This is the first of a five-part series on agriculture, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) and the reality of farming in Humboldt County and Oaxaca, Mexico.
Part 1: US-Mexican History: NAFTA and Agriculture
The tension between corporate globalization and agriculture was showcased in September at the WTO meetings in Cancún, Mexico. Several Arcata residents made the journey south to stand in solidarity with Mexican and other international farm groups. Much of the grassroots and civil society concern was focused around the agricultural chapter of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has fundamentally reorganized the market principles in Mexico since its implementation in 1994.
US interference in Mexico is certainly nothing new, and today’s agricultural struggle is illuminated with some historical context. As early as the 1780’s Thomas Jefferson predicted the US could take over Spanish colonies one by one, and the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 lent muscle to this prophesy (Smith, 1996, p. 18). Political instability followed the Mexican war of Independence from Spain in 1820, and provided a timely weakness for American expansionists. The Mexican-American war ended in 1848, with Mexico handing over 1.5 million kilometers of land to the USA, which has since become parts of TX, AZ, NM, OK, WY, CO, KS, UT, NV, CA (Ross, 1998, p. 35-6).
Although most youngsters on the Plaza associate the Zapatistas with Commandante Marcos and the indigenous uprising in Chiapas during the last decade, the term actually came about a century earlier, when a group of farmers from the state of Morelos banded together under the leadership of Emiliano Zapata, horse breeder and dirt farmer, to overthrown Porfirio Diáz, dictator extraordinaire. At the end of the Mexican Revolution, major democratic restructuring took place, and out of it grew the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which was founded on populist governing and incorporation of the peasantry. However, after the term of its founder, Lázaro Cárdenas ended, the PRI quickly slipped in the greedy, trickle-down economic philosophy that has characterized conservative government regimes both in the US and abroad. The PRI enjoyed uninterrupted hegemonic rule until 2001, when current Mexican President Vicente Fox of the PAN party was elected.
The irony of the PRI is akin to the irony of our own Democratic party. Both were founded on the principles of the underdog, that the little guy deserves as much of a voice as the big one. Yet time, that mischievous elixir, has distorted the agenda of both parties, to the point where they have become tools of elite interest groups. In fact, it was Democrat Bill Clinton and PRI President Carlos Salinas (along with the Canadian Prime Minister), who signed NAFTA into existence.
From the beginning, Mexican farmers and US industrial workers protested the Agreement. On January 1st, 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation rose up to protest the marginalization of indigenous people it saw in the text. Closer to home, the Battle of Seattle in 1999 showcased the contempt for corporate globalization that a multitude of social, environmental, and labor groups organized around. This resonated in Arcata because of concern over the livelihood of our local small farmers when placed in direct competition with cheaper imports.
NAFTA essentially takes market control out of local hands by removing protectionist tariffs that make imported products more expensive. It also discards agricultural subsidies, a real blow for farmers who cannot fetch a living wage for their crops in the free market. Perhaps, if these measures were implemented equally across the border, the neoliberal economic rationale competition would foster more efficient production would hold true.
However, NAFTA outlines separate agendas for each of the three countries. This means each nation has a different phase-out plan for subsidies and tariffs, a different list of products that may be protected, and different loopholes for retaining agricultural constituencies (NAFTA Doc. Ch. 3). President Bush has made use of these loopholes–Midwestern agriculture is some of the most subsidized in the world. Mexico’s Presidents however, have been timid to step on US toes since NAFTA was signed. Thus, they have complied with a severe subsidy phase-out plan, which requires total cessation of subsidization by 2009.
In practical terms, this means Mexican farmers are being undersold in their local markets, with no government compensation. Staple crops such as wheat and maize have been the most contentious, because production of these crops in the Midwest US continue to be so highly subsidized.
NAFTA embodies corporate globalization on both sides of the border. In Humboldt County, producers of melon, peppers, and tomatoes often find their market taken by produce imported from Mexico, which has a comparative advantage in climate and labor cost. This is not a phenomena that only lasts the growing season, but is consistent year round. Because of increased labor and energy costs, it isn’t worth it for farmers to greenhouse-grow these crops. Rather, it has become culturally acceptable to head over to Safeway for that January cantaloupe. Thus, Humboldt County farmers are limited to an income source through the three-month production period of August, September, and October, and must live off this money for the rest of the year.
Small-scale Mexican farmers, on the other hand, are watching the predatory pricing of US exporters take over their local markets. No longer the time when subsistence maize farmers can take the excess harvest to market and expect to sell at a decent price. Now, with maize in particular, genetic modification and the use of herbicides and insecticides in US economy-of-scale farming banishes the small-scale maize economy to the past.
With problematic affects on both Californian and Mexican small-scale producers, this begs the question, who is benefiting? Large biotechnology giants such as Monsanto and Cargill have been turning a tidy profit, as have the distributors; Safeway, WinCo, and CostCo locally, and Mexican superstore Gigante. One tactic Arcata farmers have sought to beat the rat-race is by sliding into the niche for organic produce, which brings a higher price as well as more sustainable land use practices. Mexico, however, has no organic labeling, and thus there is no specialty market.
Solutions to these economic dilemmas will have to be formed in an integrated approach that incorporates needs of both nation’s farming populations, while operating within the constraints of our current market system. The most realistic idea has been the exchange of free market strategy for fair market practice, which ensures a living wage for producers. However, such a strategy fundamentally negates the premise of NAFTA’s agricultural chapter, which seeks to eliminate exactly this kind of fiscal protection.
Next week, read about the effects of the Green Revolution in agriculture on Humboldt County and Mexico, and the significance of native seed use versus the planting of genetically modified seeds. Part Three will explore the case study of a village in Mexico where Monsanto’s Bt corn has been found. Solutions to NAFTA on both sides of the border will be explored in part four of this series. The final article will end with a discussion of GMO’s; their blessings, intricacies, and fatal flaws.
Smith, Peter H. (1996). Talons of the Eagle: Dynamics of US-Latin American Relations. NY, NY. Oxford University Press, Inc.
– Ross, John. (1998). The Annexation of Mexico: From the Aztecs to the IMF. Monroe, ME. Common Courage Press.
– North American Free Trade Agreement. Complete Document Printed from the Internet on April 6, 2001. www.nafta-sec-alena.org/english/nafta/toc.htm
Part two: From Organic to Transgenic
Let’s talk about food. Let’s talk about how our food was produced four decades ago versus now. Let’s talk about the historical metamorphous known as the Green Revolution, which occurred in the 1970’s and has forever impacted the way agriculturalists operate.
At the close of the 1960’s, massive changes in farming technology swept the world, initiated by the US, as the country sought an outlet for the byproducts of its petroleum industry (Khor, 1996 p. 50). First, let me say that many farmers in both Mexico and the US up until this time were relying on the manure from their animals or deliberately composted plant matter to fertilizer their fields. In the US, there was some credit line infrastructure, and the use of small machines in plowing and planting was common. Many large producers used toxic chemicals such as DDT to kill crop-damaging insects, but small-scale farmers did not. Although the industrial revolution had brought mechanization to farming, even to fringe rural locations such as Arcata, it was nothing compared to the assembly line, economy-of-scale production centers these operations became.
When the Green Revolution hit, it normalized the use of chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides by excessive media campaigns on the part of the companies, most of which were subsidized by the oil industry, as it was utilizing a byproduct created when oil is processed down from its crude form. The fiscal structure of credit and interest made it such that large-scale operations capable of assembly line output were more viable that the family farms which dotted California. Thus, this was a time of rapid consolidation of land, and of course, machines made these giant projects more efficient than human labor–people were laid off for tractors. What did this mean in practical terms for the farmers of Arcata? It meant that farms in the Southern Valley of California, which were easy distances from large urban markets, had a climate suited for a long growing season, and subsidized irrigation, expanded so rapidly that they took over the market in all state produce.
In Arcata, it was no longer possible to sell regular carrots and cucumbers because the Southern California producers could do it for less cost, and therefore could sell at a lower price. Advocates of free market capitalism might say that this is how it should work, that competition will distill producers down to the most productive, and all others must exit the market.
But what does ‘exit the market’ mean to the people who love to farm, who come alive when they grow things out of the Earth, or are carrying on a family legacy of farming? Should they resign themselves to being waitresses and shop clerks? As you might expect, the hardy citizens of Humboldt County would not stand such indignity, and it was partially in this way, as well as the back-to-the-land movement of the time, that generated the niche market known today as organics. By specializing in this way, our local farmers are able to do what they love and till earn a living.
Mexican farmers were impacted in a very different way than their California counterparts. Loss of market to large-scale producers was old hat for small and medium scale farmers in a country that has a documented history of 500 years of plantation-style agriculture. The real blows came numerous; manipulative credit schemes operated by agencies which trapped farmers in high interest rates in exchange for pursuing modernization techniques touted by the US but often inappropriate for the rural villages. The path to economic prosperity is not the same on both sides of the border. Unlike the US, Mexico has virtually no market for organic products. There is no government labeling or differentiation between crops started with genetically modified seeds and those that use a native seed strain. In practical terms, this means there is no niche market for traditional indigenous agriculture in Mexico. In a few tourist locations, such as San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, organic coffee is for sale in trendy cafes, and there are intentions of exporting, but little income has been generated. Rather, this group of indigenous people hovering just over subsistence production levels has become more marginalized than they have been throughout history.
One result is the dependence that Mexican communities have developed on federal rural assistance programs. These programs come into an area professing poverty alleviation, but it has in large part been the fruition of conspiracy between government officials and business leaders. There have been numerous documented reports of government aid programs bringing cases of mayonnaise, pickles, and other items useless to populations that need staple food but don’t have refrigeration.
In fact, I argue such programs actually further the poverty of some regions by causing dependency on inconsistent, low-quality goods at the expense of the tools necessary to remain self-sufficient producers. As groups like CONASUPO began offering discounted maize seeds, beans, and sugar, it became easier for indigenous people, such as the Zapotec of Oaxaca, to purchase their seeds and staples at the subsidized cost rather than grow their own. Here begins the core of my story–how Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) have appeared in the traditionally native seeds maize fields of Oaxaca.
CONASUPO imports maize from many different states in the US as well as from Midwestern US producers. It mixes this maize all together into 50 kilo sacks and sells it with only the label “maize.” Because Mexico has no organics laws, there is no testing for GMO’s on imported crops. In 2001, UC Berkeley professor of Genetics Ignacio Chapela was conducting research in Oaxaca and stumbled upon the discovery that Bt (bacillus thurmingensis) bacteria, used to deter corn ear worms and corn borers, was genetically implanted in the maize seeds of several small farm plots. A biotechnology giant, the Missouri-based Monsanto Corporation is the only known manufacturer of Bt that has trade relations with Mexico. When the source of maize was traced back by Chapela and his colleagues, they came upon a shocking discovery. The Bt contamination found in Oacaxa had traveled far; from the laboratory at Monsanto it went into US farmer’s fields. The farmer sold his surplus to the Mexican government, who distributed it to its rural assistance programs, who sold it to poor indigenous farmers, jeopardizing the purity of the native maize in their region.
Why was this allowed to happen? NAFTA demanded a deregulation of the Mexican market for US exporters, and relaxed all screening of imported goods, and eliminated tariffs that previously made importation costly. To bring the problem home, lets look at our conventional foods and try to figure out how many of them are genetically modified? Although there hasn’t been any research proving that GMO’s cause cancer, there also hasn’t been a long enough waiting period to see what happens a decade down the line. Essentially, we are guinea pigs for GMO’s the way people were for DDT in the time of Rachel Carson. That tomato from the supermarket, red and tasty though it may be, could be infused with fish enzymes or hormones to slow the maturation of the fruit, giving it a longer shelf life. School lunch programs in the US, like CONASUPO in Mexico, take the cheapest supplies they can, which is definitely not organic, may contain GMO’s, and eventually may be irradiated.
Maize has been intentionally cultivated in Mexico for 7,000 years, and is a staple food crop there as well as in the USA. Is it wise to gamble with human health, along with the well-being of our ecosystems based on the word of the biotechnology companies which have a vested interest in making their product appear safe? Next week in this column, I will discuss the case study of Ixtlán de Juárez, a small pueblo in Mexico that has become contaminated with genetically modified Bt maize.
– Khor, Martin. (1996). “Global Economy and the Third World.” The Case Against the Global Economy and For a Turn Towards the Local. Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith, eds. NY. Random House, Inc.
Part Three: The Case Study of Oaxaca, Mexico
Ixtlán de Juárez is an indigenous Zapotec village that sits tucked into the sharp mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. It has a population of 3,500 and has an economy based mainly on commerce and small-scale agriculture. I conducted fieldwork here in January, 2003, while working on my undergraduate thesis. Many of the villagers I spoke with prefer to be identified as Zapotecos rather than indigenas, as it preserves the cultural specificity of their ethnic group (Ramos, Interview, 1/03). Although the community has abandoned some of its traditional roots by giving up food self-sufficiency and much of its ethnic dress, it maintains a strong Zapotec identity in its philosophy, language, and relationship with the land.
The political structure of the village is also a powerful force giving the citizens a sense of community. Most people in Ixtlán participate in federal government very rarely—only by voting in an election and this only if it happens to coincide with the day they go to market. State concerns take more precedent, and many villagers are up to date on the politics of Oaxaca City, the state capital, though most view it distantly and with some disdain.
Local politics, however, are incredibly important and the vast majority of villagers participate in much more forceful ways than voting. The cargo system of traditional Zapotec villages works as a mandatory volunteer draft board (Ramos, 1-16-03). All men, ages 18 to 60 are eligible to be chosen by the current cargo counsel to fulfill a community position. Cargo translates into English as post or position, with the connotation of chore or burden. And indeed, it is a chore most Americans would not be willing to perform. Cargos in Ixtlán and the areas nearby villages range from the glory positions of being mayor, president, supervisor, and commissary, to hospital attendant, communal tractor maintenance person, or keeper of the collective fish farm (Ramírez & Marciel, 1-11-03).
Can you imagine your regular Arcatan being told they were required to perform maintenance on an aging tractor for no pay, but that it was for the good of the whole village? So many people that live in Arcata believe in the concept of a socialist or communal anarchist existence but walk the walk only by shopping at the Co-op. In the Oaxacan region known as the Sierra Juárez, these volunteer jobs are everyday reality, and they fill a needed gap in service where the federal and state budgets do not allot sufficient funds to pay people to perform these roles.
I mention the cargo structure mainly to illuminate the actualization of a community-mindedness many people in Humboldt County strive for, but rarely achieve. The cargo structure not only binds people to the well-being of their community in a profound way, but it makes them pay more attention to local issues when it is their father, neighbor, or local butcher who is polling the town for input on budget allocation. Of course, this may only be possible in a community as small as Ixtlán, where people will be held personally accountable for their actions. Even in a place as small as Arcata, there is enough anonymity than people can litter, speed their cars, or be disgustingly drunk without feeling the personal response of their peers.
What does this have to do with agriculture in Arcata and Mexico? The way a region governs itself is going to have a direct bearing on the livelihood practices it accepts by its citizens. Due to the sharp decline in the price of maize on the open market in Mexico, many small farmers have ceased preserving their own seeds at the end of a season and opt instead to purchase them. In indigenous villages such as Ixtlán, where incomes are very low, staples such as maize seeds are usually bought through the government subsidized rural assistance program CONASUPO.
The major dilemma of CONASUPO involves the deregulation of imports due to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the acceptance of the US and Mexican governments to allow genetically modified crops to cross their borders without being labeled. In the last nine years as NAFTA has been in full effect, major US producers of corn have sold off their surplus to the Mexican government, who then distributes it to CONASUPO headquarters, and from there is sent into all the rural crevices of the country. Many of the US farmers were using transgenic seeds, especially the kind known as Bt corn, which contains the bacteria bacillus thuringinsis, produced by Monsanto Corporation, which makes the plant immune to corn borers.
Bt corn seed has managed to travel all the way from Missouri to Mexico in less than ten years since the seed was first distributed. Farmers in Ixtlán and surrounding regions have always used native seeds, and when I spoke with them they said that they assumed the maize distributed by CONASUPO was maize like any other (Ramírez & Marciel, 1-11-03). The 50-kilo sacks CONASUPO sells are not labeled in any way besides the word ‘maize.’ Thus, these Mexican farmers have become unknowing planters of a transgenic crop. Indeed, they wouldn’t have found out for years if it hadn’t been for the ground-baking work of UC Berkeley Professor of Genetics Ignacio Chapela, who happened to be testing Oaxacan corn germplasm for an unrelated project.
When Dr. Chapela discovered that the maize in the Sierra Juárez region was contaminated by Bt, he published an article in Nature Magazine. This highly esteemed journal later asked him to retract his findings, under pressure from the biotechnology corporations that fund and contribute to the publication, but he would not. Thousands of acres of Bt corn are grown each year in the Midwestern United States. This crop may even be growing in Humboldt County, although farmers are reluctant to share this information because there is such public pressure against it here. But due to the complete lack of labeling required both in the US and Mexico, consumers need not be told if they are eating GMO crops or not. It is technically illegal to grow genetically modified crops in Mexico for commercial use, although no monitoring takes place that would enforce this law.
Many consumers purchase food that hasn’t been labeled organic with an ambivalence towards the GMO’s that food might contain. People trust that the USDA will let them know if something is dangerous for them, but if it has been approved, it must be ok. Not so for GMO’s. The problem is, no one will be able to know if they are ok for human consumption for many years. Sure, cancer cells have not appeared instantaneously on lab rats or humans that have been eating various GMO foods for the last decade. But what about after 25 years? After 50? The threat of GMO foods is that they are such a new science, they have not been tested properly for carcinogenic qualities or other elements that may disrupt hormone levels or immune system functions.
Arcata is brimming with conscious consumers that buy their organic produce at the farmer’s market and don’t use dioxin-coated tampons or work around lead and petrochemicals. But what about our loved ones, our stubborn parents and grandparents, low-income friends and students who will continue to shop at Safeway, and Costco, because the prices are cheap and no authority has said that the food these stores carry may be proven, 50 years after it has been on the market, to have some detrimental health effect? Hasn’t everybody read Silent Spring? The FDA CAN mess up, it HAS messed up, and there is no guarantee that it WONT mess up again, by allowing GMO foods on our local shelves with no warning to consumers.
We should take the lesson of Ixtlán to heart. A beautiful, healthy community has been contaminated unknowingly by a genetically engineered crop that threatens to undermine its entire ecosystem by contaminating native seeds. With Bt corn comes a whole new demand on the land. These seeds require more insecticide and fertilizers to work, and do not respond to the traditional intercropping and natural pest management plans indigenous farmers have used for hundreds of years. With these changing demands made by the crop, farmers will alter their ecosystems in ways they cannot understand in the present.
In Arcata, there is enough demand for organic produce that we are able to support a thriving community of organic farmers. But many local farmers have made the decision to spray their crops, and even to use transgenic seeds. They don’t advertise it, but these farmers have the potential to undermine their neighbor’s crops if the right precautions aren’t taken. Buffer zones are the most common regulation used to contain transgenic seeds and the use of sprayed pesticides. Under average weather conditions this may function to keep crops separate. Fierce winds, flooding, animals shuttling food from one field to the next, all of these factors may undermine the function of the buffer zone and allow contamination to occur anyway.
There is no way to insure the protection of your organic crop except maybe to be really far away from other people. But we see from looking at Arcata and Humboldt County that the map doesn’t look like that. Good farmland is clustered in the hard to find sunny, flat spots with decent soil. This means it is very important for farmers to talk to each other about their farm practices! Neighbors can have more affects on each other than many would like to admit. In the Sierra Juárez of Oaxaca this is taken care of in municipality forums, where leaders of each village gather to discuss all the issues relevant to other villages. Bt corn is certainly on their list these days. Maybe it should be on our agenda in Arcata as well.
Works Cited from Personal Interviews
– Hernandez, Lorenzo Marciel. (2003). Personal Interview with Informant. Yahuiche, Oaxaca, Mexico.
– Manzano, Vidal Ramírez. (2003). Personal Interview with Informant. Yahuiche, Oaxaca, Mexico.
– Ramos, Fernando. (2003). Personal Interview with Informant. Ixtlán, Sierra Juárez, Oaxaca, Mexico.-
Part Four: Solutions
Carlos Ramírez is a small-scale maize farmer and identifies himself as Zapotec, one of the largest indigenous groups in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. Mr. Ramírez doesn’t have much pull with his state and federal representatives regarding agricultural policy, although he pays them an annual tax on the land he cultivates. As I interviewed him, I had to look at why Mexican farmers have been left out of international government trade agreements and domestic policies that shape the fate of agriculture.
On one hand, certain protections for indigenous peoples were written into the Mexican Constitution of 1917, as a reward for their important role in the Mexican Revolution of 1910. On the other, Mexican politics, much as politics in our own country, are often governed by racist members of a privileged class in society who have entered office in attempt to create their own arena of power.
While in both countries there are many sincere individuals who seek office in order to strengthen their communities and work for the public good, these people are more often found at the local level rather than the federal or state. I mean, is Schzwarzenegger really thinking about the needs of inner city school children? Of course not, but he loves seeing his face plaster across every TV screen in the state.
The members of Arcata City Council, however, are likely to have a greater stake in their own decisions because they will be affecting their own home area, which contains their friends, family, and peer group. This is also true for Mexico, where state and federal politicians are too far away, both geographically and culturally, to understand the needs of the rural, indigenous villages. Member of these villages that serve in office at the municipal level, however, generally take the time to truly evaluate and strategize what will best for their community.
For some people, the not-in-my-back-yard phenomenon can actually be effective at generating more conscious citizenship. If 20 communities are simultaneously saying they don’t want a nuclear power plant in their neighborhood, maybe the power industry will listen up and think about a more acceptable way of generating power (or they might just go build it in a minority working class neighborhood where people are ignored and disenfranchised but that is too large a topic for this article). But what if people all over the world began saying they didn’t want genetically modified organisms in their grocery stores, or that at the very least they wanted them to be labeled? As consumers, we have some influence over our producers. If we buy what we want to support on an environmental and philosophical level, that trip to the store becomes more than an errand, it becomes a political statement.
Arcata has several amazing localization efforts that should be recognized here as potential solutions to corporate globalization and genetic contamination as seen in parts of Canada, Mexico, and or own messy country. Three cheers for the folks who have started the community currency project! By demanding that all participants receive a living wage for their services, they are proposing sustainable livelihood as well as creating an initiative to keep locally earned money going into local pockets. Rather than going to the mall and buying sweatshop made clothes and crafts, you can open the Humboldt Exposure paper, find what you want, and help further the vision of a sustainable community while getting your soap, bike parts, or textbooks.
The regular farmers markets are another wonderful way to keep your money local and your ethics sustainable. And after the markets finish for the season, it is still possible to find local products in stores.
Many people complain that organic food and farmer’s market food is too expensive. Not so! We have been tricked by the factory farms and unsustainable agriculturalists into thinking that costs of production can be externalized to the environment. In fact, most companies in the US and internationally push off a good deal of their production costs onto the environment, but this practice allows them to sell their product for cheap. Consumers have seen these sweatshop factory farm products so much that they hold these prices as the norm and anything above it too expensive. In fact, organic and sustainable farmers are selling their crops after factoring in the real cost of production. This means they spend a larger part of their income on soil-restoring methods such as cover cropping and manure, while non-organic operations will just keep adding chemical fertilizers to the soil for short term production increase, ignoring the fact that the soil is becoming more and more depleted and that their chemicals can leach into nearby waterways.
Of course, the list of reasons why local, sustainable business practices should be supported goes on and on. The point is, this is something Arcata can do more of, in attempt to prevent the social and environmental devastation going on elsewhere. We didn’t want Wal-Mart and we didn’t get it. We don’t want genetically modified organisms on our dinner plates. We have them as options in our stores, but if we can pay a little more to show our support for that sustainable dinner, our grandchildren will thank us.
Mneesha Gellman works at Mainstream Media Project: http://www.aworldofpossibilities.com/
She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org