Vandana Shiva vs. Monsanto

Aloha ‘aina. These words represent a deep component of the culture in Hawai’i–one that the speakers talked about passionately at the energy festival. I like this quote that gives a brief explanation of the concept:

Aloha ‘aina means love of the land. It is the profound respect we have for Hawai’i and the care we take to protect our Islands. Aina means that the land is the source of our food. In that sense, then, the land is what gives us sustenance; it is Hawai’i that sustains us. We who live in the Islands walk upon its earth, breathe its air, drink its water, and eat the food it provides. Hawaii is within us, a part of us.

What became, under development pressure, a call to reclaim Hawaiian land for the benefit of the people is now being used as a call to move toward a sustainable future. It’s a call increasingly heard across the globe, regardless of language or cultural difference. This was made clear yesterday by one of the most powerful and inspiring leaders on my radar: Vandana Shiva. Dr. Shiva is an Indian physicist, author, philosopher, and ecofeminist–and one of the most outspoken critics of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). She was in Honolulu yesterday speaking about aloha ‘aina at a rally in favour of labeling foods containing GMOs–if you have ten minutes to spare to be incredibly inspired, check out this video.

Did you catch what she said about Monsanto being Hawai’l’s biggest employer? Well, on Molokai this is a fact of life. When I first considered coming here, I had no idea I would be living so near the belly of the beast: with its small, remote population, Monsanto has taken advantage of the high unemployment on Molokai and now produces GMO seeds here to sell to farmers on the mainland. The eerily perfect, thick rows of corn, all genetically identical, stand out starkly against the hills of red earth and dry brush on Molokai. Workers in neon safety vests move through the rows marked with “No Trespassing” signs. At Monsanto HQ, dozens of huge white trucks and shiny new SUVs are parked neatly. A few doors down, giant painted signs read “Monsanto, get your toxic chemicals off my land!” Incredibly, the corn rows end just metres from the edge of town in Kaunakakai. In the neighbourhoods beside the fields are apparently the cheapest homes for sale on Molokai. It seems no one wants to live near the pesticide spray.

From the same company that brought us controversial chemicals like DDT, agent orange, bovine growth hormone (injected into dairy cows) and PCBs, Monsanto is probably the single largest threat to global food sovereignty. Whether it’s suing North American farmers when its seeds contaminate their land (sounds a bit backward, doesn’t it?), contributing to an epidemic of suicides among Indian farmers (Shiva pegs it at 270,000 in the past 15 years), causing birth defects and driving farmers off their lands in Argentina, causing horrifying tumours in rats, or financially controlling politicians and university researchers, (the list goes on….) Monsanto is hell bent on controlling the global seed supply–on which the global food supply rests. The company and its products are so reviled that after the earthquake in Haiti, Haitians burned seeds donated from Monsanto rather than planting them. It hired the infamous Blackwater mercenary army to infiltrate anti-GMO groups. Most recently, Monsanto donated a whopping $8.1 million to support the “No” side in the California referendum to make GMO labeling mandatory, which ultimately failed. Any company who bullies farmers into the trap of using its harmful pesticides and its patented RoundUp Ready seeds–and then takes them to court if they try to save seed from the crop–is a huge danger to global food security, biodiversity, and human health.

Monsanto is a very common topic around here at the Hui. Many have very strong feelings against the company, but it’s clearly a very complicated situation on the island. How can you effectively resist a force that is providing an income to your aunties, uncles, perhaps brothers, sisters, and parents, when jobs are so hard to come by?

And while GM corn usually ends up in Hawaiian households as high-fructose corn syrup and other additives in unhealthy processed foods, genetic modification has reached some of Hawaii’s major food plants. It turns out that about 80% of Hawaiian papayas are genetically modified. Articles claiming this “saved” the papaya export industry don’t mention the widespread contamination of backyard gardens and organic papaya farms–which can make them lose their certification.

From what I’ve heard, it sounds as if Hawaiians really began to get upset when scientists began pursuing genetic modification of taro. Taro is an ancient cultural staple considered to be the family of the people. Taro is such a culturally and spiritually important plant that the Hawai’ian word for family, ‘ohana, is derived from ‘oha, a part of the plant: as shoots grow from the tuber, people grow from the family. This starchy root crop, pro-GMO scientists have claimed, is “weak” in the face of pests. But as Connie pointed out the other day, taro survived being brought here in canoes from the South Pacific and supported a population in the hundreds of thousands. Though times have changed, I have a feeling taro doesn’t need scientists to mess with its biology in order to maintain its existence.

On a broader scale, Hawaiians–and Canadians, and all humans–have a big choice to make. Do we allow corporations to profit from messing with our biology, or can we maintain our existence without mutilating our food? I don’t want a laboratory controlling my food supply–which is a major reason I’m here at the Hui learning how to grow my own food organically. In the video, Vandana Shiva tells a story of visiting Italy as the economy collapsed in Europe. A political official took her to see what had happened in Rome: gardens had come up, and young unemployed youth had become seed savers and gardeners. Here’s my favourite quote from her speech:

“In the making of your own food is the making of freedom.”

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