For the past four decades I have dedicated my life to the defense of biodiversity, and the integrity and well-being of all species, including all humans. For the past three decades I have been working in the service of seed freedom, and through it contributing to Earth Democracy for the well-being of all.
I started Navdanya, a network of seed keepers and organic producers, in 1987 when I first heard corporations speak of their plans to genetically modify every seed, patent seeds, and impose patents on life laws, globally. A patent is granted for an invention. Patents on seed transform our highest sacred duties of sharing and saving seed into "intellectual property crimes."
I am inspired by the sanctity of life, the sacredness of seed. How can corporations claim to be the creators and inventors of life on Earth when all they have the capacity of doing is to introduce toxic genes into the cells of plants by means of gene guns and plant cancers?
Navdanya means "nine seeds" (symbolizing protection of biological and cultural diversity). Navdanya also means "new gift." We see our work as reclaiming the gift of the commons, of saving and sharing seeds.
Whatever happens to seed affects the web of life.
When seed is living and regenerative and diverse, it feeds the pollinators, the soil organisms, and the animals, including humans.
When seed is nonrenewable, bred for chemicals, or genetically engineered with toxic Bt genes, or Roundup Ready genes, diversity disappears.
Chemicals kill pollinators and soil organisms. Seventy-five percent of the bees on the planet have disappeared. According to scientists, bees and pollinators contribute more than 159 billion euros annually to agriculture. Chemically farmed soils, sprayed with herbicides and pesticides, kill the beneficial organisms that create soil fertility and protect plants. More than 50 years ago, Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring to wake us up to the ecological destruction caused by pesticides. Organic seeds and organic farming do not just protect human health. They protect the Health and Well-being of all.
With industrial seeds and industrial agriculture, the diversity of plants and crops disappears. Humanity has had 8,500 species of foodstuffs available to consume, and each species has evolved, creating further diversity. India had 200,000 rice varieties before the Green Revolution. This diversity has been replaced by monocultures.
Today India grows eight globally traded commodities. The fastest expansion in acreage is for genetically engineered corn and soy, because they are patented and corporations can collect royalties from farmers. When seed freedom disappears and farmers become dependent on GMO seeds, they in effect become seed slaves. More than 284,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since seed monopolies were established in India in 1995. Gandhi spun cotton for our freedom. Today, GMO Bt cotton has enslaved our farmers in debt and pushed them to suicide. Ninety-five percent of cotton seed is now controlled by Monsanto.
Biodiversity and cultural diversity go hand-in-hand. When culture is eroded, biodiversity is eroded. When control over seed becomes big business, diversity disappears ever faster.
Diversity is a product of care, connection, and cultural pride. The mango breeders wanted to give us the best taste, the best quality. So they evolved the diversity of the delicious dasheri, langra, alphonso ...
The tribes and peasants who gave us rice diversity wanted to develop a rice for lactating mothers, a rice for babies, a rice for old people. They wanted to have rices that survive droughts and floods and cyclones, so they evolved climate-resilient rices. In the Himalaya, different rices are needed for different altitudes and different slopes. The intimacy and care that go with belonging to a place and a community allows diversity to flourish. Conserving and growing diversity comes as naturally as breathing.
Greed cannot deal with care; it promotes carelessness. Greed drives control, and control is facilitated through uniformity and monocultures. You cannot control diversity, you can only co-evolve and co-create with it. A will to control becomes a will to destroy diversity, through what I have called the Monoculture of the Mind. And the expansion of corporate control over seed and plants is the main reason for the disappearance of diversity in our fields and in our food.
Corporations first controlled agriculture through the chemical inputs for the Green Revolution. External chemical inputs demand uniformity and lead to monocultures. In an ecological system wheat and mustard and chana (chickpeas) grow in a mixture. An internal input, self-organizing system is based on diversity and cooperation. When ecological inputs are replaced with external inputs, diversity becomes a problem, and monocultures become an imperative, since chemically fertilized crops start competing with one another, and because these crops require different external inputs. This is how the Green Revolution destroyed the rich diversity of our rice and wheat.
It also displaced our dalhans (dals) and tilhans (oilseeds), without which our agriculture and diets are incomplete. Millets, which we at Navdanya call Forgotten Foods, were driven out of our farms and off our plates on the totally unscientific criteria of being called inferior grains, even though in health and nutrition terms indigenous rice and wheat varieties are superior in nutrition to the new varieties. Native rices have a low glycemic index, while industrial rice has a high glycemic index. When all that the poor get is this industrial rice, they also get diabetes. India has become the capital of diabetes, a disease that is intimately linked to the disappearance of diversity.
Native wheats have high protein and do not contribute to gluten allergies. That is why we had to fight the biopiracy of an ancient wheat by Monsanto, which wanted to monopolize the market for gluten-free wheat products.
Not only does living, organic seed have more quality, nutrition, and taste, farming systems that are based on biodiversity produce more nutrition and "Health per Acre," as the Navdanya study has shown. Seed Freedom is the answer to hunger and malnutrition. One billion people today are hungry and two billion are obese because of an agriculture that is out of balance with nature and nature's ecological processes. Half of humanity is thus denied well-being through food.
With globalization, a more expanded and aggressive assault on the diversity of our crops and foods is taking place. There are three forces driving the disappearance of diversity, and all three are connected to corporate control over seed and food.
The first is the entry of big business into the seed market, and the consequent replacement of local varieties developed by farmers with uniform commercial, industrial hybrids and GMOs, sold by corporations. For example, local farmers traditionally grew different watermelon varieties, and watermelons were seasonal fruits. Today you get only one variety everywhere, all year round, produced from seeds that are commercial hybrids. The same applies to papaya.
The second is globalization-driven long-distance trade. Diversity goes hand-in-hand with local, decentralized food systems. Our mangoes and bananas are as diverse as they are because they are eaten fresh, locally.
Long-distance trade replaces freshness and softness with hardness, so that fruits can travel. I call this breeding rocks, not fruit. Our soft-jacket oranges have disappeared and been replaced with varieties that cannot be peeled. Corporations are advising our government that our bananas and mangoes need to travel longer, and stay longer on shelves. I shudder to think of the dasheri giving way to the hard, tasteless, flavorless "mango" found in global markets, or the little Kerala banana with the daintiest of skins being driven out by the characterless, thick-skinned Cavendish.
The third is industrial processing. When McDonald's wants potatoes for french fries, only the Russett Burbank will do. Pepsi's Lay's potato chips cannot use indigenous potato varieties like the tomri that we grow in the mountains. Ketchup requires tomatoes with pulp, not juice. So the juicy, tasty tomatoes disappear, and hard and tasteless tomatoes replace them. Fortunately, the Italians have continued to grow good and diverse tomatoes since they have pride in their food culture, and have managed to get the Mediterranean diet on the UNESCO heritage list. Similarly, every cuisine in every part of India deserves to be recognized as a cultural heritage. And it is this cultural heritage which supports the biodiversity heritage.
For protecting our biodiversity and food heritage, Navdanya has been making its contributions. But the issue is too important not to be taken up by every citizen in their daily lives. It is too important not to be taken up by spiritual movements. Food begins as seed. The seed is sacred. Food is sacred.
"Annam Brahman" — food is the Creator. We are what we eat. When we are careless with food we are careless with ourselves. Will we wake up only when the last peasant and the last seed disappears? Or will we turn to the sacred duty of protecting our sacred seeds?
Below you can find the trailer for Sacred Seed, a collection of essays on biodiversity: