Elizabeth Louis, “Cedar,” received her Ph.D in Geography from University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2012. Her dissertation, “The Political Ecology of Food Sovereignty Movements in Neoliberal India” was based on the fieldwork she conducted in the Telegana region. She is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher at Texas A&M University, and is conducting fieldwork in rural India on the political ecology of sanitation and toilet use in rural India.
Vandana Shiva has become an iconic figure in the fight against the corporate takeover of agriculture. Her “Raise Awareness, Inspire Change” tour of Hawaiʻi in January will bring attention to two very important issues – seed sovereignty and food sovereignty (or what she calls food freedom or food democracy). Seed sovereignty is the right of farmers to save, use, exchange, and sell their own seeds. Seed sovereignty is seen as an essential requirement for food sovereignty, which is defined as the right of each person, community, and nation to define its own agriculture and food policies and practices that will enable each entity to not just have food security, but also ensure that the food produced is environmentally sustainable, and socially just.
The entry of multinational corporations into agriculture aided by the neoliberal policies of particular nation-states, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) pose the biggest threats to seed and food sovereignty today. This commodification is dominated by a few agro-food giants through an integration of all aspects of production from seed breeding and research all the way to the food that ends up on our tables. While a handful of big agro-food giants control the market, Monsanto has become a symbol of all that is undemocratic, unsustainable, and inequitable in farming and food.
The fight against Monsanto and genetically modified crops is a just fight, and food and seed sovereignty seems to represent a universal good. However, in any movement there are contradictions. So while there is no question that the taking down of agro-food giants is important, one should also ask who defines seed and food sovereignty, how and, why. How do these definitions affect those who struggle to eke a living from the land?
One of my most fundamental findings that emerged from my research on the food sovereignty movement in the Telengana region of India in 2008 and 2009 is that the perspectives of those who depend on agriculture, especially those who have to scrape a living from small pieces of land, are vastly different from urban intellectuals and activists who claim to represent these grassroots voices. For example, in the Telengana, a prominent food sovereignty NGO’s promotion of sustainable traditional food crops as a way to achieve food security and control of the food system (food sovereignty) did not resonate with farmers’ bread-and-butter issues and aspirations to move beyond a subsistence livelihood. Even if the NGO’s prescriptions allowed the farmers to take care of their food needs, they needed enough income to educate their children, pay for medical expenses, to get their daughters married, and participate in an economy that was becoming an increasingly monetized. By growing subsistence and traditional food crops, they could hardly meet these needs.
Unless farmers are completely isolated from the market and live subsistence livelihoods they cannot but feel pressured to participate in an increasingly monetized economy, and move to commercial crops. Monsanto has been implicated in farmers’ suicides in India because of the sale of GM cotton seeds. But a little known fact is that the suicides started before the introduction of genetically modified cotton in 1997-1998 in Warangal[i] district of Andhra Pradesh. The state created incentives for farmers to grow cotton even in areas that were not suitable for its cultivation. World cotton prices were high, and the promise of high profits encouraged many to move from low-risk to high risk cotton cultivation. When market prices crashed, pests attacked or droughts occurred, then farmers were caught in a downward spiral of dispossession, extreme desperation and suicide. All this happened during a time of shrinking state supports and reduced safety nets for the rural poor with the adoption of neoliberal economic policies. In the Telengana, it is not just cotton farmers who have committed suicide, but those who have been involved in a high risk commercial agriculture, and have nowhere to turn. This implicates the neoliberal model of agriculture more than the work of one corporation.
As far as I can see there are two battles – the one against the likes of Monsanto, and one on the ground that relates directly to ensuring that the rural poor have food and livelihood security. Unfortunately, these two do not always align. Those who “own” the discourse of food/seed sovereignty need to consider how programs influenced by their ideas play out in specific localities for impoverished farmers, and the particular challenges they face in the shift toward commercial agriculture and high capital input crops. Vandana Shiva and other ideologues in the food/seed sovereignty movement in India have been accused of essentializing and idealizing rural livelihoods, and gender relations[ii]. We need to hear more about what farmers have to say about the multiple pressures they are facing as a result of the entry multi-national corporations, austerity measures imposed by their own governments, shifts in social aspirations and changing climate patterns among other things. It is up to the movement spokespeople like Vandana Shiva to keep their finger on the pulse of the needs of the rural poor and make seed sovereignty relevant to their struggles.
As those who are working for food security and sovereignty in Hawaiʻi get ready for Vandana Shiva’s tour, I urge you also to keep in mind that the needs of western farmers, and those of Indian farmers – who still struggle to get their needs for adequate food, healthcare, education met – are vastly different. How will the seed and food sovereignty help the poor farmer who is desperate to grow a commercial crop on her land because she needs money? Monsanto is culpable in all sorts of ways. But let us remember that the quotidian problems of poor farmers in South Asia and in many other developing countries are much larger than what the struggle for seed sovereignty aims to address.
[i] Gathering agrarian crisis - Farmers‘ suicides in Warangal District (A.P.) India: Citizens‘ Report, Centre for Environmental Studies Warangal, 1998
[ii] Rural poverty and impoverished theory: Cultural populism, ecofeminism, and global justice. Regina Cochrane, The Journal of Peasant Studies Vol. 34, Issue. 2, 2007
Mies and Shiva’s ‘Ecofeminism’: A New Testament?” Maxine Molyneux and Deborah Steinberg, Feminist Review, Issue 49, 1995