Skip to content
Ending global poverty begins with women’s rights
I would like to receive email updates from Oxfam Canada. I understand I can unsubscribe at any time.

Gender and Diversity: Dr. Vandana Shiva on Fixing a Broken Food System

by Oxfam | March 5, 2012

Janet Rhymes and Jesse Firempong
Oxfam Canada, Maritimes

More than 220 bleary-eyed Maritimers woke up extra early on Monday morning, February 27. Even with a bus strike in full force, they found their way to Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia to take part in a participatory event titled, Dr. Vandana Shiva and Guests: A Feast of Conversation on Women, Men and Food.
But, bleary eyes soon became wide when Dr. Shiva entered to a standing ovation, ready to inform our conversation focus: We’re 7 billion people on a planet in crisis with a broken food system and world hunger on the rise. How would putting women's rights and gender justice at the heart of the conversation help mobilize change?
According to Dr Shiva, “the world’s diet is being reduced to only eight global commodities, with women’s knowledge of local diversity being eclipsed.” We need to end dependence on genetically modified corn and soy in favour of biological diversity—“we need to reoccupy the food system”—fitting, since February 27 was Occupy the Food Supply Day! The takeover and homogenization of seed—the creation of “monocultures and monopolies”—is our biggest threat, against which we must make our strongest stand of resistance.
For Dr. Shiva, the key to revitalizing agriculture lies with women, who make up the majority of small farmers in the global south and are seed-keepers and preservers of genetic biodiversity on the planet. "In the struggle of people against power, women play a key role in the future of our species."
Dr. Shiva pointed out that the vocabulary of food is both sexist and racist. For example, she revealed that in India, genetically modified strains are called elite, while natural ones, darker varieties favoured by women producers, are called primitive cultivars. And yet the primitive cultivars are far more nutrient-rich than the white, elite varieties.
Dr. Shiva also sees violence in the language and approaches of monoculture and monopoly, with the origins of farm chemicals themselves as byproducts of chemical warfare. The reality of this violence is seen in the tragic loss of 250,000 Indian farmers through suicide, despairing from land and livelihood loss as a result of debt from the false hope embedded in GMO seed.
Yet, difference, while sometimes oppressive, can also be a powerful force for positive change within the international food system. When participants asked what one thing they could do to improve the international food system, Dr. Shiva reminded us that there wasn’t any one action, but many, and cautioned us to avoid "the monoculture of the mind." To move forward, we need diverse crop varieties, diverse farmers, diverse women and diverse actions!
Dr. Shiva itemized some of what we’ll need: biodiversity promotion, seed saving, Occupy activists, organic farms, farmers markets, home gardening, and watchdogs on unfair agricultural subsidies. We should turn to indigenous knowledge to help us create real food security, she said, adding that men and women must be partners in the fields and in the kitchen. Here in Nova Scotia, we can help women become agents of change through participatory action research undertaken by Dr. Patty Williams of MSVU.
These actions can also help us become more deeply engaged in Oxfam’s GROW campaign. Dr. Shiva said she was glad to see GROW emerge as the centerpiece of Oxfam campaigning. With agriculture such an important part of Canada’s economy, seed preservation and action on biodiversity are issues that hit close to home.
“The simple recognition that I am not alone, that I am part of this amazing planet and all the species,” keeps Dr. Shiva going, despite the enormity of her struggle and threats to the safety of her family it has sometimes caused her.
Event resources