A Thumbs Up Book Review
By Vandana Shiva
Review by Sally Fallon
“Over the past two decades every issue I have been engaged in as an ecological activist and organic intellectual has revealed that what the industrial economy calls ‘growth’ is really a form of theft from nature and people. . . . in agriculture as much as in forestry, the growth illusion hides theft from nature and the poor, masking the creation of scarcity as growth.”
So begins this extraordinary book, subtitled The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply, on the conflict between local food production and global capital. In seven elegant chapters, Indian writer and activist Vandana Shiva delineates how “the resources of the Third World poor are being stolen to generate profits for giant corporations.”
Shiva compares the “free trade” system to British colonialism. When food grains were forcefully appropriated from the peasants to feed the British military in 1943, more than 3.5 million people starved to death in Bengal. The famine had two important consequences: the movement of dispossessed peasants to Calcutta, creating hellish slums; and the organization of the grass roots Tebhaga movement, which prevented the revenue collectors of the British Empire from taking more rice. Today the system of “free trade” produces the same results, destroying local markets and robbing the poor of their right to food—and even their right to life. When the food system is industrialized, millions of peasants are forced off the land and a system of agriculture that was once ecologically friendly and diverse is replaced by mono-culture cultivation that can only be supported by toxic chemicals. It is a system that actually steals food from other species “to bring larger quantities of specific commodities to the market, using huge quantities of fossil fuels and water and toxic chemicals in the process.”
In India, the Green Revolution that brought in varieties of seed that produced more grain resulted in less straw for cattle and less organic matter for the millions of organisms in the soil. High-yield hybrid grains displaced hundreds of varieties of legumes, fruits and vegetables on peasant farms. While the West consumed more sugar, white bread and vegetable oil, more people in the Third World went hungry.
In the pages of this magazine, we have described the duplicity of the soy industry in passing off a toxic food as healthy. In her brilliant chapter on “soy imperialism,” Shiva examines how soy oil replaced traditional seed oils in a large part of India. Each region in India has its specific edible oil used for cooking. In the North and East it is mustard (or rapeseed), in the West it is groundnut (or peanut), in the Deccan it is sesame and in Kerala it is coconut. In India, mustard oil was traditionally sold in small quantities, extracted as needed with a small oil press or ghanis. Oil processing provided employment for thousands of artisans and ensured that the housewife had a fresh product. The oil cake was then fed to cattle. Mustard oil also served as mosquito repellent and as a nonpolluting oil in lamps.
Within a few months of the advent of “free trade” for soybean oil into India, thousands of Indians fell ill with “dropsy” due to a mysterious adulteration of mustard oil. The government banned the sale of all unpackaged edible oils, thus ensuring that all household and community-level processing of edible oils stopped. Edible oil production became fully industrialized, and local processing became a criminal act. Thousands of workers were dispossessed of their livelihood and millions of Indians were dispossessed of a healthy oil. Cheap, highly processed soy oil immediately replaced mustard oil in the markets. During the crisis, the US Soybean Association pushed for soybean imports as the “solution.” “US farmers need big new export markets. . .” reported one business publication. “India is a perfect match.” Growth was achieved by theft of an important part of the small-scale local economy.
The parallels with the industrialization of milk processing in the US are obvious. “Growth” of the dairy industry was achieved by marginalizing thousands of small dairy farmers and making direct sales to consumers and local processing a criminal act, all in response to a contrived public health crisis.
In the wake of the soy oil takeover, other products have appeared in the form of “analog dals—soybean extrusions shaped into pellets that look like black gram, green gram, pigeon pea, lentil and kidney bean.” Shiva references Richard James and Mike Fitzpatrick on the dangers of unfermented soy products.
Indian women’s groups are resisting. The National Alliance for Women’s Food Rights protests for the return of mustard oil and has challenged the ban in the Supreme Court of India. Like the Weston A. Price Foundation, they urge consumers in India to buy directly from farmers. The song heard in the Delhi slums is “Sarson Bachao, Soya Bhagao,” or “Save the Mustard, Dump the Soya.”
Shiva paints equally sinister pictures of industrialized shrimp farming, the commercialization of beef production in India and the corporate takeover of grain production with GMO seed. Most of these programs are financed by International Monetary Fund and World Bank money, and all of them have the effect of displacing small farmers, destroying local ecosystems and creating scarcity where abundance existed before. This rape of local economies is heralded as growth in the US and other industrial nations. The system of “free trade” that creates markets for industrialized agriculture and food production is colonialism in disguise.
Shiva’s argument is compelling, but the book is not without mistakes. She wrongly states that soy oil processing creates saturated fats; actually, it is the dangerous trans fatty acids that are formed, to give the oil a longer shelf life and to mask the smell of rancidity. She insists that meat consumption is what contributes to western diseases and that grains and legumes can provide sufficient protein in the Third World. Modern meat products are bad because they are higher in fat, she says. Actually, when animals are raised humanely on local farms, they have more fat in their meat and milk and that fat is healthy fat.
Shiva challenges all of us to reclaim “food democracy,” not just housewives in Bengali slums, but consumers everywhere in the world. “The time has come to reclaim the stolen harvest and celebrate the growing and giving of good food as the highest gift and the most revolutionary act.”
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2001.