© Gustau Nacarino / ReutersVandana Shiva is leading a two week campaign to muster citizens' response to seed slavery.
Sustainability pioneer Vandana Shiva speaks to Jo Confino about campaigning against seed slavery, corporations and patents

Vandana Shiva, one of the Guardian's Top 100 most inspiring women, is currently leading a campaign to create a global citizens' response on the issue of seed freedom.

In 1991, Shiva founded Navadanya, a movement which aims to protect nature and people's rights to knowledge, biodiversity, water and food. It does this by setting up community seed banks that generate livelihoods for local people and provide for basic needs.

Shiva, a scientist, philosopher, feminist, author, environmentalist and activist, explains why the two week campaign on seed freedom against major corporations, which culminates on World Food Day later this month, is so important and the consequences of failure.

Shiva calls for civil disobedience, quoting Gandhi who said that "as long as the superstition that unjust laws must be obeyed exists, so will slavery exist".

Why do you refer to the term seed slavery?

In another time, some people thought it was alright to own other people as slaves. In our times some corporations think it is alright to own life on earth through patents and intellectual property rights (IPR). Patents are granted for inventions, and life is not an invention. These IPR monopolies on seeds are also creating a new bondage and dependency for farmers who are getting trapped in debt to pay royalties. This is why 270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide.

Why is it such an important issue?

Seed slavery is ethically important to address because it transforms the Earth family into corporate property. It is ecologically important because with seeds in the hands of five corporations, biodiversity disappears, and is replaced by monocultures of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). It is socially important because without seed sovereignty, there is no food sovereignty. After all, seeds are the first link in the food chain.

What is the role of big business in restricting seed supply?

The chemical warfare industry transformed itself into the agri-chemical industry. Now the chemical industry has taken over the seed supply through genetic engineering and patents. They want every farmer in every season everywhere in the world to buy their seeds so they can collect royalties and super profits. The corporations, like Monsanto, wrote the Intellectual Property Rights Treaty of the World Trade Organization. As a Monsanto representative said: "In writing this treaty, we were the patient, the diagnostician, the physician all in one." They defined seed saving as a crime to establish seed slavery and force farmers to buy their seed and pay them royalties.

You refer to the toxicity and uniformity of the seeds from major corporations. What impact are their actions having on farmers and communities?

Last year we wrote a report, The GMO Emperor has no Clothes, which pulled together the impact of GMO patented seeds across the world. The first impact is a seed monopoly and the disappearance of diversity. The second impact is increasing costs. The third impact is higher use of chemicals. The fourth impact is the denial to consumers of the right to know what they are eating.

Which companies do you feel are most responsible?

Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, Basf, Dow.

What is the motivation for these companies to act in this way?

Super profits and the urge to control nature and society.

Do these companies have too much influence on the political system and what are their tactics and their effect?

They have too much power and are a threat to our democracy and freedom. They control governments, they control the media, they control research. Look at how they hounded out Dr Arpad Putzai from his job.

Comment: GMO Researchers Attacked, Evidence Denied, and a Population at Risk:
Biologist Arpad Pusztai had more than 300 articles and 12 books to his credit and was the world's top expert in his field. But when he accidentally discovered that genetically modified (GM) foods are dangerous, he became the biotech industry's bad-boy poster child, setting an example for other scientists thinking about blowing the whistle.

Most large corporations talk about the need for sustainability, so what would your advice be to these businesses if they were to take corporate responsibility seriously?

In the area of seeds and biodiversity my advice to the corporations is simple. You are good at the technologies of warfare. Leave the seeds in the hands of women and small farmers. They have done a far better job.

What can be done to prevent these companies from dominating the global seed supply?

Build a movement for seed freedom, to save seeds, to protect biodiversity, to reclaim farmers rights, to make patents on seed illegal, to roll back laws like the EU Seed Legislation that are criminalizing farmers who use their own seeds.

You are planning a fortnight of action on seed freedom from 2-16 October, can two weeks of action actually make any difference against the power of big business?

The fortnight of action is to intensify solidarity, synergy and awareness. Our movement for seed freedom will not stop on 16 October. We will continue until the last farmer and last seed is liberated.

If this issue is not addressed, what does the future hold?

We will witness in our lifetimes the total disappearance of biodiversity from our farms, the disappearance of small farmers, and the end of real food and our food freedom.