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colonialism to more modern forms of oppression, Shiva writes, “the duty to incorporate savages into Christianity has been replaced by the duty to incorporate non-Western systems of knowledge into the reductionism of commercialized Western science and technology”.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.

NAFTA, Mexico, and Corn!

I came across this site during our in-class discussion about the transnational relations between Mexico and the US that have resulted from NAFTA. It focuses especially on corn. The pdf’s at the bottom of the site have a wealth of information. Enjoy!