“Everything is food. Everything is something else’s food. And that is the awareness of organic farming – that when we put organic matter into the soil, we’re giving food to the soil. And then of course, the soil is giving us abundance….in my three decades and more of promoting and practicing and studying organic farming….I realize that actually all we really need to do is take care of the web of life, and take care of each other. And take care of the soil. The rest happens.”

Dr. Vandana Shiva spoke these words at the annual conference of the COABC – the Certified Organic Associations of BC – on February 28. The Indian quantum physicist, inspired by the non-violent, women-led Chipko movement in her home country, moved away from pure science several decades ago to become a renowned food sovereignty activist, eco-feminist, and, for the last several decades, the bane of corporate CEO’s trying to exert control over the human food supply.

She spoke in Vernon as part of a speaking tour through southern B.C.

Dr. Shiva has two university degrees from Indian universities and two more from Canadian academe – from the University of Western Ontario, and the University of Guelph. She also has three honorary degrees from Canadian institutions of higher learning, as well as numerous other awards linked to her work on environmental and social justice around the world.

Vandana Shiva - Flickr
Vandana Shiva

Along with other advocates for healthy food and food justice around the world, Dr. Shiva is well aware that we’re on the cusp of a revolution – a return to “normal” in the way we grow food, reaching back on the one hand to age-old principles around food production, but inspired and informed, on the other, by ground-breaking 21st century ecological science and technology.

I interviewed Dr. Shiva last Saturday at the three-day conference of the COABC, Feb.26-28, which this year focused on the theme of “Resilience”. The event signals the accelerating and dramatic advancement of organic farming in British Columbia, in Canada and around the world.

Dr. Shiva delivered the keynote address that opened the conference, speaking to over 200 organic farmers and food activists from all over the province, many with links to the national and international organic movement. She also participated in a COABC panel on seed saving and cataloguing.

A new era for B.C.'s organic agriculture?

The COABC gathering was also attended by a number of scientists and a smattering of government representatives, including BC’s current Minister of Agriculture Norm Letnick, and NDP Agriculture Critic Lana Popham. They came because of the excitement and ferment – and beneficial economic, environmental and social impact – arising in ever greater proportion from the organic food sector.

Minister Letnick was present specifically to bask in the political afterglow of the Liberal Party’s Bill 11, named The Food and Agricultural Products Classification Act, which was introduced in the B.C. Legislature, after years of lacklustre promises, on February 15.

Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick, left, and NDP agriculture critic Lana Popham, right

Bill 11 plugs an unhelpful hole in provincial regulations. It mandates that all B.C.-grown food designated “organic” must be certified by a recognized organic certifying board – one of the several such boards that form the bulk of the COABC’s membership. Previously, food exported out of B.C. had to be certified, but within provincial boundaries, the term “organic” was entirely unregulated, and often misused.

The new act replaces three older provincial enactments, the Agri-Food Choice and Quality Act, the Food Products Standards Act, and the Agricultural Produce Grading Act.

Bill 11 marks a welcome departure by the BC Liberals from their usual position on agricultural matters, which in past times has routinely ignored or dismissed the profound implications of the organic movement – a posture of which the NDP’s Lana Popham is only too aware, having been a working organic farmer for 11 years prior to her emergence into provincial politics.

The impact of Vandana Shiva

Dr. Shiva made a second presentation in Vernon, speaking to the general public in the evening of Feb. 27 at the city’s Schubert Centre (she also spoke in Victoria the following Monday).

The event proved so popular, with over 450 paid registrants, that two overflow rooms had to be set aside at the Centre, and at one point the line-up of ticket holders stretched for several hundred yards across the venue’s parking lot. COABC conference organizer Michelle Tsutsumi and her assistants, who facilitated the public event, had to work hard (as they did throughout the entire COABC weekend) as they processed the crowd of ticket-holders.

Once Dr. Shiva started to speak, however, no-one appeared to mind the congestion at the door. Near the beginning of her presentation, she referred, with a frown, to the situation of “sixty-two rich men who own the same wealth as 50 per cent of the world’s population.”

The applause was thunderous.

A few moments later, when an errant gooseneck microphone refused to stay out of the way, she batted it down with her hand, whispering sotto voce: “That’s what we should do to those sixty-two men.” The room once again erupted into laughter and applause.

Dr. Shiva’s presentation ranged widely, from a detailed accounting of the ill effects of corporate control of the food supply, to reflections on the role of women as agents of social change and advancement. It included a deconstruction of the duplicitous statistics that underly the conventional food sector’s endless public relations efforts.

As she ended her speech, she received a prolonged standing ovation from an obviously captivated audience.

The COABC conference drew this globally recognized leader in food security to BC for a very important reason: the organic movement in this province is in the vanguard of positive change across the country, from corporate-dominated food systems back to a more constructive relationship with food and how we grow it, and a more meaningful relationship with the earth in general.

BC’s pre-eminent role is underlined by the fact that key positions in the national structures related to organic agriculture are held by BC representatives – the Organic Federation of Canada, for example, is headed by Hermann Bruns, an organic farmer based a few miles north of Vernon, and a past president of the COABC. Rochelle Eisen, an agricultural consultant, is president of COG – Canadian Organic Growers – and also from BC.

At the national level, Bruns reported to conference participants, B.C.’s level of organization is viewed as a valued template for future national initiatives.

Big Ag and the military mind

Dr. Shiva’s keynote address to the COABC audience was explicit in its condemnation of the world of conventional agriculture, and laid bare its roots in the two World Wars. She illustrated how, using patents as a monopoly instrument of wealth generation, and spitting out wave after wave of pollution and human and ecosystem ill-health, today’s massive agri-food industry is permeated with a post-war, fear-based militaristic mentality (think of those TV ads for lawn pesticides featuring microscopic insects magnified to the size of Sherman tanks).

Dr. Shiva offered a brief history lesson: “The (agricultural system) actually came into place because we had a Second World War, and the Second World War really developed chemistry – but chemistry to kill.” She went on to outline the Haber-Bosch process for taking nitrogen out of the atmosphere, a key element in supporting munitions manufacturing in Germany during both the First and Second World Wars. “Once the wars were over, all this capacity to make explosives was diverted to make nitrogen fertilizers, with the claim that now ‘we were producing bread from air’.”

Today nearly half a billion tons of nitrogen fertilizer is produced annually by the Haber Bosch process.

The first commercial pesticide, the herbicide 2,4-D, was also developed during World War II era – by the Allies this time – to try and destroy German potato and rice crops. It failed to do so, but as soon as the war was over, it became widely promoted as a commercial product It later returned to an overt war-fighting role as the infamous Agent Orange during the US war in Vietnam – a country still blighted by its effects.

The plan derived from these militaristic roots, and the world of wartime chemistry, was simple and direct: subdue and control natural processes – and the people who grow and eat their products — through killing chemicals, artificial fertilizers and patented GE seed varieties, tied to a relentless propaganda machine and defended by legal teams that attack opposition (witness the pitiless legal campaigns in recent years against pesticide researchers Tyrone Hayes, and Gilles-Eric Séralini, to name just two).

Dr. Shiva’s characterization of conventional agriculture is not new. The culture of the industry is “dominated by militarism and aggression”, wrote leading Canadian food security advocate Brewster Kneen, in his seminal 1995 book about Cargill entitled “Invisible Giant”. (Brewster Kneen’s recently deceased and widely respected wife Cathleen, a key player in the development of community-centred agriculture, was honoured with genuine admiration and affection at the COABC meeting.)

Big Ag and governments – hand in glove, and carrying a big stick

Dominated by giant entities like Cargill, Monsanto, Dupont and ADM, Big Ag’s staff regularly pass through revolving doors into and out of government regulatory departments, shaping official attitudes and policies around their way of growing and distributing of food. These multinational business behemoths then compete relentlessly with one another for an enlarged share of the global market, much like nations competed in the colonial era for control of large swaths of land and resources in Africa, Asia and Central and South America.

“Neo-colonialism” is, in fact the term used by Dr. Shiva and most commentators to describe this enduring pattern of behaviour. Giant food corporations strive to gain hegemony over national work forces and resource sectors as well as government policymakers and regulators.

And woe betide the government that dares to intrude on corporate marketing plans.

When the President of Sri Lanka, faced with a wave of deaths from kidney failure closely linked to the use of Monsanto’s Roundup, attempted in March of 2014 to limit the use of that increasingly embattled pesticide (its active ingredient, glyphosate, is now declared a probable cancer cause by the International Agency for Research on Cancer) it took less than a month for Monsanto, linking arms with an indulgent U.S. government (wielding a threat of trade sanctions), to reverse the ban.

Only after fierce resistance within the grassroots Sri Lankan community, and a change in the Sri Lankan government, was it possible for that country’s ban on glyphosate to finally become a reality, over a year later.

Organic: resilient life, community and inclusion

Happily the conventional agriculture industry and its armamentarium of petroleum-based pesticides, synthetic chemical amendments and patented GE seed varieties was nowhere to be seen or heard among the displays, workshops and other activities at the COABC event.

That’s because the world of organic agriculture is built around an utterly different paradigm from that of conventional agribusiness.

The former is centred on relentless competition and conflict, on delivering more cash to shareholders, and on forcing the natural world and the industry’s clients and customers into passive submission.

Organic growing, on the other hand, is centred on the creation of community among all living things, and on working in collaboration within the human community and between our species and all the animate and inanimate components of the ecosystem.

COABC workshop titles reveal these principles: “Re-Evaluating a Much Maligned Insect: Investigating the Role of Earwigs as a Biological Control in Apple Orchards”; or “Resilience is Fertile – Managing Your Soil to Increase Farm Ecological Functioning”.

Insects enlisted as allies. Soil celebrated as a farmer’s essential partner.

Throughout the COABC conference, I felt a pervasive sense of community – which I firmly believe to be an inevitable outgrowth of the respectful relationship organic farmers have with the land and with the living creatures they work with. Lacking a backdrop of constant, impersonal competitiveness found in corporate-dominated events (with which I, a physician regularly exposed to the tactics of the drug industry, am only too familiar), organic growers are imbued with a spirit of cooperation: thus conference participants were respectful of one another, absorbed in the enthusiastic sharing of practical suggestions, and eminently approachable. The atmosphere remained congenial to a remarkable degree even when conversations were occasionally heated and intense (as in an extended general discussion of the implications of the provincial government’s Bill 11).

How fitting, in light of this atmosphere, that the theme of this year’s conference was “Resilience," the general principle of sustained and robust pushback against adversity, such as in the workshop “Keeping Honeybee Colonies Healthy with Organic Acids” – or the panel on seed saving, the ancient core practice that underpins a farmer’s security.

The theme also directed attention to a very contemporary goal of mitigating negative impacts from climate change, with workshops like “New Times, New Tools: Cultivating Climate Resilience on Your Farm” and “Agriculture and Climate Change Adaptation: Programs Projects and Progress in B.C.”

Climate denial, so beloved of the fossil fuel and chemical industries that supply the raw materials for pesticides and artificial fertilizers, was notably un-represented.

Conventional death

Conventional agriculture, by contrast, is shot through with a running theme of death – the killing of insects and fungi and plants that we call “pests” or “weeds”, and the concomitant and inevitable wounding or even death of impoverished agricultural workers and farmers around the world who labour on factory farms and concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs), or operate small farms crushed and destroyed by the market machinations and occasional massive stumbling of agri-food giants.

The World Health Organization’s woefully outdated and incomplete statistics for annual acute pesticide poisonings range from 1 million (documented) to 25 million (estimated); more current figures from the international Pesticide Action Network range as high as 41 million annually.

Pesticide warning sign - nutritionfacts.org
Pesticide warning sign - photo from nutritionfacts.org

Farmers and farm workers become sick or die either from “inadvertent” poisoning, for which the industry characteristically denies all responsibility. They can also succumb, even more tragically, to self-inflicted death.

In India alone, as Dr. Shiva pointed out on several occasions, an estimated 300,000 small-scale farmers have committed suicide — most often by drinking their own chemical pesticides. They have done so primarily because of the dramatic failure of hyper-priced genetically engineered seed varieties from Monsanto, sold to them with extravagant promises of decreased costs and increased yields.

Chronic pesticide poisoning and the resultant damage to human health is even more grossly under-documented, but is increasingly recognized to be widespread and multifaceted. Chronic pesticide poisoning can be strongly associated with cancer, birth defects and nerve and brain malfunction; one of the best resources for evidence of harms is a Canadian publication, the Pesticide Literature Review (2004) prepared and recently updated (2012) by the Ontario College of Family Physicians.

In the terminology of war, these deaths would be blandly designated as “collateral damage.”

Young people and hope for planetary civilization

I, like Vandana Shiva, was struck by the large number of young people at the conference – 25 years and younger – at the conference, and passionate about organic growing.

Carmen Wakeling, COABC co-president, and owner of Eatmore Sprouts, told me that she was also very aware of this: “There is so much youthful energy here – which is not the case in conventional agriculture right now.”

The reason young people are drawn to organic farming, she feels, is that “they see this as a way to help support a healthy planet and a future… that is coming from an ethical place – and that’s awesome.”

Moss Dance, a young and engaging organic farmer from the Comox Valley, and Vancouver Island Coordinator for Young Agrarians, a support group for young and beginning farmers, confirmed this: “The number of farmers under 35 is higher in the organic sector. Young people are more interested in getting in to smaller scale, sustainable food production, a lot of them organic.”

Young Agrarians - support for the next generation of food growers
Young Agrarians - support for the next generation of food growers

To help them find a place in organic agriculture, Wakeling feels, “it comes down to the consumer base…they’ve got to be willing to support it.” She also agreed with Dr. Shiva that conventional agriculture is showered with excessive subsidies.

A practical problem for beginning farmers is that land in BC and throughout Canada is in short supply, as aging farmers hang on to their properties because their land is their primary old age security.

Consequently, Moss pointed out, “a lot of young people don’t have access to stable land tenure agreements.” So the Young Agrarians have set up a “speed dating” system, to bring older farmers who can no longer work their land together with youthful farmers just starting their career. “We bring together land owners and land seekers and…we use our on-line presence to support land matches.”

Moss described an ambitious Québec-based program called Banque de Terre Agricole (literally “Farm Land Bank”), which provides an advisory service to help aspiring young farmers and landowners work out individualized arrangements for sharing land. The program is regional government-funded, which Moss feels is essential. “This type of land-matching service won’t be available in BC until we have stable funding from regional governments, or even provincially.” The provincial government in Québec has in fact noted the success of Banque de Terre, “and they’re taking it on”, giving farmers the stability that gives them some security as they take on their first farming work.

Organic growing – ancient and futuristic at the same time

The return to organic growing in our time is no accident, nor an aberration of local history. It’s a return to sanity, an awakening from the nightmare of petrochemical-dependent agriculture that has, for nearly 70 years, drenched the planetary ecosystem with contaminants, while creating a profoundly altered food supply whose nutritive value has declined at the same time as its content of trace toxic add-ons has expanded.

It’s also a freeing up of farmers and other food growers from a revival of the medieval feudal system of privileged aristocracy (corporate CEO’s and their staff and large-scale industry protagonists) laying down the law for a vast number of powerless serfs (small-scale family farmers, community-based co-op growers, farmworkers and even amateur gardeners).

Science is increasingly backing up the transition to organics.

Organic food, thanks to advanced analytical testing, is now recognized to be a valuable source of vitally important “defense compounds”, substances that plants generate when they are fending off pests on their own, unprotected by a chemical stew of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. These defence compounds, many of which are anti-oxidants and even antibiotics, help the person eating the food resist diseases and even the fundamental process of aging, which many experts believe is directly related to damage caused by excessive oxidation.

In addition, thanks to that same hi-tech testing, organic food has been shown to have dramatically lower levels of harmful chemical pesticides. Studies carried out over 10 years ago showed children who ate food conventionally grown had levels of pesticide 600% higher than levels in children who ate organic food.

All in all, well-informed citizens are turning in increasing numbers to organically grown foods, because they supply more good stuff, and less bad stuff. And if they buy their food from local producers, who don’t have to incorporate the expense of long supply lines into the food they sell (to say nothing of avoiding the massive increase in fossil fuel consumption and GHG generation associated with “food miles”), the cost to the buyer can be very comparable to the cost of conventionally grown food.

An enthusiastic and peaceful revolution

We think of revolutions as situations in which there is violence, disruption, conflict and suffering.

The organic movement is truly revolutionary, but it manifests none of these qualities – even though it attracts a certain level of social and legal violence from Big Ag – verbal assaults, character assassination, and SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) – which swirls around the periphery of the organic world.

The organic movement itself is brimming with enthusiasm, collaborative, interactive, transparent, and for the most part embedded firmly in communities, not parachuted in or besmirched by pseudo-intimate public relations imagery. Organic farmers are generally neighbourly, ethically advantaged, and personally enthusiastic about and committed to what they are doing.

I came home from three days of immersion in the world of organic agriculture feeling joyous and hopeful.

Joyous because of the palpable good will, good humour and openness to “doing it right” that animated the COABC conference, coupled with the brilliant and inspiring no-nonsense approach of Vandana Shiva.

Hopeful because there is a generation of young and enthusiastic farmers and growers who “get” that blending inclusive and uplifting ethics with daily travail is a key to happiness.

And I must say, the food (and the modicum of beer and wine that appeared from time to time) was absolutely out of this world.

So why don’t we just eat our way through this most fundamental of revolutions?