Is this the end of real food?

by Jeremy Seifert

• How we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used. – Wendell Berry

When people first hear just the basic facts concerning genetically modified organisms (GMOs or genetically engineered foods) – the DNA of seeds altered with genes from other organisms like bacteria so food crops can withstand herbicides that will kill all other plants, patented by giant chemical companies and found in 80% of processed foods – the standard response is “Oh, my God.” For some, it’s just an exclamation, but for others, I imagine, it’s the beginnings of a prayer. There’s a mixture of horror and disbelief, as if finding out we’re living inside a very strange sci-fi novel. Beyond that, it’s the sting of humiliation from being ignorant about something so big, mixed with the anger that comes from feeling like you’ve been duped.

Even without understanding what a GMO is or why it matters, most of us believe, as citizens of a supposedly free and democratic society, that we have the right to know if they are in the food we eat. The fact we don’t know and that our right to know has been taken away by corporate greed and government collusion, should upset and mobilize people. When all the food and seed and water and air is owned and patented by giant multinational corporations, will we even protest? Do we have the wakefulness and willpower to take that first step and stand up for this basic right?

That central question is why a tiny story from Haiti impacted me so deeply and inspired me to make a film about this hidden takeover of our food and the world’s seeds. Months after the horrific earthquake that levelled Port-au-Prince, 10,000 rural farmers marched in the streets against Monsanto. In the midst of their hardships, these farmers rejected seeds donated to Haiti by the giant agrochemical company, crying out “Down with Monsanto!” They symbolically burned Monsanto’s seeds, which represented slavery, debt and the extinction of their own seeds and way of life. They stood unified in their fight for food sovereignty and native seeds as a common inheritance of all humanity.

GMO OMG movie poster
I kept asking myself, “What do they know that we don’t?” Having long suffered, they possess courage and conviction that we have never even begun to arouse in ourselves. We haven’t known that we needed this courage or conviction because most of us didn’t even realize there was a fight on our hands for the future of food, our right to choose and the health of the environment and our families.

After a long drive north from the ruins and tent cities of Port-au-Prince into the treeless mountains, and then hours further to Hinche and Papaye, I remember my very first conversation with Jean-Baptiste Chavannes, the leader of the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP). He began with a big smile on his face, saying, “The objective of Monsanto is to make money. The objective of Monsanto is not the quality of food that people are eating. Monsanto’s objective is not to protect life. It’s not to protect the environment.”

Chavannes’ smile then disappeared, replaced with passion and urgency. “When people like me say these types of seeds are poisonous, when I say these seeds are destroying the life of the land and destroying the people, that’s when I attack the interest of Monsanto.”

He cut to the heart of the issue and it was right there in the open for everyone to see. The agrochemical industry spews lies just like the lead and tobacco industries did before them and we believe them until the truth finally bursts forth, usually from the work of brave scientists, researchers, professors and activists who risk their careers and reputations to go against the status quo.

Monsanto says they’re all about farmers and yet the company has sued hundreds in court and bullied thousands with its mass of lawyers and private investigators. The biotech industry says we need GMOs for higher yield, and we need that higher yield to feed the world, but, for anyone paying attention, that is the furthest thing from the truth. The facts on the ground show that GMOs don’t actually increase yields, and 30 years of peer-reviewed research from the Rodale Farming Systems trial shows that organic farming can match their yields and do even better in times of flood and drought … all without toxic chemicals, synthetic fertilizers and patents.

We also know that the wealthiest countries waste almost half of the food they produce, meaning that the world produces enough food to feed nearly 14 billion people right now. And it’s no secret that most GMOs go into making the worst food on the planet, devoid of the nutrients we need for real health, or into ethanol production – not into feeding the poor. But they tell the lie so well, exploiting the poor to prey on our emotions, that most of us believe it without looking beyond their slick 30-second advertisements.

Are we surprised the industry is lying to us? A giant corporation only focused on profit and securing markets for further growth is almost beholden to itself and its shareholders to lie if lying means profit. I don’t want to become a jaded, pessimistic person, always thinking the worst, but I also don’t want to be a fool. And not being a fool in the current climate of “corporatocracy” means assuming that giant corporations monopolizing the market are probably lying to us and abusing power. That isn’t being cynical; it’s just common sense.

Chavannes wasn’t deceived by the promises of increased yield and profit, miracle seeds and wonder chemicals. He knew, as we all know, that these companies aren’t asking themselves, “What’s good for this society, for people’s health, for the earth?” No, the questions they are asking are, “What will increase profit? How can we produce more in a shorter amount of time, eliminate competition, ensure repeat customers and make more money?”

Apple stapled to a pear
The new reality of the world is that giant chemical companies are feeding us and our families. And those questions of profit and growth are the ones they’re paying attention to, not the ones concerning you or your family or this land we all share and live on.

Maybe corporate greed and corruption aren’t enough to deter people from a cheap hamburger because, well, there will always be selfish monsters abusing power, but we still have to eat, right? Perhaps the death of the family farmer under the current paradigm of big industry and corporate consolidation within the food system doesn’t really hit home enough to make a change?

But I would hope that the potential health risks would at least cause parents to stop feeding their children GMOs until all the data is in. Long-term, independent studies show damage to rat livers and kidneys when fed an exclusive GMO grain diet and new findings link Monsanto’s “Roundup” weed killer to Parkinson’s disease and cancer.

With peer-reviewed, independent studies coming out with real results that contradict the industry’s short-term studies, it seems safe to say all is not well with this genetically altered food. Should we really allow ourselves to be a part of this experiment? And even if you’re willing to take the risk, do you have the right to subject your fellow citizens or children to it?

Once you know about GMOs, it is not an issue you can stay on the fence about because you eat every single day. There’s no way out because what you eat shapes the world around us. What you eat makes you a participant in a larger system, one that interacts with the planet, whether you like it or not.

In his book, The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry writes, “In order to understand our own time and predicament and the work that is to be done, we would do well to shift the terms and say that we are divided between exploitation and nurture.”

That is the real divide in our food system: in energy, in consumerism and in our relationships with one another. If you choose to ignore GMOs and the giant corporations taking over our food because it’s overwhelming or you like the convenience and affordability of their products, then you’ve chosen to participate in the system of exploitation.

Those of us who do not live on and from the land must stand in solidarity with farmers here and around the world who choose the way of nurture – understanding the interconnectedness of all life and embracing a way of living that regenerates soil, seed and life so we have something to pass on to our children.

If you choose to be a “nurturer” rather than an “exploiter,” there are simple, powerful, practical ways to live out that philosophy. First, vote with your fork; second, demand labelling for GMOs and stand up for your right to know; and, third, participate in our democracy and help promote fair food and farm policies, creating the systemic changes necessary for true sustainability.

On a personal level, which collectively can grow into national significance and create real change, you can vote with your fork. Don’t buy GMOs or any products that come from the biotech or agrochemical industry. Buy organic, local, seasonal food. Shop at farmers’ markets and join a Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA). It will be tough making the transition and it will cost more, but this is something you can start doing today.

To make this first step achievable, we have to fight for the labelling of GMOs and that fight is happening in states across the US right now. The biggest push happened in the fall of 2012 with California’s Proposition 37. Over six million people voted for their right to know, but the pesticide and junk food industry (companies like Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Dupont and Monsanto) spent over a million dollars a day on deceptive ads in the last month to narrowly defeat the proposition. However, no one in the movement saw it as a defeat. They had exposed the industry’s fear of labelling and willingness to spend millions to keep us in the dark and they raised consciousness across the nation, paving the way for labelling efforts around the country. Connecticut and Maine have already enacted mandatory GMO labelling, as long as other major New England states do so and Washington state’s I-522 ballot initiative is the battle that will blow this issue wide open this year.

On November 5, the people of Washington will vote for their right to know, but they will be voting for all of us and thus all of us should sign up, donate and volunteer. A victory in Washington, close on the heels of victories in Connecticut and Maine, will force “Big Food” to accept the inevitable labelling at the national level and to cut a deal with regulators (the FDA in this case), as happened in Europe a decade ago.

Beyond voting with our forks and the immediate fight for GMO labelling, I agree with Wenonah Hauter, author of Foodopoly and executive director of Food & Water Watch, that the next step is politicizing the growing numbers of people joining the movement for real food, who are voting with their dollars, and organizing direct relationships between farmers and eaters. She writes, “Creating a just society where everyone can enjoy healthy food produced by thriving family farmers using organic practices can only be realized by making fundamental structural changes to society and to farm and food policies.”

I feel hope every time I see my son, Finn, with his seed collection, showing his awe and wonder at the world around him. I feel hope when I realize that we don’t have to keep doing what we’re doing, exploiting the earth for profit and applying the industrialized, capitalistic model to how we grow our food. I feel hope when I see the power of the Earth to regenerate itself and heal the damage we have done, if only we will stop our plundering and let it heal. And seeds give me hope as well – every one a tiny miracle and promise of life.

Jeremy Seifert is a filmmaker, activist and father of three. His debut film DIVE! has won at 22 festivals worldwide, establishing him as a storyteller with heart and humour. Jeremy’s second film, GMO OMG, tells the hidden story of the takeover of our food supply by giant chemical companies. Jeremy lives in North Carolina with his wife Jen and their three children.

Originally published in Fair World Project For A Better World

dice illustration by Kris Kozak

image of pear/apple © Reinhold Leitner

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