In this book, Vandana Shiva criticizes the scientific approach that brought forth industrial agriculture and argues for a complete global shift in farming to agroecology.
Vandana Shiva is a well-known crusader for the preservation and expansion of small-scale agriculture and farm crop diversity in her native India. She is a prominent opponent to GMOs, corporate control of the seed supply and the industrial approach to farming. In this book, she argues for agroecology in lieu of agribusiness.
Throughout her book, Shiva uses a philosophical critique of the scientific ideas that underpinned the rise of industrial agriculture and the ills that followed. Her aim is to see an end to industrial farming and its attendant harms. She believes that the world should make a total shift to the practice of agroecology, which draws on the new scientific paradigm that recognizes the interconnectedness of biological and social systems. It is essential, she believes, to respect and support ecosystems, soil, the seed supply and the ability of local communities to feed themselves and to draw from the knowledge of women, who do much of the non-industrial farming.
Shiva states that only 30 percent of the food eaten by people today comes from large-scale industrial farms. In contrast, 75 percent of the ecological destruction of soil, water and biodiversity is caused by industrial farming methods.
Shiva argues that science, as defined by early philosophers such as Descartes and Bacon, led to a narrow scientific model that focussed on single problems and solutions in agriculture. These ideas drove agricultural practices toward destructive monoculture and industrial farming, whose practices are still promoted by agribusiness as the solution to world hunger. This is Shiva’s main idea about the failure of the old model of science:
“The Newtonian-Cartesian theory of fragmentation and separation, and the Darwinian paradigm of competition, have led to a non-renewable use of the Earth’s resources, a nonsustainable model of food and agriculture, and an unhealthy model of health and nutrition. An emphasis on the legitimacy of these arguments as the sole ’scientific’ approach has created a knowledge apartheid by discounting the knowledge of farmers and the intelligence and creativity of Mother Earth.” (p 7)
“The scientific paradigms of violence paved the road for intensified warfare. During World War II, large companies made even larger sums of money from the deaths of millions of people. After the wars ended, an industry that grew and made profits by making explosives and chemicals for war, including for concentration camps, remodeled itself as the agrochemical industry. Faced with the choice of closing down or “rebranding,” explosives factories started to make synthetic fertilizers, and war chemicals began to be used as pesticides and herbicides. At the heart of industrial agriculture is the use of poisons; the system of industrial agriculture is a necroeconomy–its profits are rooted in death and destruction.” (p.7)
After the introductory chapter, “Agroecology Feeds the World, Not a Violent Knowledge Paradigm,” subsequent chapters assert that living soil, bees and butterflies, biodiversity, small scale farms, seed freedom, localization, and women feed the world. And she argues respectively that the destructive forces created by chemical fertilizers, poisons and pesticides, toxic monocultures, large-scale industrial farms, seed dictatorship, globalization, and corporations do not feed the world.
Her most striking example of a harm created, in my view, is in her chapter on pesticides:
“In December 1984, what is widely considered to be the world’s worst industrial disaster occurred at a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide—now owned by Dow—in Bhopal, India. A gas leak known as the Bhopal gas tragedy killed three thousand people overnight and has killed more than thirty thousand since. Countless animal and other nonhuman creatures also died in the forty-minute-long leak: a stark reminder than pesticides brutally kill everything in their path. The gas from the pesticide plant polluted drinking water and soil, following which two hundred women had stillbirths and four hundred babies died only days after they were born. According to official figures, ten thousand people were made partially disabled, and one hundred fifty thousand people suffer from minor impairment.” (p 31)
She states that little justice was afforded those who suffered from the damage created and that Dow Chemical has used its corporate power to sue peaceful protesters.
She then discusses various other problems with pesticides, and points hopefully to the organic and environmental movements. Together they promote a world that can provide a chemical, GMO-free and pesticide-free food supply.
In the chapter on seeds, she says that we need to value seed as “the commons that is the source of food and the source of life.” She decries the patents held on seed and the increasing corporate control of the seed supply and argues that governments must recognize the rights of communities to breeding diversity and not just the rights of corporations.
Her chapter on smaller scale diverse farming emphasizes its value in enhancing soil quality, the environment and the nutritional quality of crops. Diverse small-scale farming helps build and sustain communities because farmers have more economic security with multiple crops. They also help ensure local food security due to local knowledge and the maintenance of a seed supply suited to local conditions. These valuable outputs are not part of the productivity calculation used for industrial farming where yield per acre is the only metric. Shiva believes that “small is big” when it comes to building a sustainable world food supply.
In the chapter “Women Feed the World, Not Corporations” she writes:
Industrial agriculture is rooted in a patriarchal scientific paradigm that privileges violence, fragmentation and mechanistic thought. Rooted in the ideologies of war, this paradigm promotes Monocultures of the Mind and monoculture on our land, denying the knowledge of agroecology and of diversity, which is women’s knowledge. (p.113)
Older science, she says, ignored women’s knowledge and the knowledge of agricultural communities. Proponents of the old science believe that the only way to improve agriculture was and is with monoculture.
Shiva’s extensive examples of the many harms created by the old model of agriculture and examples of the new are both interesting and eloquently written. I found that some of her writing was fairly academic and might not appeal to some readers.
This book outlines the old scientific ideas that have failed and new ideas that should be widely adopted. Throughout the book Shiva makes a convincing case for the need to shift scientific thinking about agriculture. For those readers who accept the agroecology model, it is a reminder that many people and corporations hold firmly to the old model of agricultural science.
In her concluding chapter, Shiva summarizes the key ideas that need to change, and provides some hope with examples showing that the needed change is happening.
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