Book Review -Stolen Harvest © Sangeeta Venkatesh

Are we losing the genetic diversity of our crops? 

As a student of Biotechnology in the years, 1986-88 at the M. S University, Baroda and I remember being wide-eyed and awe-struck when we studied how genes could be manipulated, cut, spliced, cloned to achieve the desired result. It was around that time that the genes encoding toxin crystals from Bacillus thuringiensis were cloned or introduced into cotton to produce insect resistant ‘transgenic’ varieties of cotton. The idea was to give a farmer,  cotton crop that would not need any pesticides, which meant that the crop would be resistant to pests.  Quite a romantic idea for a farmer whose livelihood depended on this cash crop.  In the Indian story, the American agricultural company, Monsanto and its Indian partner Mahyco introduced these seeds in India in 2002. However, this story has had its share of drama and has been marred by ugly controversies.

The state of Maharashtra has the largest area under cotton cultivation in India and lakhs of farmers depend on the success of this cash crop.  But as recent as 2018, reports have come in that the pink bollworm has become resistant to the genetically modified cotton and farmers have faced unprecedented losses. So is the use of Bt cotton sustainable – considering that it accounts for 90 percent of all cotton grown in the country? To me, what is more worrisome is the loss of genetic diversity or genetic capital that comes with propagating one type of crop – especially with regards to food crops.

That is why a reading of the book ‘Stolen Harvest’ may be necessary to see things in perspective. This book was published eighteen years ago, but the time that has elapsed has not diluted its relevance. Vandana Shiva, the firebrand activist and founder of Navadanya – a native seed savers movement in India, has been relentlessly campaigning against genetically modified organisms and crops. Shiva, an erstwhile physicist, was also the winner of the 1993 Right Livelihood Award.

Stolen Harvest explains why she feels that India must resist global agribusiness companies like Monsanto and Cargill. Through the seven chapters of the book, Stolen Harvest, she touches upon the most basic needs of humankind, which is food and its production. Emphasising on the positive nature of ancient Indian traditions, Shiva says that the worldview of women in India was a worldview of abundance, which left food for ants at their doorstep when they created art in the form of rangoli and wove beautiful designs of paddy so that birds could feed on them. In direct contrast to this philosophy, was the worldview of scarcity, brought to us by global corporations like Cargill and Monsanto, which saw nature’s web of life and cycles of renewal as ‘theft’ of their property.

The completion of the Uruguay Round of General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1994 and the establishment of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have further legalised these thefts from nature and people. Shiva compares these free trade treaties to the British colonialism, which had led to the Bengal famine of 1943. At that time, most of the food was extracted from the peasants under an unfair tax collection scheme to feed the British Military.

Elaborating on these thoughts, Shiva gives case studies from India. One case study, which is a revelation, is the introduction of soybean into India. Most communities in India use mustard oil as the medium of cooking. Besides being an edible oil, mustard has several therapeutic uses, which are used in the indigenous systems. It may be recalled that soon after the introduction of free trade, Delhi witnessed a mysterious tragedy when mustard oil was found to be contaminated with seeds of a weed called Argemone mexicana. Consumption of this adulterated oil led to dropsy, a condition that affects multiple systems and organs. The outcome of the tragedy resulted in the government banning the sale of all edible oils, which were unpackaged. This resulted in releasing edible oil in the market that was industrially produced. This firmly spelt the death knell for all household and community-level processing of edible oils. Moreover, local processing of oil also became a criminal act. Around the same time, the soybean lobby promoted itself and the US Soybean Association aggressively pushed its case for exporting its soybean to India. Shiva asks the reader the question, “Will the future of India’s edible oil culture be based on mustard and other edible oilseeds, or will it become part of the globalised monoculture of soybean, with its associated but hidden food hazards?”

Other chapters deal with equally appalling case studies of large-scale industrialised the larger democracy of life, based on the Earth democracy or ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakum’ (which means that the entire world is one family) that will provide resistance against the ‘brute power’ of the ‘life sciences’ industry. Shiva urges us to reclaim our food democracy by saying, “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.”

Is it hysteria or a justified war cry is left entirely to the reader’s judgement.


Note: The original book review written by me was first published in the magazine ‘Life Positive‘.

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