By: Nina Schwartzman, delegate to Oaxaca, Mexico
What would it take for a US city or region to ban genetically-modified (GM) seeds from their community? To say that they prefer their traditional seeds to the commercial ones offered them? To grow the food that they want and save the seeds, rather than being dependent on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and seeds from a big agribusiness?
It’s hard to imagine this happening in the US, but that’s exactly what one community in Southern Mexico did. On our “NAFTA, Farmers and Food Justice” delegation in January 2014 we visited the small town of Capulálpam de Méndez, in the state of Oaxaca. There, Teodoro, a local farmer, showed us his cornfield and the varieties of native corn growing on the steep hillside. He told us how a few years ago the government began encouraging farmers to use GM corn seeds. While the farmers in his region continued using their traditional seeds, some of the GM corn was found growing in some local farmers’ fields, likely due to the pollen being transported by the wind.
Seeing the threat this posed to their native corn, several communities in the region banded together and decided to ban GM seeds from their region. They continue to grow the ancestral varieties of corn that they have been growing for centuries. Teodoro told us that the GMO corn is bigger than the stumpy ears of corn in his field, but that the people in this mountain region prefer to know where their food comes from and how it was grown. They would rather have control over what they eat.
Señor Teodoro tells the group about native corn varieties  and communities’ resistance to GMO corn.
Another group we visited, CAMPO, helps fight poverty in rural Oaxaca by helping people set up small greenhouse gardens to grow vegetables, fruits and grains to feed their families. Thousands of people in Oaxaca have had to abandon farming and fallen into poverty, largely as a result of trade policy (i.e. NAFTA) that encourages imports of cheap corn from the US. Programs such as CAMPO’s encourage them to take their sovereignty back into their own hands by providing that most basic staple, food, for themselves and their families.
Thinking about my community in Baltimore, do we have control over where their food comes from? People with the interest and the means can buy food at farmers’ markets and organic restaurants, or grow their own vegetables in community gardens. But the majority of the food available, especially in low-income neighborhoods, is unhealthy and was produced in factory farms that pollute the land and water. The same farm policies that push artificially cheap corn onto the Mexican market are also pushing unhealthy food like McDonald’s and soda into communities like Baltimore, fueling obesity and diabetes. Ironically, many of the same Mexican farmers who have been forced to leave their homes because of poverty are those who do the difficult and low-paying work of harvesting and processing food in the US.
This delegation showed me that despite very different situations, people in the US and Mexico face many of the same problems, with roots in the same policies that promote large-scale agriculture and corporate profits rather than people’s health and well-being. However, we also saw examples of communities resisting and taking control over their livelihoods and their food sovereignty. We saw hope, the power of people and the importance of solidarity across borders.