Posts Tagged 'Agriculture'

No scientific consensus on GMO safety.

As scientists, physicians, academics, and experts from disciplines relevant to the scientific, legal, social and safety assessment aspects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs),[1] we strongly reject claims by GM seed developers and some scientists, commentators, and journalists that there is a “scientific consensus” on GMO safety[2] [3] [4] and that the debate on this topic is “over”.[5]

We feel compelled to issue this statement because the claimed consensus on GMO safety does not exist. The claim that it does exist is misleading and misrepresents the currently available scientific evidence and the broad diversity of opinion among scientists on this issue. Moreover, the claim encourages a climate of complacency that could lead to a lack of regulatory and scientific rigour and appropriate caution, potentially endangering the health of humans, animals, and the environment.

Science and society do not proceed on the basis of a constructed consensus, as current knowledge is always open to well-founded challenge and disagreement. We endorse the need for further independent scientific inquiry and informed public discussion on GM product safety and urge GM proponents to do the same.

Some of our objections to the claim of scientific consensus are listed below.

1. There is no consensus on GM food safety

Regarding the safety of GM crops and foods for human and animal health, a comprehensive review of animal feeding studies of GM crops found “An equilibrium in the number [of] research groups suggesting, on the basis of their studies, that a number of varieties of GM products (mainly maize and soybeans) are as safe and nutritious as the respective conventional non-GM plant, and those raising still serious concerns”. The review also found that most studies concluding that GM foods were as safe and nutritious as those obtained by conventional breeding were “performed by biotechnology companies or associates, which are also responsible [for] commercializing these GM plants”.[6]

A separate review of animal feeding studies that is often cited as showing that GM foods are safe included studies that found significant differences in the GM-fed animals. While the review authors dismissed these findings as not biologically significant,[7] the interpretation of these differences is the subject of continuing scientific debate[8] [9] [10] [11] and no consensus exists on the topic.

Rigorous studies investigating the safety of GM crops and foods would normally involve animal feeding studies in which one group of animals is fed GM food and another group is fed an equivalent non-GM diet. Independent studies of this type are rare, but when such studies have been performed, some have revealed toxic effects or signs of toxicity in the GM-fed animals.[12][13] [14] [15] [16] [17] The concerns raised by these studies have not been followed up by targeted research that could confirm or refute the initial findings.

The lack of scientific consensus on the safety of GM foods and crops is underlined by the recent research calls of the European Union and the French government to investigate the long-term health impacts of GM food consumption in the light of uncertainties raised by animal feeding studies.[18][19] These official calls imply recognition of the inadequacy of the relevant existing scientific research protocols. They call into question the claim that existing research can be deemed conclusive and the scientific debate on biosafety closed.

2. There are no epidemiological studies investigating potential effects of GM food consumption on human health

It is often claimed that “trillions of GM meals” have been eaten in the US with no ill effects. However, no epidemiological studies in human populations have been carried out to establish whether there are any health effects associated with GM food consumption. As GM foods are not labelled in North America, a major producer and consumer of GM crops, it is scientifically impossible to trace, let alone study, patterns of consumption and their impacts. Therefore, claims that GM foods are safe for human health based on the experience of North American populations have no scientific basis.

3. Claims that scientific and governmental bodies endorse GMO safety are exaggerated or inaccurate

 Claims that there is a consensus among scientific and governmental bodies that GM foods are safe, or that they are no more risky than non-GM foods,[20][21] are false.

For instance, an expert panel of the Royal Society of Canada issued a report that was highly critical of the regulatory system for GM foods and crops in that country. The report declared that it is “scientifically unjustifiable” to presume that GM foods are safe without rigorous scientific testing and that the “default prediction” for every GM food should be that the introduction of a new gene will cause “unanticipated changes” in the expression of other genes, the pattern of proteins produced, and/or metabolic activities. Possible outcomes of these changes identified in the report included the presence of new or unexpected allergens.[22]

A report by the British Medical Association concluded that with regard to the long-term effects of GM foods on human health and the environment, “many unanswered questions remain” and that “safety concerns cannot, as yet, be dismissed completely on the basis of information currently available”. The report called for more research, especially on potential impacts on human health and the environment.[23]

Moreover, the positions taken by other organizations have frequently been highly qualified, acknowledging data gaps and potential risks, as well as potential benefits, of GM technology. For example, a statement by the American Medical Association’s Council on Science and Public Health acknowledged “a small potential for adverse events … due mainly to horizontal gene transfer, allergenicity, and toxicity” and recommended that the current voluntary notification procedure practised in the US prior to market release of GM crops be made mandatory.[24] It should be noted that even a “small potential for adverse events” may turn out to be significant, given the widespread exposure of human and animal populations to GM crops.

A statement by the board of directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) affirming the safety of GM crops and opposing labelling [25] cannot be assumed to represent the view of AAAS members as a whole and was challenged in an open letter by a group of 21 scientists, including many long-standing members of the AAAS.[26] This episode underlined the lack of consensus among scientists about GMO safety.

4. EU research project does not provide reliable evidence of GM food safety

An EU research project[27] has been cited internationally as providing evidence for GM crop and food safety. However, the report based on this project, “A Decade of EU-Funded GMO Research”, presents no data that could provide such evidence, from long-term feeding studies in animals.

Indeed, the project was not designed to test the safety of any single GM food, but to focus on “the development of safety assessment approaches”.[28] Only five published animal feeding studies are referenced in the SAFOTEST section of the report, which is dedicated to GM food safety.[29] None of these studies tested a commercialised GM food; none tested the GM food for long-term effects beyond the subchronic period of 90 days; all found differences in the GM-fed animals, which in some cases were statistically significant; and none concluded on the safety of the GM food tested, let alone on the safety of GM foods in general. Therefore the EU research project provides no evidence for sweeping claims about the safety of any single GM food or of GM crops in general.

5. List of several hundred studies does not show GM food safety

A frequently cited claim published on an Internet website that several hundred studies “document the general safety and nutritional wholesomeness of GM foods and feeds”[30] is misleading. Examination of the studies listed reveals that many do not provide evidence of GM food safety and, in fact, some provide evidence of a lack of safety. For example:

  • Many of the studies are not toxicological animal feeding studies of the type that can provide useful information about health effects of GM food consumption. The list includes animal production studies that examine parameters of interest to the food and agriculture industry, such as milk yield and weight gain;[31] [32] studies on environmental effects of GM crops; and analytical studies of the composition or genetic makeup of the crop.
  • Among the animal feeding studies and reviews of such studies in the list, a substantial number found toxic effects and signs of toxicity in GM-fed animals compared with controls.[33] [34] [35] [36] [37] [38] Concerns raised by these studies have not been satisfactorily addressed and the claim that the body of research shows a consensus over the safety of GM crops and foods is false and irresponsible.
  • Many of the studies were conducted over short periods compared with the animal’s total lifespan and cannot detect long-term health effects.[39] [40]

We conclude that these studies, taken as a whole, are misrepresented on the Internet website as they do not “document the general safety and nutritional wholesomeness of GM foods and feeds”. Rather, some of the studies give serious cause for concern and should be followed up by more detailed investigations over an extended period of time.

6. There is no consensus on the environmental risks of GM crops

Environmental risks posed by GM crops include the effects of Bt insecticidal crops on non-target organisms and effects of the herbicides used in tandem with herbicide-tolerant GM crops.

As with GM food safety, no scientific consensus exists regarding the environmental risks of GM crops. A review of environmental risk assessment approaches for GM crops identified shortcomings in the procedures used and found “no consensus” globally on the methodologies that should be applied, let alone on standardized testing procedures.[41]

Some reviews of the published data on Bt crops have found that they can have adverse effects on non-target and beneficial organisms[42] [43] [44] [45] – effects that are widely neglected in regulatory assessments and by some scientific commentators. Resistance to Bt toxins has emerged in target pests,[46] and problems with secondary (non-target) pests have been noted, for example, in Bt cotton in China.[47] [48]

Herbicide-tolerant GM crops have proved equally controversial. Some reviews and individual studies have associated them with increased herbicide use,[49][50] the rapid spread of herbicide-resistant weeds,[51] and adverse health effects in human and animal populations exposed to Roundup, the herbicide used on the majority of GM crops.[52] [53] [54]

As with GM food safety, disagreement among scientists on the environmental risks of GM crops may be correlated with funding sources. A peer-reviewed survey of the views of 62 life scientists on the environmental risks of GM crops found that funding and disciplinary training had a significant effect on attitudes. Scientists with industry funding and/or those trained in molecular biology were very likely to have a positive attitude to GM crops and to hold that they do not represent any unique risks, while publicly-funded scientists working independently of GM crop developer companies and/or those trained in ecology were more likely to hold a “moderately negative” attitude to GM crop safety and to emphasize the uncertainty and ignorance involved. The review authors concluded, “The strong effects of training and funding might justify certain institutional changes concerning how we organize science and how we make public decisions when new technologies are to be evaluated.”[55]

7. International agreements show widespread recognition of risks posed by GM foods and crops

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was negotiated over many years and implemented in 2003. The Cartagena Protocol is an international agreement ratified by 166 governments worldwide that seeks to protect biological diversity from the risks posed by GM technology. It embodies the Precautionary Principle in that it allows signatory states to take precautionary measures to protect themselves against threats of damage from GM crops and foods, even in case of a lack of scientific certainty.[56]

Another international body, the UN’s Codex Alimentarius, worked with scientific experts for seven years to develop international guidelines for the assessment of GM foods and crops, because of concerns about the risks they pose. These guidelines were adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, of which over 160 nations are members, including major GM crop producers such as the United States.[57]

The Cartagena Protocol and Codex share a precautionary approach to GM crops and foods, in that they agree that genetic engineering differs from conventional breeding and that safety assessments should be required before GM organisms are used in food or released into the environment.

These agreements would never have been negotiated, and the implementation processes elaborating how such safety assessments should be conducted would not currently be happening, without widespread international recognition of the risks posed by GM crops and foods and the unresolved state of existing scientific understanding.

Concerns about risks are well-founded, as has been demonstrated by studies on some GM crops and foods that have shown adverse effects on animal health and non-target organisms, indicated above. Many of these studies have, in fact, fed into the negotiation and/or implementation processes of the Cartagena Protocol and Codex. We support the application of the Precautionary Principle with regard to the release and transboundary movement of GM crops and foods.


In the scope of this document, we can only highlight a few examples to illustrate that the totality of scientific research outcomes in the field of GM crop safety is nuanced, complex, often contradictory or inconclusive, confounded by researchers’ choices, assumptions, and funding sources, and in general, has raised more questions than it has currently answered.

Whether to continue and expand the introduction of GM crops and foods into the human food and animal feed supply, and whether the identified risks are acceptable or not, are decisions that involve socioeconomic considerations beyond the scope of a narrow scientific debate and the currently unresolved biosafety research agendas. These decisions must therefore involve the broader society. They should, however, be supported by strong scientific evidence on the long-term safety of GM crops and foods for human and animal health and the environment, obtained in a manner that is honest, ethical, rigorous, independent, transparent, and sufficiently diversified to compensate for bias.

Decisions on the future of our food and agriculture should not be based on misleading and misrepresentative claims that a “scientific consensus” exists on GMO safety.

[1] In the US, the term “genetically engineered” is often used in place of “genetically modified”. We have used “genetically modified” because this is the terminology consistently used by many authorities internationally, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; the World Health Organization; Codex Alimentarius; European and Indian legislation; peer-reviewed studies by industry and independent scientists; and the international media. It is also consistent with the Cartagena Protocol’s term “living modified organism”.

[2] Frewin, G. (2013). The new “is GM food safe?” meme. Axis Mundi, 18 July.; Wikipedia (2013). Genetically modified food controversies.

[3] Mark Lynas (2013). GMO pigs study – more junk science., 12 June.

[4] Keith Kloor (2013). Greens on the run in debate over genetically modified food. Bloomberg, 7 January.

[5] White, M. (2013). The scientific debate about GM foods is over: They’re safe. Pacific Standard magazine, 24 Sept.

[6] Domingo, J. L. and J. G. Bordonaba (2011). A literature review on the safety assessment of genetically modified plants. Environ Int 37: 734–742.

[7] Snell, C., et al. (2012). Assessment of the health impact of GM plant diets in long-term and multigenerational animal feeding trials: A literature review. Food and Chemical Toxicology 50(3–4): 1134-1148.

[8] Séralini, G. E., et al. (2011). Genetically modified crops safety assessments: Present limits and possible improvements. Environmental Sciences Europe 23(10).

[9] Dona, A. and I. S. Arvanitoyannis (2009). Health risks of genetically modified foods. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 49(2): 164–175.

[10] Domingo, J. L. and J. G. Bordonaba (2011). Ibid.

[11] Diels, J., et al. (2011). Association of financial or professional conflict of interest to research outcomes on health risks or nutritional assessment studies of genetically modified products. Food Policy 36: 197–203.

[12] Domingo, J. L. and J. G. Bordonaba (2011). Ibid..

[13] Diels, J., et al. (2011). Ibid.

[14] Dona, A. and I. S. Arvanitoyannis (2009). Ibid.

[15] Séralini, G. E., et al. (2012). Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Food and Chemical Toxicology 50(11): 4221-4231.

[16] Séralini, G. E., et al. (2013). Answers to critics: Why there is a long term toxicity due to NK603 Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize and to a Roundup herbicide. Food and Chemical Toxicology 53: 461-468.

[17] Carman, J. A., et al. (2013). A long-term toxicology study on pigs fed a combined genetically modified (GM) soy and GM maize diet. Journal of Organic Systems 8(1): 38–54.

[18] EU Food Policy (2012).  Commission and EFSA agree need for two-year GMO feeding studies. 17 December.

[19] French Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy (2013). Programme National de Recherche: Risques environnementaux et sanitaires liés aux OGM (Risk’OGM). 12 July.

[20] Wikipedia (2013). Genetically modified food controversies.

[21] G. Masip (2013). Opinion: Don’t fear GM crops, Europe! The Scientist, May 28.

[22] Royal Society of Canada (2001). Elements of precaution: Recommendations for the regulation of Food Biotechnology in Canada; An Expert Panel Report on the Future of Food Biotechnology. January.

[23] British Medical Association Board of Science and Education (2004). Genetically modified food and health: A second interim statement.

[24] American Medical Association House of Delegates (2012). Labeling of bioengineered foods. Council on Science and Public Health Report 2.

[25] AAAS (2012). Statement by the AAAS Board of Directors on labeling of genetically modified foods. 20

[26] Hunt, P., et al. (2012). Yes: Food labels would let consumers make informed choices. Environmental Health

[27] European Commission (2010). A decade of EU-funded GMO research (2001–2010).

[28] European Commission (2010): 128.

[29] European Commission (2010): 157.

[31] Brouk, M., et al. (2008). Performance of lactating dairy cows fed corn as whole plant silage and grain produced from a genetically modified event DAS-59122-7 or a nontransgenic, near isoline control. J Anim. Sci, (Sectional Meeting Abstracts) 86(e-Suppl. 3):89 Abstract 276.

[32] Calsamiglia, S., et al. (2007). Effects of corn silage derived from a genetically modified variety containing two transgenes on feed intake, milk production, and composition, and the absence of detectable transgenic deoxyribonucleic acid in milk in Holstein dairy cows. J Dairy Sci 90: 4718-4723.

[33] de Vendômois, J.S., et al. (2010). A comparison of the effects of three GM corn varieties on mammalian health. Int J Biol Sci. ;5(7):706-26.

[34] Ewen, S.W.B. and A. Pusztai (1999). Effect of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine. Lancet 354:1353-1354.

[35] Fares, N.H., and A. K. El-Sayed (1998). Fine structural changes in the ileum of mice fed on delta-endotoxin-treated potatoes and transgenic potatoes. Nat Toxins. 6:219-33.

[36] Kilic, A. and M. T. Akay (2008). A three generation study with genetically modified Bt corn in rats: Biochemical and histopathological investigation. Food Chem Toxicol 46(3): 1164–1170.

[37] Malatesta, M., et al. (2002). Ultrastructural morphometrical and immunocytochemical analyses of hepatocyte nuclei from mice fed on genetically modified soybean. Cell Structure and Function 27:173-180.

[38] Malatesta, M., et al. (2003). Fine structural analyses of pancreatic acinar cell nuclei from mice fed on genetically modified soybean. European Journal of Histochemistry 47:385-388

[39] Hammond, B., et al. (2004). Results of a 13 week safety assurance study with rats fed grain from glyphosate tolerant corn. Food Chem Toxicol 42(6): 1003-1014.

[40] Hammond, B. G., et al. (2006). Results of a 90-day safety assurance study with rats fed grain from corn borer-protected corn. Food Chem Toxicol 44(7): 1092-1099.

[41] Hilbeck, A., et al. (2011). Environmental risk assessment of genetically modified plants – concepts and controversies. Environmental Sciences Europe 23(13).

[42] Hilbeck, A. and J. E. U. Schmidt (2006). Another view on Bt proteins – How specific are they and what else might they do? Biopesti Int 2(1): 1–50.

[43] Székács, A. and B. Darvas (2012). Comparative aspects of Cry toxin usage in insect control. Advanced Technologies for Managing Insect Pests. I. Ishaaya, S. R. Palli and A. R. Horowitz. Dordrecht, Netherlands, Springer: 195–230.

[44] Marvier, M., et al. (2007). A meta-analysis of effects of Bt cotton and maize on nontarget invertebrates. Science 316(5830): 1475-1477.

[45] Lang, A. and E. Vojtech (2006). The effects of pollen consumption of transgenic Bt maize on the common swallowtail, Papilio machaon L. (Lepidoptera, Papilionidae). Basic and Applied Ecology 7: 296–306.

[46] Gassmann, A. J., et al. (2011). Field-evolved resistance to Bt maize by Western corn rootworm. PLoS ONE 6(7): e22629.

[47] Zhao, J. H., et al. (2010). Benefits of Bt cotton counterbalanced by secondary pests? Perceptions of ecological change in China. Environ Monit Assess 173(1-4): 985-994.

[48] Lu, Y., et al. (2010). Mirid bug outbreaks in multiple crops correlated with wide-scale adoption of Bt cotton in China. Science 328(5982): 1151-1154.

[49] Benbrook, C. (2012). Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the US – The first sixteen years. Environmental Sciences Europe 24(24).

[50] Heinemann, J. A., et al. (2013). Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability: 1–18.

[51] Powles, S. B. (2008). Evolved glyphosate-resistant weeds around the world: Lessons to be learnt. Pest Manag Sci 64: 360–365.

[52] Székács, A. and B. Darvas (2012). Forty years with glyphosate. Herbicides – Properties, Synthesis and Control of Weeds. M. N. Hasaneen, InTech.

[53] Benedetti, D., et al. (2013). Genetic damage in soybean workers exposed to pesticides: evaluation with the comet and buccal micronucleus cytome assays. Mutat Res 752(1-2): 28-33.

[54] Lopez, S. L., et al. (2012). Pesticides used in South American GMO-based agriculture: A review of their effects on humans and animal models. Advances in Molecular Toxicology. J. C. Fishbein and J. M. Heilman. New York, Elsevier. 6: 41–75.

[55] Kvakkestad, V., et al. (2007). Scientistsʼ perspectives on the deliberate release of GM crops. Environmental Values 16(1): 79–104.

[56] Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2000). Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological

[57] Codex Alimentarius (2009). Foods derived from modern biotechnology. 2d ed. World Health Organization/Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.


From Food Security to Food Sovereignty.


It’s an exciting time for the good food movement. Sometimes it can feel as though the efforts to make agriculture more sustainable are the most visible and active component of the broader environmental movement. This shouldn’t be surprising. Our relationship to food is visceral, emotional, and continues daily.

If you’ve seen Food, Inc. or read any Eric SchlosserMichael Pollan, or Rachel Carson, you know that the sustainable food movement is trying to address the social and environmental problems created by an industrial farming system in which convenience  and profit trump everything else.

The responses to industrial farming have included critiques like Silent Spring, the back-to-the-land and organic farming sparks of the late 1960s, the family farm movement that resisted bankruptcy and corporate consolidation in the 1980s, and now the urban farming movement that has burgeoned in the past 10 years.

Many elements of the sustainable food movement have been organized by (or for) the two most obvious sectors of the food system: Eaters and producers. In parts of the world where populations are still largely agrarian, eaters and producers are often the same people, but here in the United States (where the farming population hovers around one percent) consumers have been the dominant focus of food policy, at least for the past 40 years.

In the global North, much of the past 20 years of activism has framed the concept of “food security” as the right of all people to have enough food to avoid hunger and malnutrition. A new effort underway to deepen food activism focuses on a more radical idea: The concept of food sovereignty. The global food sovereignty movement is making the case that reform of the food system will be insufficient if it does not democratize and make more transparent the means of food production. We’ll never be able to resolve the environmental and social abuses of industrial agriculture without changing who controls the food system.

As Katherine Zavala, program manager of grassroots alliances at International Development Exchange (IDEX), a San Francisco-based organization that supports food justice in the Global South, explains it: “Food security might focus on hunger as a human rights issue, but it fails to consider many other facets of food like the ways it is produced, the social relationships it relies on, or the cultural importance it holds to communities.”

Having enough to eat is important, certainly, but what about the quality of that food? What about the way that people are treated in the process of producing that food? What about the cultural traditions of food that are left aside in a purely calorie-counting concept of “food security”? Zavala says that perhaps the biggest inadequacy of the food security concept is that it fails to address “who decides what the food system is. It doesn’t address who is driving or controlling the global food system or the lack of decision-making power among people to decide what food system they want.”

These deeper questions illustrate why the term “food sovereignty”–pioneered by the international peasant alliance La Via Campesina–is increasingly being adopted food movement activists across the globe. Ashoka Finley, who works for the Richmond, California urban farming organization Urban Tilth and has been closely involved in the Occupy the Farm effort at the University of California’s Gill Tract, considers himself a food sovereignty activist.

He says: “Food sovereignty, like food security, is about rights. But because food sovereignty as a concept argues that food systems are determined by political and economic conditions, it’s about the rights we as eaters, citizens, and communities should have to take part in effecting those conditions. It is also about how we can use food-based activism to transform the political and economic system we live in.”

That “taking part” is what distinguishes food security from food sovereignty, and what makes food sovereignty such a compelling and important idea. Yes, of course, providing food for people in need is essential, but a soup kitchen a food bank or a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) card is not enough to create food sovereignty. Even planting gardens in urban areas (full disclosure: my area of employment!) doesn’t amount to food sovereignty.

Direct action approaches like Occupy the Farm may not be enough, because, Zavala reminds us, “Those that are in positions of government and economic power are restricting these alternative food system models. They’re not thinking about feeding people; they’re mostly thinking about the bottom line. And if we all created our own food systems, how would they profit?”

The entrenched corporate opposition to food systems change has pushed food sovereignty activists beyond the direct action approach to address the institutions of power. After a long period of focusing effort outside the political system, activists are now looking to the government for change. In the mid-2000s, for example, the federal Farm Bill finally became a top priority for many sustainable agriculture advocates. Long after the law was the main target of efforts to ensure food security (through SNAP). But, it has remained close to impossible to use the Farm Bill as a tool to promote food sovereignty.

“The current political climate is an extreme difficult one, the legislative process is complex, and that process can often be quite corrupt, as we have seen numerous times,” Finley says. “However, if we want food sovereignty, we can’t shy away from tough political battles, because there are certain political issues that underpin or undermine food sovereignty, like land ownership or agribusiness subsidies.”

Recent lobbying over the Farm Bill provides a clear example of the complexity and difficulty transitioning from a food security movement to a food sovereignty movement. Food security activists (often representing low income urban constituents) have been pitted against farm sustainability activists (more often rural-minded) over the funding that the bill controls. In an era of austerity, this can lead to Sophie’s-choice like dilemmas: Either cut food stamp funding or cut programs that provide support to farmers transitioning to organic methods of production.

Luckily, there’s an alternative to this false choice. That choice is to develop democratic spaces at the local and state level to craft collaborative solutions that benefit both consumers and producers. Across the country, Food Policy Councils(FPCs) are bringing together diverse constituencies to determine how local policy can be leveraged to achieve positive food system change. These local groups identify problems as a community and then seek to solve them through a process of consensus-building and pressuring local governments. Food Policy Councils have worked on things like institutional food procurement, the use of urban open space for agriculture, nutrition education and funding for food banks. More recently, FPCs are scaling up, coming together to affect policy on the state and federal levels.

The food movement’s shift from security to sovereignty can be instructive for the broader movements for environmental sanity and democratic governance. By asking the simple question, “Who’s in charge here?” food sovereignty elevates the importance that power has in our food systems. The concept expands our critical capacity beyond consumer choice to consider that we are all “co-producers” of the food system. “Sovereignty” is a frame that can be used to think about process in relation to natural resources, not just outcomes, and it can help encourage solidarity and cohesion amongst myriad movements and sectors within the food movement and outside of it.

Social movements focused on sovereignty can help build a more democratic and accountable political system. This, in turn, would allow for a more sustainable approach to natural resources, and a more egalitarian economic system. By talking “sovereignty” from the start, change-makers can pursue a mutual end goal from any number of individual struggles. When Paul Hawken described “the largest movement on Earth” in his book Blessed Unrest, he was clear that the millions of individual and NGO efforts to help were a movement, but just didn’t act like one.

Sovereignty, whether of food or fiber or healthcare, may the concept needed for these many struggles to become the movement that it could be.

San Francisco native Antonio Roman-Alcalá has been irrationally dedicated to urban sustainability since he decided that there wasn’t enough “land” for all dropouts to go “back to”. Since graduating from UC Berkeley, Antonio has been pursuing a life of meaningful enjoyment: teaching farming and permaculture at Alemany Farm and Texas Street Farm; playing drums and guitar in the band Future Twin; writing about the sustainable food movement as a perpetually critical insider; sharing his film In Search of Good Food; organizing the urban farm movement via the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance, and writing an ambitious treatise on human nature, environmental sustainability, and social transformation.

The Great Mexican Maize Massacre

Gene Giants Prepare the Genetic Wipe-out of One of the World’s Most Important Food Crops

Agribusiness giants Monsanto, DuPont and Dow are plotting the boldest coup of a global food crop in history. If their requests to allow a massive commercial planting of genetically modified (GM) maize are approved in the next two weeks by the government of outgoing president Felipe Calderón, this parting gift to the gene giants will amount to a knife in the heart of the center of origin and diversity for maize. The consequences will be grave – and global. With the approvals and December planting deadlines looming, social movements and civil society organizations have called for an end to all GM maize in Mexico. Mexico’s Union of Concerned Scientists (UCCS) has called on the Mexican government to stop the processing of any application for open-field release of GM maize in Mexico.[1]ETC Group joins these calls, and appeals to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – intergovernmental bodies mandated to support food security and biodiversity – to take immediate action.

Outrage and alarm rang out through Mexico when the world’s two largest commercial seed companies, Monsanto and DuPont (whose seed business is known as DuPont Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc.), and Dow AgroSciences (the world’s 8th largest seed company) applied to the government for the planting of 2,500,000 hectares (more than 6 million acres) of transgenic maize in Mexico.[2] The land area is massive – about the size of El Salvador. Scientists have identified thousands of peasant varieties of maize, making Mexico the global repository of maize genetic diversity. If the agribusiness applications are approved, it will mark the world’s first commercial-scale planting of genetically modified varieties of a major food crop in its center of origin.

“If Mexico’s government allows this crime of historic significance to happen, GMOs will soon be in the food of the entire Mexican population, and genetic contamination of Mexican peasant varieties will be inevitable. We are talking about damaging more than 7,000 years of indigenous and peasant work that created maize – one of the world’s three most widely eaten crops,” said Verónica Villa from ETC’s Mexico office. “As if this weren’t bad enough, the companies want to plant Monsanto’s herbicide-tolerant maize [Mon603] on more than 1,400,000 hectares. This is the same type of GM maize that has been linked to cancer in rats according to a recently published peer-reviewed study.”[3]

The poor in Latin America, but also in Asia and Africa, will particularly feel the effects, where breeding from maize diversity supports their subsistence and helps them cope with impacts of climate chaos. Along with Mexico, southern African countries Lesotho, Zambia, and Malawi have the highest per capita maize consumption in the world.[4]

The Mexican government insists that the target areas in the north are not part of the center of origin for maize, as traditional varieties weren’t found there. But this is not true: peasant varieties have been collected in these states, although to a lesser degree than in areas to the south. Many scientists as well as the National Biodiversity Commission (Conabio) consider the whole Mexican territory to be the center of origin for maize.[5] According to a review made by Ceccam (Center for Study of Change in Rural Mexico), the government’s newly drawn ‘center of origin’ map is historically and scientifically wrong, designed in order to justify the planting of GM maize by transnational companies.[6]

Commercial-scale planting (and subsequent re-planting) of GM maize will contaminate peasant varieties beyond the target regions, via the dispersal of GM pollen by insects and wind, as well as via grain elevators and accidental escape from trucks that transport maize all over Mexico. Scientists expect that contamination’s negative effects on peasant varieties might be irreversible and progressive, thanks to the accumulation of transgenes in its genome, leading to an erosion of biodiversity.[7]

Hundreds of Mexican agronomists and other scientists as well as Mexico’s peasant, farmers’ and consumers’ organizations have voiced their opposition to the proposed planting, but the outgoing administration of President Calderón – with nothing to lose before his term ends on December 1 – is expected to side with agribusiness. Mounting pressure, both inside and outside the country, may complicate matters.

If the planting is allowed, however, farmers growing maize may become unwitting patent infringers, guilty of using “patented genes” and may be forced to pay royalties to the patent owners, as has already happened in hundreds of cases in North America.

“It would be a monumental injustice for the creators of maize – who have so benefited humankind – to be obliged to pay royalties to a transnational corporation that exploited their knowledge in the first place,” said Silvia Ribeiro, ETC Group’s Latin America Director.

In 1999, the Mexican National Agricultural Biosafety Commission established a moratorium on GM maize trials and commercial planting because of Mexico’s unique position as the center of origin and genetic diversity for maize. Calderón’s government arbitrarily broke the moratorium in 2009, although the conditions that motivated the moratorium were unchanged. Since then, the new biosafety commission (CIBIOGEM) has given its approval of 177 small GM maize field trials to 4 transnational companies (Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta). The GM field trials themselves have been criticized for lacking biosafety rigour – failing to comply even with Mexico’s weak biosafety law.

Silvia Ribeiro argues: “The so-called public consultations have been a charade, since the trials were approved without taking into account critical comments – even when they represented the majority of comments, many of them from well-known agronomists and other scientists. On top of that, the results of the trials were kept confidential, but are now providing the justification to allow commercial planting.”

After his official visit to Mexico in 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, recommended that the Mexican government reinstate the moratorium on GM maize, both because of its impact on biodiversity and on Farmers’ Rights.[8] The Mexican government ignored the recommendation.

Ana de Ita of Ceccam points out that the area applied for in the Sinaloa and Tamaulipas (Mexican states in the North of Mexico) exceeds the area currently planted to irrigated maize there. “So it appears the companies are planning to replace the whole area of maize as well as other crops,” she says. “This is outrageous, as there is no reason for Mexico to risk its own history and biodiversity with GM maize. Mexico already produces enough maize to exceed the human consumption needs in the country, and it could produce much more by supporting peasants and small-scale farmers without handing over its food sovereignty to transnational companies.”

Maize is central to the cultures, economies and livelihoods of the Mexican population, where most people eat maize in different forms every day. The amount of maize that Mexicans consume far exceeds the average per capita consumption of most other countries (115 kg/year). 85% of the Mexican maize producers are peasants and small farmers, with fields smaller than 5 hectares. These producers have an essential role in providing more than half the food for the population, particularly the poor. At the same time, they are caring for and increasing the crop’s genetic diversity because of the decentralized way they grow maize – planting many different varieties, adapted at local levels, along with a number of other crops and wild species.

In 2009, the Network in Defense of Maize,[9] together with La Via Campesina North America, sent an open letter signed by thousands of other organizations and individuals to FAO and the CBD, asking them to take action to prevent GM maize contamination in Mexico.[10] The former directors of both international organizations dodged the request, even though both institutions have committed to protect agricultural centers of origin.[11] We now ask the new directors of FAO and the CBD to take immediate action to protect the center of origin and diversity of maize.

For further information:

Silvia Ribeiro, ETC Group Latin America Director,
Verónica Villa, ETC Group, Mexico,
Tel: (+52) 55 63 2664

Ana de Ita, CECCAM,
Tel: (+52) 56 61 53 98

Pat Mooney, ETC Group Executive Director,
Tel: 1-613-241-2267

Red en Defensa del Maíz:
Centro de Estudios para el Cambio en el Campo Mexicano, ceccam:

[1] UCCS (Unión de Científicos Comprometidos con la Sociedad), “Statement: Call to action vs the planting of GMO corn in open field situations in Mexico,” November 2012, available online:
[2] The list of commercial applications for environmental release of GMOs is available here: (In Mexico, DuPont Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., is known by the name PHI México.)
[3] Gilles-Eric Séralini et al., “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize,” Food and Chemical ToxicologyVolume 50, Issue 11, November 2012, pp. 4221–4231. See also, John Vidal, “Study linking GM maize to cancer must be taken seriously by regulators,” The Guardian, 28 September 2012, available online:
[4] Alfred W. Crosby, review of James C. McCann, Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500-2000 in Technology and Culture, Vol. 47, No. 1, January 2006, pp. 190-191.
[5] A. Serratos, El origen y la diversidad del maíz en el continente Americano, 2nd edition, September 2012, Mexico City Autonomous University and Greenpeace, available online:; National Commission for Biodiversity, Project Centers of Origin and diversification.
[6] Ceccam, La determinación de los centros de origen y diversidad genética del maíz, Mexico, 2012, available online:
[7] UCCS, “Transgenic Maize Estrangement,” México, 2009, available online:
[8] Olivier de Schutter report on Mexico, paragraphs 53-55. See Mission to Mexico, 2011, available online:
[9] The Network in Defense of Maize includes more than 1000 indigenous communities and civil society organizations. It was created in 2001, when it was first discovered that native Mexican maize had been contaminated by GM maize. Since then, the Network has resisted the advance of GM maize contamination at the local level, particularly in rural areas. Both ETC Group and Ceccam are members of the Network (
[10] The letter is available online:
[11] The CBD’s former Secretary General, Ahmed Djoghlaf, did not reply to the open letter. The former FAO Director General Jacques Diouf did not reply either, but delegated Shivaji Pandey, Director of FAO’s Plant Production and Protection Division, to respond. Pandey, a well-known advocate of genetically modified crops, wrote that FAO could offer advice, but that biosafety was a Mexican issue.

Seeds of Freedom.

Globalised food system has failed the poor.

The World Economic Forum’s annual gathering is usually little more than a toast to the benefits of increasing global gross domestic product (GDP), trade and investment. But this year’s meeting comes at a time when economic expansion can no longer be taken for granted and when the uneven benefits of past growth are sparking mass social unrest.

So it is little wonder that doomsday scenarios about the “seeds of dystopia” and the risks of “rolling back the globalisation process” are being dangled in Davos. The world’s economic and political leaders stand warned: do globalisation better, or it will be derailed by the growing legions of the discontented.

Leaders would be unwise to ignore this warning. Discussions in Davos must go beyond how to rectify the imbalances in developed countries’ debt-to-GDP ratios. They must finally pay attention to the wider imbalances that are generated by unfettered globalisation.

Popular anger is directed not only at the bank bail-outs, soaring public debt and bleak employment prospects of recent years. All around the world, people have fallen afoul of a two-track economic process whereby whole industries have been sacrificed to cheaper imports, whole regions have been consigned to abandonment or degradation and whole populations have been frozen out of economic progress.

Nowhere are these imbalances more evident than in the global food system. Globalisation has been wholeheartedly embraced in the service of feeding the world: bilateral and multilateral trade agreements have been put in place to allow food to flow from food-surplus to food-deficit regions.

Yet this model has failed spectacularly. The food bills of the least-developed countries increased five-or sixfold between 1992 and 2008. Imports now account for about 25% of their current food consumption. The more they are told to rely on trade, the less they invest in domestic agriculture. And the less they support their own farmers, the more they have to rely on trade. Countries that fall into this vicious cycle leave their citizens vulnerable to historically volatile prices on international markets, which means increased hunger and insecurity.

Despite the persistent challenges of hunger and food inequality, people are told to embrace more open markets, more trade and more globalised economic processes. Yet open markets do not function as perfectly as many at Davos would like to think. Food moves where purchasing power is highest, not where the need for it is most urgent.

This blind embrace of globalisation from above means missing out on key opportunities that do not fit the dogma. If we were to support developing-world small landholders, who are often the poorest groups, we could enable them to move out of poverty and enable local food production to meet local needs. Trade would complement local production rather than justifying its abandonment.

Trade and investment agreements are the gateways through which globalisation passes on its way to redefining a country’s economic landscape and they are increasing at an impressive pace. There are 6092 bilateral investment agreements in force, with 56 concluded in 2010 alone.

That growth reflects the flawed economic model of the pre-crisis years, which relied on indifference to where growth came from, how sustainable it was and who was benefiting from it. If we are to learn anything from the crisis, it must be to start asking the right questions.

Every new bilateral agreement, every chapter of globalisation, should be measured against new criteria. How sustainable and how evenly spread will the macroeconomic benefits be? Will they facilitate genuine development and provide dignified opportunities to those who become economically displaced?

Globalisation involves winners and losers — that has been established.

But losing out, for a subsistence farmer, means sinking into dire poverty and hunger.

Is the denial of a vulnerable population’s right to food an acceptable byproduct of a trade deal? Should the goal be to multiply the interests of powerful multinationals? Are these the economic processes that we want, or need?

These are the questions leaders must ask at Davos. Globalisation can survive the crisis. But not as we know it. Globalisation must be taken back for the interests of the many. © Project Syndicate, 2012.

 • De Schutter is the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food.

Food as a Commodity.

Food is one of the most basic of human needs. Routine access to a balanced diet is essential for both growth and development of the young, as well as for general health throughout one’s life. Although food is mostly plentiful, malnutrition is still common. The contradiction between plentiful global food supplies and widespread malnutrition and hunger arises primarily from food being considered a commodity, just like any other.

For many millennia following the origin of our species, humans were hunters and gatherers—an existence that one might think of as tenuous. However, judging from archeological evidence as well as recent examples, hunters and gatherers generally ate a diverse diet that supplied adequate nutrition. For example, studies in the 1960s and ‘70s of the !Kung of southern Africa, foragers for literally thousands of years, indicate that although they ate meat that they hunted, about two-thirds of their food was plant-based—nuts (supplying more than one-third of caloric intake), fruits, roots, and berries—and their diet provided approximately 2,400 calories a day. The groups of hunter-gatherers were egalitarian, with everyone participating in the provisioning of food.

Agriculture, which developed some seven to ten thousand years ago, provided surplus food that allowed the development of cities and the hierarchies and civilizations that went along with them—farmers, artisans, priests, kings, warriors, scribes, and other functionaries. But just because there was a surplus did not mean that people were better nourished than hunter-gatherers. In fact, the narrowing of available foods used from the wide variety in the hunter-gatherers’ diets, along with the reliance primarily on grains to provide calories, is thought to have caused a decrease in the health of early agriculturalists—as indicated by their decreased height compared that of hunter-gatherers. In these agricultural societies surplus food production was mainly appropriated for the use of the non-food producing classes. Most pre-capitalist agricultural societies had many producers relative to non-productive classes.

In some ancient empires imperial tribute took the form of food shipped long distances from the place of production. North Africa, for example, was the granary for Rome. Much of Chinese history involved constructing infrastructure to store and provide food far from its place of production. Nevertheless, in much of the world (including feudal Europe) food was produced either by peasant farmers and consumed by their families or else appropriated by landed aristocracies on a fairly local basis. What markets existed were often on a barter basis and trade in food was in kind, without becoming a commodity.

This changed with capitalism or generalized commodity production. The endless accumulation of profits, the motive force of the capitalist system, occurs through the production of commodities or services to sell at a price in excess of the production costs. Production for the purpose of sale and profit, instead of production for use, is a defining characteristic of capitalism and essentially all commodity exchanges take place in markets. During the early stages of capitalism, when most people still lived and worked on the land, a large portion of food was produced to be consumed locally in the rural areas and did not exist as a commodity. However, farmers near growing cities and/or near water transport shipped food to the industrializing urban centers.

The commodity nature of food became much more pronounced as capitalism grew and conquered most of the world’s societies. Imperial powers brought the peasants of their colonies into the money economy by extracting monetary rather than in-kind taxes. The need to obtain money to pay taxes began a process that converted a portion of the food produced into commodities.

The industrial phase of capitalism caused rural populations to decline in Europe, North America, and Japan. People were forced off the land and looked for work in the cities, moving to the growing industrial centers. (Many also migrated from Europe to North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and elsewhere.) The development of canals, railroads, and road systems allowed for long-distance transport of food within large landmasses. Advances in shipping by sea also greatly decreased the cost of global trade in food.

Almost all of the crops and animals raised using the scale and approach of industrial farming are sold as undifferentiated commodities. Farmers sell their crops to buyers who resell the raw commodities to be processed—or themselves process the raw commodity—with the semi-processed commodities then sold to final processors/packagers who sell to wholesalers who then sell to retailers who finally sell food to the public. Thus, the farmers producing the bulk of food in the wealthy countries have become greatly separated from the public that finally purchases their products—not just physically, but also by the long chain of intermediaries between farms and people’s tables. Farm mechanization has increased labor productivity, leading to fewer farmers and larger farms. As industrial methods were applied to raising crops and animals, the agriculture-input sector grew dramatically and became highly concentrated—with relatively few companies now producing and selling farm machinery, fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds. Industrialized food systems also saw concentration and centralization of production and growing monopoly power. For example, large integrated “protein” (meat) firms now contract with farmers to produce poultry and hogs in large facilities under crowded and inhumane conditions. Because corporations mandate that their contractors be located near where they decide to build slaughtering facilities, this frequently means long distance transport of feed. Beef cows are increasingly raised in large feedlots.

Indeed farming, the actual raising of crops and animals, is only one part of the whole food system. The commodity nature of all parts of the agricultural/food system—farm inputs, actual farming, purchasing and processing raw agricultural goods, and wholesaling and retailing—means that many different types of commodities are produced and sold. Farming itself has been reduced to a component in a larger system of agribusiness, with many of the remaining small farmers in the United States increasingly becoming subcontractors to large corporations. The input side of agriculture was one of the last sectors of the economy to go through concentration of ownership, leading to fewer machinery companies, fewer “agrichemical” (fertilizer and pesticide) companies, and fewer seed companies. A few input and purchasing/processing corporations are able to exert near monopoly power. One of the most recent developments in the inputs sector has been the creation of transgenic (genetically modified, or GM) varieties of crops. Industry consolidation was stimulated by the greater control exerted on prices (and farmers), and today about 40 percent of the entire global seed market is controlled by three firms—Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta.

Globally there is still a significant portion of food produced on small landholdings for personal consumption or very local markets—in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. However, in the United States, Western Europe, and Australia (and now in Brazil, and even more recently, Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia) crops are increasingly produced on large, highly mechanized farms for either national or international sale. Most of these countries actively promote large-scale production for export, to either obtain foreign exchange or to help their international balance of payments situation.


There are a number of important implications of the commodity nature of food production, processing, and consumption. In capitalist economies, as noted, nearly all enterprise is for the sake of producing commodities for sale—whether the “product” is an absolute necessity such as food and health care, or a luxury such as a private jet plane or a huge house. More and more of the natural world, including water supplies and the very genes of life, are being brought under private control with the aim of making profits, rather than to supply the needs of people.

However, there is a critical contradiction when any basic human need is produced and sold as a commodity, whether we are considering food, health care, drinking water, or shelter. Capitalism naturally produces a stratification of wealth that includes the unemployed, the working poor, a better-off working class, a middle class, and a relatively small group of very rich individuals. The bottom strata of society—encompassing the members of what Marx called the reserve army of labor—are absolutely essential to the smooth working of the system. It allows easy access to labor when the economy expands and helps keep wages down, as workers are aware that they can easily be replaced.1 Even in a wealthy country such as the United States the numerous unemployed and those in low-paying jobs cannot afford all of their basic living costs—rent, electricity, transportation (irrational patterns of development plus inadequate public transportation means that cars are frequently needed to get to work), clothes, medical care, food, etc.

Given that poverty in the United States is not absolute destitution, the poor sometimes have options: they may purchase more or less food of higher or lower nutritional value, skip meals, get food stamps (now called SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program), or receive food assistance from charities. The poor commonly have little money left for food after rent and utilities are paid. In the summer of 2011, approximately 46 million people were receiving food assistance through Federal programs, inadequate as it is. Still, despite the abundance of food, a high average per capita income, and various forms of assistance available, some 50 million people in the United States are considered to be “food insecure.” Of these, over 12 million adults and 5 million children have “very low” food security, with one or more members of their households lowering their food intake.

In some parts of the global South, of course, conditions are far worse. The commodity nature of food results in food price levels far above many people’s meager means, producing a lack of adequate nutrition. The United Nations estimates that there are close to one billion people worldwide who suffer from malnutrition. This leads to severe health problems and death for millions. Food deprivation, though falling short of severe malnutrition, is still a very serious condition. Hence, a sense of injustice associated with rising food prices and unequal access to food was a major factor spurring revolts in the Arab world over the last year.

Because food products are commodities, and the whole point of the food/agriculture system is to sell more and make more profits, there is massive advertising surrounding food, especially the most profitable sector—processed foods. High caloric but low nutritional-value foods, such as sugary breakfast cereals, are pushed on children. And because these processed foods are relatively inexpensive and available at local convenience stores that often do not carry higher quality food like fruits and vegetables, the commodity nature of food is part of the explanation for the surge in obesity, especially among the poor.

Food crops have many different uses other than direct human consumption. They can be processed into a variety of forms—breads (pitas, tortillas), potato chips, frozen dinners, pasta, ice cream, etc. Corn is commonly processed to obtain industrial starch and sugars (high in fructose). A relatively high percent of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States are used to feed poultry and hogs as well as beef and dairy cows (that, from an environmental point of view, should be eating grass and legume forages that the bacteria in their rumens convert into usable energy and protein for the animals). And with the push to lessen dependence on imported oil and to have a supposedly more “green” source of liquid fuels—corn, soy, rape, sugar cane, palm oil, and jatropha (a non-food crop raised only to make biofuel) are being grown to produce either ethanol or biodiesel.

In the United States and Europe, there are governmental mandates and subsidies encouraging production of both food and non-food crops, which are then used for biofuel feedstocks. This is an important part of the explanation for the tight markets and high prices for corn and oil crops. A UN Food and Agriculture Organization report says: “By generating a new demand for food commodities that can outbid poor countries and food-insecure populations, industrial biofuels highlight the tension between a potentially unlimited demand (in this case for energy) and the constraints of a world with finite resources.”2 It was the search for another market for corn that induced Dwayne Andreas, CEO of the grain purchaser/processor and feed grain conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), to gain influence over politicians and spend lavishly on both Democrats and Republicans. ADM was the main backer for the corn-to-ethanol industry and might be considered the grandfather of the current mandate to mix a certain percent of ethanol with gasoline (in the process of increasing from 10 to 15 percent).

The commodity nature of food by itself limits access by the poor. Market pressures and incentives contribute to the interchangeability of key food crops that can also be used for animals or fuel production; the possibility to grow crops for strictly industrial use instead of food, if the price is right; and huge amounts of hoarding and speculation on agricultural commodities (see below). Land can be used to grow crops for a number of purposes: food for people, food crops that are also potentially feeds for animals, and industrial feedstocks (cotton, jatrohpa, corn to make sugar or other products, and crops like hay which are strictly for animals). Market prices guide farmers’ production. When ethanol prices increase, more land goes into corn for ethanol. If cotton prices increase, a portion of the land that would have gone to grow corn and soybeans will be planted with cotton. Market prices also guide the ultimate utilization of crops that have multiple uses. For example, should soybeans be used to make vegetable oil for human use, be feed to animals, or be converted into biodiesel fuel? The need to feed hungry people does not enter the calculation.

When a poor (so-called “developing”) country attempts to solve its food problem primarily by encouraging farmers to produce more, bumper crops tend to depress prices, thus helping the poor gain greater food access. However, depressed prices may be problematic for farmers, many of whom themselves are poor. This has happened recently in Zambia, where “massive production can send prices tumbling. The smallest farmers, who are the least productive, suffer doubly by producing little and getting paid a pittance for the crop.”3 Thus, bumper crops in capitalist agricultural tend to favor the larger farmers, especially those using inputs such as irrigation and fertilizers that help produce high yields. However, the resulting low prices may force large numbers of small farmers, many unable to protect their crops from the vagaries of nature and lacking the financial resources to weather hard times, into deeper poverty.

A new dimension has been added to the phenomena of food as a commodity—a new land grab, with private capital and sovereign wealth funds purchasing or leasing land in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to produce food and biofuels for markets for the home countries of the investors.4 As with food, the most basic input for its production, soil, becomes a commodity ripe for either speculation or to go to the highest bidder. In many countries of the global South, traditional land tenure systems are thrown aside as land is purchased or rented under long-term agreement by private capital or national sovereign wealth funds. The purpose is either to make money, or to produce food or fuel (jatropha or other fuel crops) for the “home” markets. This creates even more rapid “depeasantization” as more farmers are pushed off the land and into city slums that have no jobs for them. It is estimated that some 20 million hectares (50 million acres) have either been sold or are under long-term lease to foreign countries or foreign capital. “In Africa they are calling it the land grab, or the new colonialism. Countries hungry to secure their food supplies—including Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, South Korea (the world’s third largest importer of corn), China, India, Libya, and Egypt—are at the forefront of a frantic rush to gobble up farmland all around the world, but mainly in cash-starved Africa.”5

The “highest and best use” of any commodity is where it can get the best price, regardless of the social, ecological, or humanitarian consequences. One small example of the contradictions that arise from this is a result of the growing market in the North for quinoa, a grain grown in the Andes that is especially nutritious because of its balance of amino acids. This benefits farmers by increasing crop prices, but at the same time it means that this traditional and nutritious food is becoming too expensive for local people.6

Another implication of the commodity nature of food is that it is increasingly subject to speculative price movements. Raw commodities such as metals and food crops have become a prime target of speculators who want to bet on the price changes of tangible products, rather than completely relying on the complex bets embodied in many “financial instruments.” The Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT, owned by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange), opening in 1848, is the oldest organized foodstuffs futures and options trading exchange. Throughout most of its history the CBOT and the other commodity exchanges were used primarily by those interested in hedging prices because they bought, sold, or used the physical products—farmers, buyers, and food processors. It was a sound way to protect your business against the vagaries of weather and competition. But with the financialization of the economy everything has become fair game for speculation, so food and other agricultural products (as well as other raw commodities) have become just more bets that can be made. With the so-called “Commodity Futures Modernization Act,” commodity markets were deregulated in 2000 and “structured” financial products were developed to allow various types of speculation. In addition to straight bets on individual commodities, commodity index funds (pioneered by Goldman Sachs) begun to track prices of commodities. The amount of money in these funds increased from $13 billion in 2003 to $317 billion in 2008. As U.S. hedge fund manager Mike Masters explained: “Speculators today have about 70 percent of the open interest in commodity markets. Ten years ago, they controlled roughly 30 percent of the market.”7 With so much money flowing into the food commodity markets, prices are driven up in a speculative upswing. This, of course, does not mean that commodity prices will only keep going up—they fluctuate based on economic conditions, world food stock levels, crop yields, rumors, and fads. But speculation drives prices up and down further and faster, and as a result contributes to hunger for many—sometimes millions—when prices peak, and to the ruin of small producers when prices crash.

When food—a basic necessity for human health and survival that is currently produced in sufficient quantity to feed everyone in the world a basic nutritious diet—is a commodity, the results are routine hunger, malnutrition, premature deaths, and famines when tight supplies result in exceptionally high prices. There are examples of farmers and the public organizing alternative ways to grow food for people instead of the market—such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms in which people purchase (frequently on a sliding scale according to ability to pay) a share of the produce during grown during the season. These types of arrangements between farmers and the public are encouraging because they demonstrate an alternate approach to food. However, the only way to guarantee that food reaches all people in sufficient quantity and quality is to develop a new system that considers food a human right and no longer considers it a commodity. Only then will we be able to fulfill the slogan, “Food for People, Not for Profit.”


↩ For a discussion of the reserve army see Fred Magdoff and Harry Magdoff, “Disposable Workers: Today’s Reserve Army of Labor,” Monthly Review 55, no. 11 (2004): 18–35.
↩ High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, “Price volatility and food security,” Committee on World Food Security, Rome, July 2011,
↩ Samuel Fromartz, “The Production Conundrum,” The Nation, October 3, 2011, 20–22.
↩ GRAIN, “The New Farm Owners: Corporate Investors and the Control of Overseas Farmland,” in Fred Magdoff and Brian Tokar, eds., Agriculture and Food in Crisis: Conflict, Resistance, and Renewal (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).
↩ Margareta Pagano, “Land Grab: The Race for the World’s Farmland,” The Independent, May 3, 2009,
↩ Simon Romero and Sarah Shahriari, “Quinoa’s Global Success Creates a Quandary at Home,” The New York Times, March 19, 2011,
↩ Deborah Doane, “As food speculators make money, the world’s poorest suffer,” CNN Opinion, June 22, 2011,

Maya Food Threatened: Statement vs. GMO Corn In Belize.

It comes as no surprise to us that today the Maya of southern Belize are faced with yet another threat to their existence and way of life. The government of Belize is poised to approve testing of GMO corn seeds developed by Monsanto in our country. For the Maya, GMO corn reminds us of what happened after the arrival of Europeans, who promised us progress and salvation, but whose mere presence introduced diseases that decimated our people and enabled them to overcome us by force, settle on our lands and harvest our untold wealth.

The Maya people refer to ourselves as the people of the corn. Corn has been our staple food and a unique resource that grounds our existence, since the Maya people and our ancestors created it through millennia of selective breeding of the tiny teosinte grain. We have planted the corn, season after season, within the rainforest of southern Belize. In the past, we have been criticized for our slash and burn system of agriculture, when in fact, our rotational system of farming corn and intercropping is one of the only sustainable forms of agriculture in the climate and terrain conditions of southern Belize, and is based on a system of respect and value for Mother Nature; so we forgive the critics.

Now, companies like Monstanto have taken corn, the intellectual property of millennia of Central America’s indigenous people freely shared with the world, and inserted into it genes from other organisms, and tell us that their new, genetically modified corn is superior and good for us. Despite being blamed by newcomers for deforestation and the imminent demise of the rainforest for over a century, the Maya of Toledo continue to live in the most forested region of Belize. The number of schemes that have been foisted upon us by agricultural “experts” over the decades is legion; they have failed and caused our people hardship while our traditional methods continue to sustain us. We have reason to be skeptical of claims by people from other parts of the world that they know better than us about farming in our forests, that they have a better way, that following their science will make life better for us. GMO corn is another such scheme. We are told that to resist GMO crops is to be backward, against progress, against science. They do not tell us that many countries have banned or severely restricted GMO foods. They do not allow them to be grown; they do not allow them to be imported into their countries. These countries include some Caribbean countries, the European Union, Brazil, Peru, Paraguay, Japan, Egypt, the Phillipines, and China – some of the fastest growing economies in the world. In 2007, France withdrew authorization to plant Monsanto GMO corn there after initially allowing it. Resistance to GMO crops is not backward, it is forward thinking.

We are told that GMO seeds are resistant to pests, and so they will provide us with better harvests. In the United States, the same GMO corn strain that Monsanto wants to introduce in Belize was widely adopted by farmers in Iowa and Illinois. It is supposed to resist corn beetles (rootworm). Just this summer, many of those farmers suffered massive losses as fields of corn toppled over from rootworm invasions. The GMO seeds are not only losing effectiveness, but have contributed to the evolution of a pesticide-resistant “superbug”. In Maya traditional farming, pests are kept low naturally, without pesticides, by burning the field when clearing, by planting combinations of crops, and by moving our milpas periodically.

We are told that GMO seeds are more reliable and will provide better harvests. They do not tell us that in South Africa – one of the first countries to adopt GMO corn –the Monsanto GMO corn failed massively in South Africa in 2009 – in 82,000 hectares, the plants grew beautifully, but the cobs were seedless because of “underfertilization processes” in Monsantos’ laboratory”. Those farmers got some compensation, but for Maya farmers, compensation for crop failure later isn’t enough; our families face starvation if the corn harvest doesn’t come in. They do not tell us that in India, farmers who adopted Monsanto GMO cotton on promises of better yields and lower pesticide costs got 35% less crop, and it cost them more to produce. An estimated 125,000 farmers committed suicide due to the crop failure.

We are told that GMO corn is more efficient, and cheaper. They do not tell us that in order to survive, GMO crops need chemical fertilizers and pesticides. As pests gain resistance, more and more chemicals will be required to sustain Monsanto corn. They do not tell us that we will have to buy more and more chemicals, and pay for seeds every year. As Maya, we plant seeds that we save from our previous harvest; they are a gift from the Earth that cost us only our labour. Introducing GMO corn steals that birthright from us.

We are told that if Maya farmers do not want GMO corn, we do not have to use it, but that we should not deny commercial farmers in other parts of the country that right. But once they are being grown in the country, there will be nothing to prevent them from contaminating our local corn, whether we want their Frankenstein genes or not. And once our crops are contaminated, whether we like it or not, Monsanto could be able to make us pay. In Canada, a farmer whose crops were contaminated by GMO plants and who then used seeds from those plants the next year was held to have violated Monsanto’s patent on the plant. He had to destroy the seeds, which also meant destroying the unique variety of the crop he had developed over decades of farming. We are told that BELIPO has the power to deny patent protection to Monsanto, which would protect farmers from this kind of control and dependency to some extent – although Monsanto could still enforce dependency by selling only sterile seeds. But the government hasn’t committed to this action – and another thing that they don’t tell us is that Monsanto has been accused and even convicted of bribing government officials in other countries, including Indonesia and Canada, to allow policies that benefit them. Monsanto cannot be trusted, and a government that allows its devastating products into our country cannot be trusted.

Through our long struggle to defend our lives and our lands, corn has fed us, sustained us, and given us strength. We have always been cash poor but we have food, and can build our homes for shelter without having to buy from hardware stores. So we are not surprised now that our corn itself is under attack. This threatens our independent, self sustained lifestyle and livelihood. We make no apology to state for the record that the introduction of GMO corn is an assault on the food security and independence of the Maya people, to weaken our strength and resistance.

Governments and commercial interests have invaded our forests, appropriated our lands and continue to illegally extract the rich resources that we have long protected us as a people. They stole our culture to sell it for tourism for their own benefit. They challenge our identity and our nationality by spreading the myth that we are recent migrants from Guatemala and not indigenous to Belize. None of this has discouraged the Maya from standing strong and defending the land and her children. On the contrary, we have gained more strength and enjoyed consistent success in the hearts of the Belizean people, the courts, and the international community. Now the government has a new tactic: they seek to starve us, by introducing laboratory-made corn to destroy our Native corn, throw us into dependence on agribusiness corporations and eventually, as farmers sink under the expense of GMO crops, dispossess us of our lands.

Remember, People in Toledo do not grow their corn to sell they grow it to feed their family and animals. If there is some left, then they bring it to the local market in town to sell. People do not make enough money to keep on buying these seeds and all that comes with it. The result is that people not be able to maintain their farms, and be forced to the towns and cities and cayes in search of jobs.

The push for GMO corn in Belize is about corporate greed, not the needs of Belizeans. Let us defend our corn and the integrity of our natural ecosystems . For over 500 years we have managed to survive; we are a resilient people. We do not need, and we will not accept your corn!


March 2018
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