Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply

reviewed by Eileen E. Schell
Eileen is an Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Women’s Studies at Syracuse University. She is currently writing a book called The Rhetoric of the Farm Crisis; Globalization and the Future of the Family Farm.

Food is our most basic need, the very stuff of life. –Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva’s Stolen Harvest (South End Press, 2000) addresses the consequences of industrial, corporatized agriculture and its creation of food totalitarianism, a system “in which a handful of corporations control the entire food chain and destroy alternatives so that people do not have access to diverse, safe, foods produced ecologically.” Shiva, an internationally renowned environmental activist from India who has a Ph.D. in physics, uses the word “theft” to describe how agricultural corporations have systematically plundered and destroyed local, sustainable forms of agriculture in the name of growth and profit. Hiding beneath maxims about efficiency and productivity and slick advertising campaigns about feeding the world’s growing population, global corporations like Cargill and Monsanto have used trade agreements, property laws, and new technologies to gain dominion over local agriculture. Older, more sustainable and diverse forms of agriculture have been replaced by monocultural agriculture, a system of food production focused on producing one type of food through industrialized agriculture. This, coupled with “free” trade (or “forced trade”) agreements is increasingly wiping out whole systems of sustainable agriculture and decimating small farms and agriculturally rich communities across the globe.

Shiva offers an accessible and engaging overview of the rise of corporate agriculture around the world and offers case studies of specific sites of agricultural struggle where the local “harvest” has been stolen or diverted into destructive and hazardous systems of food production. These include the displacement of indigenous local mustard seed oils with soy-based oils forced onto the market by the Monsanto corporation; the rise of industrialized shrimp farming, what the United Nations has deemed a “rape and run” industry due to the environmental destruction caused by it; the “mad” cow crisis, which leads Shiva to question the pressure put on Indian farmers to embrace industrialized methods of cattle production, especially in a country where cattle are sacred animals; seed piracy, the seizing and patenting of indigenous seed by corporations; and the development, marketing, and dumping of genetically engineered foods on developing countries. These examples all center around India’s system of agriculture, a focus that seems particularly fitting as seventy-five percent of its population earns a living from agriculture. In fact, Indian farmers comprise one out of every four farmers across the globe.

Throughout these examples, Shiva shows the threat that global trade policy poses to small farmers and those concerned with food democracy and safety. For instance, the World Trade Organization’s Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights makes it illegal for farmers across the globe to share and save their seeds, a time-honored practice of conservation that ensures biodiversity and food safety. The Trade Agreement on Agriculture has made it legal to dump genetically engineered food on countries like India with extensive environmental and human health related consequences.

All of Shiva’s examples point to the importance of citizens fighting back to protect local, sustainable agricultural practices and food systems that are culturally appropriate. Shiva documents the emerging environmental-citizen-based movements for food democracy, addressing how concerned citizens—farmers, environmental activists, consumer activists, public-interest scientists, and others—are working to create such a system. Food democracy, Shiva argues, is a social justice movement that favors the majority of the world’s population instead of favoring the industrialized North and the corporations that originate there. As she points out, “the vast majority of the world’s people—70 percent, earn their livelihoods by producing food. The majority of these farmers are women.” Food democracy is, therefore, an issue inextricably tied to human rights, to women’s rights.

Stolen Harvest is an essential book for progressive thinkers, environmental activists, and citizen-action coalitions who want a guide to the consequences of global food and who are searching for ways to transform the food system in favor of local, sustainable agriculture. Study groups and coalitions concerned with sustainability/environmental issues and social justice issues should pair this book with books like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation or Osha Gray Davidson’s Broken Heartland, which focus on food and farm politics in the US.

Stolen Harvest is only one of Shiva’s numerous publications. She the author of over 300 papers and a dozen additional books, including Water Wars (South End Press, 2001), Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge (South End Press, 1997), and The Violence of the Green Revolution (Zed Books, 1993). To learn more about Shiva’s work, visit her website at <>