And the World Food Prize Goes to . . . Monsanto?

Colin Kinniburgh October 18, 2013

“We’re all being affected by this system of neoliberal capitalism . . . and we must organize in our aspirations, in our visions, and in our hearts to begin to create a world we can all thrive in,” said Blain Snipstal, master of ceremonies at the Food Sovereignty Prize prize event. (Tony Saddler)

Hell no, GMO! Mon­san­to has got to go!

This was the mes­sage unit­ing pro­test­ers in over four hun­dred cities around the world last Sat­ur­day as they took part in the sec­ond glob­al March on Mon­san­to. Spread out across more than fifty coun­tries, the protests were most­ly coor­di­nat­ed by local groups and even indi­vid­u­als, with a min­i­mum of cen­tral­ized plan­ning. Their com­mon appeal is tes­ta­ment to grow­ing dis­con­tent with a food sys­tem that is mar­gin­al­iz­ing small farm­ers and lay­ing waste to the most ele­men­tal prin­ci­ples of sus­tain­abil­i­ty while enrich­ing an elite few.

Word of this dis­con­tent seems not to have reached pol­i­cy elites, how­ev­er, who yes­ter­day award­ed this year’s World Food Prize to sci­en­tists from Mon­san­to and Syn­gen­ta — the biotech­nol­o­gy giants now infa­mous for their patent­ed cock­tails of genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied (GM) seeds, pes­ti­cides, and her­bi­cides — pre­cise­ly for their pio­neer­ing” work in GMO research and advocacy. 

As the lau­re­ates gath­ered in Des Moines, Iowa, food jus­tice advo­cates from a half-dozen coun­tries also came togeth­er in New York to reg­is­ter their dis­sent against the biotech industry’s pat on the back. At an alter­na­tive cer­e­mo­ny on Tues­day, they gath­ered to hon­or the win­ners of the fifth annu­al Food Sov­er­eign­ty Prize, a pro­gram con­ceived by the U.S. Food Sov­er­eign­ty Alliance (USF­SA) as a direct chal­lenge to the World Food Prize. The main­stream prize was first award­ed in 1987 to the Indi­an sci­en­tist cred­it­ed with lead­ing his country’s Green Rev­o­lu­tion,” which through­out the 1960s and 1970s pro­mot­ed the cul­ti­va­tion of hybrid crops cou­pled with the heavy use of syn­thet­ic fer­til­iz­ers and pes­ti­cides. The rev­o­lu­tion” increased food pro­duc­tion, but crit­ics say that it also left small farm­ers depen­dent on expen­sive and unsus­tain­able tech­nolo­gies, trap­ping many in a cycle of debt. By con­trast, the Food Sov­er­eign­ty Prize, first award­ed by the USF­SA in 2009, cel­e­brates move­ments that are restor­ing con­trol of their food sys­tems to local com­mu­ni­ties through agroecology. 

The con­cept of food sov­er­eign­ty itself is root­ed in a social move­ment vision that draws togeth­er strug­gles for eco­nom­ic equal­i­ty, women’s rights, racial jus­tice, and, most fun­da­men­tal­ly, democ­ra­cy. In assert­ing the right of peo­ple to deter­mine their own food and agri­cul­ture poli­cies,” the USF­SA says:

Food sov­er­eign­ty goes well beyond ensur­ing that peo­ple have enough food to meet their phys­i­cal needs. It asserts that peo­ple 
their pow­er in the food sys­tem by rebuild­ing the rela­tion­ships between peo­ple and the land, and between food providers and those
 who eat

It is a vision that has already begun to lay the foun­da­tions for mass move­ments in the glob­al South — for exam­ple, in Brazil, where the Movi­men­to dos Tra­bal­hadores Rurais Sem Ter­ra (MST) or Land­less Work­ers Move­ment com­pris­es an esti­mat­ed 1.5 mil­lion mem­bers who fight for agrar­i­an reform pri­mar­i­ly by occu­py­ing large and often uncul­ti­vat­ed lat­i­fun­dios (estates). (The MST won the Food Sov­er­eign­ty Prize in 2011, and a few of its mem­bers attend­ed the 2013 cer­e­mo­ny as well.)

But the prin­ci­ple of food sov­er­eign­ty is also gain­ing trac­tion among mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties in the Unit­ed States and oth­er parts of the glob­al North — both in neglect­ed city neigh­bor­hoods and in farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties. As he opened the 2013 Food Sov­er­eign­ty Prize cer­e­mo­ny at New York’s Coop­er Union, mas­ter of cer­e­monies Blain Snip­stal — a young farmer from the Bal­ti­more area who orga­nizes with La Via Campesina and the South­east­ern African-Amer­i­can Farm­ers Organ­ic Net­work—put the con­cept of food sov­er­eign­ty into context.

We’re all being affect­ed by this sys­tem of neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism … and we must orga­nize in our aspi­ra­tions, in our visions, and in our hearts to begin to cre­ate a world we can all thrive in,” Snip­stal said. Over the course of the night, he went on to intro­duce activists fac­ing chal­lenges that ranged from the crip­pling effects of aus­ter­i­ty in Spain to caste dis­crim­i­na­tion in south India.

The evening’s keynote speak­er, Shirley Sher­rod, ground­ed these dis­parate strug­gles in a com­mon vision of social change. Sher­rod is per­haps best known today for a con­tro­ver­sy over false alle­ga­tions of dis­crim­i­na­tion that led her to resign from her posi­tion as the USDA’s Geor­gia State Direc­tor of Rur­al Devel­op­ment in 2010. As Snip­stal remind­ed the audi­ence, how­ev­er, Sherrod’s strug­gle began long before her appoint­ment to the USDA.

Ms. Shirley was born in Bak­er Coun­ty, Geor­gia, in Novem­ber of 1947 to Hosie and Grace Miller. In 1965, when she was sev­en­teen years old, her father, a dea­con at the local Bap­tist church, was shot to death by a white farmer, report­ed­ly over a dis­pute about live­stock. No charges were returned against the shoot­er by an all-white grand jury.

The year of her father’s death, Sher­rod began orga­niz­ing with the Stu­dent Non­vi­o­lent Coor­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee (SNCC), before going on to pio­neer a large-scale black-owned farm­ing coop­er­a­tive along with her hus­band Charles. Look­ing back at her par­tic­i­pa­tion in the civ­il rights move­ment, she remem­bered, some of us were mur­dered… . Some of us were beat­en.” And yet the non­vi­o­lent resolve cham­pi­oned by lead­ers like Mar­tin Luther King led to mean­ing­ful change. The food sov­er­eign­ty move­ment has wit­nessed its share of vio­lence as well: In Brazil alone, the mur­der of land rights activist Cicero Guedes last Jan­u­ary is only the most recent in a series of assas­si­na­tions tar­get­ing rur­al orga­niz­ers. But the Food Sov­er­eign­ty Prize aims to remind us that the fight for a demo­c­ra­t­ic food sys­tem has also seen its share of victories.

Indeed, the achieve­ments of the four groups hon­ored by this year’s Food Sov­er­eign­ty Prize — from Haiti, Mali, the Basque coun­try, and south India — are tes­ta­ment to fierce orga­niz­ing even in the direst of con­di­tions. Top hon­ors for the 2013 Prize went to a group of four peas­ant orga­ni­za­tions from Haiti, known col­lec­tive­ly as the G4/​Dessalines Brigade and togeth­er rep­re­sent­ing some quar­ter of a mil­lion Haitians. Formed in 2007 when Haiti’s four major peas­ant groups — Tet Kole, the Peas­ant Move­ment of Papaye, the Nation­al Con­gress of Papaye Peas­ant Move­ments, and the Region­al Coor­di­na­tion of Orga­ni­za­tions of the South East Region — joined as a coali­tion, the G4 has become a key col­lec­tive force in Haiti’s ongo­ing recov­ery from not just an envi­ron­men­tal earth­quake, but a polit­i­cal and social one,” as Snip­stal put it. Both before and since the 2010 earth­quake, the G4 has vocal­ly resist­ed the neolib­er­al tide — most notably by reject­ing Monsanto’s dona­tion of 475 tons of seed in June 2010, in a sharp act of defi­ance against the greater wave of irre­spon­si­ble, hol­low and in many cas­es preda­to­ry aid efforts that have swept their coun­try. Mean­while, through La Via Campesina, the G4 has ini­ti­at­ed learn­ing exchanges with South Amer­i­can farm­ers, invit­ing experts from coun­tries like Brazil to the Hait­ian coun­try­side to train local farm­ers in seed sav­ing and agroe­col­o­gy techniques.

For all the excep­tion­al chal­lenges fac­ing Haiti — not least the fact it remains both the poor­est and the most unequal coun­try in the Amer­i­c­as, with some 80 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion liv­ing on less than $2 per day, over half the pop­u­la­tion scrap­ing by on less than $1, and the top 1 per­cent con­trol­ling 50 per­cent of the country’s wealth — the Food Sov­er­eign­ty Prize cer­e­mo­ny under­scored more sim­i­lar­i­ties than dif­fer­ences between the con­di­tions its hon­orees were up against.

It is not every day that a vet­er­an civ­il rights activist shares the stage with a peas­ant orga­niz­er from south India, or that you hear the term neolib­er­al­ism” repu­di­at­ed in four dif­fer­ent lan­guages. But these are the moments when inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty becomes more than a catch­phrase and takes pal­pa­ble form. Per­haps Ros­nel Jean-Bap­tiste, of Haiti’s Tet Kole, put it best: The prize will act like a serum in our veins.”

Col­in Kin­niburgh is a writer and researcher liv­ing in New York City. You can find him on Twit­ter @colinreads.
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