Soil Not Oil

by Vandana Shiva
144 pages, South End Press, 2008

In Review

A physicist by training, a prolific author and charismatic leader by inclination, Vandana Shiva is a juggernaut of social activism. When not busy traveling the world to promote sustainable agriculture, Shiva spends much of her time at Navdanya (“Nine Seeds”), the Indian seed bank she founded to support traditional farming and social justice. In her latest book, Soil Not Oil, she reflects on her experiences at Navdanya to explain how global trade is spurring a triple crisis of peak oil, food shortages, and climate change.

Shiva charts a vicious cycle. When food became a global commodity, local economies sunk. When we started depending upon petroleum for large-scale farming, we set the fire for global warming. Selling crops for export leads to a decline in prices, forcing farmers into debt. It is the poor who lose both their lands and their identities as farmers.

Despite conventional wisdom, large-scale monocropping is unhealthy and inefficient. “Globalization,” Shiva writes, in reference to WTO programs that create import dependency, “forces nonsustainability on the world.”

Shiva cites India’s Green Revolution as an example of what the “modern” system reaps: high-yield monocrops for global trade, dependency on chemical fertilizers and fuel, displacement of Indigenous people to make way for large farms. Ultimately 150,000 Indian farmers despaired enough to commit suicide.

What to do? Here Shiva delivers a stunning insight: “We need to change our minds before we change our world.” It’s an echo of Einstein, who also argued that a problem can’t be solved using the same mindset that created the problem in the first place.

It’s “stupid” to pursue free-market fundamentalism while ecosystems collapse, Shiva scolds. Unfortunately, the “solutions” do just that. Biofuels divert food from the poor; carbon trading is simply a “supermarket of pollution”; and big “organics” still consume high levels of energy to grow and ship.

According to Shiva, we would need five Earths for everyone to climb to the US consumption level. Shiva suggests we develop another matrix of progress and well-being. She challenges people to brainstorm solutions with a fresh sheet of paper. “We don’t have to go the Monsanto way. We can go the Navdanya way. We do not need to end up in food dictatorship and food slavery.”

– Brian Shea

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