BBC – Travel – Vandana Shiva on why the food we eat matters

She’s been called the “Gandhi of grain”, the “rock star” of the anti-GMO movement and an “eco-warrior goddess”. For more than 40 years, the Indian physicist turned ecologist and food rights advocate Vandana Shiva has taken on big agriculture, arguing that we can end world hunger and help save the planet while also preserving the unique cultural and culinary traditions that make our world so wonderfully diverse.

50 Reasons to Love the World – 2021

Why do you love the world?

some text

“Because of Covid, I was [locked down] in my childhood home in Dehradun where I was born. Coming home made me once again fall in love with the Earth, the Himalayas, my beautiful Doon Valley.” – Dr Vandana Shiva, environmental activist and food advocate

More Reasons to Love the World

Above all, Shiva is a staunch believer that the food we eat matters. It makes us who we are, physically, culturally and spiritually. By championing greater food sovereignty, sustainability and seed rights for local farmers around the world, Shiva is determined to remind us that “food and culture are the currency of life” – and that you can’t have one without the other.

We recently caught up with Shiva to ask her about growing up in the Indian Himalayas, how biodiversity helps preserve local cultures, and what travellers can do to make the world a better place.

Q: After a long career spent advocating on behalf of indigenous people, traditional practices and natural healing, why do you think that these things are especially important today?

My dedication and service to the Earth and indigenous communities started nearly five decades ago with [the Chipko movement]. Protecting the Earth and indigenous cultures is more important than ever today because five centuries of colonialism and three centuries of fossil fuel-based industrialism has brought us to collapse. Indigenous people have lived in harmony with nature, respecting the Earth and her limits. They are teachers for survival in a period of extinction.

Q: This has been an unprecedented and trying year. What are some things you’ve witnessed in your native India that have restored your belief that food and culture are “the very currency of life”?

Yesterday, women from my region in the Himalayas gathered at Navdanya for a millet festival. The Green Revolution [that revolutionised India’s farm production in the 1960s-70s] named them “backward” and “primitive” grains. But they [yield] 10 times more nutrition using 10 times less water. Members of Navdanya were calling me during lockdown to say that the Gardens of Hope we started provided food for their families and communities in spite of lockdown. 

Food and culture are the currency of life. And while we are overwhelmed by disease and death, a living food culture can show the light to the path of life.

Q: You’re a vocal food sovereignty advocate. What’s your definition of food sovereignty and how do you feel food sovereignty helps enhance the world’s biodiversity and preserve local cultures?

Food sovereignty is sovereignty over your life, livelihood and health

For me, food sovereignty is sovereignty over your life, livelihood and health. We are interconnected, therefore food sovereignty is an ecological process of co-creation with other lifeforms. It begins with seed sovereignty: saving and using living seeds. It involves care for the land and soil. We cannot have food sovereignty if we do not feed the soil organisms.

Food sovereignty is based on organic farming and avoiding chemicals and poisons. Food sovereignty includes knowledge sovereignty, economic sovereignty and political sovereignty.

Q: What are some ways that you’ve observed this in practice in India?

Because I had done the study on the Green Revolution in Punjab in 1984 and was invited to a meeting on biotechnology in 1987, we began with saving seeds – the movement that, since 1991, is called Navdanya. More than 150 community seed banks have been created. Local seeds adapted to local cultures provide more nutrition and are more resilient to climate change. We have trained more than a million farmers in chemical-free, biodiversity-based organic farming. Farmers have increased production of nutrition twofold and by not wasting money on chemicals and non-renewable seeds, they earn 10 times more than commodity growing farmers.

You may also be interested in:
• Isabel Allende on travel and culture
• The chef preserving Canada’s indigenous identity
• Michael Pollan talks about food and identity

Q: How did your upbringing in the Himalayan foothills inspire your interest in food and ecology? 

Because I grew up in the Himalayas and became a volunteer for Chipko, I learnt the value of biodiversity. I applied this learning to understand why [the state of] Punjab, where the Green Revolution was first imposed, had erupted in violence. I wrote the book The Violence of the Green Revolution and took a pledge to evolve non-violent systems of food and agriculture. This is what I have done since 1984.

I realised that the industrial-colonising West was based on a mechanical mind, a monoculture of the mind. Building on my training and my Himalayan upbringing, I started to cultivate the biodiversity of the mind, and regenerate biodiversity on our farms and [of our] food.  

Q: You’ve been championing “seed saving” and “seed freedom” for decades. Why are these practices so important, and how has the organisation you founded, Navdanya, worked to improve this in India? 

Seed is the source of life. Seed is the source of food. To protect food freedom, we must protect seed freedom.

The first thing we did was create community seed banks to reclaim the seed as a common [good], and resist patents on seeds. More than 150 community seed banks have been created which have helped farmers grow more nutritious crops and have climate-resilient seeds in their hands to deal with climate change and climate disasters.

I helped write laws that recognise that plants, animals and seeds are not human inventions. We fought cases on biopiracy, the patenting of our biodiversity and indigenous knowledge. Through participatory research, we showed that when you intensify biodiversity instead of chemicals, and measure nutrition per acre instead of yield per acre, we can grow enough nutrition for two times the world population.

New research is showing that native seeds have higher nutrition than industrially bred “high-yielding varieties”, which are nutritionally empty and full of toxins.

Q: As you’ve pointed out many times, women plant and cultivate most of the world’s food. Why is food sovereignty especially relevant for women?

I have realised over four decades of research and action that most farmers of the world are women. They grow food as nourishment, not as commodities. They grow food for health, not disease. Through wars and famines, through floods and droughts, they have kept alive the memory of their seeds and foods.

Women have the potential to lead the transition to regenerate the Earth, her biodiversity and our health and nutrition.

Q: What are some cultures that people around the world can look to as good stewards of an organic-food approach? 

All indigenous cultures are stewards of an organic-food approach. Australian Aborigines have farmed for 60,000 years. Small farmers of China and India have been farmers [for] 40 centuries. 

Sir Albert Howard, who was sent to India in 1905 by the British Empire to improve Indian Agriculture, instead improved the farming of the West by learning organic farming from Indian peasants. As he writes in An Agricultural Testament, seeing how good the indigenous practices in India were, he made Indian peasants his professors.

Q: You’ve authored more than 20 books, and through the tit
le of one of your most famous ones, you coined the term “Earth Democracy”. What does this mean and how can travellers practice it?

Colonialism and industrialism have destroyed the Earth and indigenous cultures through four false assumptions.

First, that we are separate from nature and not a part of nature. Second, that nature is dead matter, mere raw material for industrial exploitation. Third, that indigenous cultures are inferior and primitive, and need to be “civilised” through civilising missions of permanent colonization. Fourth, that nature and cultures need improvement through manipulation and external inputs. Green Revolution, GMOs, gene editing are rooted in this false assumption. 

I wrote Earth Democracy to show that globalisation had created deregulated commerce and unleashed limitless greed, which was leading to economies of ecocide and genocide. Electoral democracy financed by billionaires and corporations had transformed democracy from being of the people, for the people, by the people into a political system run of the corporations, for the corporations, by the corporations. And by creating scarcity and competition, it had created culture wars.

We are not superior to other species, we are inter-beings

So, I evolved the concept of Earth Democracy on the basis of my philosophy and practice that we are part of the Earth, and human freedom and human wellbeing depends on other species. We are not superior to other species, we are inter-beings. Anthropocentrism is a violent construct.

Earth Democracy allows us to shift from economies and cultures that kill and democracies that are dead to living economies, living democracies, living cultures of the Earth, sharing her abundance, respecting her limits.

Q: You have helped grassroots organisations across Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe and spoken at events throughout the world. In all your travels, what have you observed as the common threads that connect local foods and identity?

We were divided by colonialism. We have been divided by gender, race, religion, class. But we are part of the Earth and food is the currency of life. A food system that is at war with the Earth is also at war with our bodies. 

Across the world, especially in times of the pandemic, there is a growing consciousness that the multiple energies we are living through have their roots in an unjust, non-sustainable industrial-globalised food system. And solutions to all the crises lie in creating local, biodiverse, poison-free, chemical-free food systems that increase nourishment for all beings while reducing our ecological footprint.

Q: How do you ensure that the food you eat when travelling is local and produced in a sustainable way, and what tips can you offer other travellers who want to do the same?

When global travel was possible, I either ate food from local farmers or fasted. Since lockdown has stopped travel, I am thriving [on] local food we grow and starting a movement to “Grow your Health”.

Q: What is the best advice you can offer travellers who want to make the world a better place but may not know where to start?

The food we eat can be a big contributor to the problems. Eating consciously can be a big contributor to the solutions. What we need to keep in mind is that food is the currency of life. When you participate in industrial lab food systems, you participate in breaking the cycles of life. 

Avoid processed food, eat fresh. Avoid anonymous foods where you do not know what went into the manufacture. All beings are living, all beings are sentient. Eating is a conversation with other living beings. Anonymous foods disrupt that communication and our health. 

Q: What still gives you hope that our world can change for the better?

Hope is not a thing outside us, hope is a process of living. I cultivate hope in every thought and every action.

BBC Travel celebrates 50 Reasons to Love the World in 2021, through the inspiration of well-known voices as well as unsung heroes in local communities around the globe.


Join more than three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter called “The Essential List”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.