This past Saturday, about a thousand santafesinos took part in the first global “March Against Monsanto” to protest genetic modification of food crops and corporate control of food production, and to demand laws requiring labels to disclose genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the food on local shelves.
Participants rallied at noon at the Farmers Market, a Santa Fe institution that represents many things contrary to Monsanto Corporation, world leader in genetically modified seeds, toxics-intensive agriculture and litigation to enforce its patents on life. Local farmer-activists were among the speakers who addressed the enthusiastic crowd (click the buttons between paragraphs hear speeches by Willem Malten, Poki Piottin and Dr. Jim McClure).
Monsanto is doing absolutely nothing except to act in the spirit of capitalism, yet the throngs of activists protesting against that paragon of corporate values are far from any traditional Left, rather a hodge-podge with apparently little by way of a political common denominator. For example, Malten showed real empathy for small farmers getting crushed beneath Monsanto’s legal and economic machinery, but when his own Cloud Cliff Bakery and Cafe went out of business a few years back, he blamed its demise on Santa Fe’s living wage law. What might seem a troubling deficit in his sense of social justice does not appear to impair his acceptance by the local movement as an intellectual leader.
Poki Piottin’s words raised the political disconnect to an even higher level. After giving “native” corn seeds to children in attendance, a pleasant and meaningful gesture, he went on to tell how the Guatemalan military’s “civil war” against that country’s Mayan majority in the 1980s had prevented the growing of corn. But he read this not as an example of classic warfare by starvation. Instead, he focused on the disruption this caused to the peoples’ ceremonial life tied to the life cycle of their chief crop. He singles out as horrible that a generation of children grew up without names because their communities didn’t have the right corn to perform naming ceremonies. There is no question that curtailment of ceremonial practices adds a dimension of ethnocide to the government’s recent engagement in genocide, but the generation of children growing up without parents, siblings and other family and community members who add up to hundreds of thousands wiped out systematically in spectacularly terrorizing massacres, to some of us seems the greater crime.
Piottin prefaced these remarks by asserting that the Maya make no distinction between people and corn, presumable to express their high regard for their ancestral seed lines such as Monsanto endeavors to replace around the world. But regard specifically for human life motivated the historic trial just weeks ago that convicted General Efraín Ríos Montt for directing an especially intense portion of the genocide. How the Maya value corn is of course interesting and certainly relevant to a discussion of Monsanto’s genetic imperialism, but by placing it at the center of discussion, Piottin either assumes his listeners understand the recent genocide and can weigh the hardship of curtailed ceremonial practices against the extermination of so many myriad humans, or he is brushing the genocide aside, himself.
In a discussion more political than spiritual, Guatemala offers a blazingly relevant example since our own CIA placed the military in power there, to replace a democratic government seen as insufficiently friendly toward U.S. agribusiness (in this instance, the United Fruit Company). From this perspective, the recent genocide was the direct consequence of capitalism in food production and an attack on a people organized with conviction against the interests that Monsanto and its brethren represent. But such considerations would have been out of place last Saturday, where expressions of spiritual solidarity rose like steam as the issues boiled down to consumer choices.
Last among the speakers at the gathering point was Dr. Jim McClure, who chose to forgo imaginative worries about future GMO catastrophes (such as are commonly hyphenated with a “Franken-” prefix) to discuss damages already occurring. While many claim that the GMO crops already in our foodstream are inherently toxic by virtue of their genomic alterations, Dr. McClure reminded listeners that the modification that forms the basis of Monsanto’s GMO division, the “Roundup Ready” gene, in fact gives crops resistance to the herbicide Roundup. This allows users to control weeds by soaking the fields with a toxic chemical that kills all plants except the genetically protected crop species. The health and environmental effects, not of the GMO crops per se, but of the toxics-intensive agriculture they allow, according to Dr. McClure are a problem that is already here.
Once the marchers reached the capitol, one person used her turn on the bullhorn to read the list of NM senators who voted last session against a bill requiring GMO labeling, and she called on the marchers “to vote them out.” If this is the beginning of a new political movement, like a seed it is starting modestly, but the activists’ enthusiasm and outrage appear genuine.
As one marcher remarked, this activism is not about a concept. It is about food, which is more substantial and universal than any concept. But history shows us that political movements, however visceral at the onset, engender concepts as they develop. And La Jicarita will be following the evolution of the March Against Monsanto.