Food freedom and economic freedom


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GLOBALIZATION has generated widespread social, economic and ecological insecurity. It has undermined citizen’s freedoms and established corporate rule. What we need is a new movement for freedom from corporate rule, the threats from which are most significant in the area of food and agriculture since food is the most vital of all necessities and agriculture is the most significant livelihood of our people.

Globalization has become a threat to agriculture and food security by allowing global corporations to become larger and take control over agriculture, and placing the right to trade above the right to food. It has introduced new forms of property rights in seeds and plants through ‘intellectual property rights’ and has introduced new genetic engineering technologies, such as the ‘terminator technology’, which is the equivalent of the nuclear bomb in the field of genetics.

Food is a good symbol to see how the powers of citizens, the state and corporations are shifting. On the one hand, the role and function of the state in guaranteeing the right to food is being dismantled. During the World Food Summit, the U.S. Secretary of State stated that food could no longer be recognized as a right since the right to food would interfere in free trade of food commodities. On the other, domains in which people have organized themselves are being taken over by the state on behalf of corporations. Two examples of this threat to people’s freedom in the area of food are the denial of farmers to save seed and denial of citizens to set food standards.

Patents on seed have been used by corporations to treat the inalienable right of farmers to save seed as a theft and a crime. Organic standards and labelling are a means which people have created to ensure that food is free of chemicals. For small organic farmers it is a means of survival and a way of guaranteeing food safety for the consumer.

The U.S is now changing the standards of ‘organic’ labelling. The USDA will allow fruits and vegetables to be labelled ‘organic’ even if they have been genetically engineered, irradiated, treated with additives and raised on contaminated sewage. Under the new proposals, ‘organic’ livestock can be raised in batteries and fed with the offal of other animals. Organic food is thus being redefined to include all that it was meant to replace. The law also forbids setting of standards higher than those established by the department. Farmers will, in other words, be forbidden by law from producing and selling ‘good’ food.

Similarly, in the area of genetically engineered crops and food, while the corporations claim absolute rights through ‘intellectual property rights’, they are also ensuring that they will bear no responsibility for the ecological and social costs arising from genetic engineering. Genetically engineered crops and foods are being launched in a context in which profits are privatized through IPRS and costs are socialized, even though the public is deliberately kept ignorant of those costs. Social and ecological costs are hidden from the public view through denial of the need for bio-safety regulations and the consumer’s ‘right to know’ through labelling of genetically engineered foods. Society is thus being pushed into a situation in which citizens increasingly become victims of ecological and public health disasters but can do nothing about it. They are being robbed of their basic rights as producers and consumers by being forced to accept costs to their health and environment, which as free and informed citizens exercising democratic rights they would never accept.


The imposition of genetic engineering and its potential hazards for society is a product of totalitarian structures in which citizens are denied their fundamental rights to safety and security, and are prevented from exercising their democratic choice in the vital area of food production and consumption. The emergence of genetic engineering has been based on the violation of democratic rights of people, and through the establishment of totalitarian structures.

Corporate totalitarianism is different from other forms of totalitarianism because it is exercised through a fiction and hence is not like conventional dictatorships in which the dictator has a clear identity which people recognize and see. Corporate totalitarianism is also different from dictatorships we are more familiar with because it is the only slavery which does not need the slave. It rules through dispensability rather than exploitation. It treats communities, people, countries, ecosystems, species as disposable and dispensable. They have no protection, no sanctity. Only the dollar is sacred.

The terminator technology is a good example of how the sanctity of life is being destroyed and that of the dollar established. The USDA and Delta and Pine Land, now owned by Monsanto, have a patent on a technology which leads to the termination of seed germination to ensure that farmers have to go to corporations to buy seed every year. When we sow seed we pray, ‘let this seed not be exhausted.’ The prayer of Monsanto as expressed through the terminator is, ‘let this seed be terminated.’


Meanwhile, the global corporations controlling agriculture are becoming bigger and more powerful. Monsanto, which used to be a chemical company, has bought up seed companies worldwide, including DeKalb, Agracetus, Calgene, Holden, Asgrow, Mahyco and most recently Cargill Seeds. Corporations like Monsanto are genetically engineering seeds so that more of their proprietary chemicals are required. For example, Round-up Ready crops are designed to be resistant to Monsanto’s broad spectrum herbicide which kills all plants. Monsanto’s terminator technology is aimed at preventing harvested seeds from germinating so that farmers are enslaved to it for seed supply.

Globalization is thus establishing a system in which species have no freedom, farmers have no freedom, consumers have no freedom, and countries have no freedom. We are entering a system designed to ensure total control of corporations over the food system, which translates into food slavery.

Swadeshi agriculture in this context of global monopolies needs to be based on:

* protection of indigenous biodiversity as a source of freedom for nature and farmers;

* protection of the collective, cumulative innovation embodied in our indigenous knowledge systems through alternatives to western style industrial IPR systems by evolving collective rights regimes that protect our intellectual and biological commons; and

* freeing farmers from chemical intensive, debt intensive agriculture through internal input, sustainable agriculture systems.


Swadeshi agriculture is based on freedom for the earth from poisons and toxics, freedom for biodiversity to evolve and create abundance, freedom for farmers from debt and patents, and freedom for consumers from high prices and contaminated foods. The contemporary discourse on swadeshi and swaraj has, however, been severely distorted by the discourse on globalization.

Central to India’s movement for freedom from colonialism were the concepts of swadeshi, swaraj, and satyagraha. Swadeshi is the spirit of regeneration and rejuvenation, a method of creative reconstruction in periods of dependency and colonization. According to swadeshi philosophy, people possess both materially and morally what they need to evolve to build their society and economy and free themselves of oppressive structures. Economic freedom, according to swadeshi, is based on endogenously driven development rather than externally controlled development.

For Gandhi, swadeshi was a positive concept based on building what a community has in terms of resources, skills, institutions and transforming them where they were inadequate. Imposed resources, institutions and structures leave a people unfree and are non-sustainable. The collapse of the Nehruvian model based on import substitution rather than endogenous development indicates how patterns of development which do not emerge from self-organization are unsustainable. Swadeshi for Gandhi was central to the creation of peace, freedom and sustainable development. It is based on people’s economies and their ability to organize themselves. Swadeshi or self-organization in economic affairs is the basis of economic freedom, without which there can be no political freedom, or self-governance and self-rule.


Swaraj, or self-rule, is the birthright of all people. The phrase that echoed most during our freedom movement was swaraj hamara janmasidh adhikar hai – self-rule is our birthright. For Gandhi, and for the contemporary social movements in India, self-rule does not imply governance by a centralized state but decentralized self-governance by local communities. From the mountains to the seas ‘Nate na raj’ and ‘our rule in our village’ are the slogans of our grassroots environmental movements.

In periods of injustice and external domination, when people are denied economic and political freedom, reclaiming freedom requires peaceful non-cooperation with unjust laws and regimes. This peaceful non-cooperation with injustice, revived by Gandhi as satyagraha, has been a democratic tradition in India. Literally, satyagraha means the struggle for truth. It is Gandhi who argued that no tyranny can enslave a people who consider it immoral to obey laws that are unjust. As he stated in Hind Swaraj: ‘As long as the superstition that people should obey unjust laws exists, so long will slavery exist. And a non-violent resistance alone can remove such a superstition. Satyagraha is the key to self-rule or swaraj.’1


Swadeshi is not obsolete in today’s context. It is the creative alternative to both the rule of the centralized national state of the Nehruvian model and the rule of global corporations and global institutions such as the WTO (World Trade Organization). Economic freedom requires reduced control by the state and minimal control by the World Bank, IMF, WTO, the G7 and global corporations. It is freedom for the people of India to have secure livelihoods, to have control over the policies and resources that make their livelihoods.

Since agriculture is our predominant source of livelihood, the globalization of agriculture is emerging as the most severe threat to economic freedom and the survival of the poorest Indians. The suicides by Indian farmers from Andhra Pradesh to Punjab is merely the tip of the iceberg of the economic stress stalking rural India. As farmer Jagjit Singh Brar said at a meeting on suicides organized in Sangrur, ‘The farmer is losing his self-confidence. He has lost his freedom and is deep in debt.’ The farmers’ slavery is linked to the new economic policies which have encouraged free market expansion of seed and agro-chemical companies. Costly seeds and costly inputs are being pushed through costly credit and farmers’ debts are rising, pushing ever increasing numbers to suicides due to indebtedness.2 Future slavery of farmers is emerging both through new ‘intellectual property rights’ and through corporate control of agriculture.

The Eurocentric concept of property views only capital investments as investment and hence treats returns on capital investment as the only right that needs protection. Non-western indigenous communities and cultures recognize that investment can also be that of labour or of care and nurturance. Rights in such cultural systems protect investments beyond capital. They protect the culture of conservation and the culture of caring and sharing.


The patenting of our indigenous knowledge and biodiversity is one aspect of colonization of swadeshi knowledge and desi seeds. The pressure on India to introduce western style IPR regimes for seeds and agricultural inputs is another.

In its election manifesto the Congress party referred to globalization as arthic swaraj but equated economic freedom with globalization.3 The BJP government, which had won elections on an anti-globalization and swadeshi plank, has now made a rapid turnaround, announcing that swadeshi is not anti-globalization. The commerce ministry removed restrictions from 336 items in its new export-import policy, including pepper and shrimp, remarking that this was swadeshi. The industry minister stated that he would implement TRIPS and that this step was not inconsistent with swadeshi.4 The agriculture ministry announced that it would allow foreign direct investment (FDI) in agriculture; that this is supposed to be swadeshi.

Be it the BJP or Congress, swadeshi and swaraj are deployed rhetorically, not for economic policy. Every government has implemented the globalization agenda when in power, even if it had criticized globalization while in opposition. This is evidence of a growing lack of economic freedom and economic sovereignty. In the process conditions of self-rule, self-governance and self-organization, especially for the countries of the Third World and for the poorest and smallest producers have been undermined. Globalization is in fact recolonization and the trade liberalization policies of the World Bank, IMF and WTO are no different from the free trade treaty of the East India Company which allowed a trading corporation to take over our land.


The 1717 firmans granted to the East India Company by Faruksheer Firman, the great grandson of Aurangzeb, and addressed to the Governors of Bengal, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad, were recorded as follows: ‘Dilly, January Anno 1716-17. A translation of three Phirmaunds granted to the Right Hon. English East Company for a free trade, by Faruksheer King of Indostan.’ The language and concept of free trade was, therefore, central to the East India Company policy for laying the ‘foundation of a large, well grounded, sure English dominion in India for all time to come.’5

The dominant thinking of the Indian elite views globalization and trade liberalization as a miracle cure for poverty at a time when the high cost and vulnerability of economic globalization have become visible through the South East Asian crisis. It views globalization and foreign direct investment as a recipe for economic freedom at a time when entire economies are being taken over and recolonized by western powers.

The South East Asian countries carried out all the steps prescribed in the globalization recipe. Today, their banks and financial institutions, their industry and natural resources, have been taken over by western banks and transnational corporations. In a recent article, Gerald Segal, Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, stated: ‘After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, we spoke of a post-Cold War world. What we can now foresee, amid Asia’s financial crisis, is a period dominated by the West.’6


The western powers and their strategists view globalization as recolonization of the countries that became independent from western colonial rule half a century back. Today the political parties, including the Congress, which had played a key role in our movement for Independence, have adopted this agenda for recolonization in its election manifesto. What is worse, it calls this new arrangement for economic slavery arthic swaraj or economic freedom. The recipes for arthic swaraj are neither informed by the economic reality of India, nor by the lessons and experiences from other parts of the world. They are literally lifted from the Bretton Woods institutions and their prescriptions for trade liberalization and economic reforms.

The South East Asian crisis has been created precisely by financial liberalization and economic deregulation. The consequence has been a total takeover of the economy through the currency crisis and the IMF programme. Foreign banks and companies are already going through the wrecked economies and buying up local assets and institutions at throw-away prices. This is the same package that the Congress is trying to sell to the Indian people as economic swaraj but which has only one outcome – total economic bondage and economic take over.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the restructuring of Thailand’s financial system is expected to result in foreign majority ownership in many of the country’s 15 commercial banks.7 In Korea too, the IMF required that foreign investment in the capital markets be liberalized and direct foreign investment procedures simplified and made more transparent. Foreign entities will be allowed to buy 50% of the equity of a listed Korean company by end 1997 and 55% by end 1998, paving the way for foreign takeovers of Korean firms.8


When the election manifesto of a major party in the country states that the threat of foreign takeover no longer exists, that there is no enemy outside, only an enemy within, and hence the concept of swadeshi is no longer relevant, it is either ignorant about the state of the world’s economy or deliberately misleading its potential voters. If it is the former, it is unfit to rule; if the latter, it is guilty of being anti-national. Instead of learning from countries which have implemented trade and financial liberalization and are today in deep crisis as a consequence, promoters of globalization repeatedly state that we must not be afraid of the world.

To be aware of the consequences of liberalization on the basis of the South East Asian disaster cannot be interpreted as fear; blindness to facts is not fearlessness, it is foolhardiness. To put your hand in the fire and insist it will not burn is a sign of stupidity, not smartness. The volatile global economy is like a fire, and it ‘burns’ livelihoods and national economies. Integration into it without caution and some limits is not a cure for poverty, it is a cause for poverty. It is not a cure for unemployment, it is a recipe for unemployment on an unimaginable scale. The extent of unemployment in Thailand and Indonesia as a result of the crisis today stands at four million. In Korea and Malaysia, prosperous workers are suddenly on the street.

South East Asia is looking towards India for finding models that provide economic alternatives. The concept of swadeshi is even more relevant today than during the independence movement. It is the key to genuine economic freedom in a period of economic totalitarianism dominated by World Bank, IMF, WTO and TNCs. Swadeshi leads to arthic swaraj. Arthic swaraj without swadeshi is like a building without foundations. It will collapse.


Even though we have the colonialism of the past and recent experience of globalization as recolonization, many commentators continue to refer to globalization as economic freedom and equate swadeshi with the past fifty years of the Nehruvian model. Gurcharan Das says, ‘There is nothing new about swadeshi, we have practised it since independence and "swadeshi will bring back the license-permit raj".’9 However, swadeshi is an alternative to Nehruvian socialism based on centralized state power and the usurpation of the functions of the community by the state. Swadeshi is people-centred, not industry or government-centred.

Sharad Joshi in his article, ‘Swadeshi: the third battle’, has also equated swadeshi with the Nehruvian rather than the Gandhian legacy. Joshi goes even further to suggest that swadeshi means isolation and India has been isolated for thousands of years. ‘The swadeshi brigade is in power now. It would try to set back the clock and go back to a closed India. It imposed isolation in India for thousands of years. It succeeded in keeping its domain despite the British. It succeeded again 50 years back under the banner of socialism, and hopes to succeed this time once again.’10


However, India has been a more open society than any other, welcoming guests and integrating cultures. What seems to be common to these critics of swadeshi is that they equate globalization with freedom and nationalism with slavery. Our magazines and newspapers often refer to swadeshi vs videshi, and describe swadeshi as a form of xenophobia. This is a false dualism and a distortion of the meaning of swadeshi. Globalization is the real xenophobic project because it extinguishes all diversity, it devastates autonomous small producers. It is a project of total control arising from a fear of everything that is alive, free and autonomous. In fact, intellectual property rights, which are central to the globalization agenda are based on a racist view of knowledge. This racism allows the appropriation of indigenous knowledge, as in the case of bio-piracy of neem, turmeric, basmati, pepper and so on.

Globalization also breeds xenophobia by creating massive insecurity, which in turn breeds fear and violence among communities and societies. Ethnocide and ethnic cleansing are the gifts of global economic integration which robs people of their basic securities.11 The concept of swadeshi is not based on the fear of the foreigner. It is based on self-organization and on the recognition that economically powerful global forces are taking over the economic and political structures of our society and hence threatening the livelihoods and freedoms of the people.


Swadeshi is based on the recognition that self-organization is the basis of freedom. Since self-organizing systems are autonomous and self-referential, though not insulated from others, they are at peace with themselves and interact under conditions of freedom and peace. A self-organizing system knows what it has to import and export in order to maintain and renew itself. It needs nothing else but a reference to itself. It interacts with its environment, but autonomously. The environment only triggers the structural changes; it does not specify or direct them. It is the living system which specifies its structural changes and which patterns in the environment that trigger them. At the political and cultural level, it is this freedom to self-organize that Gandhi saw as the basis of interaction between different societies and cultures. ‘I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about as freely as possible, but I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.’

The Chilean scientists, Maturana and Varela, have distinguished between two kinds of systems – autopoietic and allopoietic. A system is autopoietic when its function is primarily geared to self-renewal. An autopoietic system refers in the first place to itself and is, therefore, called self-referential. In contrast, an allopoietic system, viz. a machine, refers to a function given from outside, such as the production of a specific output.12 Swadeshi, in scientific terms, refers to the building of autopoietic systems as the basis of our cultural, economic and political life.

Globalization is an example of the transformation of autopoietic systems into allopoietic ones. Globalization is not the cross-cultural interaction of diverse societies. It is an imposition of a particular culture on all others. Nor is it the search for ecological balance on a planetary scale. It is the predation of one class, one race, and often one gender of a simple species on all others. The ‘global’ in the dominant discourse is the political space in which the dominant local seeks global control. It frees itself from local, natural and global control and responsibility and limits arising from the imperatives of ecological sustainability and social justice. The global in this sense does not represent the universal human interest; it represents a particular local and parochial interest and culture, which has been globalized through its reach and control, its irresponsibility and lack of reciprocity.


Swadeshi is an anti-colonial concept, not an anti-foreigner concept. It is not about people who are outsiders – it refers to structures of power which colonize both internally and externally. It is not xenophobic, it is liberatory because it arises from a spirit of freedom, not the basis of fear.

When the rights of farmers to save, exchange and evolve seed are denied, when the rights of consumers to safe and adequate food are denied, what we have is totalitarianism of a most basic kind, since it is a totalitarianism based on the total control over a vital necessity – food. Swadeshi and satyagraha are the only paths to reclaiming citizen freedom in this context of economic totalitarianism.

A society in which the only citizens with rights are corporations and their rights are so absolute that they can totally extinguish citizen rights, is not a free society. It is corporate totalitarianism created through free trade arrangements. Economies in which most people are rendered dispensable, and in which most people cannot meet their basic needs, are not free economies for the people. They are free only for capital. Building free societies and free economies implies, above all, putting people before capital. The liberation of people is different from the liberalization of trade. In fact, trade liberalization is based on either the dispensability of people or their enslavement.


How do we build alternatives in the context of this totalitarianism of a new kind – a totalitarianism based on the rule of fictions rather than the gunboat, a totalitarianism built on dispensability of the majority rather than their bondage, a totalitarianism in which there is no dictator, no person, no government, but all-pervading corporations which are themselves a legal fiction?

Non-violence requires a withdrawal from participation in violence. The first step in rebuilding free societies is to recognize that globalization is not a natural phenomena, but an exercise of absolute power for total control. It is a new kind of totalitarianism in which corporations as rulers are attempting to gain total control over life itself, domains that have so far been beyond the control of the market or the state.

The second step in a non-violent search for freedom is to begin to reclaim our self-organizing capacities as citizens and communities. This includes non-cooperation with the systems of control that deny us our self-organizing capacity. Just as in agriculture, the shift from chemical to organic farming requires freedom from external inputs by building up internal inputs on the farm, in society, a shift to freedom requires becoming free of, or less dependent on, the ‘external inputs’ through which corporations control our lives – through finance, control on knowledge and information, through monopoly control on production systems.

We at Navdanya are reclaiming this freedom for seeds, for farmers, for consumers – through a movement for the protection of biodiversity. We protect seed freedom by protecting living seeds and native seed diversity. We protect farmers’ livelihoods by helping them break free of the bondage and addiction to chemicals and poisons and by promoting organic agriculture. We protect consumer freedom by helping healthy, nutritious, organic produce to reach the consumer. For us this is the real swadeshi agenda.


Rejuvenating our knowledge and skills to meet our needs with our own resources and our own capacities is the alternative to the monopoly on life inherent in patents on life. I have often described patents on life as the enclosure of the intellectual and biological commons. The alternative to enclosures is the recovery of the commons – protecting the free domain of knowledge exchange by non cooperating with IPR laws which make knowledge exchange, seed exchange, and biodiversity exchange at the local level illegal. We can only be truly free if our minds are free. Controlling and owning the mind and products of the mind reflects a much deeper slavery than slavery itself. The bodies of slaves were bought and sold, their minds were not. Under the new regime of ‘free trade’, both the body and mind of the people become tradable commodities, the property of the powerful to be bought and sold freely. Breaking free of this slavery requires making our bodies and minds free of the ultimate bondage inherent in patents on life.

We, the Third World people, have had to organize ourselves to define our personhood so that we too can govern ourselves, fulfil our humanity, defend our communities and other species. We know what it is like to be excluded. We need to remember how we organized in the past, how we built democratic institutions and cultures. Corporate rule has excluded all people as persons. It has reduced citizenship to being consumers, and by new mechanisms such as denial of the right to know – especially in the domain of genetically engineered foods – the consumer too is like a captive creature. This corporate fiction has to be treated as what it is – a fiction, which can rule over us only to the extent that we allow it to. The most fundamental human rights agenda of our times is to reclaim our humanity in all its diversity.

An inclusive concept of person-hood is also an inclusive concept of freedom since it does not imply freedom of one kind for a privileged part of society but protects multidimensional freedoms for all. We can only become free people if our rights are not extinguished by the rights of the corporate fiction.

All liberation movements in recent history have been partial and exclusionist. They excluded other species and diverse cultures. For the first time we have an opportunity to seek freedom in inclusive ways, in our diversity, to seek freedom for humans in partnership with other species and to seek freedom non-violently. This freedom of, and through, diversity is the alternative to globalization. This is true swadeshi.


1. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1938, p. 29.

2. Vandana Shiva and Afsar Jafri, ‘Seeds of Suicide: The Ecological and Human Costs of Globalization of Agriculture’, RFSTE, 1998.

3. Vandana Shiva, ‘Arthic Swaraj or Economic Slavery?’ The Observer, 3 February 1998.

4. Vandana Shiva and Claude Alvares, ‘BJP on Swadeshi: The Great U-turn?’ Mainstream, 25 April 1998.

5. Vandana Shiva, The East India Company, Free Trade and GATT, 1994.

6. International Herald Tribune, 27 January 1998.

7. Wall Street Journal, 5-6 December 1997.

8. Reuters, 5 December 1997.

9. Gurcharan Das, ‘The Fatal Charm of Naturalism’, The Times of India, 24 April 1998.

10. Sharad Joshi, ‘Swadeshi: The Third Battle’, Business Line, 29 April 1998.

11. Vandana Shiva, Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge, South End Press, USA, 1997 and RFSTE, New Delhi, 1998.

12. Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, Shambala Publications, Boston, 1992.

  Seminar 469, ‘Swadeshi’, September 1998, pp.28-34.