Living Soil: Vandana Shiva on the Triple Climate Crisis

Vandana Shiva, photo from Navdanya
photo from Navdanya

Dr. Vandana Shiva is a physicist, world-renowned environmental thinker and activist, and a tireless crusader for economic, food, and gender justice. She earned a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Western Ontario, Canada, then shifted to inter-disciplinary research in science, technology, and environmental policy. In 1991, she founded Navdanya, a national movement in India to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources, particularly native seeds, and to promote organic farming and fair trade. The organization has served more than 500,000 Indian farmers and established 60 native seed banks across India.

As a bestselling author and a powerful activist, Dr. Shiva has campaigned around the world for intellectual property rights, biodiversity, and women’s empowerment, and against genetic engineering and chemical agriculture.

In November 2010, Forbes Magazine named Dr. Shiva as one of the “Seven Most Powerful Women on the Globe”.

In this adapted excerpt from the updated edition of her book Soil Not Oil (North Atlantic Books, 2015), Dr. Shiva discusses why healthy soil and a world independent from fossil fuels is necessary for a sustainable future.


Climate chaos and peak oil are converging with a third crisis—the food crisis.

The food crisis results from the combined impacts of the industrialization and globalization of agriculture. The very forces and processes that have promised cheap food are pushing food beyond people’s reach. Prices of food are rising worldwide. More than 33 countries have witnessed food riots.

In early June 2008, an emergency meeting of the UN was called to address the crisis of climate change and the food crisis. As expected, the same corporate interests that have created the two crises tried to offer the disease as the cure—more fossil-fuel-based chemical fertilizers, more non-renewable genetically engineered and hybrid seeds bred to respond to the intensive use of chemicals, more corporate control of food, and more globalized trade.

We are now facing a triple convergence of crises:

  • Climate: Global warming threatens our very survival as a species.
  • Energy: Peak oil spells the end of the cheap oil that has fueled the industrialization of production and the globalization of consumerism. [Editor’s note: While oil reserves continue to diminish, oil prices are currently being held artificially low due to Saudi Arabia’s decision not to reduce the oil they are pumping into the market. Depleting oil is still a reality.]
  • Food: A food crisis is emerging as a result of the convergence of climate change, peak oil, and the impact of globalization on the rights of the poor to food and livelihood.

We can and we must respond creatively to the triple crisis.

The Solution in the Soil

The energy and climate-change crisis stands as a unique social and ecological
challenge. No other challenge is so global in scope. There is no place to hide.

Climate change is impacted by diverse human activities—how we shop, how we
move, how we live, how we eat. Solutions cannot be restricted to one or two sectors. They will touch all aspects of our lives. Mitigation and adaptation must happen across all aspects of our lives. Climate change results from what is done to the land, and its impacts transform the land. Air, water, land, biodiversity, and energy are intertwined elements of climate change—its cause and solutions.

The most creative and necessary work that humans do is to work with the soil
as co-producers of nature. Human effort and knowledge based on care for the soil prevents and reverses desertification, the root of collapse of so many historical civilizations. Rebuilding soil fertility is the very basis of sustainable food production and food security. There is no alternative to fertile soil to sustain life, including human life, on Earth. It is our work with living soil that provides sustainable alternatives to the triple crisis of climate, energy, and food.

Peak oil and the end of cheap oil demand a paradigm shift in our conception of human progress—we need to imagine how we can live better without oil. The emerging food crisis will add another billion people to the billion who are already denied their right to food and condemned to hunger and malnutrition.

We will either make a democratic transition from oil to soil, or we will perish. The poor, the weak, the excluded, the marginalized are threatened today. In the short term, we can continue to extend the profits and consumerism of the privileged by further dispossessing the poor. But tomorrow, even the rich and the powerful will not be immune from Gaia’s revenge. We will either have justice, sustainability, and peace together, or we will descend into ecological catastrophe, social chaos, and conflict.

Soil, not oil, offers a framework for converting the ecological catastrophe and human brutalization we face into an opportunity to reclaim our humanity and our future.

Living Soil Versus Dead Dirt

Chemical agriculture is based on the idea that soil fertility is manufactured in fertilizer factories. This is the idea that drove the “Green Revolution”, introduced in India in 1965 and 1966.

In 1967, at a meeting in New Delhi, Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize-winning “father of the Green Revolution,” was emphatic about the role of fertilizers in the new revolution. “If I were a member of your parliament,” he told the politicians and diplomats in the audience, “I would leap from my seat every fifteen minutes and yell at the top of my voice, ‘Fertilizers!... Give the farmers more fertilizers!’ There is no more vital message in India than this. Fertilizers will give India more food.”

Today, the Green Revolution has faded in Punjab. Yields are declining. The soil is depleted of nutrients, and the water is polluted with nitrates and pesticides.

In 1909, Fritz Haber invented ammonium sulfate, a nitrogen fertilizer made using coal or natural gas to heat nitrogen and hydrogen. The manufacture of synthetic fertilizers is highly energy intensive.

One kilogram [2.2 lbs.] of nitrogen fertilizer requires the energy equivalent of two liters [half a gallon] of diesel. One kilogram of phosphate fertilizer requires half a liter [.13 gallons] of diesel. Energy consumed during fertilizer manufacture was equivalent to 191 billion liters [50.5 billion gallons] of diesel in 2000 and is projected to rise to 277 billion
[73.2 billion gallons] in 2030.

Plants, however, need more than [the nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium (NPK)
that’s in conventional fertilizers]. And when only NPK is applied as synthetic fertilizer, soil and plants, and consequently humans, develop deficiencies of trace elements and micronutrients. A pioneer of organic agriculture, Sir Albert Howard, defined fertile soil as

a soil teeming with healthy life in the shape of abundant microflora and
microfauna, will bear healthy plants, and these, when consumed by animals and man, will confer health on animals and man. But an infertile soil, that is, one lacking sufficient microbial, fungous, and other life, will pass on some form of deficiency to the plant, and such plants, in turn, will pass on some form of deficiency to animals and man.

The millions of organisms found in soil are the source of its fertility. The greatest biomass in soil consists of microorganisms, fungi in particular. Soil microorganisms maintain soil structure, contribute to the biodegredation of dead plants and animals, and fix nitrogen. They are the key to soil fertility.

A Danish study analyzed a cubic meter of soil and found 50,000 small earthworms, 50,000 insects and mites, and 12 million round worms. A gram of the soil contained 30,000 protozoa, 50,000 algae, 400,000 fungi, and billions of individual bacteria. To feed the world, we need to feed the soil and its millions of workers, including the earthworm.

When I carried out research on the Green Revolution in Punjab, I found that after a few years of bumper harvests, crop failures at a large number of sites were reported despite liberal applications of NPK fertilizers. The failure came from micronutrient deficiencies caused by rapid and continuous removal of micronutrients by “high-yielding varieties.” Plants quite evidently need more than NPK, and the voracious high-yielding varieties drew out micronutrients from soil at a very rapid rate, creating deficiencies of micronutrients such as zinc, iron, copper, manganese, magnesium, molybdenum, and boron. With organic manure, these deficiencies do not occur, because organic matter contains these trace elements, whereas chemical NPK does not.

Experiments at Punjab Agricultural University are now beginning to show that chemical fertilizers cannot be substitutes for the organic fertility of the soil, and organic fertility can only be maintained by the returning to the soil part of the organic matter that it produces.

Howard’s prediction that “In the years to come, chemical [fertilizers] will be considered as one of the greatest follies of the industrial epoch” is beginning to come true.

Lessons from Navdanya

Every step in building a living agriculture sustained by a living soil is a step toward both mitgating and adapting to climate change. Over the past 20 years, I have built Navdanya, India’s biodiversity and organic-farming movement. We are increasingly realizing there is a convergence between the objectives of conserving biodiversity, reducing climate-change impact, and alleviating poverty.

As [Cornell University’s] David Pimentel has pointed out: “Organic farming
approaches for maize and beans in the US not only use an average of 30 percent less fossil energy but also conserve more water in the soil, induce less erosion, maintain soil quality, and conserve more biological resources than conventional farming does.”

After Hurricane Mitch struck Central America in 1998, farmers who practiced biodiverse organic farming found they had suffered less damage than those who practiced chemical agriculture. The ecologically farmed plots had on average more topsoil, greater soil moisture, and less erosion, and the farmers experienced less severe economic losses.

Living Soil = Hardier Plants

Navdanya’s study on climate change and organic farming has indicated that organic farming increases [soil’s] water-holding capacity by ten percent.

Fertilizer blocks the soil capillaries, which supply nutrients and water to plants. Infiltration of rain is stopped, runoff increases, and soil faces droughts, requiring ever more irrigation and ever more fossil fuels for pumping groundwater. Excess nitrogen in the root zone also denies nutrients to the plant. The negatively charged ions in the nitrates, the anions, take the cations, the positively charged ions of other elements, away from the root zone, thereby robbing trees and plants of positive cations such as magnesium and calcium ions. Plants deficient in micronutrients create micronutrient deficiency in food and the human diet. And micronutrient deficiency leads to metabolic disorders.

Biodiverse [organic] systems are more resilient to droughts and floods because they have a higher water-holding capacity.

How Healthy Soil Sequesters Carbonsoil-graphic[1]_0[1]



Living Soil Curbs Climate Change

Chemical fertilizers do not just destroy the soil and human health. They are also a major contributor to climate change because of pollution both from their production and from their use.

Navdanya’s study found that organic farming increases [soil’s] carbon absorption by up to 55 percent. Soil and vegetation are our biggest carbon sinks. Industrial agriculture destroys both. By disrupting the cycle of returning organic matter to the soil, chemical agriculture depletes the soil carbon.

Fossil fuel-based agriculture moves carbon from the soil to the atmosphere.
Ecological agriculture takes carbon from the atmosphere and puts it back in the soil. If 10,000 medium-sized US farms converted to organic farming, the emissions reduction would be equivalent to removing over 1 million cars from the road. If all US croplands became organic, it would increase soil carbon storage by 367 million tons and would cut nitrogen oxide emissions dramatically. Organic agriculture contributes directly and indirectly to reducing CO2 emissions and mitigating the negative consequences of climate change.





Moving Beyond Oil

Navdanya’s work over the past 20 years has shown that we can grow more food and provide higher incomes to farmers without destroying the environment and killing peasants. We can lower the cost of production while increasing output. We have done this successfully on thousands of farms and have created a fair, just, and sustainable economy. The epidemic of farmer suicides in India is concentrated in regions where chemical intensification has increased costs of production. Farmers in these regions have become dependent on non-renewable seeds, and monoculture cash crops are facing a decline in prices due to globalization. This is affecting farmers’ incomes, leading to debt and suicides. High costs of production are the most significant reason for rural indebtedness.

Biodiverse organic farming creates a debt-free, suicide-free, productive alternative to industrialized corporate agriculture.

At the Navdanya farm in Doon Valley, we have been feeding the soil organisms. They in turn feed us. We have been building soil and rejuvenating its life. The clay component on our farm is 41 percent higher than those of neighboring chemical farms, which indicates a higher water-holding capacity. There is 124 percent more organic matter content in the soil on our farm than in soil samples from chemical farms. The nitrogen concentration is 85 percent higher, the phosphorous content 10 percent higher, and the available potassium 25 percent higher. Our farm is also much richer in soil organisms such as mycorrhiza, which are fungi that bring nutrients to plants. Mycorrhizal association makes food material from the soil available to the plant. Our crops have no diseases, our soils are resilient to drought, and our food is delicious, as any visitors to our farm can vouch. Our farm is fossil-fuel-free. Oxen plow the land and fertilize it.

By banning fossil fuels on our farm, we have gained real energy—the energy of
the mycorrhiza and the earthworm, of the plants and animals, all nourished by the energy of the sun.

To move beyond oil, we must move beyond our addiction to a certain model of
human progress and human well-being. To move beyond oil, we must reestablish
partnerships with other species. To move beyond oil, we must reestablish the other carbon economy, a renewable economy based on biodiversity.

From Soil Not Oil by Vandana Shiva, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright ©2008, 2015 by Vandana Shiva. Adapted and reprinted by permission of publisher.

6 Benefits of Healthy Soil With Microorganisms

  • Helps control insects, weeds, and plant diseases.
  • Forms symbiotic relationship with plant roots.
  • Recycles essential plant nutrients.
  • Improves soil structure.
  • Provides extra water retention, making soil more
    resistant to floods and drought.
  • Sequesters carbon, mitigating climate change.
From Green American Magazine Issue