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Concealed by Shutdown-Related Headlines, a Big Week in Food Politics

In case you were distracted by Tea Party antics this week, here's a rundown of important developments in GMOs, sustainable farming, and other food news.

Monsanto sign. Photo by Steve Rhodes.

This was a huge week for food politics, although you may not have noticed due to the brouhaha around House Republicans' shutdown of the federal government. From a judge in Mexico ruling that GMOs are an imminent threat, to the Food Sovereignty Prize ceremony in New York City, to Washington state's attorney general filing suit against a major opponent of GMO labeling for allegedly violating the state's campaign disclosure laws—food-related news kept popping up.

And, oh yeah, Wednesday was World Food Day. Here's a list of the week's more significant highlights.

October 10: A Mexican judge rules that GMOs are imminent threat, bans the domestic production of GM corn.

Federal judge Jaime Eduardo Verdugo ordered Mexico's equivalent of the EPA to immediately "suspend all activities involving the planting of transgenic corn in the country and end the granting of permission for experimental and pilot commercial plantings."

From Food First:

[The judge] also ruled that multinationals like Monsanto and Pioneer are banned from the release of transgenic maize in the Mexican countryside as long as collective action lawsuits initiated by citizens, farmers, scientists, and civil society organizations are working their way through the judicial system.

The class-action lawsuit is supported by scientific evidence from studies that have—since 2001—documented the contamination of Mexico’s native corn varieties by transgenes from GMO corn, principally the varieties introduced by Monsanto’s Roundup ready lines and the herbicide-resistant varieties marketed by Pioneer and Bayer CropScience. The collection of the growing body of scientific research on the introgression of transgenes into Mexico’s native corn genome has been a principal goal and activity of the national campaign, Sin Maíz, No Hay Paíz [Without Corn, There Is No Country].

October 15: Food Sovereignty Prize honors a national alliance that advocates for peasant farmers in Haiti.

The Food Sovereignty Prize was first awarded in 2009 as an alternative to the World Food Prize, a Big Ag-sponsored affair that is—no joke—honoring Monsanto's vice president and chief technology officer as one of its 2013 laureates. While the World Food Prize recognizes "contributions in any field involved in the world food supply," the Food Sovereignty Prize recognizes grassroots organizations "working for a more democratic food system."

On Tuesday evening they awarded their 2013 prize to a Haitian alliance called the Group of 4.

From the organization's website:

In 2007, Haiti’s largest peasant organizations—Heads Together Small Farmers of Haiti (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 forces as the Group of 4 (G4), a national alliance to promote good farming practices and advocate for peasant farmers. The G4, representing over a quarter of a million Haitians, invited South American peasant leaders and agroecology experts to Haiti to work cooperatively to save Creole seeds and support peasant agriculture. Together, the G4 and the Dessalines Brigade, as it became known—named for 19th-century Haitian independence leader Jean Jacques Dessalines and supported by La Via Campesina—have collaborated to rebuild Haiti’s environment, promote wealth and end poverty. The partnership also provided immediate and ongoing support to the victims of the 2010 earthquake, and the Group of 4 made global headlines when they rejected a donation of hybrid seeds from Monsanto.

October 16: World Food Day ignites discussion around "future of food."

Wednesday was the thirty-second annual World Food Day, and was themed on "Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition." It produced an interesting discussion in digital media, and the debate around industrialized farming (read: GMOs) versus sustainable farming continued.

From Marc Bittman (my hero):

If we want to ensure that poor people eat and also do a better job than "modern" farming does at preserving the earth's health and productivity, we must stop assuming that the industrial model of food production and its accompanying disease-producing diet is both inevitable and desirable. I have dozens of friends and colleagues who say things like, "I hate industrial ag, but how will we feed the poor?"

Let’s at last recognize that there are two food systems, one industrial and one of small landholders, or peasants if you prefer. The peasant system is not only here for good, it’s arguably more efficient than the industrial model. According to the ETC Group, a research and advocacy organization based in Ottawa, the industrial food chain uses 70 percent of agricultural resources to provide 30 percent of the world’s food, whereas what ETC calls “the peasant food web” produces the remaining 70 percent using only 30 percent of the resources.

It’s great to hear Bittman remind us that our industrial food system is incredibly problematic. If it isn't working so great for us, why should it work for developing nations?

And from the Wildlife Conservation Society, via National Geographic:

So far food security and the conservation of biodiversity have largely been considered separately. In fact, they are intimately connected and hold out the possibility of producing powerful synergies that could boost food production and enhance biodiversity conservation. That is why farmers should care about conservation and conservationists should care about agriculture.

Yet while agriculture remains a critical industry in the United States, responsible for close to 10 percent of U.S. employment, we have been neglecting the health of our soils as if they were someone else’s problem. A narrow focus on the productivity of a few staple grains like rice, wheat, and corn, has left us dependent on a narrow range of crops and varieties.

I'm a little fuzzy on whether the Wildlife Conservation Society is vaguely advocating for GMOs here (they write, in another part of their statement, that the solution requires "more science, not less"), but I like the their point that our food system's future will depend on conservation and biodiversity, not industrial monocrops.

October 16: Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson files suit against Grocery Manufacturers Association, alleging campaign finance violations

This is a big one.

The Seattle Times sums it up best:

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit today against the Grocery Manufacturers Association, alleging the group illegally collected and spent more than $7 million to oppose Initiative 522, the measure requiring labeling of genetically modified foods.

Ferguson's lawsuit, filed in Thurston County Superior Court, said the Washington D.C.-based trade association solicited big money from its members specifically for the anti-GMO-labeling campaign, yet illegally concealed the identity of those donors from the public by failing to register and file reports as a political committee.

As of this morning, the GMA has agreed to disclose the financing of its campaign to oppose Initiative 522.


Erin SagenErin Sagen wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Erin is a recent graduate of the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow her on Twitter at @erin_sagen.

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