Marion Nestle And Vandana Shiva: Different Paths To Similar Conclusions

Last week I had the honor of hearing two heroines of the food movement speak to live audiences about the issues they’re most focused on. Marion Nestle and Dr. Vandana Shiva spoke from very different [albeit both scientific] backgrounds, but told complimentary stories.

Marion Nestle, the picture of American domesticity and health!

Marion Nestle, the picture of American domesticity and health!

I’ve known Marion Nestle  as a scholar of food politics for years; her original background is in nutrition, and she has written many books, most recently finishing one about calories. Accordingly, she opened her speech at University of California, Berkeley (part of Michael Pollan’s Edible Education course series there) with the simple statement that excess calories are the challenge of our food system. The big irony about calories on a macro level is that, according to Nestle, about as many people are food insecure (i.e. going hungry) as are obese.

I was interested by what Nestle isolated as the three “deregulations”, which all happened right around the time I was born, and have since caused Americans to eat more calories:

1. Deregulation of agriculture: starting in the 70’s, restrictions on growing food were replaced by subsidies for commodity crop production
2. Deregulation of Wall St.: shareholders now held the power, and pressured business to grow; to do this, food companies had to sell more product to the same amount of eaters
3. Deregulation of food marketing, beginning in the early 80’s

Vandana Shiva, warm yet serious

Vandana Shiva, warm yet serious

One often repeated sound byte around here is how it’s less expensive to buy a box of fruit loops than it is to buy a piece of fruit–and think about all of the labor, manufacturing, packaging and transportation costs that went into that box! Nestle cited the advertising budget for the Fruit Loops  brand in 2009: $20 million! Then, taking the case further, she showed a box of Fruit Loops with the claim “2 grams of fiber!” brandished across the front. Sure, she argues, 2 grams of fiber is better than zero grams, but does just being betterfor you mean it’s good for you? She would argue not.


Whereas Nestle channels her fighting words towards food companies that market products to children, Dr. Vandana Shiva directs her fight against industrial agriculture. She opened her talk at Dominican University in San Rafael with the image of trees being bulldozed in the Amazon, and sighed “that’s not how farming was supposed to be. That’s how war was supposed to be.” Going further she asserted, “fertilizer should never have been allowed in agriculture; I think it’s time to ban it. It’s a weapon of mass destruction. Its use is like war, because it came from war.”

She discussed the history of hunger, which has existed for centuries but, she would argue, differently than it does today: Whereas traditionally hunger was a natural, localized result of war or drought, today it’s a global problem resulting from global agricultural economies. “All that industrial agriculture is doing,” she said, “is producing more commodities and monoculture–not more food.”Yes, Dr. Shiva brought an element of drama to this discussion; she was enchanting! Pointing to an amaranth plant next to her podium, drooped with the weight of its deep purple flowers, she said, “It’s not just one part of the plant you use–it’s the leaves and all. That’s the beauty of biodiversity.” (This notion certainly resonates with me, given my personal mission of eating every part of vegetables and plants, from squash skin to melon rinds to radish tops.)

Putting the heat on huge global packaged goods companies, she quoted a press release from Nestle [the multinational food company, not Marion!] that said “there is no way to feed the planet by going straight from farm to table.” Her face revealed her incredulity towards that statement, which suggests the opposite of the productivity she’s witnessed researching centuries-old farming cultures in India and the rest of the world.

Like Nestle, Dr. Shiva is “pro” food labeling. She’s throwing her weight behind the work being done to require that foods made with GMO products be labeled as such. When asked what regular people can do to push her cause forward, she said, “we need to turn our gardening work into seed saving work. We need an outrage against the ownership of life.” Most immediately, Dr. Shiva peaked our ears with a heads up on a False Promises Report that she’s going public with on October 6th; it will be a culmination of many years of her work. Stay tuned!