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I recently attended an international “Justice Begins With Seeds” Biosafety Alliance conference in Portland, Oregon. It was both eye-opening and jarring and it was also very focused: opposition to trade agreements and laws that permit genetic modification and GMO foods, while promoting food choice – in particular, safe organic and local foods.
Among the 40 presenters were people with biological and scientific backgrounds, educators, attorneys, human rights activists and organic farmers. What they all had in common was that they possess a wealth of information and have a desire to protect the word’s sacred seeds from the transgenic, multinational corporations of the world, such as Monsanto, Dow and Dupont.
To be truthful, the information presented at the conference was actually very depressing with an aura of doomsday about it, particularly with respect to what has been happening to our food supply over the past generation. At the same time, there were no signs of defeatism, as generally everyone is part of this movement to counter the efforts of these extralegal corporations – corporations that virtually write their own laws exempting themselves from environmental, labor, safety and human rights laws and regulations. While this has always been the case, with the advent of transgenics, what these corporations are doing rises to the level of crimes against nature and crimes against humanity, along with crimes against the earth herself.
I had been invited to this conference because the organizers felt that the message of my forthcoming book: Our Sacred Maíz Is Our Mother (University of Arizona Press), was a message that fit the theme of the conference.
For me, the primary message of my presentation there is a reminder that for those of us from maíz-based cultures:
Maíz is who we are.
It is where we come from,
It is what we are made of.
It is our flesh,
It is our daily sustenance, and
It is what we live for.
When I first arrived, I questioned how the message I was bringing, fit into this anti-GMO conference. Perhaps it was the wrong question and perhaps there should not have been a question at all because virtually all indigenous peoples and virtually all peoples from maíz-based cultures understand the sanctity of seeds, their importance and our need to protect them, especially from genetic engineering.
The purpose of this particular conference was to sound the alarm: The world’s food supply has been hijacked by a handful of corporations and unless we mount a worldwide challenge and campaign, virtually all of our food supply will soon be genetically engineered and contaminated, to the detriment, not simply of all human beings, animals and plant life – but of all life and the entire planet itself. And that is putting it mildly.
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The impending crisis over genetically altered and contaminated foods is worse than the climate change that scientists have been frantically clamoring about for a generation. It is worse than the crisis over the privatization of the world’s water supply. In reality, they are related and the threat from genetic modification is even more ominous than it sounds, because truly, we are what we eat and GMOs have the potential to affect every living human being and all life on this planet.
And what we are eating . . . you don’t want to know. And that indeed is the problem. Minimally, everyone should know that nowadays, 99 percent of US meat is produced in factory farms, with a great percentage of the animals being fed GMO grains. And yet the threat is way beyond what we eat, drink and breathe. The threat is from “the pesticide treadmill” . . . the threat is from genetically engineered crops that are creating super insects that are resistant to powerful insecticides. The threat is also from weeds that are resistant to herbicides. All these agrochemicals are destroying our precious soil and contaminating all of our world’s waters at unprecedented rates with cancer causing chemicals. And it is worse because the majority of transgenic crops are being fed to animals, which we eat, and, increasingly, used to produce gasoline.
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There’s also something called biopharming. Scientists refer to this as “genetic modification on steroids” and it is the use of genetically modified plants to create synthetic drugs. Genetic modification can also be used to weaponize plants (algae and trees).
Half the presenters depicted a fast-approaching doomsday scenario. This included informing us about genetically modified vertebrates: salmon, puppies, pigs and cows. There’s even scenarios of genetically engineering human embryos to be intolerant of red meat – as a way to combat climate change. And the news does not get better: There’s the possibility of human-animal hybrid embryos. Suffice to say that unless we as a species do not put a brake on GMO foods, we have a Frankenstein future to look forward to, though unfortunately, that future is already here.
Yet all is not hopeless.
The other presenters described successful battles taking place around the country and the world in combatting this handful of greedy corporations.
One current battle involves Oregon’s Measure 92, which calls for the labeling of all genetically engineered foods sold in that state. While rare in the United States, US companies already have to label their GMO foods in more than 60 countries. If Measure 92 is successful, organizers will move on to similar propositions in California and other states.
The reason the transgenic corporations have always opposed the labeling of GMO foods is that given a choice, most consumers will opt for non-GMO foods. This is the reason for optimism. Despite the transgenic corporations’ efforts to suppress research, findings and the truth, if labeling is achieved, consumers will always turn thumbs down on GMO foods.
The most inspiring part of the conference is news of the class action lawsuit by the Fundacion Semillas de Vida to prohibit the planting of GMO corn in Mexico. Last year, the courts there invoked a moratorium that bans the planting of GMO corn until the lawsuit is settled. It does not ban the importation of GMO corn; it simply prohibits the planting of such corn in the country recognized as the cradle from which corn was created several thousand years ago.
Despite being outgunned by Monsanto’s 100-plus lawyers, the 53 plaintiffs – a coalition of indigenous and human rights and consumer rights organizations – feel confident that they will eventually triumph.
Into this amazing movement, I was asked to convey my message, and it was simple: When you view your body as sacred, the last thing you will want to do is desecrate it with toxins or with anything unnatural, in particular, GMO foods. Peoples from maíz-based cultures – many have lost their stories, rituals and ceremonies, yet, the most important connection remains – their daily connection with the tortilla, the beans and the chile (cactus and squash too). Truth is, the indigenous foods of this continent – if not toxified or genetically modified – are the healthiest foods in the world.
Unfortunately, peoples from maíz-based cultures are already facing an obesity crisis – which includes sky-high rates for diabetes and heart disease. For our communities, eating healthy – a de-colonialized diet – is no longer an option. To beat the obesity crisis means returning to an indigenous diet; to simply ask that our foods not be genetically modified is not a huge leap to make. Within that context, those who pick the crops – those exposed to toxic agrochemicals directly – should also never be left out of the equation in the fight for food choice, food justice and food sovereignty . . . that’s what the United Farm Worker’s movement, since its inception, was all about.
That is also the larger point. As we battle these illegitimate crops, people should also understand that for many of us, we are also in the midst of fighting over our own humanity. In Arizona – the whole country really – brown peoples are viewed as illegitimate peoples – subject to be questioned by the police and the migra – or as we call them: the poli-migra.
Asserting our full humanity, with full human rights and fighting for the right to eat affordable healthy foods (non-GMO foods) indeed is not a huge leap to make.
For more information on the conference, visit www.biosafetyalliance.org.