James Becket talks to us about his new film that tells the remarkable life story of Vandana Shiva, Gandhian eco-activist and agro-ecologist
“Food is a weapon, when you sell arms, you control armies, when you control food, you control society. But when you control seed, you control life on earth.” Powerful words from an equally empowered and unique woman, scientist, eco-activist and eco-warrior. Born in the Himalayan jungle with nature’s classroom all around her, Vandana Shiva PhD has risen to the highest heights in science, become a rock star of the international sustainable food movement and turned out to be Monsanto’s worst nightmare along the way. The Seeds of Vandana Shiva, a new feature length documentary, brainchild of Becket Films, tells her remarkable life story. The full-length film is still in development, but we caught up with producer/director, James Becket, to hear about the film straight from the horses’ mouth.
“The Seeds of Vandana Shiva”: Promotional Video
Described as a classic David versus Goliath tale, the film documents Shiva’s life and work as a ‘modern day revolutionary’, who for forty years has been fighting a heroic battle on behalf of humanity and the ecologically besieged natural systems that support us. Continually opposed by powerful multinational corporations invested in continuing their toxic, though lucrative, agricultural practices, the film looks at the epic struggle over control for the world’s food systems, and asks the question, “who will prevail?”
Producer/Director James Becket answers our questions
1. How did the project come about and what are its aims?
I had met Vandana Shiva over the years at a series of eight Shipborne Symposia organized by the NGO Religion Science and the Environment. In 2011 I went to India helping to organize the ninth symposium, which was to be held on the Ganges. I stayed at Dr. Shiva’s farm, Navdanya, and realized what an inspiring story her life has been. How did this woman who grew up trekking the Himalayas with her forest conservator father become this powerful world figure? And how does this ‘David’ manage to have her voice heard when the ‘Goliaths’ of global capitalism have pushed so hard to silence her?
I proposed doing a film about her life. I felt a documentary about her could benefit the movement and be an inspiration to so many seeing the impact one woman could have. She said yes and has been very generous with her time. The goal of the film is to give an audience a sense of who this woman is, what she stands for and to support the work of organisations like the Alliance for Natural Health. By learning what this one woman could achieve, we hope viewers will be moved to take action. For both those who know of her and those who don’t, the power of film will bring the same experience enthusiastic live audiences have had around the world. Vandana is one of the most compelling and remarkable persons of our time.
2. You must have got some great insights into Dr Vandana Shiva during the making of the film. Please tell us what you make of her – as a person, as a woman, as a change-maker? Deep down, what do you think drives her?
First of all when you are with her you cannot help being in awe of her brilliance, her dedication, her profound knowledge across so many subjects, many very technical. And you wonder, how does she accomplish all that she does? When you’re around her you realize that genius brain is working full time on solving problems both big and small. There is little time for small talk or frivolity. And she can be sharp if things are not going the way she thinks they should. And of course woe to a debate opponent or a hostile journalist! That said, Vandana is excellent company, can be very patient, and always has time for a laugh.
She can be treated like a rock star, especially when she’s on the road and in the public eye, and she has to be ‘on’ like any celebrity and smile for every photo. And no matter how exhausted she is, she always does it all with good grace and with no pretention. I think it’s with her family, her brother and sister, and life long close friends that Vandana, the private person, really relaxes. And remember this woman is a proud mother who adores her son, an accomplished filmmaker, who now works side by side with her.
This is a woman who is always questioning conventional wisdom; she was born with a true scientific mind. This has meant that she’s been far ahead of the curve on so many issues: food systems issues, water issues, eco-feminism, climate change, GMO’s, biopiracy, biodiversity, etc. Many of those issues — which earlier garnered little attention — are now on world center stage and considered to be key to the survival of the planet’s life support system.
One anecdote I feel really illustrates her character was when she was in labor with her son, Kartikey, the doctor said she was going to do a Caesarian section as that’s how it’s done nowadays. No way, said Vandana. She got right off the delivery table and her father drove her to two different hospitals before they found one where she gave birth naturally.
Change maker? Talk about the cliché of ‘making a difference’, Vandana has literally impacted millions of lives. Hundreds of thousands of farmers in India and abroad have taken on organic, she has written and influenced legislation, she’s won battles in the courts that saved the lives and livelihoods of indigenous communities (for example the Chipko movement), she mobilized half a million farmers to protest against GATT and the WTO. And then there are those citizen consumers who have read her or heard her and changed their food choices.
I think what truly drives Vandana is her dedication to living a life of service, of fighting for those causes she believes are right and just. She really does care. Her parents set a great example to be fearless and honest and to do what you believe is right. A committed Gandhian, she has no interest in money or fame or power: this makes her highly suspect to her opponents who see those motives as the only credible explanations for human behavior. Including their own I assume. Finally I would say from my experience with her that she has a warm heart, a cool head, and she never has cold feet.
3. For many years, Dr Shiva was in the front lines of the battle about GM science. A couple of years back, when Dr Rob Verkerk, our founder and executive director, and Dr Shiva found themselves speaking at a meeting in New Delhi, we noticed things had changed. She made clear that she now felt if we continued battling on the science, the biotech companies would always find ways of justifying what they do as the science is so rarely black and white. She felt it was time to just say no to GMOs and move forward with seed saving programmes, such as the one she runs at Navdanya. Based on the research you’ve done for the film, do you also feel it’s time stop debating the science and move on to freedom of choice, seed saving and other strategies?
Of course with profit their goal rather than human welfare, Big Ag and Big Food (like Big Tobacco and Big Oil) will obfuscate the debate and manipulate science. But if one abdicates the debate over objective science, then that only gives a victory to the Monsantos. Of course one continues with seed saving, freedom of choice, democracy vs oligarchy, local vs global, precautionary principle, etc. But if one believes that science, the scientific method, is a path to the truth, one has to pursue it. Government policy is often justified by ‘science,’ but we know money, lobbying, and manipulated science often determine those policy decisions. Take the following relevant questions: Does organic yield more than chemical GMO agriculture? On the issue of soil health or carbon sequestration, how does agroecology compare to GMO agroindustry? Are there health risks from chemical inputs and pesticides? It is the scientific method that is going to give us quantified answers. We’re not in a debate over evolution, these can be hard numbers to compare two systems.
4. Your trailer is inspiring. It brings up something we at ANH-Intl place huge value on: and that relates to our connection with nature and a respect for the human spirit. Is there a danger that people who are sitting on the fence on this issue, or, worse still, the GMO protagonists, will use this to weaken anti-GMO arguments? Or do you think there is an intuitive understanding, even among the less informed public, that unnatural, human-mediated gene transfer is something we shouldn’t accept?
There’s no question that we, of industrial civilization, are disconnected from nature, that is, a direct relationship with nature that Vandana as a child experienced for weeks at a time trekking through the Himalayas. She was exposed to it, she was fascinated by it, and she had the intelligence to learn a great deal from it. We marvel at the spectacular wonders of nature, but most of the time we’re only watching pictures of it on our smartphones. There is a battle going on between two opposing attitudes toward nature, and this battle is determining both the present and future of our ‘civilization.’ Today the pro GMO, ‘better living through chemistry’ at war with nature faction has hijacked the mantle of ‘science’ portraying those that advocate working with nature as anti-science Luddites. But again each vision is of a piece and I feel there is a growing realization that our ‘civilization’ is heading to the precipice. Be it climate change, the food we eat, or GMO’s, Mother Nature ain’t putting up with it any longer. So I think the nature argument so to speak can and is actually strengthening the anti-GMO position, particularly when it’s viewed as a key element in our unhealthy food system be it animal or vegetable. We see it happening. And so momentum is shifting in the populace despite corporate controlled government policy acting against public opinion and public welfare. Again Vandana’s focus is to unite all the threads of the movement so change will come not from government or corporations or their astroturf shills but from below, from the true grass roots.
5. Big Biotech has a lot of momentum behind its campaigns suggesting there are no proven health or environmental risks associated with the outdoor use of GM crops. The public and politicians are generally divided. Do you think we’re getting close to a tipping point in terms of the public going one way or another? Or do you think there’s a bit of a log jam that will prevent a strong swing either one way or the other?
In the US I think there is a difference between health risks and environmental risks in public opinion. I know of no thorough study that shows GMO foods are a risk to human health. Animal studies definitely. So the pro-GMO crowd uses this as their main argument and that carried the day last week in Washington where the Congress felt it had to protect the American public by forbidding state GMO labeling as the ‘science’ is clear there is no risk. As to environmental risks it’s the opposite picture and the science is clear: GMO’s are contaminating other fields and crops and it could get out of control. And GMO agroindustry with its toxic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer, water use is doing untold environmental damage and no shortage of studies show the health risks from this system. But again Congress is not about to protect their constituencies from these risks, because their real constituents are the corporations causing the damage.
6. From what we can see, there are strong alliances building in advance of the film’s release, and the interest will be global. But there are a lot of people out there who already don’t trust GMOs. These people - ourselves included – will love the film, without doubt, but we already oppose outdoor cultivation of GMOs. More importantly, what kind of impact do you think your film will have on fence–sitters and GMO protagonists?
And yes we are building strong alliances with proven organizations like Alliance For Natural Health who have a broad reach. The first goal (aside from finishing the film!) is to maximize the number of people who see it. We definitely want to reach the fence sitters who I hope will be inspired by this woman and her message and they will make more conscious choices in their daily lives. Vandana has an incredible capacity to clarify how the complex international food system works. Not only has she been a visible and brave watchdog and whistle-blower to the multinational agro-industry theft of our food system, but she has also proven that small-scale organic farms feed more people, and are healthier for both people and the environment.
As to the GMO protagonists who seem to relish vilifying her, I would hope if they watch the film they would not dismiss her but give her message a fair hearing. And at least acknowledge that she’s lived this, she’s been in the trenches for forty years, and she’s fighting for a better healthier future for all of us, all of nature’s creatures.
We’ll keep you posted on progress and the date for release.