The World Food Prize Gets Occupied

Rebecca Burns

Far from the New York Stock Exchange, Occupy protesters this week are turning their attention toward another center of corporate domination. Though Des Moines, Iowa seems an unlikely target, it’s currently playing host to the annual World Food Prize ceremony—and with it representatives from corporations like Nestlé, Pepsi and Monsanto. A coalition called Occupy the World Food Prize” has staged protests outside the three-day symposium, and on Wednesday five demonstrators were arrested as they disrupted an award ceremony. Tonight, the group plans to risk arrest again at the Iowa State Capital.

The World Food Prize is an annual event that brings together agricultural and food policy experts — but is also stacked with sponsorships from corporate giants like Monsanto, PepsiCo and General Mills. Demonstrators allege that the prize promotes false solutions to hunger that advance corporate control of food and agriculture.

Although their narrative seems similar to oursfeed the world’s hungry’they’re using this narrative as a smokescreen to promote corporate domination of agriculture,” says Jessica Reznicek, one of the five arrested Wednesday when she refused to leave the premises of the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates. All five were cited and released the same night as their arrest.

The arrests occurred at the ceremony for the Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application. Named for a pioneer of the mid-20th century Green Revolution,” the Rockefeller Foundation-endowed award implicitly promotes the idea that hunger is eradicated through scientific progress rather than socio-economic reform. Historical example shows otherwise: The green revolution that introduced new seed varieties and high-input farming techniques to Latin America and Asia in the 1970s increased food production, but did little to reduce hunger. Many analysts interpret the effort, led by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, as part of a broader anti-Communist project; historian Keith Griffin has noted that technical progress was regarded as an alternative to land reform.” Today, the Rockefeller Foundation continues to invest heavily in the development of genetically modified seeds.

Earlier this month, an alternative food sovereignty” prize was awarded by the group WHY Hunger in New York City. Food sovereignty,” a term first introduced by the peasant movement Via Campesina at the 1996 World Food Summit, has been defined as the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” As part of the demonstrations this week, Occupy the World Food Prize has also organized panels with the Korean Women’s Peasant Association, a winner of the prize that trains women farmers in native seed preservation and links them to local consumers.

By protesting the World Food Prize, Reznicek notes that demonstrators hope to introduce a counter-narrative that emphasizes the importance of not only food consumption, but just food production—an issue that she believes will resonate with many in Iowa. A 31 year-old native of southern Iowa, Reznicek says that when Occupy Wall Street protests began last year, she boarded a bus to New York and joined demonstrators at Zuccotti Park. When she heard about arrests taking place in the Iowa state capital, she turned around and headed home, and has been organizing with Occupy Des Moines ever since. We wanted to refocus our efforts in a more locally relevant way,” Reznicek says of the group’s decision to target the World Food Prize.

Occupy the World Food Prize is the latest in a series of Occupy campaigns focused on food and agriculture. Last month, Occupy Monsanto held a week of demonstrations at Monsanto offices across the country, including at the company’s headquarters in St. Louis. Wednesday, demonstrators clad in hazmat suits assembled outside of both the Republican and Democratic party headquarters in Washington, D.C., holding signs reading, Congress is Genetically Contaminated.”

As Monsanto pours staggering amounts of money into defeating efforts to label GMOs, Occupy Monsanto aims to highlight both parties’ connections to the agro-giant. As Wayne Barrett reported at the Nation last month, Monsanto was one of Bain Capital’s first clients in the 70s, and Mitt Romney himself helped spearhead the company’s reinvention from purveyor of Agent Orange and toxic sludge to benevolent research firm in a shiny new field called biotech.” When Romney named an eleven-member Agricultural Advisory Committee during the presidential primaries last fall, it included Monsanto’s principal Washington lobbyist, Randy Russell. President Obama, meanwhile, despite a campaign pledge to label genetically modified foods if elected, in 2009 appointed a former vice president of Monsanto as a senior advisor to the Food and Drug Administration. 

Monsanto’s ties to the World Food Prize also run deep: In 2008, the corporation donated $5 million to support World Food Prize Symposium, also known as the Borlaug Dialogue.” Reznicek says that the Occupy movement has opened space to discuss how money in politics also affects the food systemso much so that she predicts that this year’s Occupy the World Food Prize” demonstrations will inaugurate an annual campaign in the struggle for food sovereignty.

Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

In These Times August 2022 Cover
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue