Trained in physics and philosophy, Vandana Shiva is renowned for her activism against GMOs, globalization, and patents on seeds and traditional foods. She co-founded Navdanya, which promotes seed saving and organic farming and has more than 70,000 farmer-members.
Sarah van Gelder: The seed has been a major part of your work. Could you say a little about what a seed is at its essence?
Vandana Shiva: The seed in its essence is all of the past evolution of the Earth, the evolution of human history, and the potential for future evolution. The seed is the embodiment of culture because culture shaped the seed with careful selection—women picked the best, diversified. So from one grass you get 200,000 rices.
That is a convergence of human intelligence and nature’s intelligence. It is the ultimate expression of life, and in our language, it means “that from which life arises on its own, forever and ever and ever.”
van Gelder: So what is it worth?
Shiva: It’s priceless. There is no price to seed, which is why the commodification of seed is such an outrage. Every culture that I’ve come across believes that destroying seed is the ultimate sin. Communities have starved to death rather than eat the seed grain.
van Gelder: The prevailing worldview separates humans from the natural world, and it has had terrible effects. How are people healing this separation, and how are seeds part of that work?
Shiva: No matter what problem you look at, every ecological problem comes from this illusion that we are separate from nature.
I believe overcoming the separation is a longing much deeper than the recent rise of ecological awareness. The healing is coming from reclaiming our oneness with the web of life, with the universe itself.
Some people do it through meditation and yoga, but a lot more are doing it by just planting a seed and growing a garden. In planting a seed you are one with the cycles and regenerative capacity of life. We hear the same thing again and again from children we work with sowing gardens of hope with seeds of freedom. When you ask, “So what did you learn?” they always talk about the miracle of life—that a tiny seed bursts into a plant and gives an abundance, and they can harvest a seed from it.
A seed sown in the soil makes us one with the Earth. It makes us realize that we are the Earth. That this body of ours is the panchabhuta—the five elements that make the universe and make our bodies. The simple act of sowing a seed, saving a seed, planting a seed, harvesting a crop for a seed is bringing back this memory—this timeless memory of our oneness with the Earth and the creative universe.
There’s nothing that gives me deeper joy than the work of protecting the diversity and the freedom of the seed. Every expression of diversity is an expression of freedom, and every expression of monoculture is an expression of coercion.
van Gelder: Can you say more about that? What is the relationship of freedom to biodiversity?
Shiva: Life is self-organized. Self-organized systems evolve in diversity. You are not identical to me, because each of us has evolved in freedom. The self-organizing capacity of life is expressed in diversity. Diversity of culture, diversity of humans, diversity of seeds.
Uniformity is constructed from the outside. It is coercive. So a farm of only Roundup Ready soya is actually a battlefield. Chemical warfare is going on—spraying of Roundup to kill everything green, to kill the soil organisms, to kill the diversity, but also to kill the potential of the crop to manage itself and diseases.
Monocultures can only be held together through external control, and uniformity and external control and concentration go hand in hand.
van Gelder: How do we, the people, get strong enough to counter the enormous power of Monsanto and the like?
Shiva: We are dealing with life itself, so the first place we get power is by aligning ourselves with the forces of life. That is why the act of seed saving is such an important political act in this time. And that is the part that is linked to self-organizing—organizing yourself to save the seeds, have a community garden, create an exchange, do everything that it takes to protect and rejuvenate the seed. But at this point, industry is hungry to have absolute control. They will not tolerate a single farmer who has freedom in his seed supply. They will not stand a single seed that grows on its own terms.
van Gelder: If anything, things have gotten more dire since the last time we talked. How do you get energized and keep your own spirits up?
Shiva: You know it is true that on the one hand, the concentration of power is more than ever before. But I think the awareness about the illegitimacy of this power is also more than ever before. If you take into account the number of movements, the number of protests taking place, and the number of people building alternatives, it’s huge.
The first place where I get joy as well as the energy to continue is the positive work of seed saving, promoting a peaceful agriculture, working with farmers, and now increasingly working with non-farmers. In the course we are running on the farm right now, we have 55 young people—someone from a banking system, someone from a software firm, three filmmakers.
No matter where in the world you are, people are realizing food is important. They are realizing food begins with seed, and everyone wants to learn. When I see those processes get unleashed, when I see how rapidly gardening has become such an important way of healing violence—I just met a young man who’s working with ex-convicts to spread gardens. That’s his work! He’s created a firm, and they are the owners, and the board members—how can you not be charged with energy?
Sarah van Gelder interviewed Vandana Shiva for How To Eat Like Our Lives Depend On It, the Winter 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah is executive editor of YES!