Wrong Turn: New Zealand’s food future

Rebecca Reider
April 8, 2015

One of the world’s foremost food experts has a stark warning for New Zealand. Element sat down with Dr. Vandana Shiva to speak about the TPPA, corporate power in agriculture and the future of New Zealand “Dr Vandana Shiva is one of the world’s most incisive and eloquent critics of industrialised agriculture.”

RR: The TPP [Trans Pacific Partnership] is a big issue right now. A lot of people aren’t educated about it because none of us know exactly what’s in it. What would you caution New Zealanders about if this agreement is signed?

Vandana Shiva: I don’t think people in New Zealand have an excuse to say: ‘we don’t know what’s in it.’

Even before I saw the text of the TTIP [Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a proposed EU-US free trade agreement], I could predict: it will be about pushing GMOs [genetically modified organisms], pushing even stronger from the perspective of corporations’ intellectual property rights, and pushing deeper corporate rights versus sovereignty. The texts of the TTIP have been leaked out. TPP is just a different geographical reach, but it’s the same corporations, so we can make a very good guess that this is what will be in it.

Looking at this side, Japan is GMO-free; most of the other Asian countries aren’t growing GMO food; China is sitting on the fence; New Zealand is GMO-free.

One aspect that the citizens of New Zealand should be very worried about is this will be used for pushing GMOs, and therefore deregulating biosafety. You won’t be able to have labelling [of GMO food]. Labelling will be treated as an interference in trade.

The second thing that New Zealand should worry about is this: basically the US has decided its way of growth into the future is rent collection. It’s not a production economy any more. Even in agriculture, its primary growth is revenue collection through patented seeds, which are GMO seeds. And so they will push laws to prevent farmers from saving seed.

For example, last year there was the case of a farmer called Bowman who went to the market, bought soya grain and planted it. Monsanto sued him: ‘It’s ours, and every time you grow it, you’re infringing our patent’. And the [US] court ruled that, basically, a farmer, by growing a crop out, was stealing a self-replicating machine; that seeds are machines, and every generation of the seed renewing itself in the fields of the farmer is a theft from the company.

And the third thing, which I think is the most serious thing – the centerpiece of both TPP and TTIP – is ‘investor-state dispute settlements’. They created this anonymous word ‘investor,’ but it’s about corporations. A corporation can sue any government making decisions according to its democratic obligations and its people’s will…. They’re basically going to these very secretive trade dispute panels, which have been constructed by the corporations themselves, and where the so-called judges are about corporate rights and free trade.

RR: The current New Zealand government is in favour of agricultural intensification, more industrial inputs, commodity exports, milk powder, with export dollars being the goal. How can we find economic prosperity without harming our rivers, our ecosystems and our biodiversity?

VS: Even though the dairy industry is so big for New Zealand, it’s very small compared to the Indian dairy industry. But the Indian dairy industry is not an industry; it’s a woman with a buffalo or three goats or two cows, that’s the basis of production.

Given that New Zealand is 6% of the global dairy trade, anyone reasonable would say: ‘Okay, if I’m only 6%, do I do what the 94% is doing? Or do I go as a 6% market for what is unique to me – which is a good environment – and build on quality and sustainability?’

Going the intensification way to compete with the 94% is stupidity. It’s stupidity because in no system has intensification worked for the producer. It has wiped out the small producer. First it’s that four cows aren’t good enough, then it’s that 400 aren’t good enough, then it’s that 4000 aren’t good enough.

So has there been a discussion among the small dairy units to say, ‘Do you want to get wiped out?’

Also, in all of these systems, the cost of production is more than the value of the product. The politicians might fool the public to say: ‘we are exporting so much’; they will never give you the figures of how much they’re importing to make that industrial system work.

You have great internal resources. You can have the best national economy on grass-fed [dairy]; that unique niche is what the world is seeking.

The way the politicians are pushing New Zealand, you will have tenfold more cost of imports, which will be GMO soya, and your incomes off your exports will drop for the simple reason that you’re producing bad quality. It doesn’t make sense.

RR: When companies, government, the whole industry are pushing farmers to go down this intensification pathway, how do we shift? How do we support farmers to shift? Any lessons from Navdanya (see Shiva’s bio, below)?

VS: The first thing is that the 50 years post-war were really about building systems of national sovereignty based on the public good. And because that was the project, people could get busy with small things, and leave the rest to government. They left good agriculture policy to government; they left shaping of markets to government; they left research to governments; they left safety analysis to government, because governments worked for the public welfare.

The beginning of ‘free trade’ is, in effect, a return to the 1930s of the United States…. It was the 1% controlling 99% of the wealth. With these welfare economies, it came down, the share of the 1%; and now it’s back. In that phase, we could delegate a lot to governments. In this phase [now], we cannot.

RR: Because they’re owned?

VS: They are owned by the corporations.

So what do we do? There are two ends of any production system; there’s nature, and there’s people’s needs. That meeting has to take place. That’s the economy. The challenge of what can we do today is, in the period of government failure, start engaging more in making this link [between nature and people’s needs] in other ways. We can no more work on this just as a farmers’ issue, or just as a consumer issue, or just as a health issue, or just as a sustainability issue. It’s the linkages, the more robust the linkages we build. Because there is a desperate need here for healthy food for sustainable livelihoods. And if we meet those two… that’s how we serve the farmers. In Navdanya that’s exactly what we’ve done. We’ve reclaimed the seed, and every time they try and get the laws passed, we say: ‘sorry, we won’t obey.’

There are two ways this link will get made: autonomous sovereign producers linking to autonomous sovereign consumers – that’s where you are not among the excluded part of the society.

But there’s a class that is below that level, and there what you have to do is redirect and say: ‘You’re spending money on feeding programmes for the schools; so don’t serve poison and junk and pollution; you serve healthy local food.’ So in that way, the public expenditure becomes the second side. A lot of my friends in the organic movement say: ‘let’s vote with our dollars.’ I say that’s fine for those who can vote with their dollars; but there are those who have no dollars to vote with. There we need the public policy debate to say where does our money go.
Dr Vandana Shiva is one of the world’s most incisive and eloquent critics of industrialised agriculture. She’s written more than 20 books and inspired over half a million farmers. She’s also fiercely advocated for farmers’ livelihoods in her native India, where she founded Navdanya, a national movement which has conserved thousands of seed varieties.