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Synthesis/Regeneration 19   (Spring 1999)

The Plunder of Nature

by Vandana Shiva, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology

I remember about 10 years ago there was a Sandoz representative at a meeting and during one of the discussions he said, "By the turn of the century there will just be five of us, and we have to have patents and we have to have genetic engineering." And in a way it was that one sentence that to me triggered a whole re-direction of what we needed to be addressing and I stopped working on Tropical Rainforests, which used to be my passion. I think the responsibility that this town has given the people—and the Greens of St. Louis—is a tremendous responsibility, and I’m so glad you took it.

I’ve been waiting for years for some kind of organized response from this country. We all have been waiting. And I remember, that when Monsanto and the others were starting to get organized and they said, “We don’t really have to worry about the greens, the ecologists have been had, you know. We’ll sell BioTech as green to them. It’s the consumers who will be the obstacle, let’s learn to deal with the consumers.” And it is true that in North America the green voice has been slow in emerging, but I’m glad it’s finally here; and it might not be. I believe in Ecology in the sense that I believe every big oak tree starts with a tiny seed and the biggest of the rivers that are flowing past this town started with a trickle at their source. And this tiny group of people is a tremendous bunch of activists. As it is, they have done so much over the past decade and more and joined together in solidarity. I really feel that even though it looks like this monster’s becoming bigger and bigger—the latest acquisition of the plant breeding station of Unilever, which literally is a public gift because in Thatcher’s days Cambridge University sold it off for next to nothing, the oldest plant breeding station and collection of germ plant collection to Lever at that time which is now gone. Gone on to Monsanto.

Biodevastation… a phenomenon that was not being named now has been named. And having been named, it becomes that much easier for people to relate to.

With the emergence of patents on life and genetic engineering what we are seeing is a double plunder of nature and knowledge. The first kind of plunder has been named, it’s known as biopiracy. We’ve all, all of us who’ve worked on patenting issues, have worked on it and I would like to say thank you to the team at RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International) that has played such a tremendous role in exposing piracy after piracy. Steve Emmott, from the European Parliament, worked so hard with the Greens to bring in the amendments that would have made piracy illegal. Yet the way the world is going these days, you now have a European patent directive that legalizes biopiracy by not having introduced the amendments that would have prevented it. The idea of being able to claim other people’s creativity or nature’s creativity, as if it was an invention, comes so easily partly because it’s been going on for more than 500 years. It was no different when Columbus arrived in this country. There were already inhabitants here. Yet it was called an empty land. It was declared a sterile land, as was Australia, as was every other part of the world that was colonized by Europeans. We today have the assumption of empty life. That every living being, every organism is empty until a hand that controls capital and happens to be white manipulates it.

The knowledge, the idea of the empty word, the empty land, or empty life is an idea of scarcity. It is an idea that creates scarcity so that it can then, given that scarcity, create growth for the colonized or for the exploited.

Monsanto is trying to put together an advertisement with signatures of third-world people to basically say that these affluent consumers of the north who want to prevent genetically engineered food are coming in the way of third-world prosperity. Here’s this food abundance in the north, which is not reaching the starving south, and the caption of this ad for which they are mobilizing signatures through a company that has about 70 ex- U.S. ambassadors and 170 ex-CIA officials. Can you imagine if they have to mobilize that kind of group just to sell food, how rotten it must be? There’s an ad DuPont puts out in India and it says fragrant rices brought to you from DuPont because nature can only do so much. The entire cosmology’s based on a deficient nature and a deficient creation. I think that’s where Monsanto is getting into real problems, because on the one hand, it has to say it’s improving on nature and then on the other hand it has to keep claiming that it’s doing what nature does. And I think that’s precisely our opening for mobilization on the ecological front.

A civilization older than 5,000 years, of one billion people—all of whom use neem and basmati in their daily lives—having to adjust to the fact that some company somewhere has claimed to have invented what they have used and are using even now.

Basmati is a word from India, which by its very name says the rice which has aroma built into it. Now they are claiming a patent on rice from the South Asian subcontinent, particularly from the Himalayan foothills. The patent claim goes on to say that "...any other rice that is functionally equivalent to this will be covered by this patent and therefore will be treated as an infringement." This means the original growers of basmati can be treated as infringers of a patent.

No matter where I talk, and no matter what subject I talk on in India, it could be in a village, it could be the university, it could be in the Parliament: Irrespective of the theme of the talk, at the end of it hands will come up and people ask, "And what’s the latest on the neem case?" and "What’s the latest on the basmati case?" because it’s obviously preoccupying people so much. A civilization older than 5,000 years, of one billion people—all of whom use neem and basmati in their daily lives—having to adjust to the fact that some company somewhere has claimed to have invented what they have used and are using even now.

There’s a patent on pepper. The U.S. company that has the patent on the pepper recently tried to say that any export by other companies in India of extracts from pepper would be a patent infringement. So you have that kind of obvious piracy which takes the creation of knowledge by other societies or creativity of Nature herself and claims that creativity to be put there by a human inventor. That is flawed even if other cultures have none of the knowledge. Plants and microorganisms and animals are not made in the way machines are made. They are self-organized. They are living because they’re self-organized. People use extremely crude and very violent tools in a tiny fragment of living material and imagine they are creating wholes, that they are creating the full mammal, that they are creating the full plant, that they are creating the full microbe. That shift of who is the creator, is probably the most fundamental blunder taking place in the Biopiracy domain. The piracy from creation itself.

…Piracy takes the creation of knowledge by other societies or nature herself and claims that creativity to be put there by a human inventor.

It hasn’t even reached the stage of a technology; I call it a Wall Street Science. Because it has never matured in the land, it is only trying to mature very fast on Wall Street. Today we have a technology that’s been born literally in the commercial domain. It’s never had incubation. It’s never had a life the way it should have had—in universities, in public domains with social controls, and with the opportunity for debates. Not one little element of various choices which you constantly check out and say, “How well is it doing?” It’s been sold as the only future and part of the desperation. The fact that Monsanto is buying up every seed company it can lay its hands on comes from the insecurity of that science.

If they were more confident, they’d be able to take slower steps. Because they know that unless they can lie, unless they can deceive, and unless they can have total control over the message of what’s being sold, they will never really be able to get this technology accepted.

At any point in the debate on biotechnology you’ll get a response, “...Oh, but you know without the green revolution, India would have starved.” At some point or other, the only justification they have for pushing genetic engineering today is the miracle, the so-called miracle, of 1965-66.

In 1966 India had a drought and needed extra wheat. The U.S. used this as a condition to impose chemical agriculture. President Johnson said you won’t get wheat shipments unless you totally change your agriculture policy according to how we tell you. You’ll have to import chemicals, import pesticides, import seeds. You give that commitment, we’ll send you wheat. Now, you know the food crop of India goes that way, with a little blip in ‘66, it goes down in ‘66. They usually measure the tip of that low production in 1966 due to the drought and make it look like they lifted food production out of it. If you take that as the base year, you get a 23% growth in production. But if you take 1965 as the base year, you get only a 2% growth. We have had a 5% growth without the green revolution in the pre-green revolution period and after it. That growth could be accounted for by the investments made in agriculture by the irrigation provided to farmers, by the markets guaranteed to the farmers. Remove these so-called miracle seeds and you’ll still have that kind of growth.

Ninety-eight percent of farming in the third world is peasant farming, on smaller than five acres. The average is 1 acre, 2 acres. Now, on a 1-acre or 2-acre plot, you could never make a living in monoculture. But you can make a living growing a mixture of different kinds of grains, vegetables, and a few cash crops produced in tiny quantities. The figures are that for a poly-culture you merely need 5 units of input to produce 100 units of food. For an industrial farming system you need 300 units of input to produce the same 100 units of food. Yet we’re told that the system that wastes 295 units is producing more food? Those 295 units could have fed 6,000 more people and the focus on a single commodity has created the illusion of more.

Today we have a technology that’s been born literally in the commercial domain.

The whole creation of surpluses of 4 or 5 commodities is made to look like higher productivity. It is the nature of a monoculture to have surpluses to sell and that’s the very reason it was designed. But after you’ve sold what’s grown, you have to buy everything else. For the farmers of industrialized societies, the worst that happened is they moved into cities. Only 2% were left on the land. For farmers in third world countries, particularly today where under globalization, the situation is not comfortable in urban areas either. There’s no growth of employment, we are being de-industrialized, and our options in the economy at the urban level are also closing. In this last season, more than 3000 farmers in India have committed suicide. The region where the news of suicides started was in a drought-prone area with hardly 600 millimeters of rainfall used to grow subsistence crops, millets, pulses, legumes, and oilseeds. About a decade ago, the cotton industry started to move into this primarily rain-fed area.

Farmers of one acre, half-acre, two acres, many farmers leasing land. Its such a painful sight to watch farmers growing hybrid cotton plants 4-foot by 4-foot apart, taking care of these individual plants as if they were babies, because they’re so fragile— literally weeding each plant individually, putting urea on them individually. The pesticide industry has managed to convince the farmers that every living thing is a pest so they spray at the ladybugs and they spray at the spiders. I realized that because when I was walking in the fields with them and I saw a ladybug and they said, "That one we must kill!" and they started spraying stuff. I said, "No, that’s the one that’ll eat your aphids!" and I turned the leaf.

They started spraying one week after planting -—that’s what the industry tells them. They are spraying 25 times, 30 times in a season, peasants who have no capital at all. They are into 75,000- rupee debt, 100,000-rupee debt.

The salesmen of the chemical industry have become both the money lenders and the experts in one.

And it’s not just one bunch of farmers that’s behaving stupidly—globalization has made the public extension system withdraw from agriculture. Salaries are not being paid to government staff to go and do extension work. The salesmen of the chemical industry have become both the moneylenders and the experts in one. And, that is the context in which genetic engineering will be deployed in the third world.

I went to Punjab where 170 farmers have committed suicide. Punjab was listed as the only really mechanized state, the only state where farmers can afford tractors and have had the green revolution for 30 years. For the first time, tractors are starting to go for their metal value, to the recycling system.

Even while in the global media the green revolution has told the myth of this miracle that has made Punjab a prosperous island in India, as has been told, the Punjab farmers are going through the same crisis as the farmers in every region of India.

Micro-credit is a system that had a good beginning of tiny loans to women. In my view it’s presently a system that is the old system in a new garb. Micro-credit has become the World Bank’s major route of financing in the third world for two reasons. First, because the big projects and the centralized funding have come under attack and the World Bank wants to be more invisible. The second, of course, is related to this new language of doing away with governments and having more NGO participation so it looks like you’ve done away with big loans. All you’re doing is putting the small receiver of the loan up-front. If you take the green revolution it was also micro-credits because the individual farmer used to get a few dollars of loans but it was enough to make him addicted, an addicted buyer of the agri-chemical complex. In the very same way, the new micro-credit enterprise that’s being put in place is preparing a new round of addictions—this time the addictions being disciplined with the patent regimes, with the terminator technology, with the concentration of power where Monsanto is also Cargill, is also Mahiko, and there’s no competitor, you know. Interestingly, I just found in my recent field trip that these big mobile corporations are buying up seeds from the Indian public sector selling at lower prices to grab the market, because farmers are used to that seed. They are literally undercutting the public sector supply to kill it off and turn it into a totally privatized supply.

I think there are definitely two dimensions we need to take on if we are to make the full circle of activism and get the pincers movement. I think it is very, very clear that the strong protests have emerged in Europe where it has really become a common public concern. Genetic engineering is literally a public concern. The way that that situation will be handled is through the guilt of preventing food from going to the third world. I think that that will require a lot more exchange between us, to know that neither today nor in the past has industrial agriculture fed the world. Rather, that it has created new scarcities, those scarcities were hidden. It has created illusions of growth. It did not feed more people. Whether you look at the production or the distribution, there was less food available as a result of a system that used more resources to produce the same quantity of food and took food out of the reach of the poorest people because it had now become far more capital intensive. In fact, we are just doing an analysis that shows that the consumer in India is paying nearly twice as much for food. And the peasants of India are paying about twice as much for inputs.

...There was less food available as a result of a system that used more resources to produce the same quantity of food and took food out of the reach of the poorest people because it had now become far more capital intensive.

How do we keep 98% of India alive? You can’t suddenly imagine that they should be the 1,000-acre farmers of the United States. They’re not. They will not become that, and they have to be dealt with as what they are—farmers with no capital, usually on marginal lands, having their biodiversity, their soil, their water, and their own skills— literally—as the ultimate resource which produces food.

… Neither today nor in the past has industrial agriculture fed the world.

I think the second thing we really need to take up very seriously, is the very clever way of using public finances to pay for what looks like a transfer of technology, but is really opening of markets for genetic engineering. The micro-credit is one example. At every level, public subsidies are being given to open up markets, because, like the green revolution, there was not a natural market in the third world—the peasants could not afford the chemicals and fertilizers. Genetic engineering is a non-market in the third world. Left to itself it would never emerge. It’s only through the subsidies that will be provided that it will take birth; but those subsidies will be provided through public money, which is yours. And, I think, in our country it will be provided through public money that is ours. Just today there’s news that the World Bank officials have been receiving kickbacks for projects. I always suspected it, but it’s the first time it’s come in the media. I think we can really go for this being yet another form of corruption.

I think we have to find ways to get Monsanto off all ethical investment listings. I think that’s a very important area of work, to get a disinvestment from Monsanto. Every time I read a lie, and in fact everything that’s coming out of Monsanto is a lie, I both feel stronger and I feel angrier. I think of old Ghandi who named people’s troubles “the struggle for truth.” I think the least we can do is go away with the recognition and the commitment that were in the efforts with which you all put together and made this First Gathering on Biodevastation happen. A phenomenon that was not being named has been named. And having been named, it becomes that much easier for people to relate to.

You might have noticed about two or three days ago your government said that they would withdraw the sanctions with respect to agricultural products to India and Pakistan, related to the nuclear bomb. And I just said to myself, now they want to unleash the genetic bomb. And they are in such a mad hurry that they are finding their own sanctions coming in the way. So they are saying, “Okay, we’ll tolerate your nuclear explosions as long as you give us the opportunity to flood the world with genetic bombs.” In my view, genetic engineering in agriculture unleashed at the scale and pace at which it is being unleashed, is nothing less than a genetic bomb. It is definitely the hottest issue that a serious ecological movement should take up in today’s time.

In my view, it’s also the subject of the peace movement for today, given that they are trying to co- opt women, it’s the new challenge to feminism, it’s right on for agriculture movements and sustainable agriculture and farmer’s movements. For consumers and the health issues around food safety and, as far as the third world is concerned, this is precisely the issue where our larger political debates are being structured and will be structured in the next few years. I think ultimately, the test of this contest and this struggle is going to be between lots of lies backed by a very huge money and a lot of truth with lots of people behind it.

This article is abridged from the keynote the author gave on July 17, 1998 at the First Grassroots Gathering on Biodevastation: Genetic Engineering (St. Louis).

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