Physics was my passion and my chosen profession. In school I received the science talent scholarship which gave me the opportunity to train in India’s leading scientific institutions. I trained as a nuclear physicist at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Bombay, but moved to theoretical physics when my sister, Mira, a medical doctor, made me aware of nuclear hazards. I realised then that most science is partial; I wanted to practice a holistic science and was drawn to quantum theory for its non-reductionist, non-mechanist paradigm.
Before leaving for Canada to do my PhD I wanted to visit my favourite places in the Himalayas, but the forests and streams had disappeared in the insane rush to build dams and roads, to grow apples by cutting down rich oak forests which absorb the monsoon rains to release the water slowly as streams.
I returned to India after my PhD because I wanted both to give back to my society and to understand it better, and so I chose the difficult and challenging path of trying to combine scientific research with social and ecological responsibility. It was becoming increasingly evident to me that scientific expertise worked more in the service of capital and the destruction of nature, whereas I wanted to work in the service of people and nature. In 1981, I left academia and started the RFSTE to support grassroots ecology movements.
In 1984, a number of tragic events took place in India. In June, the Golden Temple was attacked because it was harbouring terrorists; by November, Indira Gandhi had been assassinated; and in December, the worst industrial disaster took place in Bhopal, when Union Carbide’s pesticide plant leaked a toxic gas into the environment.
Thirty thousand people died at the height of “terrorism” in Punjab, thirty thousand died in the “industrial terrorism” of Bhopal. This is equal to twelve 9/11s.
I was forced to sit up and ask why agriculture had become like war. Why did the Green Revolution which received the Nobel Peace Prize, breed extremism and terrorism in Punjab? This questioning led to my books, The Violence of the Green Revolution and Monocultures of the Mind. Blindness to diversity and self-organisation in nature and society was clearly a basic problem in the mechanistic, Cartesian, industrial paradigm, and this blindness led to false claims that industrial monocultures in forestry, farming, fisheries and animal husbandry produced more food and were necessary to remove global hunger and poverty. On the contrary, monocultures produce less and use more inputs, thus destroying the environment and impoverishing people.
In 1987, the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation organised a meeting in Geneva on biotechnology called “Laws of Life”. At the conference, the biotech industry laid out its plans – to patent life; to genetically engineer seeds, crops and life forms; and to get full freedom to trade through the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations, which culminated in the creation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). This led to my focus on intellectual property rights, free trade, globalisation – and to a life dedicated to saving seeds and promoting organic farming as an alternative to a world dictated and controlled by corporations.
Having dedicated my life to the defence of the intrinsic worth of all species, the idea of life forms, seeds and biodiversity being reduced to corporate inventions and, hence, corporate property, was abhorrent to me.
Further, if seeds become “intellectual property”, saving and sharing them becomes an intellectual property theft! Our highest duty, to save seeds, becomes a criminal act. The legalising of the criminal act of owning and monopolising life through patents on seeds and plants, was morally and ethically unacceptable to me.
So I started Navdanya, which promotes biodiversity conservation, and seed-saving and seed-sharing among farmers. An earth-centred, women-centred movement, Navdanya has created over a hundred community seed banks through which seeds are saved and freely exchanged among our 300,000 members. We have brought back forgotten foods like jhangora (barnyard millet), ragi (finger millet), marsha (amaranth), naurangi dal and gahat dal.
Not only are these crops more nutritious than globally traded commodities, they are more resource-prudent, requiring only 200-300 mm of rain compared to 2,500 mm for chemical rice farming. Millets could increase food production four hundred-fold, using the same amount of limited water.
These forgotten foods are foods of the future, and farmers’ seeds are the seeds of the future. For the farmer, the seed is not merely the source of future plants and food; it is the storage place of culture, of history. The seed is the first link in the food chain, it is the ultimate symbol of food security.
The free exchange of seed among farmers has been the means for maintaining biodiversity as well as food security, and is based on cooperation and reciprocity. A farmer who wants to exchange seed generally gives an equal quantity of seed from his field in return for the seed he gets. But this exchange goes beyond seeds; it involves an exchange of ideas and knowledge, of culture and heritage.
It is an accumulation of tradition, of knowledge, of how to work the seed. Farmers gather knowledge about the seeds they want to grow by watching them grow in other farmers’ fields, by learning about drought and disease and pest resistance. In saving seeds and biodiversity we are protecting cultural diversity…
Our conservation of heritage rice varieties has led to the protection of the original, authentic basmati as part of a slow food presidium. We have saved more than three thousand rice varieties, including over thirty aromatic varieties. The saline resistant seeds we have saved helped farmers in Orissa recover from the super cyclone of 1999 which killed thirty thousand people. These seeds were also distributed by Navdanya in rehabilitation after the devastating 2005 tsunami that hit the south east coast of India.
We are creating “Seeds of Hope” seed banks to deal with climate chaos. Heritage seeds that can survive droughts, floods and cyclones are collected, saved, multiplied and distributed. Farmers’ seed-breeding is far ahead of scientific breeding and genetic engineering in providing flood-resistant, drought-resistant, and saline-resistant varieties. In the context of farmers’ heritage, genetic engineering is, in fact, a laggard technology.
Not only are corporate, industrial breeding strategies incapable of dealing with climate change, genetically engineered seeds are killing farmers. In India, lakhs of farmers have committed suicide because of debt caused by high costs and unreliable seeds sold by corporations. Suicides are concentrated in areas which have become dependent on commercial seeds, and are most intense where genetically engineered Bt cotton has been sold. These are seeds of suicide and seeds of slavery. There are no suicides where farmers use heritage seeds and their own traditional varieties…
Privatisation of the earth’s resources – of water, of biodiversity – is the ultimate social and ecological violation of human rights.
The earth yields resources to be shared, conserved and used sustainably. The very idea of owning life through patents, of owning and selling water through concessions and commodification, is symptomatic of the deep regression of the human species.
Over the years, resisting the enclosure of the commons and aiding their recovery has defined my thinking and my actions in my books, Biopiracy; Water Wars; and Stolen Harvest. This is why I have fought against the biopiracy patents on neem, basmati and wheat, and also why I have fought against the commodification of the Ganges and the privatisation of Delhi’s water supply.
Defending our fundamental freedoms means fighting “free trade” to protect our seed freedom (bija swaraj); food freedom (anna swaraj); water freedom (jal swaraj); land freedom (bhu swaraj); forest freedom (vana swaraj); and reinventing democracy as Earth Democracy, the democracy of all life as well as the democracy of everyday life.
These new movements for freedom need new learning, new empowerment, new hope. From the seed I learnt lessons of self-organisation and renewal, diversity and democracy; from quantum theory I learnt about non-separability and nonlocality; indeterminism and uncertainty; complementarity and non-exclusion; potential and probability. Both the quanta and the seed take us beyond the mechanistic, fragmented, divided, inert, linear, deterministic world of reductionist science, and the industrialisation and commodification of life which is destroying the fragile fabric of the planet and society.
In different ways, both the seed and the quanta create a world of relationships, of connectedness, of dynamic evolution and ever-new potential. With the seed we can re-weave the web of life in partnership with other species while increasing their potential to meet basic human needs in sustainable and equitable ways. In the freedom of the seed lies the hope and potential for a better world; and in each of us lie the seeds of our deepest and highest humanity, which comes from returning to our membership in the earth family.
Excerpted with permission from Terra Viva: My Life in a Biodiversity of Movements, Vandana Shiva, Women Unlimited.