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Agriculture, Environment and Health

9th Annual Edward and Nancy Dodge Lecture
March 3, 2009

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Dr. Vandana Shiva, world renowned author, ecologist and activist, visited the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on March 3 to discuss her work in India to promote agricultural biodiversity.  Shiva delivered the Ninth Annual Dodge Lecture, established in recognition of Edward and Nancy Dodge’s generous support for the Center for a Livable Future.

In his introduction, CLF Director Dr. Robert Lawrence noted that it was fitting that Shiva should deliver the ninth Dodge Lecture, noting that her New Delhi-based research organization Navdanya means “nine seeds.”

Navdanya, a program of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, which Dr. Shiva founded, works to fulfill the vision of Article 25 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The article says:

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and their family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond their control.

Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance.”

Shiva’s work involves promoting biodiverse organic farming that increases traditional knowledge, improves nutritional content of foods, helps alleviate poverty and protects against environmental damage and climate change.

“The gap between public health and food systems has been troubling me for a while, because food is quite clearly the most essential aspect of health,” she told the group of nearly 200 students, faculty and friends of CLF.  “Somewhere along the way, we’ve turned food into a system where serving bad food is the only way food gets served.”

The modern industrial agriculture system neglects the nutrition in the food, the impact on the land, and thus the health of people, she said.

“Food is everywhere but we have shrunk our categories of food to so narrow a base that its production has become more and more energy-wasteful, more and more capitally intensive, more and more structured,” Shiva said.

In India, there has been a rash of suicides, particularly in cotton-growing areas, among farmers distraught over losing their land that had been put up as collateral to buy genetically modified seeds.

“Hunger today is a rural phenomenon; hunger today is a problem of people who could be producing food if they were doing it in another way,” Shiva explained. “And the most extreme situation is this system of high-cost inputs and cheap buying, which is what industrial farming and globalized trade in food is … it has led to a tragedy that is totally new. And it should be seen as a public health tragedy. Two hundred thousand farmers in India over the last decade have committed suicide.”

Shiva strongly rejected the notion that genetically modified crops would help solve hunger among impoverished populations.

“In the case of genetically engineered crops, you actually have a lowering of yield for the same variety into which the (genetically modified) trait has been introduced…so it is not true that genetic modification will overcome hunger,” she said.  “It is not true that genetic engineering will give us more food.  So what will give us more food, more nutrition?  I think we are at a watershed.  The industry that first gave us a Green Revolution, which was a chemical revolution, and then gave us genetic engineering, is trying to move very fast into using genetically modified foods for feeding programs of vulnerable children.”

Shiva stressed the importance of biodiversity, not only for the nutrient content in our diets (that Shiva said is lacking in the United States as well, despite the vast array of choices in our supermarkets because so many of our foods are derived from corn and soy), but also for reducing poverty in countries like India.

“The more biodiversity you have, the more nutrition you have,” she said.  “This works at the agricultural level—nutrition per acre is the highest for biodiverse farms. Biological production per acre is highest for biodiverse farms.  Incomes of poor farmers per acre is highest for biodiverse farms…This is the real anti-poverty step to take.”

The Edward and Nancy Dodge Lecture is supported through the R. Edward Dodge, Jr. and Nancy L. Dodge Family Foundation Endowment, established through the generosity of Dr. Edward Dodge, MPH ’67, and his late wife Nancy to provide core funding for the Center for a Livable Future.