A natural meeting

Last night in Auckland I finally had the chance to meet Vandana Shiva. It was short and sweet, I sat next to her and said quietly, and hopefully not too creepily, “Dr Shiva, I stayed on your farm at Navdanya, it was an amazing experience and it changed the direction of my life. Thank you for that.” She smiled and nodded, “Oh did you? Oh, thanks”. Smiling again, nodding again, probably adding me to the pile of eco-fans that huddle up to her saying such things. I noticed how beautiful her skin was up close (thankfully I didn’t say that aloud) and then I left as she was called up on the stage to receive a gift.

She’d spoken to the audience, as she does, at length on the Green Revolution, agricultural change, seeds in India, seed sovereignty, stories of triumph of the little farmers over the big companies. But her most astute observations that resonated with me came from her short time in New Zealand. She warned the audience of the “amalgamation” that’s happening in our country, the loss of local voices and notably power being centralised. She’d sharply observed our landscape as she drove up our island: large scale industrial agriculture, the felling of plantation forestry, and monocultures of corn making deserts of biodiversity, that line the road sides of the North Island. Not the standard week long reflections of a guest in our country, usually hiding in Fjordland and thinking the world is just fine. What if every tourist held an audience of 200 people and shared that observation, that observation that is overlooked but so true in our own back yard: hey kiwis! what on earth are you doing to the soil and biodiversity here?!  And she picked up on the TPPA: just waiting for one minister to come in and pass over to the big seed guys, the rights to our landscapes, whenua, crops, food, sovereignty.

Having spent some time in India I couldn’t help but feel they are so much more organised and on to it with these things. It’s that intrinsic link between what we eat and where it comes from (seed) that we seem to have missed in the past 50 years in Westernised culture. For centuries the Indian diet has reflected a diverse seed stock, local culinary dishes directly connecting people to the seed and keeping that diversity. I was struggling to see how the average kiwi farmer’s diet reflects their seed stock and struggling further to picture them marching to the Prime Minister if there were such changes afoot. Instead of a rural and grass roots, la via Campensina style campaign, our rural agribusiness scene is quite different, and perhaps that’s what troubles me the most. Most of the GM and seed watch dogs are middle aged well intentioned women from towns and lifestyle blocks – and thank goodness they are around – but how much of this do our farmers really know? Campaigns a decade ago held us back from some stark changes to food laws, but of course, these things can easily swing the other way.

The evening’s talks took us on a journey from science to cooking, with French scientist and a chef teaming up to explain the need for GE free food. We canvassed a genetic modification lesson, raw truths of rat blood cell tests, understanding that the core ingredients in pesticides are not the ones that are disclosed, that we’re altering the cells of our ancestors and our future generations simultaneously by bringing these nasties into our lives.  French chef, Jerome Douzelet, author of Culinary pleasures or hidden poisons? pointed out that “eating is an intimate act, because what you eat becomes your flesh.” He’s dedicated his culinary practice to local, seasonal and tasty produce, much of which comes from his garden in Mars de Rivet, himself a strong proponent of biodiversity from the perspective of the cooking world: if we have more crops, more taste, and more diverse aromatics and tastes. Some of his messages were similar to those of Dan Barber in the book The Third Plate.

As we drove home, a truck was delivering large yellow bins to the street near ours. A sign by Western Springs and a 10pm news reader on the radio told us we were entering a Biosecurity control area. Interestingly, noone has come and told us that we’re living in a bio-hazardous zone, no notes in the letter box, no door knocking… It was only because we left the area that we realised. And as I sit in my little garden with the plums ripening on the tree, I’m hoping they don’t come and biobliltz the yard with nasty sprays, before I can harvest my plum crop. The message that major pesticides are more toxic to human cells than their declared active principles is fresh in my mind following the talk…

Dr Shiva had noted the absurdity of the New Zealand response to two fruit flies, she seemed to find it entertaining that we’d go to such extent. Given it could destroy livelihoods and entire horticulture industries, I don’t think it is quite so funny. In fact I’m quite proud of how serious kiwis take their biosecurity. On reflection, no doubt Dr Shiva was chuckling at the irony, wondering why we go to so much trouble over two flies when we allow pesticides into our waterways and food chain through intensive horticulture and agricultural practices and noone bats an eyelid.

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