Vandana Shiva, often referred to as the "Gandhi of grain," is a prominent Indian scholar, environmental activist, ecofeminist, and author known for her unwavering dedication to promoting sustainable agriculture, food sovereignty, and environmental justice. With a deep-rooted passion for protecting the environment and advocating for social change, Shiva has made remarkable contributions to the global environmental movement. Her life's work and advocacy have transcended borders and have inspired countless individuals worldwide to join the fight for a healthier planet.
Born on November 5, 1952, in Dehradun, India, Vandana Shiva's upbringing played a pivotal role in shaping her commitment to the environment. Her father, a conservator of forests, and her mother, a farmer who cherished nature, instilled in her a deep appreciation for the natural world. Her education began at St. Mary's Convent High School in Nainital, followed by the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Dehradun.
Shiva's academic journey led her to study physics at Punjab University in Chandigarh, where she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in 1972. Her passion for science and the environment prompted her to pursue a master's degree in the philosophy of science at the University of Guelph in Canada, where she wrote a thesis titled "Changes in the concept of periodicity of light." In 1978, she completed her doctoral studies in philosophy at the University of Western Ontario, with a focus on the philosophy of physics.
Vandana Shiva's career is marked by her commitment to environmental and social causes. She has authored over 20 books and has spoken extensively on various topics, including agriculture, intellectual property rights, biodiversity, biotechnology, and genetic engineering. Throughout her career, she has been a tireless advocate for sustainable agriculture and has lent her support to grassroots organisations worldwide, fighting against advancements in agricultural development through genetic engineering.
In 1982, she established the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, a significant step towards her goal of safeguarding the diversity and integrity of living resources. This initiative paved the way for the creation of Navdanya in 1991, a national movement dedicated to protecting native seeds, promoting organic farming, and advocating for fair trade. Through Navdanya, over 40 seed banks were established across India to promote diverse and region-specific agriculture. Additionally, Shiva founded Bija Vidyapeeth in collaboration with Schumacher College, UK, an international college for sustainable living in Doon Valley, Uttarakhand.
One of the key areas of Shiva's work has been in challenging biopiracy, particularly concerning neem, basmati, and wheat. She has actively participated in expert groups and government committees on biodiversity and intellectual property rights, advocating for the protection of indigenous knowledge and resources.
In 1993, Vandana Shiva was honoured with the Right Livelihood Award, which was established by Swedish-German philanthropist Jakob von Uexkull. This recognition underlines the significance of her tireless efforts in the realm of environmental conservation and social justice.
Shiva's book "Making Peace With the Earth" explores the intricate relationship between biodiversity and traditional communities, emphasising the importance of preserving both. She believes that the destruction of natural biodiversity is closely linked to the dismantling of traditional communities that have an inherent understanding of the language of nature.
Throughout her career, Vandana Shiva has served as an advisor to governments, non-governmental organisations, and institutions such as the International Forum on Globalization, the Women's Environment & Development Organization, and the Third World Network. She has actively participated in various committees and councils, including the Commission on the Future of Food in Italy, the World Future Council, and the Government of India Committees on Organic Farming.
Shiva's advocacy is not limited to India. In 2021, she advised the government of Sri Lanka to ban inorganic fertilisers and pesticides, emphasising the importance of organic farming for both environmental sustainability and agricultural prosperity. While the ban aimed to reduce reliance on imported fertilisers, it faced challenges and was eventually overturned.
Vandana Shiva is a strong advocate for seed freedom, opposing patents on new plant lines or cultivars. She has vehemently criticised the World Trade Organization's Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, which expands the scope of patents to include life forms. She calls this process "biopiracy" and has actively fought against patents on indigenous plants like basmati and neem.
Notably, she has expressed strong opposition to "golden rice," a genetically engineered rice designed to produce beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. Shiva argues that the emphasis on golden rice detracts from traditional, more ecologically sustainable methods of addressing vitamin A deficiency. She contends that diverse diets and local agriculture can offer better alternatives to combating this deficiency.
Shiva's advocacy extends to genetically modified (GM) crops and their impact on Indian agriculture. She argues that soaring seed prices in India have led to extensive farmer debt, which, in some tragic cases, has resulted in suicides. Shiva contends that GM crops and the associated seed monopolies contribute to this distress, causing economic vulnerability in rural communities.
However, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has challenged this notion, analysing academic articles and government data to conclude that there is no clear evidence of a resurgence in farmer suicides directly linked to GM crops.
Vandana Shiva plays a significant role in the global ecofeminist movement. Her 2004 article, "Empowering Women," advocates for a more sustainable and productive approach to agriculture centred around women's participation. Shiva argues against the patriarchal logic of exclusion and believes that a woman-focused agricultural system would bring about substantial improvements in sustainability and environmental health.
It's worth noting that some critics have questioned the essentialist aspects of Shiva's ecofeminist views.
Shiva co-authored the book "Ecofeminism" in 1993 with German sociologist Maria Mies, which melds Western and Southern feminism with environmental and technological issues under the term ecofeminism. While the book contains thought-provoking essays, it has faced criticism for failing to acknowledge the work of others in the field.
Vandana Shiva's activism has not been without controversy and criticism. Investigative journalist Michael Specter raised concerns about some of her claims regarding genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and her campaign methods. He criticised her stance on GMOs and cited instances where she accused the United States of using Orissa cyclone victims as "guinea pigs" for genetically engineered products. Shiva has faced accusations of plagiarism, with some sources pointing out instances of copied content in her work.
In her advocacy, Shiva has been criticised for her stances on issues such as golden rice and her opposition to genetically modified foods in disaster relief efforts. Stewart Brand, in "Whole Earth Discipline," critiqued her claims about "heritable sterility" and terminator genes, considering them unfounded. He also expressed reservations about her role in obstructing the distribution of GM foods during humanitarian crises.
Shiva's campaigns against GM crops have not always aligned with the interests of Indian farmers, with some arguing that restrictive laws related to anti-GMO lobbying have led to widespread "seed piracy." This refers to Indian farmers planting GM crops illegally, which, in some cases, has contributed to increased yields and reduced pesticide usage.
Vandana Shiva's lifelong commitment to sustainable agriculture, environmental justice, and social change remains unwavering. Her pioneering work in advocating for organic farming, preserving biodiversity, and opposing GMOs has inspired countless individuals and organisations to engage in environmental conservation and sustainable practices. Shiva continues to be a powerful and influential voice in the global movement for a more sustainable and just world.