The next time you sit down to a meal, you might consider eating for a change.
That thought was at the core of Vandana Shiva’s recent Axworthy Lecture at the University of Winnipeg. A forceful and articulate Indian activist, Shiva aimed her pointed comments at a worldwide food industry more focused on its own profits than the health of its customers or the well-being of the Earth.
She illustrated her lecture with examples drawn from India, where she and the organization she founded, Navdanya, struggle against multinational agrochemical companies for the rights of farmers to control their own seeds and to farm without chemicals. The challenge, she said, both there and in Canada, is to embrace and nurture diversity in agriculture the same way we promote it in other areas of society.
For Shiva, uniformity threatens our health and our future. Monoculture agriculture — growing large amounts of the same crop, over and over — is not only destructive of farm land, requiring increasing amounts of artificial, petroleum-based fertilizers, but produces food that lacks the nutritional content of organically produced food. In short, we are eating empty calories, using fossil fuels and reducing the productivity of the soil under the guise of "feeding the world."
It was a pungent critique, not only of chemical monoculture, but of the justice issues that go along with the devastation of the land — the soil — and the water on which we depend for life itself. Every time we choose what to eat, we are voting for the kind of agriculture we want to flourish and its effects on the places and people that grow the food, as well as on our own health.
As famine once again grips large sections of Africa and other areas become food insecure, climate change will only accelerate the disastrous outcomes of poor agricultural choices.
Against those who say intensive chemical agriculture is needed "to feed the world," Shiva pointed out how the Green Revolution of the 1970s and 1980s has left depleted soils, reduced yields, contaminated water and hungry people in its wake. However it has been advertised, the results have been disastrous. More people will not make the situation better, if we continue to push only a few crop types and adapt them to where they are grown by means of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Genetically modified crops, she said, are modified to improve corporate profits, not improve the health of people or soil.
She argued for diversity in agriculture, noting the millions of species of living organisms with which we share the biosphere and the resilience to changing conditions this kind of diversity permits. One size never fits all, nor should it.
Taking aim at her iconic target of Monsanto, Shiva got the biggest response from the crowd of several hundred people by observing that the cafeteria at Monsanto global headquarters only serves organic food.
"They make the stuff," she said, "but they won’t eat it."
She had good things to say about the University of Winnipeg’s Diversity Food services, noting that she rarely likes to eat North American food, but she had eaten two very good, tasty meals that day. Paying attention to what we eat, where it comes from and how we prepare it can only have better outcomes the more we do it.
In response to questions after the lecture, she discussed the need to divest from the fossil fuel companies whose operations threaten our future because of the ecological effects of their products. She pointed out that we must also divest from fossilized thinking, saying we need to reject all industries (such as agrochemical companies) whose operations depend on producing and using oil and find alternatives in which to invest.
Shiva mentioned one of her current initiatives, saying that the world needs more green carbon — more agriculture — as well as less black carbon from burning fossil fuels. Green carbon absorbs and uses the carbon dioxide that is increasing global warming — suggesting we could grow ourselves into a low-carbon future, as long as we stop using fossil fuels to do it.
A powerful speaker, Shiva made it clear to her audience that individuals can make a difference in the world simply by changing how they eat, what they eat — and by telling other people why they are making these choices.
We should not only eat for change, but also think before we eat.
Peter Denton teaches the history of technology at the University of Winnipeg and chairs the policy committee of the Green Action Centre.