A few days before spring break, Vandana Shiva gave an inspiring and enlightening lecture on the modern-day food industry, focusing on Monsanto and the corporation’s detrimental effects on famers. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised at the huge turnout for her lecture; people ended up having to go into an overflow room next door and view the lecture via Skype. Shiva is known as an environmental activist, and is one of the people after whom the term “tree hugger” was coined. Having talked about her in Pinar Batur’s Intro to Sociology class, I was familiar with her work, so I imagined that it would be easy to follow her lecture. I worried that the complicated relationships between business, politics, and societal conflicts would be too much information for other people to process, seeing as I am still trying to clarify all that our class has been talking about this for the past half-semester. Again, I was surprised at how clearly Shiva presented the information, laying out the perpetrators, their crimes, and the consequences in our ever-changing food industry in an easily accessible manner.
The word that lingers in my mind from Vandana Shiva’s lecture is “genocide.” Genocide is defined as “the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular group or nation.” Shiva said that the large number of farmer suicides in India is essentially a genocide spearheaded by large food corporations such as Monsanto. Although these corporations are not actively trying to kill off local farmers, their actions and means of business force farmers to their deaths. The use of the term “genocide” at first seemed too dramatic for me, yet after thinking it through, I realized that the manipulation and exploitation of large food corporations is indeed the source of the genocide of farmers.
A few aspects of the actions of large food corporations contribute to these countless suicides, specifically of the Indian farmers on whom Shiva focused her lecture. Shiva discusses the issues with Monsanto in the book she helped author: The GMO Emperor Wears No Clothes. The way in which Monsanto functions is very much on point with the analogy Shiva makes to the popular folk tale, Emperor’s New Clothes. Monsanto makes false claims about their products and expect people to agree with them, even though most people know of their dishonesty. Looking at all the claims Monsanto makes regarding their genetically engineered seeds, farmers and consumers really gain no benfit from growing food from such seeds, yet the seeds are still being forced onto farms around the world. The different areas in which GE seeds fail to provide include yield increase, pest and weed control, reduced use of chemicals, climate resilience, and health safety. Seriously, what else is left for them to screw up?
What struck me the most about these claims on the supposed improvements of the GE seeds is that they do not accomplish the basic tasks for which they were made, such as improving yields and controlling pests and weeds. According to Shiva, genetic engineering has not increased the yield of a single crop. Monsanto claims that their GE seeds will yield 1500 kg per acre, but in reality, they only yield 400-500 kg per acre, only one third of the promised goal. Although there is no actual yield increase, there is an appearance of increase in crops due to the practice of monoculture. Just as Shiva argued in a BBC interview, of course there will be an increase of any particular crop if all farmers are growing it!
Besides yield improvement, GE crops were designed to control pests and weeds. By altering the genes of seeds, these “new and improved” crops were supposed to resist the damage of pests and weeds. The GE crops may resist damage at first, but the pests and weeds will become resistant to the altered genes through natural selection. There are now approximately 15 million acres of land that are overtaken by super-weeds. Monsanto created the Bt and herbicide tolerant crops with the intention of decreasing the use of pesticides and herbicides; however, with the rise of super-weeds and pests, they are now offering a rebate of $6 per acre of land so that farmers can buy and utilize stronger herbicides. What was the point, then, of creating the Bt and herbicide-tolerant crops in the first place? Monsanto essentially spent millions of dollars to produce these “specialized seeds” only to have them not work at all. Thus, we have come full circle, once again spraying chemicals on our crops that not only induce damage to our health, but to other natural organisms, as well.
Shiva’s talk summarized the corruption of the food industry in a way that inspired in me a responsibility change it. Food is a basic human right, and we need to respect both the food itself and the people who provide it. I think that learning about what is happening is the first step to change and improve our corrupt food system. The number of people who showed up to Shiva’s lecture shows that people are curious to learn, and that knowledge is power. By learning and gaining knowledge of where our food comes from, we can spread this knowledge to the people around us. As the Vassar community, and as part of a larger society, we can work together to change the boundaries and functions of society to fit our demands of equality.
If you’re interested in these issues, consider joining one of the food-related groups on campus, like Slow Food; shoot them an email at [email protected] and/or attend a meeting on Tuesday at 8:00 pm in the Faculty Commons.
Until next time, enjoy your first week back to school!