Manifestos on the Future of Food & Seed

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Vandana Shiva
South End Press, 2007 - Nature - 145 pages

"Shiva is a burst of creative energy, an intellectual power."--The Progressive

Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed is a short, pocket-sized collection that goes to the heart of our existence--what we eat and how we grow it. It covers the questions:

  • How are seeds cultivated and saved?
  • How far must food travel before reaching our plate?
  • Who gets paid for the food we eat?
  • Why does our food taste like this?

We live in a world where of the eighty thousand edible plants used for food, only about 150 are being cultivated, and just eight are traded globally. A world where we produce food for 12 billion people when there are only 6.3 billion people living, and still, 800 million suffer from malnutrition and 1.7 billion suffer from obesity. A world where food is modified to travel long distances rather than to be nutritious and flavorful.

Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed lays out, in practical steps and far-reaching concepts, a program to ensure food and agriculture become more socially and ecologically sustainable. The book harvests the work and ideas produced by thousands of communities around the world. Emerging from the historic gatherings at Terra Madre, farmers, traders, and activists diagnose and offer prescriptions to reverse perhaps the worst food crisis faced in human history.

There is a growing realization that food politics is vital to the health of our bodies, economies, and environment--in other words, a matter of life or death. Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, writes, "Reinstating food as a central, primary element in our lives seems an obvious thing to do, since without food, no living things would exist." Thousands of communities around the world are working to do just this.

A world-renowned environmental leader and thinker, Vandana Shiva is the author of many books, including Earth Democracy, Water Wars, and Staying Alive. Manifestos includes essays by Prince Charles and Carlo Petrini.

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This collection of essays, edited by Vandana Shiva, varies considerably in tone and degree of novelty. The manifestos themselves seem ham-fisted and loaded with unsupported assertions. It is not that no convincing case can be made for many of the arguments raised; rather, the authors simply choose not to do so. It is an approach that will win them few converts. In general, the book contains a number of positions towards which I am sympathetic: that patents on living things are highly dubious, that the present food system is unsustainable, that the agricultural policies of most states are inappropriate and often immoral. It simply manages to convey most of these points in a shrill and off-putting manner: the kind of voice that makes you take an opposing stand almost by reflex.
Most of the authors seem to profoundly misunderstand the nature of the global trade system. As with so many other blanket anti-globalization activists, they seem to think the WTO is some kind of wicked and powerful entity, enforcing its will against states. It is more accurate to say that it is an imperfect vehicle for trying to create some trade rules formulated on something other than economic and geopolitical power. It is a goal rarely achieved - how could it be? - but a worthy one nonetheless. Similarly, the WTO does not impose outside restrictions on the kind of food safety laws states can adopt. It simply requires that the same standard be applied to domestic producers as importers. You cannot reject beef produced using recombinant bovine growth hormone abroad while allowing domestic industrial agribusinesses to use the same substance. Naturally, if you are big and economically powerful, you can more or less do as you like (witness WTO rulings against American maize subsidies, for instance).
The book also seems to be a bit short of real content where genetically modified organisms and antibiotic resistance are concerned. Both naturally raise important questions of health, safety, and ethics. The nuances of the discussion, however, are poorly served by a book that asserts that the Green Revolution was actually harmful to the world’s poor. Genetically modified organisms could certainly produce adverse outcomes. At the same time, they might be able to help us reduce our dependence on toxic pesticides, reduce the carbon emissions associated with shipping and refrigeration, and deal with the consequences of climate change. Similarly, while there is much to lament about current global trade practices, the kind of protectionism advocated by most of the authors is unlikely to help either the poor or the sustainability of agriculture. What is necessary is that the total social and environmental costs of economic activities be borne by the relevant parties: not that food is grown in a particular place, domestic producers receive preferential treatment, or that the world re-fragments into disparate economies.
While the book doesn’t really make it, there is an excellent case for a global transition to new forms of agriculture. Important elements include replacing vulnerable monocultures with resilient polycultures, sharply restricting the use of antibiotics, reducing the intensity of fossil fuel use, and otherwise taking into account the many social and environmental costs of agriculture that are ignored when it is undertaken in an industrial manner. There is likewise a very strong case to be made about reforming the global intellectual property regime. It is extremely dubious to be able to patent a gene that you have moved from one creature to another. It is similarly dubious to sell seeds on a ‘licensed’ basis, where they can only be legally used for one crop.
In the end, it is hard to see who this book is for. It doesn’t contain enough substantive argumentation to convert anyone - though there is one good essay written by a local foods grocer, railing against both Walmart and Whole Foods. It likewise does not contain a viable plan for changing the nature of the global food system. Here, Michael Pollan seems to adopt the most


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About the author (2007)

A world-renowned environmental leader and recipient of the 1993 Alternative Nobel Peace Prize (the Right Livelihood Award), Shiva has authored several bestselling books, most recently Earth Democracy. Activist and scientist, Shiva leads, with Ralph Nader and Jeremy Rifkin, the International Forum on Globalization. Before becoming an activist, Shiva was one of India's leading physicists.

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