Book Review: Biopiracy by Vandana Shiva

Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge

Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge

In “Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge” (1997), Vandana Shiva explores the exploitation of the Third World by the North (West).  Major corporations have invaded native communities and environments for commercial interests. In referencing the shift from colonialism to more modern forms of oppression, Shiva writes, “the duty to incorporate savages into Christianity has been replaced by the duty to incorporate non-Western systems of knowledge into the reductionism of commercialized Western science and technology”.

Community knowledge of the intricately interwoven ecosystems of forests, crops, and livestock has for generations sustainably maintained local economies. Biopiracy refers to the theft of this knowledge by corporations seeking to patent indigenous crops, animals and methods of farming.

Vandana Shiva argues that in the return to sustainable practices, science and society have much to learn from indigenous practices and native populations. The rate at which resources are used has spiked only in the last two centuries as globalization and the rise of technology and industry increased production and waste. Our current overzealous habits represent a discord between man and nature as ecosystems are disrupted, species lost, and native communities exploited. Instead of man and woman cohabitating with nature, Shiva explains, we have come to view nature as something to be dominated. Because indigenous knowledge is inherently gendered, both nature and women have come to be dominated and exploited by man. In regarding indigenous knowledge and the work of women, western frameworks have systematically undervalued both systems and their contributions to modern networks.

The Indian view of nature and man, in contrast, presents “..a duality in unity”. In modern society, science and technology have become cognitively inseparable, creating a form of social control. Because science is seen as verifiable and objective, consequent uses of science and technology are rarely questioned. In order to remedy gender relations as they relate to science and technology, it is important not to vilify knowledge, which, although previous misused, may be helpful in a more egalitarian framework. Keeping in mind the past injustices suffered by native communities at the hands of European colonists, indigenous knowledge has survived many setbacks. Regardless, indigenous knowledge systems have contributed greatly to modern science, agriculture and medicine.

Biopiracy was a great book. Vandana Shiva is great writer who makes her claims boldly and references many examples. Her main claim, that no person or corporation can claim ownership of nature is repeated throughout her writing. Shiva fights for independence and autonomy from corporations who only seek profits from the countries they have exploited. Governmental institutions have been complicit in these crimes, enforcing restrictions on Third World countries and limiting them from using their own land sustainably.

This book is relevant to all that we have learned this quarter because as we each become urban agriculturists (or support others who do so) we must be mindful of the agroeconomic systems that we are benefiting from. It is important to realize that everything, from the seeds and soil to the techniques we use are all in some form, are the effect of generations-old techniques used by indigenous and Third-World peoples.

Book Review: Genetic Engineering in Agriculture

In Genetic Engineering in Agriculture, Miguel Altieri uncovers and shares the truth about biotechnology in regards to food and how the rise of biotechnology and genetic engineering has greatly affected agribusiness, especially the at the level of the farmers. Altieri tells the narrative of how genetically modified crops have risen to dominance in the agricultural world because they were sought to be the solution to world hunger. He goes on to reveal that GM crops actually have a primarily negative impact on human health, crop yields and the livelihood of farmers. The book begins by discussing the belief that world hunger is a consequence of a food production shortage when, in fact, more than enough food is being produced to feed the world; however much goes to waste or to feed livestock.

Genetically modified seeds are very expensive and are under the control of a few large corporations, such as Monsanto, further inceasing the marginalization of the farmers. Altieri explains scientifically how traditional breeding and genetic engineering are very different processes. However, the United States government states that the processes are “substantially equivalent.” He also explains that not only are the human health effects not fully understood, but also the effects on the environment and on crop yields are not clear as well. This book shares the full narrative of genetically modified food from the fields to the shelves and how money and economics, as always, have a huge influence on the agricultural system.

Genetic engineering has become a major topic of debate in the world of agriculture, especially as it was during election season with Proposition 37 in California. Almost all the foods we consume contain some genetically modified ingredient. More than half the corn and soybean-based foods we consume in the United States are genetically modified (Altieri pp. 30). Genetic Engineering in Agriculture was written to share the whole story of genetically modified food from the science to the economics to the effects on farmers’ lives.

I found the book well organized which helped create a clear and easy to follow argument of why genetically modified crops are taking over the American agricultural business, and not in a good way. Before reading this book, I did not have a strong understanding about genetically modified crops other than the scientific process of creating the genetically modified organisms. This book revealed how GM crops have made their way into almost every source of food we eat. Also, the companies that create, patent, and sell the genetically modified seeds have built up a monopoly and often times take advantage of the small, individual farmers.

I enjoyed Miguel Altieri’s last chapter about the alternatives to biotechnology and I believe the chapter was crucial in creating a strong argument against genetic engineering in agriculture. As I was reading the book I found myself agreeing that biotechnology was creating more problems than it was solving problems, but I was asking myself, what else can be done if biotechnology is not the answer? Luckily for me the last chapter shared some successful and sustainable alternative practices that are currently being used in other countries. I believe this last chapter was crucial in order for Altieri to really create a strong critique. It is one thing to find a problem, but to also share evidence of working alternatives only supports and reinforces his critique of biotechnology.

Altieri, Miguel A. Genetic Engineering in Agriculture: The Myths, Environmental Risks, and Alternatives. Oakland, CA: Food First /Institute for Food and Development Policy, 2004. Print.

Combating Food Waste

I participated in Food Forward this weekend, along with Jen, who coordinated the whole thing.  It was really interesting to see how some organization and volunteering can switch up our established food economy and cut back on some of our food waste and hunger problems. Then I came upon this article on Grist:  It gives an interesting look at other groups that are redistributing the food economy, like Food Forward. Worth reading!

Tomato Mania: Tomatoland looks at the effects and the future of our nation’s obsession with tomatoes

 Tomato Mania: Tomatoland looks at the effects and the future of our nation’s obsession with tomatoes 


Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook.
Andrews McMeel Publishing;
Original edition (April 24, 2012).
ISBN: 1449423450

A friend recently told me that she would no longer be eating fish and chips
because, unsurprisingly, the trawling process to catch cod ends up destroying
other coral reef and sea life along the way.  Indeed, I can’t quite stomach KFC
after seeing Food Inc. and other foodie documentaries. I think twice about corn syrup and corn-based snacks. I’ve eaten a hamburger in the company of vegetarians, only to hear just how much water it takes to produce my fried quarter pound of beef (almost 2,000 liters).  I’ve seen PETA brochures that make me
never want a BLT, ever, ever, again.  Yet, when eating my hamburger, or my
turkey sandwich, or even a salad, I’ve not once been told about the evils of the alluring red tomato hiding within. That is, not until I picked up a copy of Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland.

Unearthing an plethora of disturbing details behind one variety of industrially grown tomatoes, the imperfectly perfect “Florida Rounds,” Estabrook details the history behind the rampant pesticide use, distasteful breeding methods, and slave labor of Florida’s tomato industry. In a reporting style that mixes personality, shock, balanced interviews, and advocacy, Estabrook describes “a world we’ve made, and one we can fix. Welcome to Tomatoland.”

Indeed, Estabrook welcomes readers to a world they already know if they’ve ever eaten a mealy, pale tomato.  What readers likely do not know, however, comprises the most compelling sections of the book’s tomato exposé – the horrific conditions of Florida’s tomato laborers, which are even more sickening than the paltry red fruits they produce. For readers who only picture dying birds and feminized fish at the mention of pesticides, Estabrook gives very personal reminders that people are exposed, too.

And for what?  The industry is hardly lucrative, and it’s certainly not for gastronomic delight. Florida Rounds are grown for durability and perfectly spherical shape because, as phrased by Florida Tomato Committee’s compliance officer Steve Jones, “taste is subjective.” Really, these Floridian fruits only exist because “people want something red to put in their salad.”

Estabrook gets dirty to unearth the secrets behind the modern tomato industry, taking readers into the quarters of modern slaves, fields filled with pesticides, courtrooms, sheriff stations, and soup kitchens.  He riles environmental ideals with stories of pesticides and acres of rotting tomatoes because harvesting would cost more than a grower could make in profit.  From a variety of perspectives – both the “good guys” and the “bad guys” – Estabrook compiles a highly personalized and shocking condemnation of industrial tomato production.

But Estabrook, who used to write about both food and politics for Gourmet Magazine, also knows how to make tomato flavor sing on paper.  My mouth waters at descriptions of accidental farmer Tim Stark’s home-grown heirloom varieties sold in a New York City farmer’s market. In the latter half of the novel, Estabrook couples organic successes with recent improvements in the industry. Though obviously advocating for change in the industrial food system, Estabrook describes organic farmers and political change in Florida’s tomato system to show that change is, indeed, possible.

This second half, by nature, reads a little slower. It does not compel me to jump out of my chair and tell my next-door neighbor to never buy a Florida Round tomato ever, ever again. It shows improvements, which are less shocking than the injustice. But, it adds the needed sweetness to a book that started bitter. Offering an organic solution, Estabrook elevates Tomatoland to a book of criticism and hope, condemnation and advocacy, a book that I can savor over and over again.

Farm to college to table

A worker handles frozen high-end "wagyū" beef, sold through Washington State University. Source: NY Times.

A worker handles frozen high-end “wagyū” beef, sold through Washington State University. Source: NY Times.

Today’s New York Times had an interesting piece, “A University Steak to Go With That Sweatshirt?,” which explored the branding of colleges, and how it is inching into the realm of urban ag.While some colleges and universities have long had CSAs and worked farmers’ markets, there are some new gambits in branding.

…in recent years, food researchers said, a number of trends have coalesced, changing the stakes, and the possibilities, for what a college food brand might be…

The movement for locally sourced food has fueled a growth in student-led agriculture with new or expanded farm-to-table product lines in places like the urban gardens at George Washington University and the Sustainable Student Farm at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Student-run farms supplying dining halls and farmers’ markets have started or expanded at many institutions, including the University of California’s campuses in Davis and Chico. At the same time, the commercial branding of commodities has become an industry norm, from Washington State apples to California avocados.

“Schools are looking for new ways to generate revenue, but there is more entrepreneurial thinking in colleges and universities than ever before, too,” said Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell and the director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.

Professor Wansink has studied what he calls “food halos.” That is the aura or glow that a compelling story or some connotation of health, social consciousness or environmentalism can bestow on a product. Colleges, he said, with nostalgic allegiances going back generations and educational missions that go beyond the profit motive, can often grab halos while only half trying.

“Anything like a university brand meat has an incredible halo,” he said.

Dr. Vandana Shiva at UCLA

David King mentioned this woman during his guest lecture this past Tuesday. Lo behold the flyer I saw in my email this morning! (I’m sure those of you in the IoES mailing list also received this email.)

Dr. Vandana Shiva at UCLA

Here’s more information from the email for anyone who’s interested in attending Dr. Shiva’s talk.

Annual International Women’s Day Lecture featuring Vandana Shiva, philosopher, environmental activist, and ecofeminist – March 8, 6PM, UCLA

You are cordially invited to an event celebrating International Women’s Day featuring a lecture by Dr. Vandana Shiva, world-renowned philosopher, environmental activist, ecofeminist, and academic researcher on agricultural and women’s empowerment issues. Dr. Shiva’s talk for International Woman’s Day will be a CSW event as well as the keynote address of a conference titled “Global Ecologies: Nature/Narrative/Neoliberalism,” which is being organized by Elizabeth DeLoughrey, UCLA;  Jill Didur, Concordia University, Canada; and Anthony Carrigan, Keele University, UK, and will take place at UCLA on March 8 and 9, 2013.

DATE: March 8


PLACE: Broad 2160 E



PRESENTED BY: Office of Faculty Diversity and Development, UCLA Center for the Study of Women, and the organizers of Global Ecologies

COSPONSORed BY: University of California Humanities Research Initiative, Institute for the Environment and Sustainability, and the Canadian Studies Program, the Divisions of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the Department of Gender Studies, International Institute, and the Department of English



TEDx – Urban Farming Revolution

Jesse DuBois is an urban agriculturalist. He moved to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter, but instead got caught up in reshaping the food system. He is the CoFounder and currently serves as the Chief Eclectic Officer for two start-ups: Farmscape, an urban farming maintenance company, and Agrisaurus, a web-based polyculture gardening assistant.