s/r home  | issues  | authors  | 23 contents

Synthesis/Regeneration 23   (Fall 2000)

Vandana Shiva's Stolen Harvest:The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply

reviewed by Dalia Sapon-Shevin

Vandana Shiva's Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply, 2000. 146 pp. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, $12.60 (paper).

In Stolen Harvest, Vandana Shiva personalizes an already intimate topic—the food which becomes our very selves. Shiva's first book on genetic engineering, Biopiracy, used a more academic style of critical analysis of the biotechnology industry. A renowned thinker in the areas of opposition to globalization, defense of traditional culture, eco-feminism, and genetic engineering, she confronts and details a multitude of food-related issues with her trademark passion and down-to-earth style.

Stolen Harvest as a whole reads best as a collection of poignant yet separate case studies. Although the stories are powerful and well-researched, the work lacks cohesion. For those who have looked into the issues surrounding biotechnology, agricultural policy and global food supply extensively, this book may best serve as a refresher course. Those new to the subject, however, will find the book a well- told and galvanizing wake up call. While Biopiracy was more theoretical, in this work Shiva takes us right into the homes and fields of the poor people of India.

The picture that Shiva paints is a bleak one. As corporate agribusiness becomes more and more centralized, it becomes sharply apparent that genetic engineering is the technology of absolute control. Not only does the industry refuse to label genetically engineered produce in the United Sates, it punishes severely those who label their products as GE free.

Centralized control of agribusiness has always spelled trouble for American farmers. Genetic engineering is only the most recent incarnation of corporate control over agriculture. With the rise of biotechnology, we are seeing the virtual return of tenant farming at its most basic, most insidious level. In America in the 1930's, an ecological disaster was propagated by profit-driven agricultural practices. Landowners forced the farmers to grow soil-depleting cotton year after year, despite farmers' warnings that to stop crop rotation would be devastating to the soil. The "dust bowl," traditionally touted as a "natural" disaster, was in fact heavily impacted by the practices of the landowners.

With the rise of biotechnology, we are seeing the virtual return of tenant farming...

In the farm crisis of the 1980's, agribusinesses effectively maintained their monopoly over farmers by selling seed, fertilizer and pesticides at inflated prices which drove farmers deeper and deeper into debt. Thousands of farmers lost their land, and the control of the banks became near-absolute.

Change the year to 2000, replace the landowners or the banks with Monsanto and the tenant farmers with all the farmers of the world, and you have the makings of a disaster hitherto unknown to our planet. The scale of control only grows, as farmers become dispossessed of their land, their equipment, and finally, the genetic makeup of the actual life form itself.

Although Stolen Harvest is primarily about India, the parallels to America are easily apparent. She demonstrates that corporate methods of control follow predictable patterns, and these very attempts at homogenization compel us to make our resistance that much more strategic. We must learn to anticipate the moves of big business in order to successfully subvert them.

In the chapter entitled "Soy Imperialism," Shiva traces a fascinating and infuriating path through the replacement of the mustard seed with the soybean in Indian agriculture, and the subsequent destruction of local food culture. The contrast between the decentralized, ecologically low-impact and cheap processing of mustard oil and the costly, unhealthy and expensive (albeit government-subsidized) soybean oil is striking. Not only did the subversion of the traditional food culture degrade the lives of the people of the North Indian Belt, in 1998 it proved fatal. In Delhi, batches of oil were tainted with adulterants such as diesel, waste oil and industrial oil. Forty-one people died, and an estimated 2,300 were affected. Mustard-oil sales were widely banned, and shortly thereafter India announced that it would institute the free import of soybeans. The government then banned the sale of all unpackaged edible oils, effectively destroying a traditional method of autonomous food production and economic independence. The government control over oil became absolute.

According to the health minister of Delhi, the adulteration was not possible without a mass conspiracy. It was done is such a way that it could kill people quickly and conspicuously, and an immediate ban on mustard oil and free import of soybeans became inevitable. The Rajasthan Oil Industries Association claimed that a "conspiracy" was being hatched to undermine the mustard oil trade, and felt that the "invisible hands of the multinationals" were involved.

Once again, no cost proved too high in the pursuit of absolute control, especially not that of mere human life.

Shiva demonstrates in her well-researched yet highly personal narratives the tried and true corporate methods of disempowerment, rip-off and control. Industries move into economically depressed areas bearing false promises of creating more jobs. Without fail, those same corporations time and again heavily technologize and centralize their operations, further depressing the economy and devastating the natural environment.

The recurring theme of the book is a stern demonstration of the cycle of destruction set in motion when the inability or unwillingness to think holistically informs corporate practice. When we buy a hamburger at McDonald's, its price in no way reflects the true cost of its production. Shiva's powerful narratives allow us to hold a piece of food in our hands and, in a thought process we have never been taught to follow, lets us trace backwards the story of the land it was grown on, the cultural and economic toll on the ecosytem and people, the sacrifice endured so that it might be made, the full weight of environmental devastation present in its existence. The seed and the plant become so much more than the sum of their parts, they become symbols of all that we stand to lose, all of the life concentrated in its smallest, most basic structure.

Shiva offers little in the way of strategy for resistance, but the book ends on a hopeful note. The final chapter, "Reclaiming Food Democracy," gives brief sketches of worldwide resistance and constructive alliance building, detailing seed-saving and field burnings in India, crop-pulls in Ireland and England. Resistance to corporate control and support for sustainable, community-based farming are on the rise. Labeling, import bans and supermarket bans are being discussed and carried out all over Europe.

The Biodevastation 2000 conference marked a rapidly growing American consciousness towards these issues, and a multitude of creative, multi- level resistance tactics have sprouted. From giant puppets to billboard improvement, from lobbying for labeling to a greater push towards community supported agriculture (CSA), from crop pulls to guerrilla gardening, resistance is blooming everywhere.

Synthesis/Regeneration home page | Synthesis/Regeneration 23 Contents