Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva is an Indian scholar and environmental activist. She has written more than 20 books, and is known for her activism associated with the anti-GMO movement.

I met Vandana Shiva in November 2022 at a press conference at Babylon cinema in Berlin for the German premiere of a documentary film that tells her life story: “The Seeds of Vandana Shiva” by Camilla and Jim Becket. We sat down for an exclusive interview.

Interview | Audio

Interview | Transcript

Is it your first time in Berlin?

No, I've been here before the wall came down, I think for a book release. And then I was here for the World Bank meetings in 1988. I remember that I was asked to address the rally. First, I was asked to represent nature in a trial of the World Bank and IMF, and there was a tribunal. And then I had to address the big rally with the wall behind me. And I said: such walls that divide people should never exist. And the next year it was gone. So yes, I've been back to Berlin long before Germany was unified, long before it became the capital - very different experiences all the time.

You went to school in Canada, but you live in India?

I live in India, and I started a PhD in Particle physics in India. My guide was the top physicist, he was in such high demand that they asked him to come and start a physics department in Shantiniketan. I had to move, India's bureaucracy: to move your fellowship, find a room, register once more. Then he was asked to start an environmental studies department in JNU, so we moved again. And then he said: Oh, this is very boring, I'm going back to particle physics.

I have shifted so many times and because in that shift I got to explore freely, I explored deeper and deeper - quantum theory - and I started to write to the best minds and said: I'd love to work with you for a PhD. And all of them had been invited by Canada at the University of Western Ontario for a colloquium on Quantum Theory. For five years, they brought the best people from physics, math, logics, philosophy, every discipline, and just put them together. And that's when I went to do my PhD with everyone who I would have worked with, they were all in the same university. And I did my PhD on a topic called "Hidden Variables and Nonlocality in quantum theory."

I only know so much of quantum theory, but what I understand is that it becomes philosophy when you really go deep into it, right?

You can't make sense of it without. It's interesting: Einstein was inspired by Indian philosophy, Schrödinger was inspired by Indian philosophy, to try and understand: all these equations we are working with, what's the world they're telling us about? The imagination of the world came from deep, ancient Indian philosophy of oneness, non-separation, constant change, constant interaction, because the classical world view was that nature is dead, everything's static; until someone pushes a stone, it can't move. There was no internal capacity recognizing the earth. But quantum theory tells you the mere fact that everything is connected and non-separable, and the ancient Indian wisdom that we are all interconnected - it reinforces that very much.

Is that both a thought as well as a feeling?

I am approaching it from the mind, but not a separate mind, not a Cartesian mind. Poor, pathetic Descartes said: I'm a thinking thing without a body. You can't be a thinking thing without a body. No minds are floating around out there except in the minds of those who created a philosophy of separation and inertia: everything is static, wood doesn't have a history as a tree, it's just dimension and weight. It kind of dismembered a living earth and left us with just yardsticks. And yardsticks are very good to exploit, it was for that time very useful as an extractive philosophy.

But both experientially as well as through deeper study and understanding, I realized that the mind is not in the brain sitting here. Every cell in our bodies is an intelligent being, every plant is intelligent, every microbe is intelligent. And I love it - I've ended up working on food, it wasn't my choice, except because of the disasters - that they're now calling the gut the second brain, that where food is transformed is the second brain. You can't say the brain is here - the brain is everywhere. And if the brain is everywhere, thinking and feeling are the same, interconnected.

What made you move from physics to the work you do now?

When I was leaving for Canada - I just wanted to do a trek, I'm from the Himalayas - I said, I'll just go visit my mountain forest because I don't know when I'll come back. And this oak forest I had gone to trek in was gone. And the stream that used to come - because oak is a very good water conserver, creates lovely humus - the stream was a trickle. I used to swim in that stream, now it was until my ankles. I really felt part of me had disappeared. And I talked to the chai wallah - you know the chai wallahs on our roadsides - I'm waiting for the bus, and I say to him how disturbed I am, how I've walked these forests that aren't there anymore. And he said: but now there's hope, there's Chipko.

Chipko was the movement that women started in my region. Chipko means to hug, to embrace. And the women said: we will embrace the trees, you'll have to kill us before you kill the tree, we're going to protect them with our body. At that time, I was leaving, but I said: I will come back every vacation. And then I did a big equality campaign to say: how come the Canadians get a bigger fellowship than us? I said, we should all get the same, we do the same work… so I got enough of fellowship to travel twice a year.

You became an activist already...

I volunteered with the Chipko movement, so I was already in ecological activism, but it was this thing called the Green Revolution. We didn't know it was happening in India. We were growing up fine and people were peeping through that window. But in 1984 the land of Punjab - which is the land of five rivers, where I did my honors in particle physics, so I knew it as a prosperous region - in 1984 it erupted in violence. 30,000 people were killed.

I was working for the United Nations University at that time on a big program on conflicts over resources. And I said: there's a conflict here and I want to understand, so they let me. Because until then, I was looking at river conflicts and forest conflicts. And I did this book then for the UN called "The Violence of the Green Revolution."

But when your mind is connected to your heart, you can't just do a study and leave it aside. It compels you to find answers. A study is not just a study in an irresponsible way. It gives you direction to say: if this is violent, what's nonviolent?

I started to look for non-violent farming, out of that I came across the idea of the buyers and the Syngenta's. There was no Syngenta then, it was Ciba and Sandoz, they had all merged. And I was invited to a meeting in Geneva and the company said: Now we have to own the seed and we can only do it through genetic engineering, to make GMOs, we now claim we invented the seed and we now talk of seed as a manufacturer.

And I said: No, that's not logical at all, you can add a gene, but adding a gene doesn't create the plant, it creates pollution because when it's a glyphosate resistant gene, then you are adding more glyphosate. I started then to not just promote ecological farming as nonviolent farming, but saving seeds, and also looking at what GMOs were doing. I was invited by the UN because no one else was looking at that time in the nineties.

That was pretty early on...

Very early. If I hadn't been invited to that meeting in 1987, I wouldn't have looked at this field. And because I was invited, I started to look when the UN treaties, the Convention on Biological Diversity, was being written. I started to provide inputs and the UN said: Come and help us write a bio safety protocol. And I was appointed as an expert by them. People say: Oh, that's anti-science to think about what do GMOs do. No, it's anti-science to not look at what GMOs do, to be blind and irresponsible. So much of the backlash against my work has been the biotech lobby and their spokespeople.

You come from a very scientific point of view, to really say: hey, this is wrong science?

Exactly. For me it's the science question that asks me to ask questions.

That's what scientists do...

That's what scientists are supposed to do, not parrot a corporate claim. And I have not seen a single promoter of GMOs tell you exactly how it works. They know how to shoot a gene: the machine does it for them, the gene gun does it for them. But it's so erroneous, because I think one in 100,000 cells absorb it, it's so inaccurate. But it's the scientists - I've worked with wonderful scientists; I'm trained in physics - but I had to turn to good geneticists to actually unfold what the implications are. And they are so brilliant, they actually tell you the processes, how tampering with one part of the genome destabilizes the whole genome and the ecosystem. Those are the questions why we have biosafety.

Now in Europe – it began with Brexit, but now in Europe too - they want to deregulate the new gene editing. So at one level the GMO question is at the heart of every democratic debate in every country, but it takes a different form: somewhere it's gene editing, somewhere it's GM mustard, somewhere else it's banning GMO corn. And they all look like specific separate issues, but when you look below it, what are the questions: science and democracy.

We just had a climate conference that a lot of people here thought was not really that great… so is there hope?

There's hope. It also looks a bit gloomy... but not in the dismembered climate treaty. Most people don't realize that Obama had killed the UN treaty long before Trump walked out of Paris, which is a non-treaty. Paris was a non-treaty because it is voluntary commitments. An international legally binding treaty must be legally binding. A structure at the international level must have the power to say: you are polluting, and this is the action you have to take, you as polluter must pay. I'll do this, I'll do this, I'll plant this many trees and I will put so many solar panels...

The issue is regulating emissions. Emissions have just disappeared, and systems of polluter pays have totally disappeared. Obama came to Copenhagen and killed any attempt of a legally binding system. The first round was the Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto Protocol was easy, it was pre-globalization. But once you had globalization, then Walmart’s pollution was sitting in China, and everything got scrambled. And nobody has figured out how to deal with a globalized pollution problem, while looking at national responsibilities, when we should be looking at corporate responsibility.

When you say - Do you have hope? - I have hope because I always say hope is cultivated. Hope is not shopped, it’s not a consumer issue, you can't buy hope. You can cultivate hope with effort, with love. And cultivating hope to me is taking responsibility for the actions that would correct the harm.

Your bit is in your sphere of influence. My bit is not to be sitting in America. My bid is to work with the soil, with the seed, with the peasants, with communities, with children, and work on the science of how the carbon cycle actually works. That in the amazing green leaf is the system that cools this hot planet and turned a carbon dioxide rich planet to an oxygen rich planet, so that we could arrive as a species.

We just have to be open to that. But that's the part that's missing. 50% of the greenhouse gases come from an industrial globalized system of food, which is also destroying people's health. The planet's health is being destroyed, people's health is being destroyed.

And here you have nature telling you: increase photosynthesis, increase biomass, and you'll have more food, so there's no hunger and you will draw down the excess carbon dioxide. Of course, you will have to stop the addiction of the fossil fuels.

I think this year - instead of looking at the COP 27 - I think every conscious citizen should be seriously looking at how centralized energy systems which are also polluting, can totally hold every ordinary citizen ransom. Look at the energy crisis in Europe…

You just had a round birthday...

Yes, seven decades passed.

Happy Birthday! What keeps you going? 

I would say that COVID was a good rehearsal for the seventies, because COVID by force, through the lockdowns, forced you to slow down. And before that… my personality is to give. If someone says: I need this, do this for me, I say yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So obviously the threshold of 70 is to be a little more thoughtful. And when I forget, nature teaches me all over again. I won't stop, I'm going to do the right thing and fight the right fights until the day I pass on wherever we are taken.

At every stage of my life, I've realized others are there to do - like when I woke up to the seed issue and the GMO and patents - I said, I've trained up young people in dams, I've trained up young people in protecting forests. They can take care of this.

No one was thinking of the seed, now people are thinking of the seed. I always look around and see: what are the orphan areas that are vital? Like, agriculture was an ecological orphan when I started working, but I worked on it because of ecology.

It's now coming, but it's so divided and the corporations are picking up the food system because it's good profits, because most people don't know where the food comes from, they don't know how it's grown, they don't know the different food cultures. There's huge fragmentation about thinking about the right way to grow food and the right way to eat. I think that will keep us busy for a while. I'm not saying Bye-bye just now.

Thank you very much!


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