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Interview: Scientist, Author, Activist Vandana Shiva Leads Movement to Restore Sovereignty to Farmers

Acres U.S.A. is North America’s monthly magazine of ecological agriculture. Each month we conduct an in-depth interview with a thought leader. The following interview appeared in our January 2016 issue and was too important not to share widely.

Vandana ShivaAmericans who visit India often come back more or less overwhelmed by its vast size and complexity, and if they are not stunned into silence they are at least much less willing to engage in generalities. Timeless beauty, explosive economic growth, persistent poverty and about a billion people all make for an intense experience if you’re used to the predictable movements of cars and shoppers. One thing that does emerge from the ancient nation’s recent history, though, is the way societies that seem chaotic and disorganized to outsiders actually offer opportunities for their citizens who are willing to act with boldness, imagination and fierce resolve. Gandhi was one such actor, and Vandana Shiva may well be another. Increasingly well-known here as an author and lecturer, her popularity makes her a pain in the neck to proponents of industrial agriculture. (Corporate ag apologist Michael Specter recently honored her with an attack in The New Yorker.) It’s a whole other story back in India, however — there Shiva is a force for change not only among the commentariat but also on the ground. She agitates for legislation and political change at one end of society while leading a movement to empower farmers at the other. Shiva is that rarity in modern life, an intellectual who sees possibilities for action in the world outside her study and moves to set them in motion, working with fellow sojourners to build and sustain a counterforce opposing the corporate status quo over the long haul. On a recent trip to California, Shiva spoke with Acres U.S.A., covering an amazing amount of ground. Readers who need a little context are advised to consult Wikipedia on the Bhopal disaster — a 9/11-scale tragedy linked to agricultural chemicals — in particular and modern Indian history in general.

Vandan Shiva interviewed in Acres U.S.A. magazine

Read the interview here (PDF).

Opinion: Growing Doubt on Genetic Engineering, GMOs

by Jonathan R. Latham, Ph.D.

By training, I am a plant biologist. In the early 1990s I was busy making genetically modified plants (often called GMOs for Genetically Modified Organisms) as part of the research that led to my Ph.D. Into these plants we were putting DNA from various foreign organisms, such as viruses and bacteria.

I was not, at the outset, concerned about the possible effects of GM plants on human health or the environment. One reason for this lack of concern was that I was still a very young scientist, feeling my way in the complex world of biology and of scientific research. Another reason was that we hardly imagined that GMOs like ours would be grown or eaten. So far as I was concerned, all GMOs were for research purposes only. Gradually, however, it became clear that certain companies thought differently. Some of my older colleagues shared their skepticism with me that commercial interests were running far ahead of scientific knowledge. I listened carefully, and I didn’t disagree. Today, more than 20 years later, GMO crops, especially soybeans, corn, papaya, canola and cotton, are commercially grown in numerous parts of the world. Continue Reading →

Crop Diversity Key to Sustainability

monocropU.S. farmers are growing fewer types of crops than they were 34 years ago, which could have implications for how farms fare as changes to the climate evolve, according to a large-scale study by Kansas State University, North Dakota State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Less crop diversity may also be impacting the general ecosystem.

“At the national level, crop diversity declined over the period we analyzed,” said Jonathan Aguilar, K-State water resources engineer and lead researcher on the study.

The scientists used data from the USDA’s U.S. Census of Agriculture, which is published every five years from information provided by U.S. farmers. The team studied data from 1978 through 2012 across the country’s contiguous states.

Croplands comprise about 408 million acres or 22 percent of the total land base in the lower 48 states, so changes in crop species diversity could have a substantial impact, not only on agroecosystem function, but also the function of surrounding natural and urban areas. Because croplands are typically replanted annually, theoretically crop species diversity can change fairly rapidly. There is the potential for swift positive change, unlike in natural ecosystems. Continue Reading →

Pollinators, Beyond Bees

Farmers can play an important role in creating monarch feeding areas and managing migration corridors.

Farmers can play an important role in creating monarch feeding areas and managing migration corridors.

Supporting resident and migrating pollinators not only aids a critical link in the natural ecosystem cycle, but a farm’s production can increase substantially with the presence of ample pollinators. By giving them safe shelter, water and a supplemental food supply in addition to nectar supplied by crops, their activity on the farm can increase. It’s helpful to remember that while pollinators include the more familiar honeybees and mason bees, they also include various other animals. The Fish and Wildlife Service reports that there are more than 100,000 different animal species (they say the numbers may be as many as 200,000) which play roles in pollinating the 250,000 kinds of flowering plants on the planet. The most common ones are the insects which include bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, flies and beetles. But they report that as many as 1,500 species of vertebrates, including birds and mammals such as hummingbirds and fruit and nectar-eating bats, also serve as pollinators. Continue Reading →

Book Review: Triumphs & Tribulations in the Heartland

Lentil Underground Book Review

Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America by Liz Carlisle

Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America;

by Liz Carlisle; book review by Chris Walters

Liz Carlisle was four years into a good career as a country singer when the cognitive dissonance got to be too much. Better to let her tell it:

“… Born and raised in Montana, I’d grown up on country radio, and I loved weaving romantic agrarian lyrics into pretty melodies. When I’d graduated from college, with a new record to sell and a full schedule of shows for the summer, it had seemed like the greatest thing in the world to travel through rural America and tell its story. But now that I’d crisscrossed the country several times in my station wagon, I knew the sobering truth. I’d been lying.

As I listened to people who came up to chat after my shows, it dawned on me that life in the heartland was not what I’d thought. Farming had become a grueling industrial occupation, squeezed between the corporations that sold farmers their chemicals and the corporations that bought their grain.”

Right away it’s clear she can write, and what a joy her story of a short-lived music career might have been had she chosen to write that kind of book. Carlisle had other horizons on her mind, though, and it is to Montana she returns after a spell working in the office of that state’s then-freshly minted U.S. Senator, Jon Tester. He supplied the link to the story she took up after studying journalism with Michael Pollan at UC-Berkeley, the lentil farmers behind a company called Timeless Natural Food, originally known as Timeless Seeds. These hardy souls were staking out a future for post-industrial farming in Montana, a semi-arid state known for short growing seasons, long distances and lack of major cities. Industrial wheat was a king whose rule was close to absolute. Continue Reading →

Humans Have Huge Impact on Soil Loss

Human impact on soil loss.A new University of Vermont study on soil loss reveals that removing native forest and starting intensive agriculture can accelerate erosion so dramatically that in a few decades soil loss is as high as would naturally occur over thousands of years. Along the southern Piedmont from Virginia to Alabama — that stretch of rolling terrain between the Appalachian Mountains and the coastal plain of the Atlantic Ocean — clay soils built up for many millennia. Then, in just a few decades of intensive logging and cotton and tobacco production, as much soil eroded as would have in a pre-human landscape over thousands of years, the scientists note. The study on soil loss was presented in the journal Geology and reported in the March 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.