Economic globalization has become a war against nature and the poor.
by Vandana Shiva
RECENTLY, I WAS visiting Bhatinda in Punjab because of an epidemic of
farmers’ suicides. Punjab used to be the most prosperous agricultural region
in India. Today every farmer is in debt and despair. Vast stretches of land
have become waterlogged desert. And, as an old farmer pointed out, even the
trees have stopped bearing fruit because heavy use of pesticides has killed
the pollinators — the bees and butterflies.
And Punjab is not alone in experiencing this ecological and social disaster.
Last year I was in Warangal, Andhra Pradesh, where farmers have also been
committing suicide. Farmers who traditionally grew pulses and millets and
paddy have been lured by seed companies to buy hybrid cotton seeds referred
to as “white gold”, which were supposed to make them millionaires. Instead
they became paupers.
Their native seeds have been displaced with new hybrids which cannot be
saved and need to be purchased every year at a high cost. Hybrids are also
very vulnerable to pest attacks. Spending on pesticides in Warangal has
increased 2,000 per cent from $2.5 million in the 1980s to £50 million in
1997. Now farmers are consuming the same pesticides as a way of killing
themselves so that they can escape permanently from unpayable debt.
The corporations are now trying to introduce genetically engineered seed,
which will further increase costs and ecological risks. That is why farmers
like Malla Reddy of the Andhra Pradesh Farmers’ Union had uprooted
Monsanto’s genetically engineered Bollgard cotton in Warangal.
On March 27th, twenty-five- year-old Betavati Ratan took his life because he
could not pay back debts for drilling a deep tube well on his two-acre farm.
The wells are now dry, as are the wells in Gujarat and Rajasthan where more
than 50 million people face a water famine.
The drought is not a “natural disaster”. It is “man-made”. It is the result
of mining of scarce ground water in arid regions to grow thirsty cash crops
for export instead of water-prudent food crops for local needs.
It is experiences such as these which tell me that we are so wrong to be
smug about the new global economy. It is time to stop and think about the
impact of globalization on the lives of ordinary people. This is vital if we
want to achieve sustainability.
Seattle and the World Trade Organization protests last year have forced
everyone to think again. For me it is now time to re-evaluate radically what
we are doing. For what we are doing in the name of globalization to the poor
is brutal and unforgivable. This is especially evident in India as we
witness the unfolding disasters of globalization, especially in food and
WHO FEEDS THE WORLD? My answer is very different from that given by most
It is women and small farmers working with biodiversity who are the primary
food providers in the Third World and, contrary to the dominant assumption,
their biodiversity- based small farm systems are more productive than
The rich diversity and sustainable systems of food production have been
destroyed in the name of increasing food production. However, with the
destruction of diversity, rich sources of nutrition disappear. When measured
in terms of nutrition per acre, and from the perspective of biodiversity,
the so-called “high yields” of industrial agriculture do not imply more
production of food and nutrition.
Yield usually refers to production per unit area of a single crop. Output
refers to the total production of diverse crops and products. Planting only
one crop in the entire field as a monoculture will, of course, increase its
individual yield. Planting multiple crops in a mixture will have low yields
of individual crops, but will have high total output of food. Yields have
been defined in such a way as to make the food production on small farms, by
small farmers, disappear.
This hides the production by millions of women farmers in the Third World —
farmers like those in my native Himalaya who fought against logging in the
Chipko movement, who in their terraced fields grow Jhangora (barnyard
millet), Marsha (amaranth), Tur (pigeon pea), Urad (black gram), Gahat
(horse gram), soy bean (glycine max), Bhat (glycine soya), Rayans (rice
bean), Swanta (cow pea), Koda (finger millet). From the biodiversity
perspective, biodiversity- based productivity is higher than monoculture
productivity. I call this blindness to the high productivity of diversity a
“Monoculture of the Mind”, which creates monocultures in our fields.
The Mayan peasants in the Chiapas are characterized as unproductive because
they produce only two tons of corn per acre. However, the overall food
output is twenty tons per acre when the diversity of their beans and
squashes, their vegetables and fruit trees is taken into account.
In Java, small farmers cultivate 607 species in their home gardens. In
sub-saharan Africa, women cultivate as many as 120 different plants in the
spaces left alongside the cash crops, and this is the main source of
household food security.
A single home garden in Thailand has more than 230 species, and African home
gardens have more than sixty species of tree. Rural families in the Congo
eat leaves from more than fifty different species of tree.
A study in eastern Nigeria found that home gardens occupying only 2% of a
household’s farmland accounted for half the farm’s total output. Similarly,
home gardens in Indonesia are estimated to provide more than 20% of
household income and 40% of domestic food supplies.
Research done by fao has shown that small biodiverse farms can produce
thousands of times more food than large, industrial monocultures.
And diversity is the best strategy for preventing drought and
What the world needs to feed a growing population sustainably is
biodiversity intensification, not chemical intensification or genetic
engineering. While women and small peasants feed the world through
biodiversity, we are repeatedly told that without genetic engineering and
globalization of agriculture the world will starve. In spite of all
empirical evidence showing that genetic engineering does not produce more
food and in fact often leads to a yield decline, it is constantly promoted
as the only alternative available for feeding the hungry.
THAT IS WHY I ASK, who feeds the world?
This deliberate blindness to diversity, the blindness to nature’s
production, production by women, production by Third World farmers, allows
destruction and appropriation to be projected as creation.
Take the case of the much-flaunted “golden rice” or genetically engineered
vitamin A rice as a cure for blindness. It is assumed that without genetic
engineering we cannot remove vitamin A deficiency. However, nature gives us
abundant and diverse sources of vitamin A. If rice were not polished, rice
itself would provide vitamin A. If herbicides were not sprayed on our wheat
fields, we would have bathua, amaranth, mustard leaves as delicious and
Women in Bengal use more than 150 plants as greens. But the myth of creation
presents biotechnologists as the creators of vitamin A, negating nature’s
diverse gifts and women’s knowledge of how to use this diversity to feed
their children and families.
The most efficient means of rendering the destruction of nature, local
economies and small autonomous producers is by rendering their production
Women who produce for their families and communities are treated as
“non-productive” and “economically inactive”. The devaluation of women’s
work, and of work done in sustainable economies, is the natural outcome of a
system constructed by capitalist patriarchy. This is how globalization
destroys local economies and the destruction itself is counted as growth.
And women themselves are devalued, because for many women in the rural and
indigenous communities their work co-operates with nature’s processes, and
is often contradictory to the dominant market-driven “development” and trade
policies, and because work that satisfies needs and ensures sustenance is
devalued in general. There is less nurturing of life and life support
The devaluation and invisibility of sustainable, regenerative production is
most glaring in the area of food. While patriarchal division of labour has
assigned women the role of feeding their families and communities,
patriarchal economics and patriarchal views of science and technology
magically make women’s work in providing food disappear. “Feeding the World”
becomes disassociated from the women who actually do it and is projected as
dependent on global agribusiness and biotechnology corporations.
Industrialization and genetic engineering of food and globalization of trade
in agriculture are recipes for creating hunger, not for feeding the poor.
Everywhere, food production is becoming a negative economy, with farmers
spending more buying costly inputs for industrial production than the price
they receive for their produce. The consequence is rising debts and
epidemics of suicides in both rich and poor countries.
ECONOMIC GLOBALIZATION is leading to a concentration of the seed industry,
the increased use of pesticides, and, finally, increased debt.
Capital-intensive, corporate-controlle d agriculture is being spread into
regions where peasants are poor but, until now, have been self-sufficient in
food. In the regions where industrial agriculture has been introduced
through globalization, higher costs are making it virtually impossible for
small farmers to survive.
The globalization of non-sustainable industrial agriculture is evaporating
the incomes of Third World farmers through a combination of devaluation of
currencies, increase in costs of production and a collapse in commodity
Farmers everywhere are being paid a fraction of what they received for the
same commodity a decade ago. In the us, wheat prices dropped from $5.75 to
$2.43, soya bean prices dropped from $8.40 to $4.29, and corn prices dropped
from $4.43 to $1.72 a bushel. In India, from 1999 to 2000, prices for coffee
dropped from Rs.60 to Rs.18 per kg and prices of oilseeds declined by more
The Canadian National Farmers’ Union put it like this in a report to the
senate this year:
“While the farmers growing cereal grains — wheat, oats, corn — earn negative
returns and are pushed close to bankruptcy, the companies that make
breakfast cereals reap huge profits. In 1998, cereal companies Kellogg’s,
Quaker Oats and General Mills enjoyed return on equity rates of 56%, 165%
and 222% respectively. While a bushel of corn sold for less than $4, a
bushel of corn flakes sold for $133. In 1998, the cereal companies were 186
to 740 times more profitable than the farms. Maybe farmers are making too
little because others are taking too much.”
And a World Bank report has admitted that “behind the polarization of
domestic consumer prices and world prices is the presence of large trading
companies in international commodity markets.”
While farmers earn less, consumers, especially in poor countries, pay more.
In India, food prices have doubled between 1999 and 2000, and consumption of
food grains has dropped by 12% in rural areas, increasing the food
deprivation of those already malnourished, pushing up mortality rates.
Increased economic growth through global commerce is based on pseudo
surpluses. More food is being traded while the poor are consuming less. When
growth increases poverty, when real production becomes a negative economy,
and speculators are defined as “wealth creators”, something has gone wrong
with the concepts and categories of wealth and wealth creation. Pushing the
real production by nature and people into a negative economy implies that
production of real goods and services is declining, creating deeper poverty
for the millions who are not part of the dotcom route to instantaneous
WOMEN — AS I HAVE SAID — are the primary food producers and food processors
in the world. However, their work in production and processing has now
According to the McKinsey corporation, “American food giants recognize that
Indian agro-business has lots of room to grow, especially in food
processing. India processes a minuscule 1% of the food it grows compared
with 70% for the US, Brazil and Philippines.” It is not that we Indians eat
our food raw. Global consultants fail to see the 99% food processing done by
women at household level, or by small cottage industry, because it is not
controlled by global agribusiness. 99% of India’s agroprocessing has been
intentionally kept at the household level. Now, under the pressure of
globalization, things are changing. Pseudo hygiene laws that shut down the
food economy based on small-scale local processing under community control
are part of the arsenal of global agribusiness for establishing market
monopolies through force and coercion, not competition.
In August 1998, small-scale local processing of edible oil was banned in
India through a “packaging order” which made sale of open oil illegal and
required all oil to be packed in plastic or aluminium. This shut down tiny
“ghanis” or cold-pressed mills. It destroyed the market for our diverse
oilseeds — mustard, linseed, sesame, groundnut and coconut.
The take-over of the edible oil industry has affected 10 million
livelihoods. The take-over of “atta” or flour by packaged branded flour will
cost 100 million livelihoods. These millions are being pushed into new
The forced use of packaging will increase the environmental burden of
millions of tonnes of plastic and aluminium. The globalization of the food
system is destroying the diversity of local food cultures and local food
economies. A global monoculture is being forced on people by defining
everything that is fresh, local and handmade as a health hazard. Human hands
are being defined as the worst contaminants, and work for human hands is
being outlawed, to be replaced by machines and chemicals bought from global
corporations. These are not recipes for feeding the world, but for stealing
livelihoods from the poor to create markets for the powerful. People are
being perceived as parasites, to be exterminated for the “health” of the
global economy. In the process new health and ecological hazards are being
forced on Third World people through dumping genetically engineered foods
and other hazardous products.
Recently, because of a wto ruling, India was forced to remove restrictions
on all imports. Among the unrestricted imports are carcases and animal waste
parts that create a threat to our culture and introduce public health
hazards such as mad cow disease.
The US Center for Disease and Prevention (cds) in Atlanta has calculated
that nearly 81 million cases of food-borne illnesses occur in the us every
year. Deaths from food poisoning have more than quadrupled due to
deregulation, rising from 2,000 in 1984 to 9,000 in 1994. Most of these
infections are caused by factory-farmed meat. The us slaughters 93 million
pigs, 37 million cattle, 2 million calves, 6 million horses, goats and sheep
and 8 billion chickens and turkeys each year. Now the giant meat industry of
the us wants to dump contaminated meat produced through violent and cruel
methods on India.
The waste of the rich is being dumped on the poor. The wealth of the poor is
being violently appropriated through new and clever means like patents on
biodiversity and indigenous knowledge.
PATENTS AND INTELLECTUAL property rights are supposed to be granted for
novel inventions. But patents are being claimed for rice varieties such as
the basmati for which the Doon Valley — where I was born — is famous, or
pesticides derived from the neem which our mothers and grandmothers have
been using. Rice Tec, a US-based company, has been granted Patent No.
5,663,484 for basmati rice lines and grains.
Basmati, neem, pepper, bitter gourd, turmeric . . . every aspect of the
innovation embodied in our indigenous food and medicinal systems is now
being pirated and patented. The knowledge of the poor is being converted
into the property of global corporations, creating a situation where the
poor will have to pay for the seeds and medicines they have evolved and have
used to meet their needs for nutrition and health care.
Such false claims to creation are now the global norm, with the Trade
Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement of the wto forcing countries
to introduce regimes that allow patenting of life forms and indigenous
Instead of recognizing that commercial interests build on nature and on the
contribution of other cultures, global law has enshrined the patriarchal
myth of creation to create new property rights to life forms just as
colonialism used the myth of discovery as the basis of the take-over of the
land of others as colonies.
Humans do not create life when they manipulate it. Rice Tec’s claim that it
has made “an instant invention of a novel rice line”, or the Roslin
Institute’s claim that Ian Wilmut “created” Dolly denies the creativity of
nature, the self-organizational capacity of life forms, and the prior
innovation of Third World communities.
Patents and intellectual property rights are supposed to prevent piracy.
Instead they are becoming the instruments of pirating the common traditional
knowledge from the poor of the Third World and making it the exclusive
“property” of Western scientists and corporations.
When patents are granted for seeds and plants, as in the case of basmati,
theft is defined as creation, and saving and sharing seed is defined as
theft of intellectual property. Corporations which have broad patents on
crops such as cotton, soya bean and mustard are suing farmers for
seed-saving and hiring detective agencies to find out if farmers have saved
seed or shared it with neighbours.
The recent announcement that Monsanto is giving away the rice genome for
free is misleading: Monsanto has not made a commitment to stop patenting
rice varieties or other crops.
Sharing and exchange, the basis of our humanity and our ecological survival,
have been redefined as a crime. This makes us all poor.
Nature has given us abundance. Women’s indigenous knowledge of biodiversity,
agriculture and nutrition has built on that abundance to create more from
less, to create growth through sharing. The poor are pushed into deeper
poverty by being made to pay for what were their resources and knowledge.
Even the rich are poorer because their profits are based on theft and on the
use of coercion and violence. This is not wealth creation but plunder.
Sustainability requires the protection of all species and all people and the
recognition that diverse species and diverse people play an essential role
in maintaining ecosystems and ecological processes. Pollinators are critical
to the fertilization and generation of plants. Biodiversity in fields
provides vegetables, fodder, medicine and protection to the soil from water
and wind erosion.
As humans travel further down the road to non-sustainability, they become
intolerant of other species and blind to their vital role in our survival.
In 1992, when Indian farmers destroyed Cargill’s seed plant in Bellary,
Karnataka, as a protest against seed failure, the Cargill Chief Executive
stated: “We bring Indian farmers smart technologies which prevent bees from
usurping the pollen.” When I was participating in the United Nations
Biosafety Negotiations, Monsanto circulated literature to defend its Roundup
herbicide-resistant crops on grounds that they prevent “weeds from stealing
the sunshine”. But what Monsanto calls weeds are the green fields that
provide vitamin A rice and prevent blindness in children and anaemia in
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