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Butterflies and Farmworkers


When over 2,500 protesters rallied and marched against the USDA Ministerial Conference in Sacramento on June 23, the streets of Sacramento were filled with hundreds of police officers decked out in Darth Vader-like riot gear and the latest weaponry.

They looked as ridiculous as they were intimidating. The “terrorists” they were armed for battle against were a colorfully-dressed, loud and peaceful group including young women and men dressed as butterflies and ears of corn and, at the head of the march, Dolores Huerta, co founder of the United Farmworkers Union with Cesar Chavez.

The participation of Huerta is very significant, since the UFW was the first organization to fight against corporate agriculture in its world center, California’s Central Valley. After successfully organizing for better wages and working conditions, the union began warning politicians and the public about the danger of increasing mechanization and technology that would only benefit large agro-chemical corporations and displace small farmers and farmworkers from the land in both the U.S. and Mexico and other countries.

Now the UFW is part of the broad worldwide coalition, including Via Campesina, Food First, the Pesticide Action Network, and other organizations, pushing against the USDA’s and Monsanto’s drive to sell unsuccessful GE technology to the rest of the world.

“Genetically modified foods have never been tested by the EPA and FDA,” said Huerta at a rally before the march “Nobody knows what they will do in to people or the environment.”

The USDA, USAID and the State Department invited ministers from 180 nations to Sacramento under the the guise of furthering U.S. commitment “to reduce by half the number of hungry people in the world” by promoting next technologies for food production, including genetic engineering. The Sacramento Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture, Food First, Public Citizen and other opponents of GE food held a series of packed events prior to and during the conference, including a teach-in, debate, movie showning, organic ice cream socical and organic food fair.

“This isn’t about feeding people throughout the world,” Huerta said. “It’s about Monsanto or other large corporations making profits from selling GE food. If they really wanted to feed us, they would feed us healthy food. In fact, a lot of food is thrown away in the U.S. because it’s considered surplus.”

She emphasized that the technology being proposed at the Sacramento Ministerial is part of the same unsustainable, unproductive and toxic agriculture that drives small farmers off the land in Mexico and other countries – and forces them to go to work in U.S. fields for low wages.

“Farmworkers and small formers don’t profit from genetically modified food or other agricultural technology,” said Huerta. “The large agribusiness corporations are putting small farmers out of work. The small corn farmers in Mexico have lost their farms and come to work in the U.S. for slave wages.”

She emphasized that hunger will be solved not through GE foods and increasing agricultural production in the hands of a few, but by attacking poverty by supporting the organization of workers and small farmers.

“Companies like Monsanto are not going out of their way to give farmworkers a union,” she added. “It’s all about control of the world’s food supply by large corporations, not about solving hunger.”

She said that mandatory labeling of genetically modified food in the U.S. would be a good start because the majority of people don’t want GM food.

“You have to hand carry this message to everybody you know and get involved in the electoral process. We need to get the politicians who support GE foods and corporate agribusiness out of office,” she stated.

In a debate between GE advocates and opponents at the Crest Theatre that night, Silvia Ribeiro of the ETC group, the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration in Mexico, confirmed Huerta’s statements about corporate control of food being the real reason for the ministerial conference. She said that only five companies are involved in GE production, with Monsanto topping the list with 91 percent of the GE seeds.

“When we’re talking about GE crops, we’re really talking about one company, Monsanto, trying to get ahold of the production,” said Ribeiro . “The U.S. has 66 percent of the transgenics in the world. However, Monsanto GE crops, including corn, soybeans and canola, haven’t been doing well in the U.S. Monsanto’s sales have steadily decreased the last 4 years – and they need to find markets elsewhere.”

Independent research has revealed an alarming spread of GE corn genes in Mexico in fields many miles from where transgenic corn was planted. The drift of GE crop genes to fields planted with organic and conventional crops is something that is impossible to contain.

Monsanto has demanded that U.S. and Canadian farmers pay them for seeds spread onto their property by wind drift and bees, even though they didn’t want the seeds in the first place. Monsanto contends it owns the “intelletual property rights” to the GE seed and crops.

Percy Schmeiser, a farmer from Bruno, Canada being sued by Monsanto for refusal to pay for GE seeds that drifted onto his property, announced at Monday’s rally that his case against Monsanto would be heard in the Canadian Supreme Court in January. “This is about maintaining the rights of farmers throughout the world against big corporations like Monsanto,” he stated.

The ministerial is one of the key international meetings leading to September’s WTO meeting in Cancun, Mexico. The Bush administration will be pushing corporate globalization through the expansion of sweeping trade agreements in Cancun. Many opponents of GE food at the Sacramento protests, who contend that healthy food is a basic human right, will be sending representives to Cancun.

DAN BACHER can be reached at:

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher

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