Dr. Vandana Shiva; Photo courtesy of The Center for the Study of Science and Religion

Last week I got to hear one of my heroes speak:  Dr. Vandana Shiva.  As she took the stage, Reverend Arnold Thomas of Riverside Church introduced her as the “world-renowned environmentalist.”  To many she is best known for her interviews in movies such as The Corporation.  To the growing community of food activists, she is the pioneer who delivers the precision cut message.  The international effort to fix our food is an emerging movement; new ideas come fast and fervent.  Dr. Shiva is the steadfast voice, now decades in progress, that deeply resonates.

In her words, she started her organization, Navdanya, in 1987 once “I realized seeds were being patented.”  The main corporation to patent seeds is, of course, Monsanto.  They do a good job of telling the world that they are up to good deeds — potentially ending famine, for example, by creating drought-resistant crops.  Dr. Shiva, however, explained the danger at hand in an analogy to the BP oil spill.  Consider her words:

In the Gulf of Mexico…I keep thinking, ‘This is supposed to be a high tech industry in a high tech society.  And they can’t figure out how to stop that leak’….Just as BP doesn’t know how to shut down the oil spill, Monsanto doesn’t really know how to control pests…Every season, you have new pests….The consequences are a 30-40 times increase in pesticides.  And this technology was supposed to replace pesticides.  In your country, the herbicide-resistant crops have created superweeds to such a large extent that 5.4 million acres have been overtaken by superweeds.

For the past four months, the world has watched unending amounts of oil being unleashed into the Gulf.  At the risk of sounding alarmist, imagine if such a disaster hit our food supply.  We know now that BP was not ready for its worst-case scenario.  Is Monsanto?  Do we really want to wait and see?

At another point in her talk, Dr. Shiva told the story of a 1983 Indian court case that halted destructive limestone mining in that country.  The judge in the case ruled, “If commerce starts to destroy life support systems, commerce must stop because life must carry on.”

Yes, this landmark case in India occurred prior to our current era of intense globalization.  Yet it’s basic premise has not changed.  It’s not tree hugging; it’s common sense.  “We are first and foremost still citizens,” said Dr. Shiva, “And our highest duty is to maintain the living systems of the Earth that support our life.”

Rabbi Lawrence Troster of GreenFaith and Dr. Vandana Shiva

Well Attended at Riverside Church South Hall

Last night in a small forum opened to the public, the Sustainability Practice Network held a panel discussion, moderated by the RiskMetrics Group, about the future of sustainable agriculture.  The speakers were an important group of corporate and non-profit voices:

  • Michael Doane, Agricultural Economics and Sustainability, Monsanto
  • Ani Gulati, Assistant General Counsel and Sustainability, General Mills
  • Chip Jones, SVP Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, Dean Foods
  • Jake Baker, Climate Change Investment Research, Deutsche Bank
  • Tensie Whelan, President, Rainforest Alliance
  • Josh Viertel, President, Slow Food USA

Admission:  I’m inclined to judge these names and titles quickly, breaking them down into “us” and “them.”  Afterall, I grew up as our culture started to summarize complex issues in the few words of a bumper sticker or a t-shirt slogan.  To the credit of everyone involved last night, the panel facilitated a conversation.

Continued below

Image Courtesy of The Matter Network

Image Courtesy of The Matter Network

As an easy definition of sustainability, we say it’s when something is good for the three P’s:  people, planet and profits.  In speaking of agriculture, the P in people quickly becomes the P in population.  The human race is expected to nearly double in size to 9 billion by 2050.  No one is sure how we will feed this many.

A question emerged from the panel:  To feed the growing population, do we need to increase food production or can we accomplish this by improving food distribution channels?

To this end, Josh Viertel gave an astonishing statistic:  Last year we made enough food to feed 11 billion people.  “We don’t have a production gap, we have a distribution gap,” he said.

Michael Doane of Monsanto advocated for increased production as the solution.  His company develops biotech seeds — seeds infused with a trait to resist drought or certain pests, for example — that create more prolific crops.  According to him, there are two billion acres of biotech crops around the world.  They are starting biotech rice in China.  (Yes, the biggest crop among the world’s largest population is going biotech.)  Only the Europeans are holding out against this technology.

In response, I understand the quickening of our collective heart rate as we think about a food crisis one generation away.  Many forces are working to address this immediately.  But in the break-neck pace of solution (and market share gain), we risk undermining a delicate ecological system.  Monsanto has a Research and Development department that constructs new seeds to conquer the traditional problems of farming.  But the problem with genetically modified seeds or biotech seeds is that Nature also has its own R & D department.  The biotech seeds may solve a weakness for awhile, but over time, Nature returns with a more robust pest or plant disease.

At very least, biotech does not solve problems for the long term.  At very worst, it irreversibly tampers with the agricultural heritage of which we are the guardians.

We have many compelling possibilities to address food insecurity and planet peril, such as:

  • Improved distribution channels, including the decentralization of food.  More local providers and thus shorter food chains.
  • Vertical Farming:  An urban-based system using closed-loop hydroponics.  Crops are located where the population lives.  We preserve seed integrity and there’s no need for pesticides.
  • Sustainable fish cultivation.
  • Increased global productivity through better farming techniques and training.
  • And the expansion of our growing surfaces:  Rooftops, abandoned lots, etc.

Yes, these other ideas are in the nascent stage of development.  But when we consider what’s at stake — food for human beings — how can we not develop these ideas first?  The answer to the question of whether it is increased production or improved distribution is likely both.

Not at the risk, however, of manipulating seeds when many other workable solutions exist.  I stand with the Europeans on this one.  Readers, I’d love to hear from you.