Friday, May 24, 2013

Monsanto and GMOs: Worldwide Resistance

by Lariza Garzon (Mexico Team)

 
Monsanto is infamous throughout the world and Mexico is no exception. Here in corn's birthplace, Monsanto is increasingly expanding its dominion of the food industry. This has created changes that have affected Mexicans' diets, health, way of life, and ability to survive.

But in the US Monsanto is up to no good as well, and Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have become an important subject of debate. Throughout the years, there has been great concern about the effects of GMOs in humans and animals and about the contamination of non-GMO crops. And GMOs are a hot topic in the current debates around the Food and Farm Bill.

This bill, passed by Congress every 5 years,sets policies on food and agriculture in the United States and abroad. Congress is currently working on debating the amendments and details of the latest bill. One of the most controversial amendments is the King Amendment.

Passed on Wednesday, May 15th, in the US House Agriculture Committee, the King Amendment could take away states’ rights to label GMOs. Activists believe that the amendment is the result of lobbying efforts by Monsanto, the world leader on GMOs.

Currently twenty-six states - like California, Washington, Vermont, Maine and Connecticut - have GMO labeling bills or ballot initiatives in progress. Monsanto is threatening to sue the states that pass these bills and is taking action at the federal level - through the King Amendment - to stop these initiatives. The Senate has already voted down efforts to protect the states’ rights ability to enact their own labeling laws. 64 countries around the world already require the labeling of genetically modified foods, including all of the EU, Russia, China, Australia, South Africa, and Syria.

Furthermore, last year the “Monsanto Protection Act” granted the biotech industry with federal immunity when planting yet-to-be-approved genetically engineered (GE) crops. Under this act, the Secretary of Agriculture is required to grant a temporary permit for planting or cultivating a GE crop, even when a federal court has ordered that the planting be halted until an Environmental Impact Statement is completed. In an effort to repeal this Act, Senator Merkley has introduced Amendment #978 into the farm bill.

Monsanto and GMOs are  very concerning topics in other countries as well.

In Colombia, Monsanto provided RoundUp Ultra (a lethal Glyphosphate herbicide) for the anti-drug fumigation efforts of Plan Colombia. The fumigations have resulted in the destruction of legitimate crops, the destruction of the environment, and negative health impacts. 

In India, the use of Monsanto’s cottonseeds has resulted in tragedy. More than 100 Indian farmers committed suicide after finding themselves in extreme debt that resulted from buying Monsanto’s cottonseeds. Despite the promises of a higher yield and profit, the farmers ended up having crop yields 5 times lower than before and an income 7 times lower than before.

Mexico and GMO Corn
Mexicans are worried about the issue of GMO seeds, particularly genetically modified corn. It is believed that corn was first domesticated from wild grasses about 8,000 years ago in Oaxaca, Mexico. This fact is supported by the extraordinary diversity of corn in Mexico (hundreds of varieties) and the discovery of the Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla in the Central Valley of Oaxaca. In these caves scientists found evidence of the transition of nomadic hunter-gatherers into farmers. According to the UNESCO World Heritage Center: 

“Ten thousand-year-old Cucurbitaceae seeds in one cave, Guilá Naquitz, are considered to be the earliest known evidence of domesticated plants in the continent, while corn cob fragments from the same cave are said to be the earliest documented evidence for the domestication of maize. The cultural landscape of the Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla demonstrates the link between man and nature that gave origin to the domestication of plants in North America, thus allowing the rise of Mesoamerican civilizations.”

GMO corn seeds represent a threat to the biodiversity of corn. According to the World Watch Institute: 

A center of origin contains the early forms of a crop and its wild relatives. It is the gene bank the world depends on to improve and refresh a crop's genetics. Mexico's native corn varieties are a treasure chest of genes useful for breeding plants that can adjust to changing climate, agricultural, and nutritional needs. Scientists worry that if these plants become infected with GMOs, and if the artificial genes persist, they could dangerously contaminate, and possibly wipe out, the natural genetic basis of the world's most important crops. Although they are manufactured, GMOs are living organisms, capable of reproduction. Once released, they are beyond human control. They are a new form of pollution, one that is difficult to detect and completely invisible. 

Corn is also incredibly important for the people of Mexico. It is the principal staple food, and it stands as one of the country's most central cultural symbols. It sustains indigenous people spiritually, physically, and economically. Corn was the basic food for the Maya and Aztec peoples, who worshiped it as a sacred plant since at least 5000 B.C.

On November 29, 2001, the scientific journal Nature published a story about the GMO contamination of traditional corn in Oaxaca, despite a 1998 moratorium on GMO crops by the Mexican government.  Notwithstanding the negative effects of this contamination, the previous Mexican president, Felipe Calderón, allowed Monsanto, Dupont, and Dow to enter Mexico’s market by giving them the right to cultivate GMO corn in various northern Mexican states. Since then, GMOs have had a very strong presence in the country.

In order to “expose the aggressions against native corn and the people of corn,” different organizations gathered in Oaxaca for two days for the pre-trial hearing of the “Permanent People’s Tribunal” regarding “GMO contamination of Native Corn”. The event, which took place on April 26th and 27th, attracted hundreds of people who strategized on the best way to preserve native corn. (The “Permanent People’s Tribunal” is an international opinion tribunal that looks into human rights complaints, which can set precedence for future legal actions.)

Organizations and farm workers gave testimony about the effects of GMOs in their communities. Central themes were the Mexican government’s encouragement of GMO planting, the deterioration of state support to farmers, the threat to the biological diversity of corn, the contamination of non-GMO crops, the importance of corn to the identity and culture of Mexicans, and the corruption of the scientists who are hired by agro-businesses. Click here to read the judges’ final opinion regarding these issues.

Resistance to and concern about GMOs is a worldwide struggle. The implications of GMO consumption are still not clear. Contamination by GMO plants is persistent in many areas throughout the planet. The survival of small-scale farmers and indigenous people who have handpicked the best seeds from their crops for centuries is at stake (as GMO crops produce infertile seeds).

This Friday, more than 400 protests against Monsanto and GMOs will be taking place in 49 countries. As people who fight for justice, we have the responsibility to think about how these issues affect us locally and about impacts of U.S. corporations like Monsanto across the world. 

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