The anti-GMO movement is enjoying both wide-spread publicity and legal wins these days. First, the Dine Nation of the southwestern United States declared their territory GMO-free during a recent “Corn is Life” Indigenous Gathering in Arizona. As the conference declaration read, “[Our seeds] are the source of our survival, today and in the hard times that are coming. We therefore declare the Diné Nation traditional homelands to be a zone that will be kept free from genetically modified seeds, plants, and animals as well as toxic pesticides. In that way it will be a healthy and safe place for our traditional seeds and plants, and our children and future generations to live, survive, and thrive within the boundaries of our four sacred mountains in good health, tranquility, and beauty.”
Now, Mexico has taken the unprecedented step of banning genetically-modified corn from its fields. On October 17 the District Federal Court for Civil Matters in Mexico temporary halted all existing and pending permits for genetically modified corn, preventing multinational corporations such as Monsanto from spreading GMO corn seed through commercial planting or field trials until the pending legal case is resolved. The action is a major victory for the Sin Maiz No Hay Pais (Without Corn There is No Country) Movement, an organization of farmers, educators, Indigenous Peoples, environmentalists, and farmers. As Eduardo Correa, coordinator of the Slow Food Youth Network in Mexico, part of the movement, says of the case, “It is our duty to take a stand and act accordingly with our convictions and ideals. It is no longer enough to be responsible co-producers; today we must take affirmative actions oriented to preserve all that we consider essential for nature, and for us.” Corn is an important staple crop for Mexico – committing to keeping their crops GMO-free represents a significant move in protecting Mexico’s traditional food heritage and security.
Across the globe in Hubei province, northern China, a rare strain of rice that nearly went extinct in the 1970s has been revived and is being re-introduced to the market. Kermes rice is notable for its rich red color and high amino acid content. Though it was used historically in imperial courts of the Qing Dynasty, the crop was passed over in favor of more high-yield strains of rice. Kermes rice was banned by the local government, under pressure to produce bountiful crops, and the seed nearly disappeared. Zheng Hehai, head of the Tangshan Daoxiang Rice Company, obtained the rice from the father of a family friend who hid a small supply of seeds after they were banned. Zheng uses no pesticides and only organic fertilizers; he considers the seeds to be a healthy alternative to GMO, a gift from China’s ancestors. “Kermes rice has low yield and is difficult to cultivate,” he admits. “So why should we plant more? First, it has special nutritional value. Second, it would be regrettable if we lost something that has existed for several hundreds of years.”
Rather than genetically-modified and mass-produced crops, Indigenous food systems, crops, and traditional farming practices are the key to producing healthy, sustainable food sources. The Food Tank identifies six compelling reasons why small, Indigenous, diversified crops are so important:
- They improve nutrition and food security – diverse diets are linked to better nutrition
- They preserve biodiversity – as Food Tank points out, 75 percent of the planet’s genetic resources have been lost in the 20th century alone
- They increasing yields – the group finds that polyculture operations (more than one crop, such as the Three Sisters planting method) typically produce 20-60 percent more than monocultures (single crops, such as mass-produced corn).
- They can help build soil health and repair depleted land – important to health crops, as soil degradation is found to result in a nearly 50 percent loss in crop productivity
- Water can be conserved by improving soil quality through strategic Indigenous crops, such as planting water-retaining legumes
- Perhaps most importantly, Indigenous crops can help mitigate the effects of climate change, as Indigenous crops are more resilient and can stand up better to extreme weather changes
However, change need not be left only to nation-wide movements and activism; community and small-scale initiatives are integral as well. For example, Australia has seen the emergence of small initiatives between local government and Indigenous communities are promoting the cultivation and education of Indigenous plants. In the past month, two such gardens have opened. The Dja Dja Wurrung of Bendigo, Victoria, are using a $9,006 grant from the Australian government to open a community nursery. As Lisa Chesters, member-elect of Dja Dja Wurrung Enterprises says, “This organization is doing so much for its people in central Victoria. They will be able to cultivate and grow native species which tell their story. It is a great opportunity for local Aboriginal people to share their stories and educate Aboriginals and non-Aboriginal people about the native species of the region.
Additionally, the University of Southern Queensland recently celebrated the official opening of the Gumbi Gumbi Gardens Indigenous cultural site, a collaborative effort between the university, the Toowoomba local community, and the Jarowair people, the traditional custodians of the land on which the university was built. Gumbi gumbi is a traditional medicinal plant used by the local Indigenous peoples. The garden will provide 2.2 hectares of land for the cultivating of Indigenous plants to be used for both food and medicine. The gardens will also be incorporated into certain courses for the university students. Vice-Chancellor Professor Jan Thomas hopes that the gardens, in addition to being educational, will promote harmony between the local and Aboriginal communities. “These gardens are a wonderful opportunity for locals and visitors to understand and appreciate he heritage of our district,” she said before the opening ceremony. “They are a visual symbol of the University of Southern Queensland’s commitment to reconciliation and an opportunity for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to move forward together. This public and enduring recognition will benefit all community members, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.”
In North America, it is harvest season – our upcoming holidays are primarily focused on the celebration of food and family. Now is the perfect time for contemplation – what can you being doing to help national and global movements against GMO and unsustainable agriculture? What can you be doing in your community to raise awareness and education? Where is your food coming from – and where should it be coming from?
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