’t abolished hunger.
The Varsity: Advocates of the Green Revolution say that wheat production in India has doubled within seven years. This is unprecedented.
Vandana Shiva: I don’t debate the double in production. What I debate is their association of that increase with so-called “miracle varieties” [of seeds] and the [pesticide] chemicals. We’ve done calculations that show that the increase can be totally accounted for in terms of increased land and irrigation to wheat cultivation.
The most important issue is that wheat in India was always intercropped. Before the 60s, you had wheat with channa or mustard. Research around the world shows that intercropping produces more food per capita. It’s called the Land Equivalence Ratio.
What we need to measure, as honest, good scientists, is the full output per acre.
The Green Revolution calculations cheat. It doesn’t give you the full output of food, it gives you the increased output of a commodity, which could have been increased by other means. You didn’t need more chemicals.
The phrase for food used to be Daal Chawal, Daal Roti [lentils and rice, lentils and bread]. The daal has just dropped out of the basic staple food of the average Indian, leading to a massive protein deficiency in India.
TV: We’re encouraged to think of our careers when we go through university. You studied nuclear physics, I don’t suppose that’s of much use in what you do?
I was doing particle physics as a Ph.D in India, and then I realized that what I was really stirred and excited by was the Navdanya Foundation.
VS: Totally unemployable subject matter! Nobody can hire anyone with those skills, except maybe universities. I wasn’t doing a Ph.D for employment. I was doing it for an inquiry, for scientific investigation and for my own intellectual stimulation.
I think that is a deep aspiration for human beings. To make ourselves intellectually dead, and to turn ourselves into little bolts and screws in a constantly collapsing economy, is madness.
TV: How does the farmer in India feel the recession?
VS: The handloom industry and other small-scale industries have been hit. The main impact has been on the farmers that were growing cash crops.
Over the last 15 years of policies of trade liberalization, every country was made to believe that they should exist for export–not for meeting their needs, or generating livelihoods, or conserving their vital natural resources.
When the recession hits America, purchasing power dies out and it creates a trigger to countries which have been hooked into the globalized supply of consumer goods.
TV: Food prices have dropped from the spike last year. But the crisis isn’t over, is it?
VS: The Food and Agriculture Organization has admitted that there are more hungry people in the world. The problem is that the FAO wants more money to do the wrong kind of agriculture.
India has not been the face of hunger since the great Bengal famine of 1942. But there are more hungry people in India today than there are in Africa. The causes for this new globalized hunger are first and foremost the dispossession of farmers by land-grabs. Secondly, you’re pushing agriculture aimed at export commodities, not at growing food. The third major reason is that farmers are being turned into a market for Monsanto and Bt cotton [genetically modified, insect-resistant cotton]. Finally, you have the diversion of staple foods to make biofuels.
For [Monsanto’s] toxic herbicides and pesticides, farmers are forced into debt. And debt is what has caused the 200,000 farm suicides in India over the past decade. I have done public hearings where farmers have come in giving evidence of how they’ve had to sell their kidneys in order to pay back part of the debt.
Globalized agriculture—through the agriculture agreements at the World Trade Organization, as well as the structural adjustment pressures from the World Bank and IMF—allowed five big agribusiness companies to control the global food price.
TV: Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development, blamed growing consumption in China and India for increased demand for food.
VS: Food consumption in India has dropped from 170 to 150 kg per capita per year during the 15 years of trade liberalization. India had increased its consumption demand by 2 per cent, but that’s what the production demand had also increased, and we have absolutely no pressure on international grain reserve. Therefore, to argue that Indians are causing the price rise is flawed political economy.
TV: Canada has a reputation as a peace-keeping nation with a strong presence in development. Yet in your books we see Canadian corporations like Alcan involved in destructive work in India, and the Canadian International Development Agency contributing to projects like the Chamera dam, which displaced residents and sustained damage from being in an earthquake-prone zone. What is your perception of Canada as an agent of development?
VS: I spent my longest period outside India in Canada, when I was doing my Ph.D, so I have a deep fondness for that country. But I have also seen it change. It’s true that it stood by the South, for authentic development, and it was a coutervailing voice in a world ruled by superpowers. But today, if you go to any global negotiation, whether it’s climate negotiation or biodiversity, all the Americans have to do is sit back and get Canada to do all the dirty work against the South.
TV: Your principles appear to come with a message about way of life.
VS: It would be crazy to imagine an economy that’s not rooted in a way of life. We have reduced ourselves to frustrated and bored employees doing jobs that we don’t want to do, or consumers in a global marketplace. But there’s a bigger dimension to us.
We are members of a community, we are civic agents, we are citizens, we have the power to change. And we have the power to make choices about what’s a good life. What’s a satisfying life? Where is it that I can go to bed peacefully? Where is it that I can get a wholesome meal? For me, my family, my children.
I think it’s time for humanity to wake up and choose its life in its pluralism, diversity and multiplicity. A monoculture around the world is not a way of life.