Seattle, and the state of Washington in general, is shaping up to become ground zero in the increasingly heated global debate over the use of genetically modified (GM) foods. Here are five reasons why:
- Initiative 522, a state ballot measure that would require labeling of GM foods, has so far seen significant public support, according to opinion polls. Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Jerry Greenfield has lent his high-profile to the cause, joining Puget Consumer Co-op, Clif Bar and others.
- Monsanto, a world leader in developing GM seeds and crops, has significantly beefed up the opposition to the initiative by recently contributing $4.6 million to the efforts aimed at defeating it. A similar ballot measure in California last year brought in $44 million from Monsanto and others in agribusiness opposed to it.
- The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s agriculture program has supported research into GM crops for the developing world and launched a GM-friendly initiative called the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
- The Gates Foundation’s position on GM crops has prompted a counter-offensive launch of organizations like Seattle-based Agra Watch and others. Critics contend AGRA and the philanthropy are promoting (not just exploring) the use of GM crops in poor countries as a means to counter the regulatory constraints and general antipathy towards GM in Europe and other wealthier nations.
- Officials reported last week that they were investigating a case of suspected GM crop contamination of an alfalfa field. A Washington state farmer had his crops (which he believed were natural alfalfa) rejected when they tested positive for GM traits. If confirmed, this would be the second known case of GM crop contamination in the U.S. since a similar episode, involving banned GM wheat, in Oregon earlier this year.
Last week, one more sign that this region is shaping up to become the focal point of the battle over GM foods was a sold-out talk at Seattle Town Hall. Sponsored by Yes! magazine, the noted Indian food activist and scientist Vandana Shiva was the keynote speaker for the Yes! confab — and emphatically called upon all those gathered there to say No to GM foods.
Shiva, a physicist by training known mostly for her environmental and ‘food sovereignty’ activism, credited Seattle with transforming the international dialogue on globalization with the 1999 protests of the World Trade Organization meeting here. She called upon her audience at Town Hall to do the same for food, and to get the ball rolling by supporting labeling and better regulation of GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
“I say GMO stands for ‘God move over,’ “Shiva said to the audience, which cheered and applauded. The use of GM foods raises health and safety questions, she said, but the more fundamental issue for her is the disruption GM represents to the traditional relationship between the farmer and nature by the corporate patenting of seeds and crops.
“Seeds were meant to be free,” Shiva said. “Monsanto is focused on patenting seeds, not on feeding the world.”
Citing Chief Seattle’s famous (and perhaps apocryphal) statement “The earth does not belong to us; we belong to the Earth” Shiva urged the audience to take the lead — as it did with WTO — on creating a more in-depth and critical analysis of what’s behind this country’s global push to spread GM foods and industrialized agriculture.
So far, she said the agri- and chemical industry has done a good job of damping down the debate in the U.S. even as the use of GM crops has become fairly ubiquitous (some 80 percent of all corn and 90 percent of soy produced in this country is GM). Monsanto’s most popular GM innovation, Shiva noted, has been to genetically modify crops to be resistant to its powerful pesticide Round-Up.
“As a result, in this country, you now have super weeds,” she said. The pitch made by Monsanto and other GM supporters that their technology would reduce pesticide and chemicals has not been borne out, she said, and has spun out these other problems. Making only brief mention of the hotly debated evidence of human health problems, Shiva said her biggest concerns are the impact these technologies will have on the lives of smallholder farmers. The push to Western-style agriculture and large-scale agribusiness approaches have not benefited the poor, she said.
“In India, 15 million smallholder farmers have been pushed off their land and thousands more are losing their land every day,” she said.
Rather than adopt the Green Revolution and industrialized strategy for improving agriculture, Shiva said food — and food production — should be treated as an ethical or human rights issue and, as Chief Seattle said, as part of the public commons rather than as a new target for corporate ownership.
Shiva repeatedly threw out barbs aimed at the Gates Foundation, arguing that their approach favoring new technologies will just do more harm since it runs counter to the emerging movement aimed at empowering smallholder farmers and a “new food democracy.”
Tomorrow: A chat with the Gates Foundation, and one of its leading critics, about the GM crop for fighting malnutrition, Golden Rice.