Vandana Shiva, Activist and Sustainable Food Systems Advocate

This profile is part of a series of stories highlighting sustainability leaders that advocate for diversity and equity within the environmental movement. George Bandy, a vice president at Interface, Inc., will speak about the built environment, nature, and issues dealing with diversity and corporate responsibility at the University of Utah Thursday, Sept. 19 at 11:30 am in the Union Saltair Room.

By Jai Bashir, Office of Sustainability

“The food we eat, the food that nourishes us, is a gift from the earth, from the sun, from millions of years of evolution.”—Vandana Shiva, Founder and Director of Navdanya Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology

Since 1997, more than 200,000 Indian farmers have taken their own lives. In 1998, the World Bank’s structural modifications forced nations, such as India, to open their seed market to corporations such as Cargill, Monsanto, and Syngenta. Because of these structural changes in food politics within India, heirloom seeds that had been passed down from Indian farm families for generations were quickly replaced with genetically modified foreign corporate seeds, which required pesticides and fossil-fuel ridden fertilizers to service in non-endemic soil. Indian famers have committed suicide because they are not able to compete in a global market. The democratization of food is integral to the development of all nations as places of social justice and equality. As citizens of this planet, we all have the right and need to evaluate the industrial corporate food complex, and make informed choices that ensure the livelihood of traditional farmers.

Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva speaks at Fronteirsa Do Pensamento (Portuguese for Frontiers of Thought) in May 2012. Photo by Cintia Barenho/

Thankfully, we have Dr. Vandana Shiva.

Sustainability heroine, Earth activist and physicist, Shiva shines as a brilliant representative of seeking solutions for the Earth through addressing the rights of people. Her work has inspired people not only in her homeland of India, but the whole world over, where her activism motivates other advocates in the areas of democratization of food and agricultural, social justice, the environment, and community building and organizing.

Shiva is my personal heroine, and why I strongly believe that food is the most simple, yet arguably, one of the most effective ways of politicizing the personal. Our purchases, consumption choices, and diets are a form of active participation in the world we choose to partake in. Through Shiva’s work, I’ve come to a higher realization that food is life, and both are large privileges that must not be wasted, and has made me feel a stronger connection to help those within our community, and beyond, who are hungry, not because of a lack of food, but, because of unjust power structures that disallow disenfranchised people from accessing food simultaneously as  others waste such enormous amounts. It has become important to look at food as not just something we put into our biological systems without thought, but rather as an integral aspect of the human condition that we must reconfigure culturally, politically, and economically.
On a global scale, Shiva’s work has been eye opening in assessing India’s environmental degradation through the lens of India as a post-colonial nation that is rapidly becoming more globalized in order to meet the high demands of capital-based market economy. Colonization is still pervasive and is taking the form of corporate food systems, where seeds have become corporatized and monopolized by the few, and subsequently  left millions of people hungry due to inability to access food sources. As the dominant global paradigm becomes more largely capitalistic, the urge for nations in the global south, such as India, to become more “modern” has led to the abandonment of local traditions in favor of Western models of society.

To counter the desertion of tradition, Shiva utilizes understandings of Indian cosmology, such as the concept of “vasudhaiva kutumbkam,” the concept of earth family, to demonstrate India’s Hindu population’s spiritual roots in sustainability and conservation, and argues that the industrialization of every aspect of Indian society is not a solution to India’s problems. Her belief is that local spirituality, culture and natural capital are resources, and in order to build more sustainable communities, revitalizing India’s diverse traditions must not be seen as counter to progression, but rather key to building a more sustainable, just world. Through this support of Indian culture as a model for progression, she is a large supporter of Ghandian principles as a way of building socially just communities. She is a staunch supporter of swadeshi—the concept that local studies should put their own resources and capacities to use to meet their needs as a basic element of freedom.

Shiva places strong emphasis on her work in food democracy and sovereignty and how injustice in food politics strongly affects women and children of all nations. “The poverty trap, created through the vicious cycle of ‘development,’ debt, environmental destruction and structural adjustment is most significantly experienced by women and children.” This relationship between women and nature is often termed “ecofeminism.” Ecofeminism is a social theory that utilizes ecology to attempt to identify and change social rhetoric and principles regarding gender and the mutual reinforcement of other social constructs, and distribution of resources, that have deep relationships with impending environmental global uncertainty. Shiva argues that the liberation of women must be a simultaneous struggle for the preservation and liberation of all life on this planet from an unfair patriarchal and capitalistic global paradigm.

Annadana is the gift and giving of food. All other ethical arrangements in society get looked after if everyone is engaging in annadanna on a daily basis. According to an ancient Indian saying: there is no danda greater than annadanna and tirthadana—the giving of food to the hungry and water to the thirsty,” she says.

In 1991, Shiva founded Navdanya, a national movement to protect the diversity of living services, such as native seeds. This organization has aided in setting up 111 community seed banks across India and trained five million local farmers in seed and food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture. Navdanya has also led to the creation of the largest fair trade organic network in the country.

Among many other accomplishments, Shiva has served as an adviser to the government of India and others. She also has been a leader within NGOs such as the International Forum on Globalization, the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, and the Third World Network. She has received numerous awards, including the 1993 Right Livelihood Award (Alternative Nobel Prize) and the 2010 Sydney Peace Prize.

This October, Shiva is calling upon all the planet’s citizens to come together for a fortnight of action. Beginning on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, and culminating on World Food Day, these days of action will have the deliberate intent of spreading ideas of seed sovereignty, GMOs, and educating communities and their governments about seeds, farmers, and creating sustainable change.  To learn more please visit Seed Freedom or contact on ways to implement this call to action in our community.

Jai Bashir is a senior in Environmental and Sustainability Studies and Gender Studies. She is a sustainability ambassador for the Office of Sustainability.

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