Sustainable Agriculture: WTF OMG GMO

The GMO debate is like a dark stormy ocean. It is vast and deep, and most people are unsure as to whether GMOs are the monstrous waves or the boat delivering us to safety. A significant amount of literature has been published on the impacts of GMOs, and this column is only a couple hundred words. I will not attempt to address every single argument for or against GMOs but will instead discuss the socioeconomic impacts of GMOs on the hungry people they are supposedly trying to feed — an argument rarely heard.

The argument is largely unheard, because it is made by people with less power and voice. These people lack the volume and political clout that seed companies, such as Monsanto, have. These people — the rural producers, the small land holders, the subsistence farmers — are battling for fundamental food sovereignty.

The food movement has made a considerable amount of noise surrounding the concept of food security without understanding food sovereignty. Food security is about having access to food. It is a bandage for hunger, not a cure. Access to food alone neither ensures the economic standing to purchase it nor does it ensure long-term, dependable access.

Food sovereignty, on the other hand, is about autonomy within the food system. It means having actual power to ensure that communities have resources enough to feed themselves. It involves breaking the chains of dependency of corporate and commodified food systems.

Genetically modified (GM) crops are the antithesis of food sovereignty. For thousands of years, farmers have retained the autonomy to save their own seed — until now. Farmers who used to save their own, free, open-pollinated varieties now plant GM crops that must be purchased annually. A Guatemalan peasant farmer cannot be sovereign while their sustenance is entirely dependent on an seed and pesticide company from the United States.

Some argue that small farmers prefer GM seed without considering the political coercion that broke the seed saving ethic in the first place. Let’s consider small holding maize farmers in Mexico as an example.

There are essentially two types of GM corn on the market. The first is Bt corn, which is engineered to be resistant to a pest called the corn borer. The other is corn that is engineered to be resistant to herbicides, such as RoundUp. One might wonder why the Mexican government or Mexican farmers would plant Bt corn when they learn that corn borers are not a pest in Mexico.

Additionally, Mexican farmers plant at a small scale where all the work is done by hand. GM corn resistant to herbicides is designed for large scale, fuel intensive agriculture using tractor implements. In Mexico, herbicides are applied and mixed by hand in ways that even GMO proponents recognize as unsafe.

Now, consider that GM corn does not store as long as traditional varieties. Farmers used to be able to store their traditional varieties for an entire year until the next harvest. With GM corn, small farmers must process and sell immediately or risk the entire crop succumbing to spoilage, producing enough for sustenance but worsening the quality.

Thus, in the months preceding harvest, corn supplies dwindle and farmers must actually buy back corn they sold earlier in the year. Their food sovereignty has been co-opted by GM corporate interest.

Because the market in the United States for GM corn is completely saturated and the European Union has banned GM crops entirely, seed and pesticide companies are aggressively marketing to Central and South America — despite the fact that GM crops provide little benefit for those farmers. Bt crops are useless; pesticides are sold to people without adequate infrastructure to apply them safely; and in many cases, GM crops actually lead to hunger.

From the perspective of the average person in the United States, GM crops may seem like a boon for the developing world, but they aren’t. People in Central and South America may be hungry, but it’s not because they lack the knowledge of how to feed themselves. It is because seed and pesticide companies with the help of corrupt governments have systematically devalued their worth and stripped them of their ability to be autonomous.

 

To share seeds and increase your own food sovereignty with ELLEN PEARSON, email erpearson@ucdavis.edu.

 

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