The Seeds of Vandana Shiva is a solid, informative documentary about the titular eco-activist — the sort of film so enmeshed and impressed with its subject’s worldview that it never digs particularly deeply into the issues she’s been fighting all her life. That’s not necessarily a knock on the film itself — a well-made and substantive view of the woman and her fight that succeeds at what it sets out to do — but it did leave this viewer (new to the history and politics of Indian ecology) feeling a little bit like there was more to learn, especially from other perspectives.
The short of it: Vandana Shiva was born in the foothills below the Himalayas. Her father was a government official and her mother was a school inspector. Her hometown of Dehradun became part of Pakistan as part of the Partition, and her family moved back to India. Her hero was Albert Einstein and she longed to become a physicist working on atomic research. But while in school, she had an awakening. The science she was learning had no moral core. It didn’t grapple with whether modifying the world at an atomic level was right or wrong, and the lack of reflection did not satisfy her. While returning home from her studies, she became aware of the severity of deforestation taking place across India in the name of agricultural development financed by multinational corporations. It was then she found her calling as an eco-activist, decrying the use of genetically modified crops and mass-farming at the expense of the environment and local farming communities.
You know the concept of tree-hugging? Where an activist ties themselves to a tree for a length of time just to stop loggers from destroying it? Yeah, that was partially her — helping to organize local women against the “timber mafia” destroying native forests in India.
Thus, for the past half-century, she has been a major voice against corporations like Monsanto, which she argues is conducting seed warfare against the population of the planet. She argues that these corporations’ control of the very seed from which most crops grow is a means of political control. She calls it “the new colonization,” a way for larger economies to control India’s culture and output. The Green Revolution — the period of technological advancement in post-colonial India that saw a boom in science-based agriculture — is viewed as a massacre of sorts by Shiva and her organizations. The death of the local farmer, the destruction of communities.
It’s clear she has a point although the documentary makes it hard to parse whether her entire belief system is in fact accurate. It does little to explore the statistics of what the Green Revolution allowed with regard to feeding the population of India, for one. She insists that smaller farms still feed 70% of the populace, but is that accurate? Would the vast cities across the Indian subcontinent still be capable of supporting their continually growing populations without mass-produced crops? That’s not to say I’m arguing against her points, but the documentary moves very quickly — collecting essentially soundbites from its subject before moving on to the next concern.
What she isn’t wrong about are the downstream impacts of pesticides on the environment as a whole, a well-documented phenomenon across the world and a definitive problem with the development of modified crops and farming chemicals without much concern for the possible dangers that arise. When you develop a crop that fights against specific pests, for instance, you may end up with new dangers. For instance, the introduction of Bt Cotton in India was supposed to stop common pests but didn’t work — which meant more pesticides that generally indebted farmers couldn’t afford, causing even more local farmers to go under.
Although the documentary moves quickly through big-picture history, it’s notably strong for conveying Shiva’s on-the-ground ideas. “We’re all agents of change,” she says at the end, and through seeds banks, protests and developing and supporting natural farms, it’s clear she has a lot of workable ideas for everyday folks to live more ecologically sound lives. It’s hard not to walk away from the documentary wanting to learn more about Shiva, her cause and the way in which these corporations shape our everyday life.