To address the growing number of consumers without compromising the “quality” of perishable goods, the food industry concocted a formula that changes the genetic makeup of organisms. Cows produce milk with characteristics similar to human breast milk, corns can grow double their normal size so as other crops and other variety of fruits, grain can yield multiple folds of harvest. Genetically Modified Organisms—that’s what they are called after being injected or sprayed with chemical agents that catalyze growth.
As a physicist, Doctor Vandana Shiva knew something was amiss in the equation. What sort of chemicals go into the genetically modified organisms and how is our body taking them? Also, what happens to the farmers who traditionally work in their fields like the days of old? How will they compete with giant corporations armed with the latest technology and equipment for farming and animal husbandry?
She began to ask herself these questions and she knew she had to act on behalf of the people globalization has no place for. She’s the founding director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, an institute that has been doing independent research on pressing issues in the ecological and social arena since 1982. In 1991, the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology launched a program called Navdanya or Nine Seeds. Navdanya is the institute’s response to the seed monopoly threat that rendered farmers in deeper debt.
Vandana Shiva’s efforts to allay farmer suicides and involve women in farming were only some of the reasons why various organizations in India and abroad awarded her the following: the Right Livelihood Award, the Global 500 Award from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Order of the Golden Ark by his Royal Highness Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, the Earth Day International Award from the Earth Day International, the Right Livelihood Award, the VIDA SANA International Award, the Pride of the Doon Award from the Doon Citizen Council, and the Golden Plant Award (International Award of Ecology).
She has also received the Alfonso Comin Award, the Commemorative Medal by Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand during the Celebration of the 18th World Food Day, the Medal of the Presidency of the Italian Republic by the International Scientific Committee of the Pio Manzu Centre at Rimini, Italy, the Pellegrino Artusi Award, the HORIZON 3000 Award of Austria, the Save The World Award, the Sydney Peace Prize, the Calgary Peace Prize given by the Consortium for Peace Studies at the University of Calgary, the Doshi Family Bridgebuilder Award, and the Thomas Merton Award.
Vandana Shiva was also named by Asia Week as one of the five most powerful communicators of Asia, while TIME magazine called her an environmental hero.
List of Books
She has spent a good number of years writing books, which now numbers around 70 with some of them becoming bestsellers. The following are books and online articles she has either written or edited:
- 1981: Published Social Economic and Ecological Impact of Social Forestry
- 1986: Published Chipko: India's Civilisational Response to the Forest Crisis
- 1987: Published The Chipko Movement Against Limestone Quarrying In Doon Valley
- 1988: Published Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India
- 1991: Published Ecology and the Politics of Survival: Conflicts Over Natural Resources in India
- 1992: Published The Violence of the Green Revolution: Ecological Degradation and Political Conflict
- 1992: Published Biodiversity: Social and Ecological Perspectives
- 1993: Published Women, Ecology and Health: Rebuilding Connections
- 1993: Published Monocultures of the Mind: Biodiversity, Biotechnology and Agriculture
- 1993: Published Ecofeminism, Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva
- 1994: Published Close to Home: Women Reconnect Ecology, Health and Development Worldwide
- 1995: Published Biopolitics (with Ingunn Moser)
- 1997: Published Biopiracy: the Plunder of Nature and Knowledge
- 2000: Published Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply
- 2000: Published Tomorrow's Biodiversity
- 2001: Published Patents, Myths and Reality
- 2002: Published Water Wars; Privatization, Pollution, and Profit
- 2005: Published India Divided
- 2005: Published Globalization's New Wars: Seed, Water and Life Forms
- 2005: Published Breakfast of Biodiversity: the Political Ecology of Rain Forest Destruction
- 2007: Published Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed
- 2007: Published Democratizing Biology: Reinventing Biology from a Feminist, Ecological and Third World Perspective
- 2008: Published Soil Not Oil
- 2010: Published Staying Alive
What Vandana Shiva does for the environment and the food industry deserve being called extraordinary. Now, the big question is how did Vandana Shiva become an activist?
An Aspiring Scientist
Born in Dehradun, India on 5 November 1952, Vandana Shiva had parents who feel for the poor. Her father was a forest conservator, while her mother used to be a teacher before she decided to become a farmer. Both of her mother and father were Mahatma Gandhi supporters. The kind of upbringing Vandana had instilled in her a profound love for nature and concern for farmers.
Inspired by the world-renowned scientist, Albert Einstein, Vandana had hoped of becoming a physicist since childhood. While girls her age were cheering the Beatles, Vandana was taken by Alfred Einstein’s quantum theory.
She went to Saint Mary's School in Nainital as a primary pupil. Then, she attended the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Dehradun to complete her high school diploma. When she was 13 years old, Vandana asked her mother to buy her a nylon dress. Being a staunch supporter of Gandhi’s anti-colonialism campaign, her mother wisely told her that she could have the dress she wanted but reminded her that the money she would pay for it would “help a rich man buy a bigger car,” while wearing cotton will help a poor family buy one meal. Vandana no longer insisted the matter.
Having a farmer for a mother and a forest conservator for a father taught the young Vandana to be humble and modest. Vandana grew up surrounded by farmers, so it was no big surprise when she ended up being their defender and spokesperson.
After completing a degree in Physics in India, she went to Canada to pursue her master’s degree in the Philosophy of Science at the University of Guelph. She completed her graduate degree in 1977 and the following year secured her doctorate degree in Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario, Canada.
The Inspiration behind The Violence of the Green Revolution
Returning to India, the Ministry of Environment asked her to do a study on the “effect of mining in the Doon Valley.” Her findings served as an eye-opener for the environment sector of the country, leading to the banning of mining in that area two years after she began her research.
She told A. Rishi of LifePositive about the study’s profound effect on her:
"That was the first time I was doing something about conservation professionally. It was not just an analytic engagement divorced from action or consequences and I found it so fulfilling to work with communities and make a difference to society.
I cared enough about the environment to really see it saved, and I knew that research by itself would not do it. Empowered communities are the place where action will happen. Therefore I started the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in 1981-82 to connect to communities and treat them as experts. That is essential, as I learnt in Chipko where it was the women who really knew about what was going on in their environment because trees were their livelihood, as also natural water dams, sources of fodder, fuel and fertilizer. Chipko taught me that those of us who have PhDs don't necessarily know everything! There is so much knowledge in our communities, and with our grandmothers.
I also decided upon a holistic approach to research because, for instance, geology cannot tell us that we are destroying the water resources, geo-hydrology does that. It was that aspect of my work that was recognized when the Right Livelihood Award was given to me in 1993, for creating a new paradigm of research and working in novel ways with communities.
The great drought in Karnataka (Indian state) in 1984 made me realize that the very way we do agriculture is flawed. That year also saw the rise of militancy in Punjab (Indian state). I wrote The Violence of the Green Revolution for the UN, linking the violence in Punjab with the Green Revolution that had given rise to a non-sustainable form of agriculture that pretends to give us more food but is actually destroying nature, our sense of self, and is creating war within society.” (Source: Life Positive)
Sometime in 1970, Vandana zealously supported the Chipko movement or Chipko Andolan. It adheres to the Gandhian movement of resisting violence without resorting to bloody measures. Vandana, along with other environmentalists, literally hugged trees to stop loggers from cutting them.
Her study and being a member of the Chipko movement became the foundations of her social work. In 1982, she founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology. She felt that corporations seeking more profits have ensconced themselves in the political and global sectors to control the most basic commodity of all living things—food. She was threatened by the increasing dependence on biotechnological products to cope with the “overwhelming demand” for food.
Scientists like her have been employed by corporations to develop a special technology that tweaks the natural genetic attributes of animals and plants in order to maximize earnings. Being a doctor herself, she knew she had to do something about the use of chemicals in food. So after she has done the study in Doon Valley, she felt more responsible for the fate of the environment and the whole of human race.
By the time she established her own research institute, she was beginning to make a name in the field of quantum science. In fact, she met the man who soon became her husband while she was closely studying environmental policy in Bangalore. Since she was more of a scientist than a legislator, she went to the Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Institute of Management to get a deeper understanding of interdisciplinary concepts, such as science, technology, and environmental policy.
Her research in Bangalore was highly regarded in the field of science. Vandana was becoming popular because of her unusual stance against biotechnology. Like her mother, Vandana chose another vocation along with being a scientist. She did not desert her profession altogether. What Vandana did was use her expertise in uncovering the ugly truth behind the technology used in food that corporations make available to the public.
The path she chose would mean antagonizing giant fast-food restaurants and the powerful elite. This did not sit well with her husband. After she gave birth to their only child, he left her. Since then, Vandana has raised her child all by herself.
Her personal life did not interfere with her activism. If anything, it helped her focus more on her research institute. Aside from helping women farmers, the research institute also became their refuge in times of oppression from the biggies of the food industry.
Navdanya: Vandana’s Response to Monsanto’s Seed Patents
In 1991, Navdanya was launched under the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology. It opposes the seed monopoly threat in India. Monsanto, a multinational biotechnology company, wanted to have seeds patented. This will not only result in farmers getting more into debt, but may also lead to using more pesticides and chemically engineered fertilizers.
Vandana knew that Monsanto is taking advantage of the poor farmers’ plight. For instance, they claim that their cotton seeds would yield double come harvest season. But Vandana and her organization saw it as an impending hazard to their source of living. She believes that no seed can be patented for the simple reason that they are not created. It’s a natural gift and a renewable source. Patenting it would only give Monsanto full control over India’s agricultural sector.
Navdanya, or Nine Seeds, seeks to put a stop to seed patenting. For 30 years now, Navdanya has been consistently protecting 2,000 varieties of rice from getting patented. The project has also enabled farmers to have un-patented seeds from over 30 seed banks all over India. Thousands of farmers became members of this project, making them a grassroots movement that’s hard to ignore.
Fearlessly Facing the Giants of Food and Beverage Industry
Aside from Monsanto, Vandana also earned the ire of Coca-Cola Company. She is one of the first individuals who opposed the beverage company’s business move in India. Coca-Cola was eyeing the Ganges River—a primary source of drinking water in her country. They saw a viable market and planned to sell bottled water to the Indian people for 10 rupees each. Vandana was aghast. What used to be a free commodity was being sold to the locals. She promptly mobilized the Indian people to keep Coca-Cola’s hands off their river.
McDonald’s was not spared from Vandana’s wrath either. A valiant warrior against genetically modified organisms, Vandana spurns fast food. Being a scientist, she was aware of how monosodium glutamate or MSG harms the body. According to her, calling it an additive is a big lie. She calls it a drug because it tricks the mind that the food is delicious when it actually does not have any taste at all.
Unfortunately, Kentucky Fried Chicken has successfully entered India and in spite of the protests, has kept flourishing. Vandana knew that their legislative branch has to do with the fast-food chain’s stability in India. To help strengthen India’s legislative body, Vandana volunteered to help draft some legislations concerning biotechnology.
To further uphold biodiversity, she launched a worldwide project called Diverse Women for Diversity. It’s a movement that supports biodiversity and cultural diversity—something that is made impossible by giant companies trying to monopolize the biological resources of countries through oppressive legislations and deceitful tactics.
In 1993, two years after launching Navdanya, Vandana was awarded the Right Living Award for her peaceful approach in mitigating biotechnological hazards and promoting human rights, especially those of women and children. She was also invited to do lectures at the University of Oslo, University of Norway, Schumacher College, Mt. Holyoke College, York University, University of Lulea, University of Victoria, and the Universite libre de Bruxelles.
She also established her own learning institute, the Bija Vidyapeeth that helps educate people about biotechnology and sustainability.
Vandana remained faithful to her ideologies even in the face of grave intimidation. She is like David going against food concessionaire Goliaths. But Vandana, like David, is equipped with the right weapons against the enemy—her knowledge, indomitable spirit, and genuine concern for the environment, farmers, women, and children.
- Navdanya (Nine Seeds)
- Soil Not Oil
- GMO Free
- Bija Satyagraha
- Bija Vidyapeeth
- Jaiv Panchayat
- Right to Food
- Seed Sovereignty
- World Future Council
- International Forum on Globalization
- Slow Food International
- Fundacion IDEAS
- International Centre for Mountain Development
- Women's Environment & Development Organization (WEDO)
- Third World Network
- Asia Pacific People's Environment Network
- Commission on the Future of Food
- Steering Committee of the Indian People’s Campaign against WTO
- World Future Council
- Government of India Committees on Organic Farming
- Stock Exchange of Visions
- Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology
- Ecofeminist movement
- Diverse Women for Diversity
- Government of India Committees on Organic Farming
- 1978: Completed her Ph.D. at the University of Western Ontario
- 1975: Introduced the issue of women and the environment at the First World Conference on Women
- 1982: Founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology
- 1991: Created Navdanya (Nine Seeds)
- 1993: Received the Right Livelihood Award
- 1993: Received the Global 500 Award from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
- 1993: Awarded the Order of the Golden Ark by his Royal Highness Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands
- 1993: Received the Earth Day International Award from the Earth Day International
- 1993: Received the VIDA SANA International Award
- 1995: Received the Pride of the Doon Award from the Doon Citizen Council
- 1997: Received the Golden Plant Award (International Award of Ecology)
- 1997: Received the Alfonso Comin Award
- 1998: Awarded the Commemorative Medal by Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand during the Celebration of the 18th World Food Day
- 1998: Awarded the Medal of the Presidency of the Italian Republic by the International Scientific Committee of the Pio Manzu Centre at Rimini, Italy
- 2000: Received the Pellegrino Artusi Award
- 2001: Received the HORIZON 3000 Award of Austria
- 2003: Identified by TIME magazine as an environmental hero
- 2003: Called by Asia Week one of the five most powerful communicators of Asia
- 2004: Started Bija Vidyapeeth
- 2009: Received the Save the World Award
- 2010: Received the Sydney Peace Prize
- 2011: Received the Calgary Peace Prize given by the Consortium for Peace Studies at the University of Calgary
- 2011: Received the Doshi Family Bridgebuilder Award
- 2011: Received the Thomas Merton Award
- 2012: Her portrait and quotes are embellished on the Earth Award trophies
- Received the Earth Day International Award from the United Nations (UN)
- Received the John M. Berry Sr. Leadership Award
- Water Wars was awarded the Special International Literary Prize “Ken Saro Wiwa” by the Acquiambiente, Italy
- Tomorrow’s Biodiversity was awarded the Reading for the Environment Book Prize by the German Foundation for the Environment
- Received the Lennon-Ono Grant for peace by Yoko Ono and Honourable Mayor of Reykjavik
- Received the Yo Dona Award by Yo Dona Magazine
- Named "one of the 7 most influential women in the world" by Forbes Magazine
- Lectured at the University of Oslo, University of Norway, Schumacher College, Mt. Holyoke College, York University, University of Lulea, University of Victoria, and the Universite libre de Bruxelles
- 2002: Received an Honorary Degree from the University of Western Ontario
- 2011: Appointed Honorary Doctor at the University of Oslo
- 2012: Received an Honorary Degree from the University of Toronto
- 2012: Received an Honorary Degree from the University of Guelph
- 2013: Received the degree of Honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Victoria
- Received an honorary Doctorate from the University of Paris
- Received an honorary Doctorate from Connecticut College