By Raoul Bedi, BASc
The past few months has seen a massive shift in the “tectonic plates” of the food rights and food security movement not only in Canada but in the larger North American context. Some might say that it all began with the narrow defeat (voting irregularities aside) of the Proposition 37 “Right to GMO Labeling” referendum in California on November 6, 2012.
From the Non-GMO Project website we can see that, despite the California setback, the ‘Right to Know’ effort has, instead, gained significant momentum. Through marches, rallies, petitions, social media, and targeted outreach campaigns, consumers are demanding that the government respect their right to know what’s in their food by labeling GMOs.
In the United States, there are currently 37 states organizing mandatory labeling initiatives, and in Washington state there will be an initiative on the November, 2013 ballot. Meanwhile, they are also maintaining a diligent focus on providing immediate consumer choice in the form of ‘Non-GMO Project Verified’ labels for the products that have been approved through a third party program.
British Columbia, the past month alone, has seen several major new developments. The first is symbolic. World-leading environmental activist and eco-visionary Dr.Vandana Shiva of India, was awarded an honourary degree from the University of Victoria on March 26, 2013. This is the third time in a year that a Canadian institution (U of T and Guelph being the others) has acknowledged and supported the work of the great food freedom activist and leader.
The second major development occurred on April 13, 2013, in Sooke on Vancouver island, when AVICC (the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities) voted unanimously to ban GMOs. It had taken almost 10 years for selfless people, like April Reeves and Tony Beck of GEFREEBC, to work for the establishment of 14 municipal bans across BC. All of a sudden on April 13, at the annual AVICC meeting and vote on joint policy, 51 island municipalities voted in unison, all in one fell swoop, to ban GMO’s in their respective municipalities! This represents an almost exponential increase in numbers. The next step is to forward the same anti-GMO resolution to the UBCM (The Union of BC Municipalities) for a province-wide vote on September 16, 2013. Citizens of the different municipalities in BC are encouraged to educate their local town mayors and councillors as much as possible about the issues (www.cban.ca or Facebook: GMO free Canada). Let us hope that the federal government begins to take note of this sea tide change in public opinion.
Building on this successful BC model, Alberta local food activists, Harvest Haven, April Reeves and Wendy Schroeder and others, are working diligently to increase GMO awareness, with the possible end result being the creation of an equivalent ‘GMO FREE ALBERTA’ advocacy group.
On the global online media stage, a new and interesting opportunity has just presented itself. Distinguished Food Activist John Robbins, author of bestseller “The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life And Our World”, and his son Ocean Robbins, are hosting a free online summit from April 27 to May 5,2013. In it 24 leading thinkers and visionaries are sharing their wisdom and experience on issues relating to nutrition, health, food rights and Food Security. They include leading names like Dr. Dean Ornish, anti-GMO activist Jeffrey Smith www.seedsofdeception.com , BC author Brenda Davis, Eco-visionary Vandana Shiva, Health Ranger Mike Adams www.naturalnews.com and many more.
In the review below I have summarized the contents of John Robbins’s April 29, 2013 interview with Dr.Vandana Shiva of India. This is not a verbatim transcript. Transcripts may be purchased from www.foodrevolution.org . John brought his own incredible wealth of knowledge and experience to the interview. One important theme of John’s questions both with Vandana Shiva and other earlier speakers has been about the net effect of the Gates Foundation support of biotech seed and food on the work of the food rights and food sovereignty movement.
No doubt, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done a lot of good through its support of thousands of scientific and cultural projects whether it be for housing for homeless street kids, free computers for Vancouver area libraries , myriad grants for researchers in family health and planning, diseases of all kinds ,agricultural developments and more. Coincidentally, Bill Gates has also just published a report about the “Future of Food”. The Future of Food report suggests alternatives to meat and eggs that “are just as healthful, and produced more sustainably and taste great.” He seems to claim lofty motives like climate change reduction and reducing world hunger in the future. And he even interviews distinguished food security writers like Michael Pollan. However as a food security and local food activist I was left with an uneasy feeling for several reasons. One is that he makes absolutely no mention about the seed sovereignty and GM food issue. And his support, to the tune of billions of dollars for all things to do with biotechnology is well documented. In the US, unfortunately, it is not unusual for the words and ideas of the green movement to be co-opted by forces representing totally opposite intentions.
Still I am hopeful that John Robbins’s probing questions about the motives and net benefits of the Gates Foundation, with specific regard to their Food Security and health file, might gradually prove to be a positive catalyst for an eventual overall and constructive change in direction for Bill Gates and the otherwise incredible work his foundation performs throughout the world. Time will only tell.
Vandana Shiva, Ph.D. – Food Security in a Global Community
Dr. Vandana Shiva is a world-renowned environmental leader and thinker. She is director of the Research Foundation on Science, Technology, and Ecology, and the author of many bestselling books, including Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis. Vandana is a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, often called “The Alternative Nobel Prize.” In 2011, Forbes named her “one of the 7 most influential feminists in the world,” and Time selected her as an “environmental hero.” Find out more at www.navdanya.org and www.seedfreedom.in
The interviewer, John Robbins, got right down to business with a hard-hitting question about the 250,000 recorded farmer suicides over the last 15 years, in India, representing a death every 30 minutes. This is believed to be the largest wave of suicides in recorded history! His questions, themselves, contained, at times, a gold-mine of information. For example, John further pointed out that this horrendous statistic does not even include women suicides since farmland title in India is traditionally only registered in the man’s name. Also other family members, or even tenant farmers, are not included in those suicide statistics. Finally John asked, “What is the relationship between the use of GM seeds in India and this terrible problem of farmer suicides?”
Vandana replied that there is an intimate link between the introduction, in India, of monopolies over seeds such as Bt cotton, and farmer suicide, no matter how much Monsanto, the company responsible, attempts to deny it. The farmer suicides in India started in 1997. Monsanto had just developed a new Bt cotton seed that contained a new toxic gene to produce its own pesticide to control the Bollworm pest. So Monsanto’s Bt cotton trials began in India from 1997 to 1998. Just as we see more superweeds, from the Roundup crop in the US, the Indian bollworm, itself, is now more pesticide resistant and also new pests, such as aphids, have increased in quantity by 300%.
Vandana says it is a twofold deathtrap. The only reason for GM seeds is to claim intellectual property rights and thereby create a patent system for life forms so as to collect “rent or royalty” off of any who use them. The seeking of rent from life’s own reproduction is the root cause of the massive farmer suicides that began in 1997 even though Bt was not even officially permitted to commercially enter into India until 2002. Vandana Shiva’s organization managed to delay Monsanto’s official entry into India in 2002 by taking Monsanto to court and by suing them for illegal entry without approval. Despite all this, Monsanto had already confidentially begun the process of closing deals and locking 16 Indian seed companies into long term contracts, distributing product and samples, as well as other behind the scenes lobbying efforts. These Indian seed distributors are the ones that collect, through the price of seed, the royalties or rents that flow back to Monsanto.
Monsanto now earns $200 million per year from Indian farmers for “doing nothing”. They do not do any work in the field and grow none of the cotton. They no longer even produce the seed. Their Indian partners do that too. The greed of a monopoly propels a monoculture. In India the cotton seed price jumped 8000% as a result.
Monocultures do not fit every ecosystem and every climate. You have a drought and there is a crop failure. You have excess rain and there may be crop failure. These GM cotton and other seeds, which now enjoy a virtual monopoly in India, have not even been climactically or locally adapted to the conditions of the states in India where they are now used. This means that they are not efficient and reliable, and sometimes the farmer needs to buy and use 2 or 3 times as many seeds for planting just to achieve the same success rate, as the original indigenous heirloom seeds that were once passed onto him after many generations of development and that had an opportunity to adapt to local conditions. If you factor this into the calculation then effectively a poor Indian farmer could be paying 24,000% more now to use Monsanto’s patented GM seed! These are subsistence farmers who must somehow support their families with only $2 to $5 per day of income.
The farmers really do not have the money to buy GM seed at this level. To finance such an astronomical expenditure, way beyond any typical Indian farmer’s means, the farmers are shrewdly pushed with easy credit and false promises of high yields. For example, they may be specifically promised a yield of 1500 kg/acre. But after several years of study, the GM variety was found to average only 400-500 kg/acre. Not only is there a reduced productivity from what the farmer started with but now there is also a thirteenfold increase in the requirement for pesticides. This is a totally predictable death trap. To pay for all of this, the poor Indian subsistence farmer has to now subsidize the GM seed and pesticide purchases with credit signed off against his land mortgage. After a few years of losing money, the Indian Bt Cotton farmer is unable to make payments on his loan so the creditor, inevitably comes to repossess his farmland. It is at that point, often the very same evening, that 95% of them end their life by walking into the field with a bottle of pesticide and drinking its contents. Most of the suicides are in the cotton belt. Monsanto now controls and regulates 95% of the cotton seed in India. So there would seem to be a correlation between the epidemic of farmer suicides and the spread of Monsanto’s Bt cotton – which no one actually ever said was needed or wanted in the first place.
The highest Indian democratic political and judicial bodies have said this practice must stop. But Monsanto, shrewdly, has at least 2 mechanisms for subverting democracy. First they capture the loyalty of several well placed politicians with loans and bribes. Secondly, they exercise an enormous public relations machinery and media spin operation, to counter or subvert or replace scientific or statistical evidence (and democracy) that may have been negating or questioning whatever false claims they have made, initially, to seduce the poor Indian farmers. It is the very same public relations machinery and spin that worked to successfully defeat the Proposition 37 GM labeling initiative in California in November 2012.
Shiva Questions Foundation’s Support of Biotech Seed
As a background to his next round of questions for Dr. Shiva , interviewer John Robbins shared the following information.
In his annual letter for 2012 , Bill Gates announced that the Gates Foundation intends to combat world hunger by investing in genetically modified agriculture. However a study from the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that genetically engineered crops do not produce larger harvests. Crop yield increases in recent years have almost entirely been due to improved farming or traditional plant breeding, despite more than 3,000 field trials of GM crops. When Bill Gates was confronted about this contradiction between his foundation’s stated goals and the work of hundreds of respected scientists, he suggested that their conclusions probably apply to American farmers only. Nonetheless , he continued to express the opinion that engineered crops for wheat, corn, and rice helped farmers in poor nations to “vastly improve their yields.”
John Robbins then asked Dr. Vandana Shiva, “In the face of all the evidence to the contrary, why would Mr. Gates still endorse GM agriculture as a ‘ solution for world hunger’ in the developing world? And what is the actual impact of GMOs on the world hunger challenge ?
She strongly suggested that the Gates Foundation needed to utilize a more systematic approach and do an independent assessment before making such claims about the technology. For one thing, she asked why should GM seed work well, for farmers and consumers, in the third world if it demonstrably does not work in the US? Payments for seed royalties to Monsanto and other biotech companies are an enormous burden for poor subsistence farmers in the third world as the case of Indian farmer suicides graphically demonstrates.
In the face of so many reported negatives experiences and scientific evidence to the contrary of Monsanto’s spin, Vandana Shiva asks why the Gates foundation would still be so eager to do the wrong thing at this point in history? It is not just the science but also all the evidence on the ground and the cases fought in the courts all over the world.
The case of “Bowman vs. Monsanto”, in the United States, shows that oppression of the farmer, through the monopoly of dubious seed, is now a global problem. In Brazil, the supreme court has recently ruled against Monsanto to the tune $2.2 billion worth of royalty collections from Brazilian farmers. Monsanto is now desperate to settle, for a reduced amount if possible, with the country-wide group of farmers outside of court. More importantly they still hope to somehow continue their royalty payment system even despite the massive Brazilian farmer payout or refund.
This seed totalitarianism is an inevitable part of this GMO technology introduction and problem. Vandana breaks the underlying problem down in several ways. The first issue is the royalty problem. What was once the farmers’ commons or shared heritage or property, the community seed, has now been privatized and made into the intellectual property of a company. Secondly, the technology is not working. There are 2 main GM traits; i.e herbicide resistance which is more prevalent in Argentinian Soy crops; and Bt type pest resistance which is more popular in the cotton belts. Bt was supposed to control pests but instead it has created super pests. Roundup was supposed to control weeds but it created superweeds. The all out promotion of a failed technology by government and big business is blindness and not science. Thirdly, many major GM food commodities do not actually feed people even while the GM seed giants claim to feed the world. Corn and Soy are good examples. Only 10% of the world-wide production of corn and soy is actually for human consumption. The rest is used for driving cars and fattening animals in factory farms! From this one can only conclude that there is some kind of deep disconnect between people’s right to wholesome and healthy food and whatever the Gates Foundation, the biotech industry, in general, and the US government are claiming. The fact is that 80% of the world food supply is still produced by the small farmer.
“I would add that a capital, chemical and GMO intensive system of agriculture is the surest way to destroy the backbone of global food security”. – Dr. Vandana Shiva
Next John Robbins asked about what is really at stake between the seemingly 2 competing paradigms? One is the agro-ecological approach that uses traditional seed, diverse crops and natural approaches to pest management. At the core of this approach are the small landholders and farmers. The other is the chemical giants such as Dow Chemical and Monsanto with their monocultures and GM seed patents and heavy use of toxic pesticides.
Vandana replied that the GM food paradigm is based on “profits alone” and powered by “flawed science and assumptions”. The other paradigm is based on centuries of practice and the best of emerging science or agro-ecology and growing the food in the place, as much as possible, where people are actually consuming the food.
Furthermore, this old chemical GMO paradigm is driven by war. Many of these founding American GM seed companies had their basis in chemical and biological weapons production, often to support warfare. Their expertise is how to kill. They simply have no understanding about sustaining life, whether it is human, animal or plant biology. They also have no understanding about microbial life, and what makes the soil come alive. They assume the soil is empty, dead and inert. They assume all living beings are a potential enemy of human beings even though insects and pests show an amazing balance (or symbiosis) in nature through their pest-predator relationship. The result of such a jaded logic is that their clumsy methods require an ever increasing use of harmful pesticides which in turn decimate any and all remaining beneficial pests, friendly soil and plant bacteria, and microbes. “(We can) Look at the loss of 75% of the bee population in some areas. (This is) all because of the use of poisons and chemicals.” Eventually , whole beneficial systems of supportive species, whether it is useful bees, Monarch butterflies and other insects , microbes, birds, plant biodiversity, or other life forms, become extinct, making the damage to the food system, and the crisis to agriculture, deeper, more systemic and longer term.
According to Dr. Shiva, the irresponsible GM technology has contributed to approximately 75% of our current global ecological problems whether we look at soil or water quality, loss of plant biodiversity or overall species extinction. She also believes it may, directly and indirectly, contribute up to 40% of the production of undesirable greenhouse gases. Furthermore by permanently damaging all these vital inputs to both the farm and ecosystem, in general, we become even more vulnerable to climate change as our environment no longer has an adaptive capacity to buffer its effects. Add to this the problem of food, malnutrition and disease. The result is that we now have a billion people suffering from food hunger.
Today’s poverty and hunger in the developing world is not the result of a lack of food or overpopulation. Instead Vandana believes, “It is a structural hunger created by a food system based on greed. It takes money out of the agricultural community leaving the producers with enormous debts. They grow the corn but do not eat the corn. They grow the rice but do not eat the rice.” Vandana calls this “hunger by design”. Those who eat this food are also getting all kinds of diseases, even obesity, diabetes and cancer.
When you combine all these negative events and inputs, we can safely say that the damage that genetically modified (GM) seed and food is doing to the ecology, the health of human beings, the livelihood of small farmers and the overall denial of the right of farmers and consumers to real food is a WORLD CATASTROPHE!
1998 Seed Freedom Campaign still relevant today (Photo from www.seedfreedom.in)
If we work really hard the alternative paradigm of possibility may still prevail and blossom forth. Otherwise the billions of dollars of the Gates foundation, wrong government policies, corporate greed and junk science, will succeed, our environment will decline, and there will be no possibility of feeding humanity.
In this sea of negative news there is now hope. The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, in the north-east of India, has formally invited Vandana Shiva’s organization Navdanya to assist them in the process of the transitioning of all food and farming practices there to organic ones (www.forumforthefuture.org/greenfutures/articles/bhutan-worlds-first-100-organic-nation). Equally importantly, some of the state governments in India are, now, favourably endorsing Navdanya’s approach and moving in that direction as well.
When asked again about some new initiatives that billionaire Bill Gates and his foundation are making with another billionaire, Carlos Slim, in Mexico, to further push and promote GMO’s, Dr. Shiva suggested we must make a concerted effort to “wake up” people like Bill Gates, on global food and health matters, so that they “find their way” to the truth about it. In this particular case, with GM food and seed, the Gates Foundation, Dr. Shiva says, ”Must end this particular pretense at philanthropy” because, by doing so, it is unintentionally financing a company, whose intellectual property for GM products, may have indirectly contributed to massive farmer suicides in India. Failing that, we may need to engage in more frequent and bigger protests until they finally get the message.
Interviewer John Robbins asked if Vandana can suggest more steps that activists and consumers in North America can take to support this work of transformation of the global food system to a more sustainable path. She suggested the first step is to recognize that small farmers in developing countries are not “pathetic” people who cannot produce their own food security! They are proud multi-generational “keepers of the seed”, and contributors to Food Sovereignty, “who also have a right to food democracy as much as anyone else”. So we need to respect the third world peasant and the rich biodiversity and rich agricultural traditions that they have developed and that we all now rely so much on in the practices of modern agro-ecology and permaculture.
Next, Vandana suggests, we also need to show much stronger solidarity with third world social and food security movements, as well as food security movements in North America, in order to limit and control and eventually correct the damage that has been done. Specifically, she suggests targeting three areas such as the way Monsanto controls the seed supply, Cargill controls trade and Walmart pushes small retailers out of business.
Besides the corporations there is a problem of democracy in the United States. Very importantly and bizarrely, Vandana pointed out that the entire foreign policy of the US has been reduced to “pushing GMO’s from Monsanto” onto other countries. She has witnessed this many times in her own country. She gave specific examples of how the US government had bullied the government of Nepal and India and how her organization, Navdanya, had to take either Monsanto or the respective governments, or both, to court, or arrange massive protests, in order to overturn their secret and undemocratic backroom deals. These pertained to the handing of control over the local food and seed supply ( to Monsanto), relaxation of standards for pesticide contamination, and permission of the use of other harmful agricultural inputs. Broadly speaking, Dr. Shiva suggests that US foreign policy must become more respectful of the sovereignty and democracies of all of the other countries around the world, and not just continue to be a vehicle for exponentially increasing Monsanto’s profits. US domestic policy has not been much better with new laws being created everywhere that criminalize open source and open pollinated seed.
Since some kind of food is necessary for all life on earth, the food freedom movement should be seen as having a basis in the journey of life itself. Therefore every able-bodied human being should join the seed freedom campaign because seed is the first link in the global food chain. Seed sovereignty is the basis of food sovereignty. We all have to have the courage now to say “NO” to ANY unjust policies, just as Mahatma Gandhi did 80 years ago. According to Dr. Shiva, everyone must learn to emulate activist Rosa Parks but, this time, on behalf of the food revolution. We must resolve to change any injustice, such as denying us the right to know (what is inside our food) or denying us our heirloom seed, that we come across in our local communities.
Lastly, Vandana invites people to download various free reports such as “The GMO Emperor Has No Clothes” from her website, to make a donation to support the work, or to join the seed freedom campaigns and/or sign her other organization’s ‘Declaration for Seed Freedom’ at www.seedfreedom.in .
About the author: Raoul Bedi has worked in the field of educational seminars and products with a focus on nutrition and health for 25 years. Over the past 5 years he has been actively involved in educational and fundraising initiatives and campaigns for farmer’s rights and food security in Canada. He is also an administrator for the “ Canadian Raw Dairy Consumer Advocacy“ Facebook food security research and blog pages. Raoul can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. His company, Vedic Harmony Centre, sponsors a variety of food and wellness events, and radio interviews about Food Security, conscious living and green solutions. Vedic Harmony Centre’s website for educational materials and products is www.biofield.ca .