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Interview with Vandana Shiva – By Manlio Masucci, Navdanya International
Is there a connection between the food we consume on a daily basis, the industrial food production system, environmental pollution and the chronic diseases afflicting the world’s population? According to Vandana Shiva «the current health crisis has its roots in the same system that has contributed to the ecological crisis.»
The meeting to draft the «Manifesto Food for Health«, convened in Florence by Navdanya International, chaired by the Indian scientist and activist, Vandana Shiva, was an opportunity to bring together some of the world’s leading experts in the areas of nutrition, health and agroecology, to elaborate an alternative and sustainable development path. The meeting took place when recent data on environmental sustainability and health risks are raising new concerns. The ISPRA (Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale) data on pesticide contamination in Italian groundwater, together with those of the Ramazzini Foundation, on the damage glyphosate poses to human body, even at permitted doses, cannot but be related to the EU reasserting glyphosate use for another five years – despite the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) petition to stop glyphosate signed by nearly half a million European citizens – and giving green light to the Bayer-Monsanto merger. A worrying situation, further worsened by the policies of US President Donald Trump. However, some things have in fact gone right: the EU itself has prohibited three neonicotinoid pesticides dangerous for bees, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) disavows the Green revolution, adding agroecology in its agenda, while the International Labor Organization (ILO) is focusing its efforts on the green economy, announcing the creation of 24 million jobs by 2030. «The manifesto aims at restoring all the connections that the neoliberal economic system has interrupted – Vandana Shiva explains from the meeting’s venue at Palazzo Budini Gattai in Florence – since there is only one form of health, one planet and one humanity; ecology itself should be redefined looking at its ability to create jobs. «
Dr. Shiva, we live in historical times in which experts from all over the world must gather to elaborate a public document to reclaim the rights of people. What is the reason for a Manifesto on food and health?
We are coming from a century that was characterized by massive use of chemical toxic compounds. Originally these compounds were synthetized for military operations, in other terms, to kill. Later they were readapted and re-sold on the market as chemical compounds for agriculture, making us believe that without chemicals there would be no food security. We are now discovering that the agricultural system that is based on chemicals and fossil fuels entails a high costs for the planet: water pollution, soil contamination, biodiversity loss, greenhouse gases which produce climatic instability. Even the emerging chronic diseases, such as cancer, autism, infertility have been associated with agrotoxins present in the food we consume daily. Any chronic disease can be connected to toxins and nutrient-less food. The chemical compounds used in agriculture are damaging our guts, killing the beneficial bacteria that we need. In our intestinal microbiome there are billions of bacteria that enable miraculous transformations thanks to the good food that we eat. These transformations then result in good health. This is the reason why our intestine is defined as our second brain. The illusion that was created, through «scienc»e and media control, is that food production left in the hands of agribusiness and the multinational cartel would feed us all.
Now we know that what they produce and place on the market cannot be defined as food but as a disease generating mechanism. We want to draw attention to this health emergency.
What is the alternative you wish to propose with the Manifesto?
We want to work for sustainable and regenerative agriculture, agroecology for local food production systems by joining forces with people working in the interest of public health: oncologists, cardiologists, infertility specialists and haematologists, especially those dealing with endocrine disruptors.
We want to promote a single system of knowledge to recreate a healthy planet for all living beings, a healthy community and society, in which our health is part of the equation. We want to recreate all those connections that were interrupted by industrial agriculture. We want to reward the best scientific practices, the best alternative experiences and simultaneously express a vision for the future, in a time when proposing new visions is increasingly difficult. We cannot give up the future and leave it at the mercy of those who have already committed ecocide and genocide crimes for a whole century. The future must be cultivated with love, care, knowledge, democracy, solidarity and cooperation. On the other hand, there is only one form of health because there is only one planet and one humanity. The alternatives do exist and are based on regenerating the earth’s health through agroecology, safeguarding biodiversity, promoting short supply chains and 0 km food systems. Health, starting from the health of the soil, up to that of plants, animals and humans must be the organizing principle and the aim of agriculture, trade, science, of our lives and of international trade. To address all these issues, is the goal of this manifesto.
In Italy and Europe you dealt with the issue of glyphosate. Why is it that, despite the evidence, which shows how dangerous glyphosate can be for humans and the planet, despite the precautionary principle which the EU, in theory, should apply, and despite the opposition expressed by the public opinion, glyphosate has not been banned yet?
Roundup was not to be invented, and glyphosate, its active ingredient, should not have been used in agriculture. We are talking about a chemical compound originally used to clean pipes. Almost by accident, while it was being used, a few drops fell on the ground destroying all the vegetation around the pipes. It is from this trivial episode that Monsanto had the idea to patent the compound and it has since flooded the world with Roundup. As they themselves said, Roundup destroys every green thing it comes in contact with. Glyphosate is the most widely used chemical herbicide in the world and its end result is ecocide. They have transformed our cultivated fields and farms into a battle field and now this battle is moving into our bodies. The IARC, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, has raised the alarm of how glyphosate is probably carcinogenic and immediately multinationals attacked the United Nations. Thousands of people in the US have joined together to denounce Monsanto, accusing it for placing carcinogenic products on the market. New studies are showing that even at the so-called «safe levels», Roundup is destroying the intestinal microbiome of people.
The European Union has recently given the go ahead to the Bayer-Monsanto merger. More influence for multinationals means a loss of rights for citizens?
The Bayer-Monsanto merger will aggravate the problem of knowledge manipulation, and science in particular. This is one of the reasons why this merger should be stopped and alternatives should be created. As they become bigger, their influence on regulations will be even stronger. What we really need are new alliances between citizens and scientists as well as between governments, which must safeguard our health at all levels starting from banning agrotoxins. It was 1984 when in Bhopal thousands of people were killed in one night by the toxic gases emitted from the Union Carbide factory, later bought by Dow which later merged with Dupont. Today these same companies, who brought agrochemicals into agriculture, are merging, creating a cartel made up of three major entities: Dow-DuPont, Syngenta-ChemChina, Bayer-Monsanto.
The merger has just been approved in India too. You have opposed it claiming for an investigation on some of Monsanto’s operations.
The Competition Commission of India had rejected the merger in India and we are now in the appeal phase. Monsanto previously sued the Indian antitrust when it tried to investigate the corporation’s monopoly on cotton. Then, in order to proceed with the merger process, since Bayer would have inherited a monopoly position, Monsanto sold its cotton business to another company. What is really interesting is that this company was created by former Monsanto employees. The deal between the two companies was closed for 2000 Euro. A billion-dollar business sold for 2000 Euro? This smacks of fraud, which requires investigation.
You also dealt with the GMO issue. Genetic engineering now seems to aim at the new gene drives technology. Is this a further danger?
With the same level of ignorance on how plants, living organisms, ecosystems, and cooperation between species work, multinational companies now want to take a step further in the process of imposing the reductionist, mechanistic militaristic-based model of agriculture. Originally, when their aim was the extinction of a specific species, they spread Roundup. Now they are moving to the next level, using the gene drives technology. They call them new selection technologies, but they are actually treating life as a writing program where you can edit as you like. And they are already working in countries to pre-empt regulations on the matter. We are talking about inaccurate techniques and an extraordinary assault at the core of life itself.
For a single gene that is manipulated, thousands of undesired and unplanned genetic modifications can result. Creating alternatives to this is an imperative for the survival of humanity. Claiming back our knowledge, our democracy, our rules, from the poison Cartel of multinational companies, must become a global freedom movement.
Your organization, Navdanya, was born over 30 years ago to protect farmers from the Green Revolution diktats. Is there any hope for change now?
The voice of movements from all over the world has finally reached the United Nations. FAO has played its role in promoting the Green Revolution and is now recognizing that it was not the right method to feeding the world and it is in fact small farmers, pollinators, biodiversity, that can feed the world. Agroecology is the science of the future, contrary to the theory of extermination, brought into agriculture by the chemical industry. The fact that agroecology is now on FAO’s agenda shows that consciences are evolving. It means that the attempts to shut out ecological knowledge did not impede the opening of a new way for the future. It is an evolution that involves the world of labour as well. If we think about the fact that productivity, in a fossil fuels-based economy, defines labour as an input, the efficiency of the system is then defined by the lowest number of people possible, employed in its productive processes. This is based on a faulty calculation. Human labour is not an input, but a result, an expression of their very humanity. On the occasion of the ILO’s 100th anniversary, the moment has come to rethink and reclaim the concept of labour itself, it is time to understand that small farmers do not necessary have to aim at working in an industrial farm. We must reclaim the work of small producers, especially women’s, and their contribution to the overall economy. We must reclaim the work of the earth, of water systems, and of pollinators. Ecology itself needs to be redefined looking at its capacities to create occupation. We are in an evolutive and very stimulating moment and the changes in FAO, WTO and ILO are relevant in this context. We do not think that the institutions as a whole will support the change, some of them will probably keep on promoting big business agenda but the context is changing and this change will enable the evolution.
Talking about environmental policies, the attitude of the American administration, which has announced budget cuts for Nasa that was investigating climate change, is certainly worrying. What do you think about Trump’s leadership at a moment in which environmental policies are universally recognized as a priority?
In a real democracy, one where responsibility and rights guarantee a balance, certain kinds of leaders would not have come to power. But we are also living in an era in which the policies imposed by WTO and free trade treaties do recognize the right of multinationals to denounce governments, at the expense of national regulations as well as of workers and of the environment, creating fertile ground for the election of this kind of leader. It is a phenomenon that characterizes many countries where what is left of social cohesion, a unified conscience, free choice, and norms, is under attack. Trump’s attack on Nasa is not only an attack on climate change research, but on knowledge itself. Trump is a clone of many other leaders in many other countries: total irresponsibility for environmental issues, towards citizens, a deep conflict of interest in relation to its business and relations with multinational companies. The risk is that of seeing the dismantling of all citizens rights thus far achieved, among which the right to a stable climate, public health, education, democracy and a secure future.