Vandana Shiva is such a well-known name in food policy/environmentalism/social justice circles that I figured it was time I actually read some of her work. Being from Iowa, the home of Norman Borlaug, I am awash in the hoopla surrounding the World Food Prize and have always faced severe criticism whenever I questioned the ability of GMO crops to "feed the world." While I never have believed that technology would give us the answers to our food supply problems, Shiva gave me the concise, well-researched, and convincing arguments that I've been lacking to defend this position in her 2000 work Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply. Shiva writes from a very specific perspective, that of an Indian woman who has seen the lives of her countrymen and women (specifically the women) devastated by the Green Revolution.
The common thread that runs through these short essays is that of stealing from the future to gain perceived increases in yield today. While it may seem to some that industrial agriculture makes "sense" as a way to grow a large amount of food, this notion is misleading at best and deceptive at worst. The data that show increased yields when a switchover to GMO crops is made only show this because they are incomplete. They leave out the increased cost of inputs (free animal waste vs. purchased chemical fertilizers), the conversion of land use from crops that feed communities to non-food crops, and long-term environmental costs. When one looks at the complete picture, it is readily evident that the American industrial agriculture model is not going to feed the world. No centralized corporate run system will. It is up to all of us to take responsibility for building and supporting local, non-centralized, subsistence farming.
The most powerful chapter, for me, was the one that covered the patenting of seeds. The idea that a company can claim intellectual rights to seeds is mind-boggling to me. You shouldn't be able to patent life and even though I have read and understand the series of events that led us to this point, I still find it hard to believe. Shiva's Navdanya (the movement to remove the control of seeds from corporations and put it back in the hands of farmers) is wonderfully inspiring. I've seen video of events in which women quietly and solemnly share seeds with one another, which is an illegal act. The contrast between this calm, friendly, and personal gesture with the irrational policing actions of huge corporations like Monsanto is striking. It eloquently and effectively highlights how ridiculous things have become.
A majority of this book is spent cataloging and explaining food injustices, but the final chapter outlines a call to action. It describes several movements and personal actions that we can take to reclaim food democracy and include movements for organic agriculture, against genetic modification, and the building of alliances between producers, consumers, and policy makers. I'm a consumer. We're all consumers. It's my responsibility to make sure that I do three things. One, that I make every effort to produce as much of my own food. Every food crop that I can produce out of my backyard reduces the need for the spread of monocultures around the world. Two, for those foods and goods that I can't produce myself I need to take full responsibility for how and where they are produced. I need to be aware of the fact that if I choose to buy cheap shirts from Target that I am participating in a global system that displaces subsistence farmers in India so that there is room to grow all that cheap cotton. Three, I need to take action. This can be something as big as working for political change or as small (but not necessarily less effective) as helping to build local food systems in my own community. This is a big problem and it will take all of us to solve.