THE FIRST THING to recognise about food is that it is the very basis of life. Food is alive: it is not just pieces of carbohydrate, protein and nutrient, it is a being, a sacred being. Not only is food sacred, not only is it living, but it is the Creator itself, and that is why in the poorest of Indian huts you find the little earthen stove being worshipped; the first piece of bread is given to the cow, then you are required to find out who else is hungry in your area. In the words of the sacred texts of India, "The giver of food is the giver of life," and indeed of everything else. Therefore, one who desires wellbeing in this world and beyond should especially endeavour to give food.

Because food is the very basis of creation, food is creation, and it is the Creator. There are all kinds of duties that we should be performing with respect to food. If people have food it is because society has not forgotten those duties. If people are hungry, society has rejected the ethical duties related to food.

The very possibility of our being alive is based on the lives of all kinds of beings that have gone before us - our parents, the soil, the earthworm - and that is why the giving of food in Indian thought has been treated as everyday sacrifice that we have to perform. It is a ritual embodied in every meal, reflecting the recognition that giving is the condition of our very being. We do not give as an extra, we give because of our interdependence with all of life.

One of my favourite images in India is the kolam, a design which a woman makes in front of her house. In the days of Pongal, which is the rice harvest festival in South India, I have seen women get up before dawn to make the most beautiful art work outside their houses, and it is always made with rice. The real reason is to feed the ants, but it is also a beautiful art form that has gone on from mother to daughter, and at festival time everyone tries to make the best kolam as their offering. Thus, feeding the ants and works of art are integrated.

The indica rice variety's homeland is a tribal area called Chattisgarh in India. It must be about fifteen years ago that I first went there. The people there weave beautiful designs of paddy, which they then hang outside their houses. I thought that this must be related to a particular festival, and I asked, "What festival is it for?" They said, "No, no, this is for the season when the birds cannot get rice grain in the fields." They were putting rice out for other species, in very beautiful offerings of art work.

Because we owe the conditions of our life to all other beings and all other creatures, giving - to humans and to non-human species - has inspired annadana, the gift of food. All other ethical arrangements in society get looked after if everyone is engaging in annadana on a daily basis. According to an ancient Indian saying: "There is no gift greater than annadana, the giving of food." Or again, in the words of the sacred texts: "Do not send away anyone who comes to your door without offering him or her food and hospitality. This is the inviolable discipline of humankind; therefore have a great abundance of food and exert all your efforts towards ensuring such abundance, and announce to the world that this abundance of food is ready to be partaken by all."

Thus from the culture of giving you have the conditions of abundance, and the sharing by all.

IF WE REALLY look at what is happening in the world, we seem to have more and more food surpluses, while 820 million people still

go hungry every day. As an ecologist, I see these surpluses as pseudo-surpluses. They are pseudo-surpluses because the overflowing stocks and packed supermarket shelves are the result of production and distribution systems which take food away from the weak and marginalised, and from non-human species.

I went through the food department of Marks & Spencer the other day, and I went dizzy seeing all the food there, because I knew that, for example, a peasant's rice field would have been converted into a banana plantation to get luscious bananas to the world's markets. Each time I see a supermarket, I see how every community and ecosystem's capacity to meet its food needs is being undermined, so that a few people in the world can experience food 'surpluses'.

But these are pseudo-surpluses leadingto 820 million malnourished people, while many others eat too much and get ill or obese.

LET US SEE how food is produced. To have sustainable food supplies we need our soils to function as living systems: we need all those millions of soil organisms that make fertility. And that fertility gives us healthy foods. In industrial cultures we forget that it is the earthworm that creates soil fertility; we believe that soil fertility can come from nitrates - the surplus of explosives factories; that pest-control does not come out of the balance of different crops hosting different species, but from poisons. When you have the right balance, living organisms never become pests: they all coexist, and none of them destroys your crop.

The recently released report of the Food and Agriculture Organization has chart after chart to show how in the last century we increased food productivity. But all they really calculated is labour displacement. They only looked at labour productivity - as how much food a human being produces by using technologies that are labour-displacing, species-displacing and resource-destroying. It does not mean that you have more food per acre; it does not mean that you have more food per unit used of water; it does not mean that you have more food for all the other species that need food. All of these diverse needs are being destroyed as we define productivity on the basis of food production per unit of labour.

We are now working on technologies, based on genetic engineering, which accelerate this violence towards other beings. On my recent trip to Punjab, it suddenly hit me that they no longer have pollinators. Those technologically obsessed people are manipulating crops to put genes from the Bt toxin (the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis) into plants, so that the plant releases toxins at every moment and in every cell: in its leaves, its roots, its pollen. These toxins are being eaten by ladybirds and butterflies which then die.

We do not see the web of life that we are rupturing. We can only see the interconnections if we are sensitive to them. And when we are aware of them we immediately recognise what we owe to other beings: to the pollinators, to the farmers who have produced the food, and to the people who have nourished us when we could not nourish ourselves.

The giving of food is related to the idea that every one of us is born in debt to other beings: our very condition of being born depends on this debt. So we come with a debt and for the rest of our lives we are paying back that debt - to the bees and the butterflies that pollinate our crops, to the earthworms and the fungi and the microbes and the bacteria in the soil that are constantly working away to create the fertility that our chemical fertilisers can never, never replenish.

We are born and live in debt to all Creation, and it becomes our duty to recognise this. The gift of food is merely a recognition of the need for constantly paying back that obligation, that responsibility. It is merely a matter of accepting and endeavouring to repay our debts to Creation, and to the communities of which we are a part. And that is why most cultures that have seen ecology as a sacred trust have always spoken of responsibility. Rights have flowed out of responsibility: once I ensure that everyone in my sphere of influence is fed, someone in that sphere is also ensuring that I am fed.

WHEN I LEFT university teaching in 1982, everyone said, "How will you manage without a salary?" I replied by saying that if ninety per cent of India manages without a salary, all I have to do is put my life in the kind of relationships of trust that they live through. If you give, then you will receive. You do not have to calculate the receiving: what you have to be conscious of is the giving.

In modern economic systems we also have debts, but they are financial debts. A child born in any Third World country already has millions of dollars of debt on her or his head owed to the World Bank, which has every power to tell you and your country that you should not be producing food for the earthworms and the birds, or even for the people of the land: you should be growing shrimps and flowers for export, because that earns money.

It does not earn very much money, either. I have made calculations that show that one dollar of trading by international business, in terms of profit, leads to $10 of ecological and economic destruction in local ecosystems. Now if for every dollar being traded we have a $10 shadow-cost in terms of how we are literally robbing food from those who need it most, we can understand why, as growth happens and as international trade becomes more 'productive', there is, inevitably, more hunger: because the people who needed that food most are the ones who are being denied access to it by this new system of trading. This so-called free trade is taking away from them any way of looking after others' needs, or their own.

People ask me: "How can we protect biodiversity if we are to meet growing human needs?" My reply is that the only way to meet growing human needs is to protect biodiversity, because unless we are looking after the earthworms and the birds and the butterflies we are not going to be able to look after people either. This idea that somehow the human species can only meet its needs by wiping out all other species is a wrong assumption: it is based on not seeing how the web of life connects us all, and how much we live in interaction and in interdependence.

Monocultures produce more monocultures, but they do not produce more nutrition. If you take a field and plant it with twenty crops, it will have a lot of food output, but if any one of those individual yields - say of corn or wheat - is measured in comparison with that of a monoculture field, of course you will have less, because the field is not all corn. So just by shifting from a diversity-based system into a monoculture industrially supported with chemicals and machines, you automatically define it as more, even though you are getting less! Less species, less output, less nutrition, less farmers, less food, less nourishment. And yet we have been absolutely brainwashed into believing that when we are producing less we are producing more. It is an illusion of the deepest kind.

Trade today is no longer about the exchange of things which we need and which we cannot produce ourselves. Trade is an obligation to stop producing what we need, to stop looking after each other, and to buy from somewhere else.

In trade today there are four grain giants. The biggest of them, Cargill, controls seventy per cent of the food traded in the world; and they fix the prices. They sell the inputs, they tell the farmer what to grow, they buy cheaply from the farmer, then they sell it at high cost to consumers. In the process they poison every bit of the food chain. Instead of giving, they are thinking of how they can take out that last bit, from ecosystems, other species, the poor, the Third World.

In the early 1990s Cargill said, "Oh, these Indian peasants are stupid. They do not realise that our seeds are smart: we have found new technologies that prevent the bees from usurping the pollen." Now the concept of 'the gift of food' tells us that pollen is the gift that we must maintain for pollinators, and therefore we must grow open-pollinated crops that bees and butterflies can pollinate. That is their food and it is their ecological space. And we have to make sure that we do not eat into their space.

Instead, Cargill says that the bees usurp the pollen - because Cargill have defined every piece of pollen as their property. And in a similar way, Monsanto said: "Through the use of Roundup we are preventing weeds from stealing the sunshine." The entire planet is energised by the life-giving force of the sun, and now Monsanto has basically said that it is Monsanto and the farmers in contract with Monsanto that, alone on the planet, have the right to sunshine - the rest of it is theft.

So what we are getting is a world which is absolutely the opposite to the 'giving of food'. Instead, it is the taking of food from the food chain and the web of life. Instead of gift we have profit and greed as the highest organising principle. Unfortunately, the more the profit, the more hunger, illness, destruction of Nature, of soil, of water, of biodiversity, the more non-sustainable our food systems become. We then actually become surrounded by deepening debt: not the ecological debt to Nature, to the Earth and to other species, but the financial debt to the money-lenders and to the agents of chemicals and seeds. The ecological debt is in fact replaced by this financial debt: the giving of nourishment and food is replaced by the making of more and more profits.

WHAT WE NEED to do now is to find ways of detaching ourselves from these destructive arrangements. It is not just replacing free trade with fair trade: unless we see how the whole is leading to the poisoning and polluting of our very beings, of our very consciousness, we will not be able to make the deeper shifts that allow us to create abundance again. In taking all from nature, without giving, we are not creating abundance; we are creating scarcity.

Growing world hunger is part of that scarcity. And the growing diseases of affluence are a part of that scarcity too. If we relocate ourselves again in the sacred trust of ecology, and recognise our debt to all human and non-human beings, then the protection of the rights of all species simply becomes part of our ethical norm and our ethical duty. And as a result of that, those who depend on others for feeding them and for bringing them food will get the right kind of food and the right kind of nourishment. So, if we begin with the nourishment of the web of life, we actually solve the agricultural crisis of small farms, the health crisis of consumers, and the economic crisis of Third World poverty.

Vandana Shiva is Director of Bija Vidyapeeth, the International College for Sustainable Living, in Dehra Dun, India.