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Shut Up and Eat

Agribusiness giant Monsanto tries to have its way with the food supply, but people are fighting back

by Erin Pihlaja on May 30, 2013


“When you close you eyes and visualize our planet, what do you see?” asks the narrator of an online video. In the same level, soothing voice, the man says, “Go outside and stand barefoot in the grass, look around, breathe the air, feel the planet move beneath you. What you’re feeling is a living planet. What you’re feeling is our home.”

The imagery that accompanies the script shows acres of green crops and smiling corn-fed people bathed in golden light. The background music suggests that the message is important—we must all accept the solemn responsibility for taking care of our Earth.

The video then shifts in tone, and speaks of farmers in underdeveloped countries who struggle because they have limited access to agricultural technology and markets. The narrator explains that the creators of the video, Monsanto, do everything possible to achieve their goals: to meet the needs of growing population, and to protect the planet.

“When farmers prosper,” the voice tells us, “so many more will also prosper.”

But, opponents of the multinational corporation argue, the only one who benefits from the sale and use of the pesticides and genetically engineered seeds that define most of Monsanto’s holdings is the giant agricultural biotechnology company itself.

In Albany, (l-r) Paul Jones, Pat Jones, and Liz Marsh join the national event March Against Monsanto. Photo by Erin Pihlaja

Those concerned are starting to rise up against Monsanto. Citizens in countries such as Hungary, India, France, and Haiti have burned or otherwise destroyed fields of Monsanto crops. On Saturday (May 25), people across the world organized in an event called March Against Monsanto. USA Today reported that organizers said that rallies were held in 52 countries and 436 cities.

Megan Meduna headed to the Capitol in Albany to take part in the local event. “I came out for many, many reasons, but I think the biggest thing is that to plant your own seeds and grow your own food should be pure and natural, and free for everyone,” she said. “That it’s patented and that so many farmers are going the way of this patented seeds is terrifying to me. We don’t know what’s in our food, and there’s all of these chemicals in our food. I know that [the chemicals] kill the bees, and that when the corn that pollinates other corn you’re not allowed to save your seeds even if you haven’t bought Monsanto’s corn.”

Monsanto patents the seeds that it creates to withstand exposure to Roundup, the pesticide it also produces. Farmers buy the seeds under an agreement that any new generations of the seeds created by new crops, even those that result from accidental cross-pollination from shifting winds, are the property of Monsanto. This means that farmers have to buy new seeds every year, which can be an expensive investment and is a foreign concept to the tradition of farming and gardening that relies heavily on seed saving.

Mora O’Meara drove her 16-year-old son, Andrew, up from Poughkeepsie to attend the Albany event even though there was a closer one in New Paltz.

“I thought this would make the biggest impact, at the Capitol,” he explained.

“My grandfather is a farmer in Missouri,” he continued. “He mostly grows soy.” Andrew O’Meara said that while he grew up, he spent summers on the farm. The way of life made an impact on him. He isn’t a fan of Monsanto.

“The way that they do stuff is not how it’s supposed to be. They’re changing what Mother Nature already gave us.” He said that he was familiar with what the patents meant to farmers whose crops were cross-pollinated. “They’d be Monsanto’s seeds,” he said. “They are basically monopolizing our food.”

“He has planted Monsanto, because he has no other choice,” said Mora O’Meara. “They basically own all of the farms around him, so if you have a small enough farm, it doesn’t make a difference.”

These fears of food monopolization have been reinforced in recent headlines. This past May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Vernon Bowman, a farmer from Indiana, who bought soybean seeds, usually used for feed for livestock, from a local grain elevator with the hunch that some of them might carry the Monsanto resistance to Roundup. His instincts were right, but the courts ruled that legally he was in the wrong.

The New York Times reported: “Farmers may not use a patented seed for more than one planting, ruled the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday in a battle between agro-giant Monsanto and a farmer who used the company’s patent-protected genetically modified soybeans without compensating it. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has ordered Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman to pay Monsanto close to U.S. $84,000 in damages.”

Many are also concerned with the idea that GMOs and pesticides create health problems and destroy the natural balance of the ecosystem. That’s what brought Paul Jones, Pat Jones, and Liz Marsh out on a rainy Saturday to join the Albany protest.

“We have been dealing with chronic inflammation and have not been able to find the source of it for about 10 years,” said Pat Jones. “The more and more that we’re finding out about how the pesticides like Roundup, which is used so commonly, as well as the GMOs, are affecting our health on this subtle daily basis, we’re really tired of it.” She added that she was concerned, with seed monopolization, about “how Monsanto is able to get through Congress without having research done.”

Marsh said, “We didn’t even realize until we stopping eating [food with GMOs] how much better we felt—it was incredible. Now every once in a while if I eat out, my symptoms escalate.”

Added Pat Jones, “Which means no McDonalds, no mainstream foods, no boxed things, no processed foods—it’s really hard socially, but it really has an affect on our health.”

Monsanto, which once manufactured PCBs, DDT, and Agent Orange before all were banned, was hit hard in a French court in 2012. Reuters reported: “A French court . . . declared U.S. biotech giant Monsanto guilty of chemical poisoning of a French farmer, a judgment that could lend weight to other health claims against pesticides. In the first such case heard in court in France, grain grower Paul Francois, 47, says he suffered neurological problems including memory loss, headaches and stammering after inhaling Monsanto’s Lasso weed killer in 2004.”

Currently the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require a label indicating if a product contains GMOs; doing so is voluntary. This month, the U.S. Senate rejected a bill that would have allowed states to require GMO labeling, The New York Times reported.

The article continued, “However, state legislatures in Vermont and Connecticut moved ahead this month with votes to make food companies declare genetically modified ingredients on their packages. And supermarket retailer Whole Foods Markets Inc. has said that all products in its North American stores that contain genetically modified ingredients will be labeled as such by 2018. Whole Foods says there is growing demand for products that don’t use GMOs, with sales of products with a “non-GMO” verification label spiking between 15 percent and 30 percent.”

At the Culinary Institute of America, where Mora O’Meara works, she says the increase in desire for non-GMO products is becoming the norm .

“Young people in college right now are so aware of it, they want to use better products, and they ask questions in class,” O’Meara said. “They want to know where the food comes from and where it is sourced from.”

“At the CIA, we see more and more people doing more farm-to-table stuff, or growing their food out back,” she continued. “People are having direct conversations with their farmers, who are businesspeople. If they know they’re going to plant Monsanto to get a yield they will, but if a chef approaches them and says, ‘Would you grow this particular crop and I’ll guarantee to buy it?,’ they’ll do that.”

She believes the answer lies in connecting the community. “There’s a lot going on with making the conversation with people who are using the food—consumers like us—but also people in food service who are sourcing food. If they can have a farm upstate and they know that they can make a profit but be local and sustainable, then everybody likes that now. A lot of people in the food service now are looking for farmers to cooperate with, it’s about distribution and making introductions.”

And in the end, she said, it comes down to appreciating the good stuff in life. “[Our family] are also food people. We know the difference of what real food tastes like and how it looks—just the color of it—what the eggs look like it. We know a lot of people who are beekeepers, and they’re concerned about the bees. It’s not just one part of society. Everybody eats, so it should be a part of everybody’s concern.”