Eating junk while thinking you’re in heaven

Vandana Shiva talks about McDonalds, exploitation and the global economy.

You are a leading opponent of fast food chains’ expansion into India. What is the present situation?

V.S. Pepsi subsidiary Kentucky Fried Chicken is supposed to by now have opened 30 outlets. They have only managed to have 2 running for a short while because both – the one in Bangalore and the one in Delhi – faced long-term protests from people.

The way Kentucky Fried Chicken managed to get its outlets open despite the protests, was through changing standards, getting the Government of India to change those standards and the permissible level on MSG – Mono-sodium Glutamate – which is now recognised worldwide to be a health hazard and which has wrongly been called a food additive when it is really a drug – which fools us by sending signals to our brain that there is taste in the food when there is none.

We are definitely going to continue our campaign against KFC and McDonald’s. I think they are waiting for the feeling with KFC – the chicken is not as sacred as the cow in India so they thought that if Kentucky Fried Chicken can spread then they’ll come in behind.

They have recently signed a contract with the largest slaughterhouse in India, which has been facing protest because of the slaughter of cattle, the export of meat – the conversion of India from a culture of sacred and living cows to being an exporter of cattle meat.

McDonalds, signing up this contract, will face not just the old protests against junk food chains, but will also face the campaigns against the slaughterhouse, and we are basically planning to have very major road blockades – liberating the cattle on their way to the slaughterhouse – ensuring that we really articulate the campaign around the freedom of animals and the freedom of people, and not just the freedom for capital the way it is currently.

Will McDonald’s be able, through advertising, to sell the “McDonald’s Experience” in India?

V.S. The McDonald’s experience, which is really the experience of eating junk while thinking you are in heaven, because of the golden arches, which is supposed I guess to suggest that you enter heaven, and the clown Ronald McDonald, are experiences that the majority of the Indian population would reject – I think that our people are too earthy.

First of all it would be too expensive for the ordinary Indian – for the peasant, or the person in the slums – it’s an experience that a very tiny elite would engage in, and most of that elite – which knows what good food is about – would not fall for.
We do have one of the largest, most diverse food cultures – a very sophisticated food culture.

But there is a small middle class and a tiny elite section that I believe feels inferior about what they are, that has been so subjected to the pressures of Westernisation that they feel second-rate Westerners, and people would go in for the experience not because of what the experience is, but for what it symbolises.

There will definitely be a tiny, tiny fragment in our population, but since we have a large population it will be a large market which is why McDonald’s want to enter it.

Do you think the McLibel case in the UK has wide significance?

V.S. I think the case is a very, very significant case – not just because of the unaccountabiltiy of chains like McDonald’s, that misuse and exploit labour, misuse and exploit the environment, and misuse and exploit consumers.
I think it’s also important because there are new structures of unaccountability being created.

For instance I used the McLibel case in evidence I was giving to our Parliament on the formulation of new trade-mark laws, which actually had clauses – because they were written under the pressure of GATT and free trade and the protection of capital – that actually had clauses that said that if anyone was to use the name or the symbol of any company that had a protected trade-mark in ways that could hurt the image and the product of that company then it would be treated as a trademark infringement, and under the new version of law would be treated as a criminal act – as an act allowing arrest without warrant.

And I cited the case of the McLibel suit to show that what is now an opening that people have in terms of challenging a company would not be an opening if these new laws were created.
And we can’t afford it, because in democracy unless citizens have the right to bring systems of accountability into the relationship of corporations with people, democracy is a farce – it is empty.

Is the information that is coming out through the McLibel case useful to your campaigning?

V.S. The information that has been made available to the world by a handful of activists, making transparent the workings of a globally-operating corporation like McDonald’s, is extremely important because the advertising.

The golden arches advertising makes it look as if here is a wonderful system coming to your doorstep, superior to anything you have had – superior to your food, superior to your production, superior to your culture, your economy – and the McLibel campaign has actually brought out to the front the underside of the workings of a fast-food chain like McDonald’s, the working conditions under which people operate, the hazards people face – the health hazards.

I think it is a particularly important case, in today’s time where with free trade there is a lot of talk about how labour is exploited in the Third World, about child labour making carpets in India.
I think it is very important to see that McDonald’s is probably the most important exploiter of child labour in the world.

What do you see as the connections between the use of resources by multinationals and Third World poverty?

V.S. The takeover of the global economy by global corporations based on wasteful production and based on actually destruction of livelihoods and jobs, is definitely becoming a very very major threat to the peoples of India.

If we just take the case of the companies who will supply the meat to McDonald’s – just by buying up cattle and leading to a slaughter of the living economy of cattle-based agriculture, where cattle pull the ploughs, provide the energy, provide the organic manure – are literally the support base of sustainable agriculture.

Within a few years we’ve had the destruction of 300 000 livelihoods, with peasants losing their only source of economic survival. That’s a very direct attack on the survival of people.

But there’s a second level of attack on the survival of people, which is the fact that food which today goes towards feeding the poor and the hungry in India will get diverted to feed the animals which will then go into fast food chains to feed, in India definitely, the elite.

There is a third component related to it – that the land and water that today meets the survival needs of the people of India will get diverted to factory farms, will get diverted to producing the meat base for these chains.

We are declaring that the resources of India are for the sustenance of the Indian people and not for the profits of irresponsible corporations.

At the Beijing Conference in 1996 there was an anti-McDonald’s demonstration. Can you tell us about it?

V.S. If someone was to ask me what was the highlight of Beijing, I would definitely not say it was Hillary Clinton’s speech.
I would say it was the demonstration of the women against the McDonald’s outlet at the NGO Forum, and the protest really was an initiative of the younger women at a lecture I was giving on how the control over the food system is shifting, through various mechanisms, into the hands of a few corporations.

And one of the young women stood up and said: ‘Did you know that Ronald McDonald is here without a visa? Do you think he should be here?’ I said well if they can make such a fuss about the Tibetans not getting visas I think we should make a lot of fuss about Ronald McDonald here without the permission of the NGO Forum – after all McDonald’s is not an NGO! What’s it doing in the NGO Forum? The younger women started the march and asked if I would join and I was only too happy to join.

What do you mean when you say that McDonald’s is the most important exploiter of child labour in the world?

V.S. There’s so much fuss in the world about the exploitation of child labour and I think it would be helpful if Western countries focused as much on the exploitation of child labour by McDonald’s as they do on the carpet industry of India – where of course there should be no child labour and we are absolutely determined that it should end – that child labour should also end in McDonald’s outlets.

I have met with people who started their community organising in different parts of the world, around the way McDonald’s hires schoolchildren at below wage levels – they start doing badly in school, they of course don’t make enough money – and has introduced a culture of displacing adult workers – getting away from labour laws – while destroying children’s educational opportunities.

And at every level – the way they work without minimum wages, without labour standards, shows how unaccountable the corporate world is becoming.

I don’t think we should worry as much about applying labour standards to governments of the world – we need to be thinking about how to apply labour standards to the corporations of the world.

What strategies might McDonald’s use in India to suppress criticism of themselves?

V.S. I think the way new intellectual property rights regimes – like the trade-mark laws – are evolving, where they are widening beyond infringement in terms of competitive production – using names and symbols in a deceptive way – into an encroachment into criminalisation of civil liberties, are some of the new mechanisms that corporations like McDonalds could actually use to suppress criticism.

And I think that corporations, like McDonald’s, who are on the one hand destroying entire food cultures of the world and on the other hand not giving safe and healthy food to people, there is going to be an inevitable outcry against their operations and they know it.
Therefore to maintain business in the face of deception they have to control dissent in all kinds of ways. As long as operations like this exist – coercive measures, authoritarian measures, using the legal system, against people will be inevitable.

The way McDonald’s works sounds so much like the pre-perestroika Soviet Union to me, except that the whole world was outraged by the centralised control of communist regimes – we don’t get so outraged with the authoritarianism of corporations which have no accountability.

I really think that citizens have started to recognise that the freedom of citizens is inconsistent with the freedom of corporations like McDonald’s have of using legal means in irresponsible ways.

Do you think McDonald’s expansion into India will have an adverse effect on people’s diet and health?

V.S. I think across the world the evidence is so strong that any society that shifted its eating patterns to meat-based fast-food chains has had problems – Singapore is having to set up new obesity clinics, Japan has had a 70% increase in food-related illnesses because of the kind of problems fast food chains like McDonald’s are bringing.

I was recently reading a New Scientist article which says the biggest source of epidemics and disease is now the hamburger, including all the backward chains into Mad Cow Disease, beef and the rest – how factory farming and the processing jointly combine such a potent health hazard for people.

I think that the evidence is clear across cultures and across races – McDonald’s is doing no good to people’s health, and in a country like India where first of all we are not a meat culture, and therefore our systems are ill-adapted to meat in the first place, and where people are poorer – shifting to a diet like this will have an enormous impact.