Food Democracy

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

Today, in an era of globalization, the movement and trade of food has intensified tremendously. People, products, and ideas cross national boundaries with increasing quantity and speed. Individuals live, work, and raise families in countries different than their homeland.
When immigrants’ geographic ties to their country are severed, they often retain their national identity by continuing to use their native language and consume their original foods. Through food exports and imports, globalization helps some immigrants to retain their national identity. But that is only part of the story – globalization affects groups quite differently. Across the developing worlds, people have depended on local foods to meet their nutritional and cultural tastes. Local foods are fresh, inexpensive, easy to obtain, and represent hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years of national or cultural heritage.
Globalization and its most powerful components (the global market, transnational corporations, and bioengineering promoters) present a major threat to what Vandana Shiva terms food democracy– the “equitable distribution and access to safe, culturally appropriate food.” As the global market grows uncontrollably, some nations look to global food interests over national or local food interests. This is not always by choice. Countries that receive money from the World Bank must follow World Bank developmental policies. Currently the World Bank is advising all developing countries to shift from “food first” to “export first” policies.
The “export first” policy is based on the premise of guaranteeing food security – enough food for a nation to feed its people. The World Bank believes that food security doesn’t depend on self-sufficiency (locally grown food for local consumption) but rather that food security depends on self-reliance (buying food from the international market). Countries desperate for aid accept monies from the World Bank and must follow the outlined development policies. Thus, the farming of cash crops (crops that can be sold on the world market, like cotton, flowers, shrimp, corn, soybeans) increases. This switch from local crops to global cash crops has occurred in numerous developing countries.As a result, the global market is flooded with cash crops, and prices fall accordingly. In the end, a country’s exports earn less, there is less money to buy food from the global market, and there is little locally produced food on which to fall back. Both Russia and Indonesia moved from local to global crop production, and both rapidly went from self-sufficiency to hunger (Shiva, 2000).
People do not have access to diverse, safe, culturally appropriate foods because a handful of large corporations control global food production and availability. Unconcerned with community health, these corporations are destroying small local food production in search of profits. Ten corporations have control of 32% of the commercial seed market and 100% of the genetically engineered seed market. From 1995 to 1998, Monsanto spent $8 billion buying seed companies; it bought Holden (which controls 25-40% of US corn) for thirty times its market value and Mahycho, India’s largest seed company, for twenty-four times its market value (Shiva, 2000).
Transnational corporations now control (directly or indirectly) what is grown on 80% of the world’s arable lands; they use more than 100 million migrant workers as labor,many of whom have been forced to sell their own family farms to these corporations (Nabhan, 2002).
This shift from local to global production is particularly troubling, considering the fact that small-scale local food production has been ecologically sustainable over time. For hundreds of years, farmers have saved seeds from successful crops and crossed them with other successful plants to create hybrid species that are adapted to a local ecosystem. For example, more than 6,000 varieties of rice are grown in India (Shiva, 2000). Careful, selective breeding over generations of farming has resulted in diverse varieties particularly suited to local climates and tastes.
In contrast, large-scale food production is characterized by monocultures. Large corporations prefer global monocrops that facilitate centralized control over production and distribution. Transnational agribusinesses threaten regional diversity in cultivated plants. For example, great intraspecies variety have been cultivated within rice and corn; many sub-special varieties have been domesticated and adapted to suit local farming practices, unique climates, distinct ecosystems and a range of cultural tastes. Farming has been transformed from the local art of producing indigenous food into a global act of manufacturing mass amounts of a few varieties of plants.
To make matters worse, the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) allow corporations to claim patents on seeds. While farmers worked for generations to cultivate particular varieties of rice, multinationals seek to obtain exclusive patents based on knowing genetic sequences or a general hybridization that is within the common domain of an indigenous culture.
Rice Tec, a transnational grain corporation, now has a patent on basmati rice. Rice Tec took an existing variety of basmati rice and crossed it with a dwarf species, an act which many Indian farmers commonly do.Now Rice Tec owns the patent and has the potential to make farmers growing this type of basmati rice pay royalties.
The concept of “owning” a particular seed or part of nature is simply incomprehensible to most farmers around the world. Saving seeds and trading seeds with others is an integral part of the farming culture. This time-honored tradition is now illegal under patent laws if farmers happen to develop and trade seeds that have been patented by corporations.
Claiming that their seed patents were being violated, Monsanto has taken direct actions against farmers. In 1997,Monsanto sued the Winterboers, a family who sold their soybean crops to other farmers as seed. Since the original seed from which the soybeans were grown was patented to Monsanto, a judge ruled in Monsanto’s favor. In 1998, Monsanto hired private detectives to investigate farmers illegally saving and sharing seeds, which they had been doing for years before Monsanto had patents. Seed-saving farmers in Kentucky, Iowa, and Illinois were forced to pay fines up to $35,000 each. Currently,Monsanto is in court with Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer of over fifty years.Monsanto is suing for theft of property (genetically engineered rapeseed). Schmeiser, an organic farmer, explains that his organic fields were invaded by genetically engineered pollen from the Monsanto fields nearby. Recently, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed to hear Schmeiser’s appeal of a pro-Monsanto ruling in a lower court.
There are many terms used to refer to biotechnology and its products: bioengineering, genetic engineering, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or transgenics. Choose to call it what you wish. Monsanto wants the public to call it a miracle, as illustrated in their $1.6 million European ad campaign:
Worrying about starving future generations won’t feed them. Food biotechnology will. The world’s population is growing rapidly, adding the equivalent of China to the globe every ten years. To feed these billion more mouths, we can try extending our farming land or squeezing greater harvests out of existing cultivation.With the planet set to double in number around 2030, this heavy dependency on land can only become heavier. Soil erosion and mineral depletion will exhaust the ground. Lands such as rainforests will be forced into cu tivation. Fertilizer, insecticide, and herbicide use will increase globally. At Monsanto, we now believe food biotechnology is a better way forward (Shiva, 2000).
Monsanto and other transnational bioengineering giants have started using a “feed the world” discourse as part of their rhetoric to garner support from wary nations and individuals. If one takes a close look at genetic engineering and world hunger, it is readily apparent that the “feed the world” discourse is really just an empty promise. Most significantly, the “feed the world” promise is misreading the problem.More productive crops will not end world hunger. According to the United Nations’ World Food Programme more than enough food is already cultivated to feed the citizens of the world with a nutritious and adequate diet; actually one and a half times the amount required is currently produced (Nabham, 2002).
One in seven people currently go to bed hungry, not because of a shortage in food, but because inequities in political and economic power deny food to people! The real contributors to world hunger are a lack of income to buy food, a lack of infrastructure (roads to get products to markets and people), and unfair global trading policies that disadvantage farmers in developing countries.
Furthermore, genetic engineering techniques are developed on crops important to industrialized countries not on crops upon which hungry people depend. Transnational corporations sell genetically modified seeds at very high prices, especially when considered in terms of local economies. Genetically modified seeds certainly represent no use for farmers who can’t afford even traditional Western farming technology (like fertilizer and machinery). The large amounts of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides that monocrops (genetically engineered or not) require are simply unaffordable to most of the world’s farmers. In the end, biotechnology is engineering for convenience and profit; the needs of commercial food processors come first, rather than the local ecology, nutritional needs, or cultural tastes of poor people.
Let us take a closer look at what bioengineering is and what some unstated goals and possible consequences are. All living organisms have genes, which are specific nucleic acid sequences that convey sub-cellular and cellular level instructions. Selecting and moving a gene can transfer certain characteristics. In a laboratory setting, genetic engineers change the genetic makeup of cells by moving particular genes across species to produce, hopefully, the desired characteristics.Bacteria and virus genes are inserted into corn and soybean genes to make the plants herbicide-resistant. Fish or nut genes have been inserted into tomatoes so that tomatoes have a longer shelf life. Unfortunately, bioengineering has led to more corporate control and bigger profits. For example, Monsanto has patented the “Roundup Ready Soybean.” This soybean is designed to be resistant to Roundup herbicide, a chemical that is highly toxic to plants and fish but not to people or other mammals. Monsanto developed a crop resistant to an herbicide that it manufactures, so sales of the seed inevitably lead to sales of the herbicide. This matching of seeds to herbicides leads to a monopolistic control. Monsanto also demands that farmers sign contracts permitting Monsanto to inspect farmers’ fields planted with Roundup Ready crops. It is unlikely that Monsanto would ever work to decrease plants’ reliance on chemicals, since this would affect profits. (And it is clear that profits, not people, are Monsanto’s main concern!)
Perhaps the biggest threat to food is not at our tables but in the fields through potential of gene transfer.Wind and insects are natural carriers of pollen. Studies have demonstrated that wind could easily carry pollen from genetically engineered to other natural varieties of a plant. In 2001, University of Maine scientists finished a two-year study of this phenomenon. They confirmed that conventional corn crops with no genetic engineering were contaminated (at 1.04 -1.65% frequency of occurance) by wind drift of pollen from genetically engineered crops. In their report, they stated that farmers who plant within 100 feet of genetically engineered crops could expect some pollen transfer. They also found that the conventional corn seed contained low levels (0.16%) of genetically engineered seed (Jemison and Vayda, 2001).
A particular risk of genetic engineering involves the consumption of genetically modified foods that unintentionally incorporate non-native allergens into a food product. A study from the University of Nebraska found that the ingestion of genetically engineered soybeans containing Brazil-nut genes caused reactions in individuals  allergic to Brazil nuts (Nordlee, 1996). A gene spliced into a living organism (e.g., soybeans) which causes the growing plant to produce an allergen or toxin may remain intact after the plant is harvested and processed. The allergen or toxin may than cause harm to a human or other living creature which ingests it.
This is an alarming finding,made even more alarming by the fact that the United States does not require genetically engineered foods to be labeled as such. Thus, consumers regularly buy produce that has genetically engineered organisms without any information regarding the source.
Across the world, people are reclaiming their rights to non-corporate, non-processed indigenous foods. Protests against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) come from various nations, producers, and consumers worldwide. Perhaps the largest and most powerful objections against genetically engineered foods have emerged from industrialized nations in the form of trade restrictions. Numerous European countries and Japan have banned both genetically engineered produce and imports with genetically engineered ingredients. Brazil has banned genetically engineered crops; in May 2002, the Brazilian government burned 770 bushels of soybeans after they were found to be genetically modified. This was part of 2020 bushels confiscated from fifteen farmers who were arrested for violating Brazil’s laws against the production of genetically modified crops (Numbers, 2002).
Farmers are protecting their livelihood and reclaiming their rights to protect the earth and its diverse species. South Asian farmers recently caravanned across Europe to call attention to their opposition to genetically engineered crops and the free-trade measures which are allowing corporate theft of their ancestors’ seed cultivation work. Lal Shankar, an Indian peasant leader, described their struggle as “a fight of indigenous agriculture and traditional systems against the North-dominated gene technology and free market.” Another protestor, farmer Kumud Chowdury put in plain words why she was there: “My husband is taking care of our farm, while I am here to kill Monsanto before it kills families like mine.” (Rosset, 2001, p. 231) Monsanto’s introduction of genetically engineered cotton in India moved Indian farmers to formally protest. In 1998, the Karnataka State Farmers Association (KRRS) issued an open letter to the country (and the world) that outlined planned protests against Monsanto Corporation’s agricultural practices in their country: On Saturday the 28th of November, at midday, thousands of farmers will occupy and burn down the three fields [where trials of genetically engineered cotton are being conducted] in front of cameras, in an open, announced action of civil disobedience. These actions by farmers against biotechnology, called Operation Cremation Monsanto, which will not stop until all the corporate killers like Monsanto, Novartis, Pioneer, etc. leave the country. (KRRS, 2001, p.229) These actions received wide media coverage in India.
More recently, there was genetically modified crop sabotage in Drome, France as reported by the newspaper, Liberation, on August 14, 2001. An unknown group destroyed fields of experimental crops belonging to Novartis. Less than two weeks later, thousands of miles away, another field of genetically engineered crops was destroyed in the Southern Philippines. Eight hundred protestors, including farmers, church people, students, indigenous people, and civil society groups uprooted experimental corn in Monsanto’s fields on August 29, 2001.Within ten minutes the protestors had uprooted the 1,700 sq. meter experimental field.
Consumers have been protesting as well. In San Diego, the Biodevastation 5 protest of 2001 was an effort to educate the public about genetic engineering and patents – corporations’ theft from nature and farmers. The teach-in included topics such as: how the biotech industry is threatening the survival of family farms; the relationship between biopiracy, patents, and globalization; biotech’s irresponsible science; and organic farming (Tokar, 2001). Similar themes were echoed at the 2003 Biodevastation 7 conference in St. Loius last month.
After public protests, Trader Joe’s grocery (a large supermarket on the west coast of the US) has pledged not to use genetically engineered food ingredients in their store brands. The Organic Consumers Association is planning more protests at grocers who do use genetically engineered food ingredients in their store brands.
Reflecting market demands, there are grocers that use genetically engineered food ingredients in their US store brands but not in their store products sold in the European Union.
The world’s population is growing rapidly, so how can agriculture meet the increasing demands? Both producers and consumers are supporting the option of organic farming. While organic foods are often presented as a “luxury of the rich”; in reality, organic farming is a low-input, low-cost option to the current trend towards biotechnological foods.Most farmers in the world are organic – they can’t afford chemicals.
Organic farming is based on the sustainable agriculture practices that have been in use worldwide for centuries. Through careful selection of seeds suited to the local ecology, diverse crops can be grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides.
Organic agriculture uses no genetically modified organisms. According to the National Organic Standards Board, established under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, “the primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals, and people by seeking to restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony” (OCA, 2001).
Organic agriculture delivers quality products to consumers and supports small family farms. Organic Valley is a Wisconsin-based cooperative and one of the largest suppliers of organic fruits, vegetables, and milk in the country. The farmers running the operation have chosen to cap production in order to prevent market saturation. They never produce more than can be sold, which guarantees that each farmer has a consistent income. Profits are not the bottom line, as 28-year-old organic dairy farmer, Travis Forgues, explains, “Organic farming shouldn’t be about making money; it’s about how many farmers we can save” (Paul, 2002). The “modern” farming industry [Monsanto and company] argues that organic farming is inefficient.
Recently, Cardiff University, the German Agriculture and Environment Minister, the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM), and Greenpeace investigated the impact switching to organic farming methods had for resource-poor farmers in developing nations. The document, “The Real Green Revolution” found: Indian organic cotton farms to have 20% higher yields than conventional farms,Madagascar rice yields increased 300%, and Brazil increased their maize yields by 20-250%. Nicolas Parrot, from the University of Cardiff, emphasized the need for farming techniques to be embedded in local communities and environments: “agriculture need(s) to work with and respect the local environment” (Parrot, 2002).
In July 1999, indigenous peoples’ organizations, non-governmental organizations, and networks in more than thirty countries came together and signed a statement against WTO agreements, specifically the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The group clearly stated their opposition to the application of patents over nature.
The application of this form of property rights over living things as if they are mechanical or industrial inventions is inappropriate. Indigenous knowledge and cultural heritage are collectively and accretionally evolved through generations. Thus, no single person can claim invention or discovery of medicinal plants, seeds, or other living things.
On a national level, in December 2001, Canada banned the pesticide lindane, which is used to treat canola seeds. As a result, the Crompton Corporation (the US-based agrochemical producer of lindane) sued the Canadian government for $100 million. They claim that the ban on lindane violates national treatment, minimum standards of treatment, and the performance requirements provisions of NAFTA chapter 11 (OCA, 2001). Canada claims it is acting in the best interest of its people. Crompton apparently is acting in the best interest of profit.
Over one thousand Canadian organic farmers have gathered to sue Monsanto and Aventis, companies that own genetically modified rapeseed. The farmers allege that the companies’ genetically modified plants have contaminated their organic fields.
When the farmers took their organic produce to market, their crops tested positive for genetically modified organisms, which are prohibited by strict organic standards. Thus, the farmers could not sell their crops as organic and are suing the corporations for lost profits and to block the introduction of genetically engineered wheat into the area.
In an effort to fight the monocultures of bioengineering and to protect biodiversity, seed banks are being established and used throughout the world. Seed banks work to preserve ancient varieties of plants that are native to an area. They promote the ancient cycles of seed selection, seed saving, and seed replanting. Farmers select and save the best seeds from a good crop to share with other farmers and to plant again the next season. Seed banks return power to the local farmers, so farmers can depend on one another instead of transnational corporations to obtain seed.
Jemison, J. and Vayda, M. (2001). Cross pollination from genetically engineered corn: wind transport and seed source. AgBioForum, v4, pp.87-92.
KRRS (2001). “We will reduce your fields to ashes”: An open letter from Indian farmers. In B.Bigelow & B. Peterson (Eds.), Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for justice in an unjust world (pp. 228-229). Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools Press.
Nabhan, P. (2002). Coming home to eat: The pleasures and politics of local foods. NY:W.W. Norton and Company.
Nordlee, J.A.; et. al. (1996). Identification of a Brazil-nut allergen in transgenic soybeans, The New England Journal of Medicine, v334, pp.688-92.
Numbers. (2002, April), Prairie Farmer, p. 9.
Organic Consumers Association. (nd) Safeguard our students (SOS).
Paul, N. (2002, February 11) USA: The new American organic dairy farmer. Christian Science Monitor.
Parrot, N. (2002, February 14) The real green evolution.
Rossett, P. (2001). The parable of the golden snail:Third world farmers see biotech crops as a first world disaster in the making. In B. Bigelow & B. Peterson (Eds.), Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for justice in an unjust world (pp. 230-231). Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools Press.
Shiva,V. (2000). Stolen Harvest: the Hijacking of the Global Food Supply. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
Tokar, B. (2001, June 26). Notes from the Biodevastation Protest.

Originally from the south side of Chicago, Mary Gambol has spent 8 of the last 10 years in the CU area. Envisioning her most prominent activist role as an educator, she has actively chosen to make education her profession finding the largest source of hope for the future in “young people.” While describing herself as “opinionated, healthy, smart, loving (and) tardy,” she is most proud of rescuing her 3 dogs, “bringing them home, and giving them a family.” When asked to imagine herself in 5 to 10 years she responds, “I try not to plan that far into the future, that way I won’t get stuck on some path.”

This entry was posted in Food. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.