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September 2000
Globalization and Food Democracy: The Dung Factor

Book Review by Mia MacDonald


Stolen Harvest: the Hijacking of the Global Food Supply by Vandana Shiva (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000). Paperback, $14. 140 pages.

"The right of corporations to force-feed citizens of the world with culturally inappropriate and hazardous foods has been made absolute [in the globalizing economy]. The right to food, the right to safety, the right to culture are all being treated as trade barriers that need to be dismantled...we have to reclaim our right to nutrition and food safety. We have to reclaim our right to protect the earth and her diverse species. We have to stop this corporate theft from the poor and from nature. Food the new agenda for ecological sustainability and social justice."—Vandana Shiva in Stolen Harvest

At its most basic, Stolen Harvest: the Hijacking of the Global Food Supply by Vandana Shiva is an impassioned, reality-based testament (humble and at times homespun) to what happens when ignorance is ignored and knowledge joined with its often elusive twin, action. Shiva is a physicist and long-time environmental activist in India who in recent years has become a lead player, a star, in the worldwide movement to check the excesses of globalization. She speaks regularly at conferences and "teach-ins" on the global economy, and was in the streets and gathering places during the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, and the "A16" protests against the lending policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund this spring in Washington. Shiva is an eloquent speaker and a confident, economical writer. She is also incredibly productive, producing books and articles at regular intervals.

Stolen Harvest, her latest contribution, is a slim but potent tract on how the globalizing economy, and its arsenal—free trade, international finance and multinational corporations—is co-opting, adulterating and ravaging diverse food supplies around the world. What she documents here through a series of short case studies is fascinating, chilling and at times, jaw-droppingly horrible. Take the fact that shrimp "farming" is decimating coastal ecosystems and livelihoods throughout Asia and Latin America so that consumers in the U.S. and Europe can dine on cheap jumbo shrimp. Because shrimp farms require so much water to flush out holding pens, villages in India that had abundant water before the shrimp farms arrived are now suffering "water famines." Salt water from the shrimp ponds also seeps into aquifers and adjacent agricultural lands, and is fueling massive deforestation of coastal forests.

Throughout the book, Shiva documents the work of community and small non-governmental organizations in the developing world to counter the corporatization and monopolization of food. She also includes the voices of people at the grassroots level living with the consequences of private sector and their own governments’ decisions to globalize and mechanize. Here is the voice of just one, an Indian villager living in a coastal area full of large-scale shrimp farms: "We have lost all our drinking water, where earlier there used to be nine wells...we no longer live in this village as all the houses have collapsed because of dampness and salinity. Five hundred families have been displaced."

The irony is that traditional systems of shrimp cultivation practiced in India for over 500 years—but viewed as backward and small scale by India’s technocrats and global corporations, intent on "modernization" and higher and higher shrimp yields—have little negative environmental impact, do not require chopping down coastal trees, and, Shiva argues, are as profitable as the intensive shrimp farms. A major theme that runs throughout the book is that methods of food production developed over thousands of years by rural peoples are not only more profitable than the globalizers’ preferred methods, but are more effective at promoting food security. They also have far fewer negative environmental impacts, keep control of food supplies in local hands, promote crop diversity (as opposed to industrial agriculture’s focus on monocrops) and support local and national economies.

For example, in her chapter, "Mad Cows and Sacred Cows," about attempts by developed countries to increase meat consumption in the South—even in historically vegetarian India—Shiva makes a compelling economic and ethical case. She argues that the slaughter of increasing numbers of Indian cows for export to the Gulf States (exports of meat from India have increased 20 times since 1995, to nearly 140,000 tons per year) is creating more poverty than wealth. Her calculation: because so many cows are being exported, less dung is available for manure and fuel. (Eighty million cattle meet two-thirds of the energy needs of Indian villages.) In addition, to replace the "energy and fertility" cows provide for free, India must import more fertilizer, fossil fuels, tractors and trucks. The result? While meat exports earn India Rs. 10 million per year (about $330,000), the lost wealth cows provide costs the country Rs. 150 million ($5 million) annually—a balance sheet no rational economist would accept.

And this is part of Shiva’s main point: when it comes to food production and so much else, globalizers ignore both context and consequences. They argue for "modernization"—more, bigger, faster—without evident concern for what’s left behind: strip-mined seas, deserted villages, rural people in thrall to corporate agribusiness for their seeds and markets, and a stunning loss of diversity in agriculture. For Shiva, though, the argument goes beyond mere economics (even though here, too, the globalizers are on very shaky ground, as Shiva’s cases show) to encompass values, justice and ethics. Trying to instill meat-eating in India is wrong economically, ecologically and spiritually. Shiva writes: "Both materially and conceptually, the world of Indian agriculture has built its sustainability on the integrity of the cow, considering her inviolable and sacred...[increasing meat production] leads to non-sustainability, violence to animals and lower productivity when all systems are assessed." Indeed.

Note: Vandana Shiva will speak at a Teach-In on "Economic Globalization and the Role of the United Nations," in New York on September 5. The Teach-In, sponsored by the International Forum on Globalization, runs from 1 to 11 pm at Town Hall in Manhattan. It’s timed to coincide with the millennial session of the UN General Assembly. For information or tickets, visit or call 888-629-9269.

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