Women – not GMOs feed the world

by Eva Lachkovics

Vandana Shiva, Indian scholar and environmental activist, explains why women’s traditional knowledge holds the answer to the problem of food security in India.

In PDF: women_not_GMO_feed_world

Shiva, a globally well-known Indian scholar, environmental activist and anti-globalization author, recently visited Austria. Together with other NGOs, the WIDE network Austria organized a highly interesting evening in Vienna with her. She shared with us – in Vienna and in Graz – her experience, ideas for civil society activities and her warnings. She advocates a paradigm shift with regard to agriculture and climate change. Here is a short overview of her messages.

Women‘s knowledge

Women all over the world, in particular in the South, possess enormous traditional knowledge in the area of agriculture/farming and nutrition, but very often, their knowledge is ignored or not accepted as knowledge by industrial agriculture and science.

Vandana Shiva told us about Indian women farmers who over centuries have collected and saved seeds and continuously adapted them to the conditions of their immediate environments, to the soil, the climate, to possible droughts, floods or other events interfering with plant growth. Together with these women farmers, Shiva started to collect and save traditional seeds near her own farm. Their collection now comprises some 4,000 rice varieties and numerous varieties of other plant species. A salt resilient variety saved the farmers on the Southern coast of India when it was flooded by the tsunami in 2004. Because of the salt the sea carried into the land, other varieties were unable to grow there for several years.

Women know that it is essential to save seeds of any quality for an unforeseeable future, for natural disasters. In times of climate change this is indispensable. The greater the world‘s biodiversity, the greater the chances to feed the world.

Indian women‘s achievements in protecting their farms and agriculture

Shiva gave some examples of successful women‘s campaigns in India against the destruction of the environment. They stopped mining in one part of India that was gradually reducing limestone in the area. Women knew that limestone has a great capacity of holding the water needed for farming. Mining was thought to be important for India‘s economy, but the women succeeded in making it clear that water for farming was economically and socially more important than mining. They saved the water retention capacity of limestone.

They also managed, with the help of Vandana Shiva, to obtain the closure of a Coca Cola plant that was using 1.5 million liters of Indian water a day for production. This water was missing for agriculture, and therefore, for feeding the local population. Coca Cola was actually stealing the water from the local people. The women finally convinced decision-makers and the plant was shut down.

Nature shrinks as capital grows

Shiva listed the various factors contributing to climate change caused by industrial agriculture. Agricultural chemicals destroy organic matter in the soil thereby setting CO2 free and reducing soil fertility. This makes it necessary to use more chemicals. The use of chemical fertilizers produces a greenhouse gas that is many times more harmful to the climate than CO2. Also, deforestation to produce more and more acreage for the cultivation of crops as commodities is a major contributor to climate change. Every year, 30 million hectares of rain forest are destroyed to make money on commodities such as agro-fuels. A lot of this destruction is currently happening in Indonesia.

Transportation, processing, packaging, and refrigerating all consume energy and produce greenhouse gases as well. Shiva estimates that industrial agriculture produces about 40% to 50% of the world‘s greenhouse gases all in all. This is destroying more and more nature – habitats for plants and animals –, while the capital of a few big transnational corporations such as Monsanto grows sky high. Food prices for consumers are constantly rising, while farmers earn less and less. Only 1% of what consumers pay reaches the farmers who produce the food, explained Shiva.

The industrial agriculture sector is dominated by some five giant companies that exploit the soil, the farmers and consumers. By patenting seeds they are also reducing farmers’ access to seeds. The farmers have to pay for patented seeds, which often are not well adapted to the various environmental conditions of the individual farm, especially if they are genetically manipulated organisms (GMOs).

Failure of GMOs

Industry representatives and certain scientists claim that only GMOs can feed the growing world population. But what has gene technology thus far contributed to the world‘s food supply? The overwhelming majority of GMO crops is gene manipulated to produce toxins, either the toxin of the microbe Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) against insects or a toxin that makes the plants resistant to a herbicide, mainly the carcinogenic glyphosate (brand ”Roundup” by Monsanto). They are grown in monocultures and steadily reduce soil fertility. Pests and weeds become increasingly resistant, therefore, the quantity of chemicals that need to be used becomes higher and higher. and pollutes the environment and the water. GMOs also need much more water than traditional varieties. And water is becoming scarce.

In India, thousands of farmers in the cotton-growing regions of Punjab, Maharashtra und Andra Pradesh have committed suicide because of the dire situation they are thrust into by the crop failure of their Bt cotton, which is more vulnerable to pests and diseases than non-GMO cotton.

Since 1992, scientists have been working on the development of so-called “Golden Rice”. This rice contains an engineered gene for pro-vitamin A. The intention was to help counteract vitamin A deficiency in Asian countries. Some 100 million dollars were spent on basic research for its development over the course of ten years. The resulting rice variety was then supposed to be adapted to the conditions of Asian countries. After 23 years of research and millions and millions of dollars spent, “Golden Rice” is still not ready to be planted in the fields of Asia, and if it were to be planted it would cause a number of risks for biodiversity and the people. All of that money spent could have been used to set up thousands of kitchen gardens, kitchen gardens in which women could have grown fruits and vegetables containing pro-vitamin A. This would not only have eradicated vitamin A deficiency, but also all other deficiencies that come from an unbalanced diet of mainly rice. Many problems caused by vitamin A deficiency and other deficiencies could have been prevented during all of those years.

The spinning wheel of today: seeds

Organic agriculture, on the other hand, uses sustainable methods. It gives back to the soil the organic matter it takes from it – and even more. Therefore, soil fertility is improved and CO2 is kept inside the soil instead of being emitted into the atmosphere. The much more dangerous nitrous oxide (laughing gas) produced due to the use of chemical fertilizers is not emitted at all, of course. The rich soil retains much more water than any of the soils damaged by industrial agriculture.

Planting diverse crops and varieties, crop rotation and intercropping makes organic farming much more productive than industrial farming. Monocultures may yield more of one particular crop and variety, but organic farming produces more diverse and nutritious food from one particular piece of land than the large-scale monocultures on a piece of land of the same size can yield. Just one example: in an organic rice field, ducks and even fish can live that provide additional protein food like in the old days before the “Green Revolution”. In a field full of chemicals, no animal life is possible. Moreover, the other water resources around such fields are polluted and this drives away other sources of food in creeks and ponds that feed the poor.

In their small farms and gardens, women produce nutritious and balanced food for their families and their regional markets. This supports the circular economy, which means that the food consumed is mainly regional and seasonal food instead of food that is transported halfway around the world. This is the answer to the problem of feeding the world and to climate change, but certainly not GMOs.

Shiva calls seeds the spinning wheel of today. Mahatma Gandhi propagated the spinning wheel for every household as a means to become independent from British textile products and as a symbol of India’s liberation. The seed is the spinning wheel of today,and will help make farmers independent of the big seed-chemical-GMO corporations. Seeds developed, adapted and saved by women farmers are not restricted by patents. They are not dependent on the chemicals sold by the companies. They are not subject to the diktat of uniformity as industrial seeds, are not grown in monocultures and are certainly no GMOs. Therefore, they are not endangering biodiversity, on the contrary they enhance it. Shiva demands that seeds have to stay in the hands of (women) farmers and must not be controlled by giant corporations that only work to accumulate more and more capital and power.

Creative activism

Shiva encourages civil society all over the world to use methods of creative activism to resist industrial agriculture and GMOs. She works with youths in various countries including European countries such as Italy and Spain to build gardens that help to safeguard biodiversity and even enhance it. According to Vandana Shiva, these projects could also be measures to fight youth unemployment by making plots of land available to youths for this purpose.

She acclaimed the work of the Austrian association “Arche Noah”, which, for more than 25 years, has been advocating the preservation of the diversity of cultivars and their advancement. Arche Noah takes care of thousands of endangered varieties of fruits, vegetables and cereals and strives to bring traditional and rare varieties back into the gardens and markets. More than 11,000 dedicated people help by growing some of these varieties in their own gardens or fields in a form of sponsorship. A global network of organizations like it should be supported to encourage sharing and promote such ideas.
We all should take our nutrition and food sovereignty into our own hands again. “Start growing your own vegetables in a small garden, on your balcony, even in a green patch in a city,” Vandana Shiva calls on us all.
About the author

Eva Lachkovics, coordinator of the working group on biodiversity and gender of the WIDE network Austria and member of the Green Farmers in Austria.

More information

You can watch the whole evening session (1.5 hours) with Vandana Shiva in Vienna on 24 October 2015 „A Good World for Everyone – Vandana Shiva on New Solutions for Old Problems“: live recording 24/10/2015 by Dominique Doujenis.


Shiva, currently based in Delhi, is one of the leaders and board members of the International Forum on Globalization and is a figure of the global solidarity movement known as the alternative or alter-globalization movement. She has argued for the wisdom of many traditional practices such as India‘s heritage of Ayurveda. She is a member of the scientific committee of the Fundación IDEAS, Spain’s Socialist Party’s think tank. She is also a member of the International Organization for a Participatory Society. She received the Right Livelihood Award known as the alternative Nobel Prize in 1993 and numerous other prizes and has authored more than 20 books. Read more about her on her website http://vandanashiva.com.