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 must reclaim 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.”