As I write this, as many as 7.5 million Afghans are facing starvation this winter. An estimated fifty thousand tons of food a month is needed to feed them. Meanwhile, the U.S. war against Afghanistan’s Taliban regime continues to interfere with relief efforts. Every day the war goes on increases the risk of humanitarian disaster.
But is it fair to blame the U.S.? Don’t we send food to hungry people all over the world, saving millions from starvation? Not according to Anuradha Mittal, codirector of the Institute for Food and Development Policy — better known as Food First. She claims the U.S. contributes far more to world hunger than it does to feeding the world.
Food First was started more than twenty-five years ago by Joseph Collins and Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet. Designed to be a people’s think tank — more than half of its funding comes from individual donors — the organization seeks to establish access to food as a basic human right.
By now, we’re all familiar with the images of hungry people in Ethiopia, Somalia, India, Bangladesh. But how has it come to pass that so many people are without food? Is it because there simply is not enough food to go around? Food First works to answer these questions, educating the public about the root causes of hunger and debunking the myths put forward by corporations and the governments that serve them.
Mittal, a native of India, once believed those myths. "When I was a little girl," she says, "I was taught in school that India had become independent through a long struggle, and that if we wanted to maintain our independence, the country had to move forward with development: building dams, investing in high technology. I remember how, before movies, we’d see a newsreel about the prime minister christening a new dam, after which they’d play the national anthem. I would get tears in my eyes."
When she went to college at the University of Delhi and became involved in student activism, she realized that she hadn’t been taught the whole truth: "The dams were actually death centers that displaced millions from their land with no restitution, and those in power didn’t care about the thousands of people they dispossessed or killed. I suddenly realized that human beings have a great capacity for making decisions that intentionally starve others. I wanted to know why." Mittal set out to reeducate herself.
As Mittal is quick to point out, the problem of hunger is not restricted to India and other Third World nations. "The forces that are oppressing and colonizing people overseas," she says, "are the same forces that are oppressing working Americans in this country."
Trained as a political scientist, Mittal has extensive ex-perience in food-related activism here in the U.S. and in the Third World. She’s editor of two books, America Needs Human Rights and The Future in the Balance: Essays on Globalization and Resistance (both Food First Books), and has written numerous articles on global trade and human rights for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other publications. Prior to coming to the U.S. in 1994, she worked with the Society for Participatory Research in Asia on issues of people’s access to land and natural resources.
I spoke with Mittal on a warm day in January at the offices of Food First, in Oakland, California. She was remarkably gracious, articulate, and passionate. When I thanked her for her extraordinary work, she insisted that she merely plays a small part in a growing community of resistance.
Jensen: What is the scope of world hunger?
Mittal: The United Nations estimates that around 830 million people in the world do not have adequate access to food. Numbers, though, distance us from the real pain felt by the hungry. Hunger is a form of torture that takes away your ability to think, to perform normal physical actions, to be a rational human being. There are people in my own country, India, who for months have not had a full stomach, who have never had adequate nutrition. This sort of hunger causes some to resort to eating anything to numb the pain: cats, monkeys, even poisonous roots.
When we think about hunger, we often picture dark brown faces, black faces, naked children with thin legs and bloated stomachs. This is the image of hunger the media have given us, but it is crucial to remember that hunger exists not only in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but right here in the United States, the richest nation on earth. Thirty-six million Americans do not have enough to eat, and that number is growing. Nearly half of those lining up outside soup kitchens have one or more family members employed, but most of them are simply too poor to buy food. They are the people who scavenge in dumpsters outside restaurants. They’re the schoolchildren who cannot pay attention in class because they did not have dinner or breakfast. They’re people like Katherine Engels, a grandmother who testified at a Con-gressional hearing on hunger that she often drinks a cup of tea for dinner, then rolls up some white bread and eats it, because that gives her the sense that her stomach is full.
Hunger is a social disease linked to poverty, and thus any discussion of hunger is incomplete without a discussion of economics. Often, when we see a person asking for money for food, we think, Why don’t you get a job? How many of us realize that, of the people removed from the welfare rolls by welfare reform in 1996, only one out of ninety-seven will ever get a job that pays a living wage? At the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour, even if you work fifty hours a week, you earn little more than thirteen thousand dollars per year. There’s no way a family living in a city could survive on that. They couldn’t pay rent and put food on the table, to say nothing of clothes and other necessities.
If we’re going to speak meaningfully about hunger, we need to understand the true causes of hunger. For example, hunger is not caused by shortage of food. According to our research over the last twenty-six years at Food First, the world’s farmers produce 4.3 pounds of food per person, per day. This includes vegetables, cereals, fish, meat, and grains.
Jensen: If there is enough food, then why is there hunger?
Mittal: People are hungry because they are too poor to buy food. There is a shortage of purchasing power, not a shortage of food.
Of the 830 million hungry people worldwide, a third of them live in India. Yet in 1999, the Indian government had 10 million tons of surplus food grains: rice, wheat, and so on. In the year 2000, that surplus increased to almost 60 million tons — most of it left in the granaries to rot. Instead of giving the surplus food to the hungry, the Indian government was hoping to export the grain to make money. It also stopped buying grain from its own farmers, leaving them destitute. The farmers, who had gone into debt to purchase expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides on the advice of the government, were now forced to burn their crops in their fields.
At the same time, the government of India was buying grain from Cargill and other American corporations, because the aid India receives from the World Bank stipulates that the government must do so. This means that today India is the largest importer of the same grain it exports. It doesn’t make sense — economic or otherwise.
This situation is not unique to India. In 1985, Indonesia received the gold medal from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization for achieving food self-sufficiency. Yet by 1998, it had become the largest recipient of food aid in the world. I participated in a fact-finding mission to investigate Indonesia’s reversal of fortune. Had the rains stopped? Were there no more crops in Indonesia? No, the cause of the food insecurity in Indonesia was the Asian financial crisis. Banks and industries were closing down. In the capital of Jakarta alone, fifteen thousand people lost their jobs in just one day. Then, as I traveled to rural areas, I saw rice plants dancing in field after field, and I saw casava and all kinds of fruits. There was no shortage of food, but the people were too poor to buy it. So what did the U.S. and other countries, like Australia, do? Smelling an opportunity to unload their own surplus wheat in the name of "food aid," they gave loans to Indonesia upon the condition that it buy wheat from them. And Indonesians don’t even eat wheat.
Jensen: In some South American countries, the governments grow and export coffee while their citizens starve. Have India and Indonesia begun converting agri-cultural lands to growing cash crops for export?
Mittal: Yes, as in other developing countries, we have seen an emphasis on export agriculture. Around three-quarters of the countries that report child malnutrition are exporting food. Remember the much-publicized famine in Ethiopia during the 1980s? Many of us don’t realize that, during that famine, Ethiopia was exporting green beans to Europe.
In 1999, a UN Population Fund report predicted that India would soon become one of the world’s largest recipients of food aid. The report went on to blame the increasing population for the problem. What it did not mention is that the state of Punjab, also known as "the granary of India," grows abundant food even today, but most of it is being converted into dog and cat food for Europe. Nor did the report mention that the neighboring state of Haryana, also traditionally a fertile agricultural state, is today one of the world leaders in growing tulips for export. Increasingly, countries like India are polluting their air, earth, and water to grow products for the Western market instead of growing food to feed their own people. Prime agricultural lands are being poisoned to meet the needs of the consumers in the West, and the money the consumers spend does not reach themajority of the working poor in the Third World.
Jensen: I’m not sure it’s Westerners’ needs that are being met. More like their desires.
Mittal: Yes, luxuries are being construed as necessities, and freedom has come to mean the ability to choose from twenty different brands of toothpaste.
Jensen: You’ve mentioned U.S. aid a few times. What’s wrong with U.S. aid? I mean, isn’t it commendable that we’re willing to help out?
Mittal: I hear that a lot. I’ve been on radio talk shows where people have called in to accuse me of being arrogant and ungrateful: "Here we are, sending your people food aid, and you just complain!" I wish it were true that U.S. aid came from a generosity of spirit, but it has always been a political tool used to control the behavior of Third World countries, to forge dubious alliances, and to buy cooperation during the Cold War. With the end of the Cold War, aid turned into a scheme for finding new markets for U.S. agribusiness, and now for dumping foods containing genetically modified organisms (gmos), which are being rejected by consumers in the West because we know so little about their long-term effects on humans and the environment.
But the deeper issue here has to do with the fact that food aid is not usually free. It is often loaned, albeit at a low interest rate. When the U.S. sent wheat to Indonesia during the 1999 crisis, it was a loan to be paid back over a twenty-five-year period. In this manner, food aid has helped the U.S. take over grain markets in India, Nigeria, Korea, and elsewhere.
I don’t entirely reject the notion of food aid. Although I think that most countries can be food self-sufficient, there might be a few that need assistance. But aid has to follow certain principles. First, the food should be deliveredwhen the people need it: i.e., right away. Second, it should not be used as a political tool, as in North Korea, where famine was allowed to bring the country to its knees before food assistance was provided. Third, the food should be procured locally or regionally, insofar as possible. And fourth, it should be culturally sensitive: the aid should consist of food that the people actually eat, and not just what a donor country wants to dump.
Having said this, let’s look at the case of Somalia and Ethiopia in the 1980s. In this case, the food aid arrived very late, after the rains had already settled in and crops were ready in the fields. And the food was procured from big transnational agribusinesses in Canada and America. Local Ethiopian farmers were deprived of their livelihoods as cheap food was dumped onto the market at prices far below what the farmers could afford to match. In this instance, the food aid should have been sent earlier, and it should have been procured from neighboring countries, thereby supporting regional economies. That would have been realassistance.
I don’t think it’s too much to say that destroying local agri-cultural infrastructures is a cen-tral function of food aid. Once these local farmers have been driven out of business, the people of the region are dependent on the West for survival.
Jensen: You mentioned gmos. How does biotechnology fit into all of this?
Mittal: The big chemical companies want to increase their control over the world food supply by marketing genetically engineered crops, but consumers in the West are leery of gmos. So, in 2000, the U.S. Congress approved a budget that included an estimated $30 million to promote biotechnology in the Third World. Seven million dollars of this was part of a deal between the U.S. and the Philippines to promote biotechnology as a means to achieve "food security." Money has also gone to support biotech research at American universities, and some of it went to help Third World and Eastern European governments encourage their regulatory agencies to approve the use of genetically modified food products. So regulatory agencies in the U.S., which have been asleep at the wheel on the issue of gmos, will now train the regulatory agencies of the developing world.
Jensen: That presumes that the agencies’ purpose really is to regulate, as opposed to providing the illusion of reg-ulation.
Mittal: Either way, the regulatory agencies have com-pletely failed to protect American consumers. One example would be the StarLink incident, where genetically modified corn not meant for human consumption found its way into food. This mistake was not discovered by government agencies, but by the Gene Food Action Alert Coalition, a civic organization that had the corn tested in a private lab. A month later, after initial denials, the fda finally acknowledged that a mistake had been made.
I could provide hundreds of examples of the incom-petence of regulatory agencies or their outright capture by the industries they purport to oversee. It’s a joke to think the regulatory agencies in this country are going to train agencies in developing countries.
At the same time, the U.S. is already sending genetically modified food to Third World nations without the consent of people there. In late 1999 and early 2000, when the Indian state of Orissa was hit by floods, the U.S. sent food aid containing gmos. The Indian government was not told that the food had been modified. Mozambique, the Philippines, Bolivia, and many other nations have received similarly tainted shipments of food aid. More recently, when Sri Lanka adopted progressive legislation banning imports of genetically modified foods, it was threatened by the U.S., and pressure has since been put on the government to remove the restrictions.
The implication behind this is that hungry people in the Third World have no right to choose, or rather they have two choices: they can either die of hunger — often the result of decisions made by multilateral agencies with their offices in D.C., Geneva, or Brussels — or they can take the unknown health risks associated with genetically modified crops. That’s disgusting and racist.
I am deeply disturbed by the way hunger has been used to promote biotechnology. Suddenly, transnational corporations like DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis, and Syngenta, which have already caused so much misery, are casting themselves as do-gooders. Monsanto gave us Agent Orange, yet it’s presented by the U.S. government and the corporate media as a good corporate citizen, concerned for the poor and hungry in the Third World. The U.S. government is "combating hunger" by allocating money from development-assistance programs to promote biotechnology in the Third World. And the civic groups that are opposing the corporate takeover of our food system and challenging genetic engineering — because we do not know its environmental and health consequences — are portrayed as selfish people who want to deny the Third World the benefits of biotechnology.
For years, oil companies have used "greenwashing" as a public-relations strategy, professing environmental concern to cover up their environmentally destructive activities. The biotech corporations are now using "poorwashing:" faking concern for the burgeoning, hungry population of the developing world while exploiting those populations in order to reap greater profits.
Jensen: Let’s talk about the debt the Third World owes to the World Bank and industrialized nations. U.S.Ðforeign-policy critic Noam Chomsky says, in essence, that the debt should be repaid, but it should be repaid by the people who actually received the loans, by which he means U.S.Ðimposed dictators, who siphoned off billions to their private bank accounts. But it should not be repaid by the citizens of the countries, who never got any of the money in the first place.
Mittal: But when the so-called aid has been given for, say, a large dam, who actually ended up with the money? It wasn’t a dictator, but the German, French, or American corporation that built the dam. Its investors are the ones who got paid. And the people of the nation got a dam they neither wanted nor needed.
I’ve been involved in this struggle for a very long time. So much of it revolves around the notion of debt relief, which is just another version of the white man’s burden. These backward people, the argument goes, just can’t seem to figure out how to run their countries or their economies, and we need to keep perpetually giving them food and money.
But I’m not interested in debt relief. I’m interested in reparations. The Third World does not owe anyone anything. In fact, the industrialized nations owe usmoney.
Jensen: How so?
Mittal: Take the case of my country, India — although any other country would provide just as good an example. Why did Columbus try to find a new route to India? Because it was a land of spices and wealth and gold, a country of grandeur. But when the Europeans came in — the East India Company, to be precise, which soon turned into the governing body for India and its people — my country saw the end of a golden age and the beginning of more than a hundred years of exploitation by the British. By the time India gained independence in 1947, this ancient civilization had become, at best, a "developing" country. There were many famines in India under British rule, in which millions died. And all the while, British India was being forced to export coffee, tea, rice, and wheat.
Jensen: Just like today.
Mittal: And famines and starvation continue. After India gained independence, the Western powers once again found a way to colonize the country, first through the World Bank, and now through what I call the "unholy trinity" of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization. Third World countries were — and are — given bad loans, loans the people did not and do not want, loans about which we have never been consulted, loans for projects, such as large dams, that we protested and continue to protest. Loans for unpopular projects have been made to U.S.Ðbacked dictators in the Philippines, Indonesia, Uganda. The World Bank gave the Philippines a loan to build a nuclear reactor in an area prone to seismic activity.
Jensen: Was Uganda’s Idi Amin put in place by the United States?
Mittal: Look at it this way: Uganda incurred most of its debt during Amin’s regime. Do you think if the U.S. disapproved, the World Bank would have given him those loans? And although the loans were made to a brutal dictator, the people have been forced to pay them back, thus continuing the repression Amin started.
In country after country, the money has been funneled through the puppet governments and returned to the Western transnationals, all on the bent backs of the poor. Meanwhile, the poor nations have been compelled to slash their health and education programs, privatize the service sector, and cut down on jobs traditionally filled by women. Nurses, primary teachers: who needs them? Get rid of them.
And why do we have to do this? Because we have to service a debt that did not make a damn bit of difference in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, working-class people, middle-class people. If you calculate how much money was given as a loan and how much has flowed back out, you’ll understand why I say that the colonization has continued. The extraction of resources from these countries has, if anything, increased. The flow is always toward the rich, industrialized nations. We have not only repaid the loans made to corrupt regimes; we have overpaid them. And that overpayment did not start in the 1950s. This extraction has gone on for centuries, through various forms of colonization. It’s time to give people in the Third World their fair due. It’s time for reparations now.
The philosophy behind demanding reparations is that it says we are no longer victims, but people demanding our basic human rights, which have been violated for too long. And it’s about accountability. Increasingly, we are beginning to hear about accountability for Third World leaders, such as Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was almost put on trial in Spain. It’s time for that sort of accountability to be brought to the Western governments for what they have done to other cultures — and to their own people. It is time to try the Kissingers and McNamaras of the U.S.
Jensen: Years ago, I asked a Tupac Amaru rebel what his group wanted for the people of Peru. His answer has haunted me ever since: "We want to be able to grow and distribute our own food. We already know how to do that. We merely need to be allowed to do so." In three sentences, he cut to the heart of colonialism, the heart of the problem we face.
Mittal: I couldn’t agree more. Food is both personal and political. Food unites families and communities; across cultures, festivals based around harvest seasons are about sharing and strengthening communities. And food is political: The French Revolution wasn’t driven just by the ideals of liberty, freedom, and egalitarianism. It was driven by the fact that there wasn’t enough bread in Paris.
Jensen: They could always eat cake.
Mittal: Or, today, tulips.
Over the last three decades we have seen protests, rebellions, uprisings, and revolutions against this new colonialism, and these movements have often been centered around food. In the seventies, there were riots in Peru because the World Bank stipulated an increase in the price of bread. In the 1990s, the Zapatista uprising and the protests in Bolivia were spurred by food unavailability and privatization of the basic necessities of life. The same has been true in Pakistan and India. In 1995, villagers in Mexico stopped trains to loot them — not for gold, but for corn.
When we look at the growing discontent around the world, we find that many rebels have the same demand: the basic human right to be able to feed oneself. This is what the landless people’s movement in Brazil wants, and the Poor People’s Assembly in Thailand, and Jose Bove — the French farmer who drove his tractor through a McDonald’s — and the farmers in India who burned the Cargill building and Monsanto’s trial fields, and the small farmers in the U.S. These groups don’t want power or wealth. They only want to be able to feed themselves and their families, and to live with dignity.
Jensen: Why is it so central to Western civilization — and, more recently, to capitalism — to colonize and dispossess other peoples?
Mittal: I, too, wonder about this all the time. Is it intentional? Is it human nature to colonize and wreak havoc upon the poor? One thing I do know: when the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, these two things do not happen in a vacuum. The rich get richer at the expense of the poor. This mechanism is built into the capitalist system, around which our societies and our economies are organized. You know capitalism’s "golden rule": whoever has the gold makes the rules. This system rewards greed and a complete lack of accountability on the part of ceos, investors, and transnational corporations.
This is not a result of human nature. Nor is it something that just happens. It is a matter of power being exercised without any social, political, or environmental concerns. It is the planned exploitation of the poor on the part of those who stand to profit from it. And it is deeply ingrained in our society, because the powerful have built an entire economic and governmental structure to support it.
Jensen: It seems pretty clear that access to land is central to everything we’re talking about. Deny people that access, and you deny them self-sufficiency. Deny them self-sufficiency, and you can force them to work in your factories.
Mittal: The elites make a big mistake when they dispossess the working poor. They seem to believe that further dispossession will kill the poor people’s spirit. But dispossessed people are angry people. Think about the courage of the poor who continue to occupy the land that the rich have stolen from them, even in the face of severe repression by private armies and police forces and death squads. We call them the "landless," but they are the ones who have earth in the cracks of their heels and under their fingernails. Their smell is of the land, and their blood washes the land for which they are killed. Look at them and tell me who has a right to the land.
What sustains these communities in the face of repression is the fact that they have nothing more to lose. When you have been beaten, tortured, and have seen your loved ones killed, there’s only one thing to do: fight back.
Jensen: It seems the capitalists might do better to follow the Roman poet Juvenal’s advice, and give the masses "bread and circuses." Handouts cost less than repression. I remember reading years ago that the U.S. spent fifty thousand dollars for every Vietnamese person killed in that war. It occurred to me, even when I was a kid, that it would have been much cheaper — not to mention more humane — just to hand the Vietnamese a tenth of that money an_d say, "Be our friends." A lot of this repression is not only cruel but stupid.
Mittal: Perhaps if leaders were to do as you say and make sure people have roofs over their heads and food on their tables and healthcare and opportunities for education, then we would have more peace in our communities. But today’s social and political structures are built on the foundation of centuries-old exploitation. The greed for more and more led the powerful to take a different path a long time ago. The exploitation has been going on for so long that the benevolence of dictators is no longer welcome.
I think we just plain missed the boat. We have an economic system based on greed, theft, lack of accountability, exploitation, colonization, racism, homophobia, sexism. This system has done severe damage to the soul of our society. I know it sounds like a clichŽ, but revolution is the answer. And this revolution will take a thousand shapes: from the Zapatista uprising to the thousands who challenged the g-8 Summit in Genoa, Italy. It’s all revolution. Revolution takes place not only on the outside, but also in our hearts and minds, where it changes how we lead our day-to-day lives.
Activists must also deal with powerful interests within their own countries. The farmers’ movement in India not only challenges obvious agents of colonialism — Monsanto, Cargill, and the rest — but the whole of Indian society, especially the middle class and the elites. The struggles in the Philippines not only are against the Americans, but are also struggles between Filipinos. The larger struggle is not merely between the impoverished nations of the South and the wealthy, industrialized North, because there’s a South that lives in the North, and vice versa. There are 44 million Americans who have no healthcare. One in five American children is growing up in poverty. Similarly, there are elites in India who have much more in common with Bill Gates than you and I ever will.
Jensen: A few years ago, a family farmer said to me, "Cargill gives me two choices: either I can cut my own throat, or they’ll do it for me." The same could be said by farmers in any number of countries.
Mittal: In the south of India, you can go to village after village and not find a farmer who has both kidneys: they’ve all sold a kidney to feed their family. And there have been reports of farmers taking their own lives by consuming the same pesticides, the same poisons, they were told to use on their fields. They use this "gift" of industrial agriculture, which has cost them so much money and so much hope already, to end their own life.
In the U.S., farmers are killing themselves and trying to make it look like an accident so their families can get life-insurance money. Forced out of their profession and unable to make a livelihood, they see no other way out.
At the World Food Summit in 1996, Dan Glickman, then the head of the usda, claimed that U.S. farmers would feed the world. He did not tell the summit that in the last few census polls, the category of "farmer" as a profession has been removed. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, farmers are not endangered; they’re extinct. When Glickman talks about farmers, he really means corporations such as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland — self-styled "Supermarket to the World." (Or, as I call it, Supermarkup to the World.) They aren’t U.S. farmers. They’re agribusinesses.
Jensen: But aren’t they the ones who brought us the Green Revolution, which improved agricultural yields and thus saved millions of lives?
Mittal: This is one of the big myths. When I mention that India has a grain surplus, people often say to me that the Green Revolution — which is based on the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides — is responsible for that. But we need to examine this claim closely.
From 1970 to 1990, the two main decades of the Green Revolution, the total food available per person in the world rose by 11 percent. This much is true. At the same time, the estimated number of hungry people fell by more than 150 million. So you might think there’s a correlation between the increase in food due to the Green Revolution and the decrease in hunger. But if you eliminate China from the analysis, the number of hungry people in the world actually increasedby 60 million. And it was not population growth that made for more hungry people. Remember, the total food available per person increased everywhere. What created more hunger was the absence of land reform and living-wage jobs. The remarkable changein China, where the number of hungry people was more than cut in half, was the result of broad-based land reforms, which improved living standards. This is the little-known truth about the Green Revolution. Yes, food production increased, but did it have an impact on hunger? No.
We also need to examine the environmental costs of the Green Revolution. Use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers has resulted in the loss of almost a quarter of the topsoil in the U.S., and farming communities around the world have been devastated by salination, waterlogging, and pests that have developed resistance to pesticides. I believe that around half the crop pests in the U.S. have developed resistance, and they cause around $2 billion worth of damage each year.
The bottom line is that the Green Revolution did not decrease hunger. It increased environmental degradation and cost of production for farmers who now depend on pesticides and fertilizers. The Green Revolution sounded the death knell for family farmers, the environment, and communities worldwide.
Jensen: And there is currentlyan attempt to start a second Green Revolution based around gmos.
Mittal: The same companies that benefited from the Green Revolution are now promoting genetic engineering. They recognize that the seed is the most important link in the food chain. Whoever controls the seed controls the food system. With genetic engineering, they can now patent the seeds. DuPont bought Pioneer Hybrid, a major seed company, for $8.5 billion; Monsanto has spent more than $7 billion on seed companies. The chemical companies are attempting to control the food system more than ever before.
Jensen: And one of the ways chemical companies are attempting to control seeds is through technologies like Terminator, right?
Mittal: Yes, Terminator seeds are those that have been genetically modified not to reproduce. Their plants are sterile and do not produce viable seeds, meaning that farmers who used them would have to purchase more seeds the next year. So the millenniums-old tradition that more than a billion farmers depend on — saving seeds from their harvest to use for the next season — would suddenly be denied to them. I’ve yet to figure out how the companies can even pretend that this could benefit farmers in the Third World. The fact that those in power can control nature to the degree that they dictate whether or not a seed is fertile is sheer arrogance. It is ethically, economically, socially, and politically wrong, and there’s no way around it.
Jensen: Isn’t Terminator banned right now from commercial use?
Mittal: In the face of worldwide opposition, commercial use of Terminator has been banned while further research is done on it. Recently, the usdalicensed the Terminator technology to its seed-industry partner, Delta and Pine Land. As a result of joint research, the usda and d&pl are co-owners of three patents on the controversial technology. Although many of the chemical-company giants hold patents on Terminator technology, d&pl is the only company that has publicly declared its intention to sell Terminator seeds commercially. This technology has been universally condemned by civil society, banned by international agri-cultural-research institutes, censured by un bodies, and even shunned by Monsanto — yet the U.S. government has officially licensed it to one of the world’s largest seed companies.
Genetic engineering has also produced the Traitor technology, in which special characteristics of the seed — such as resistance topests, or drought resistance — can be turned on and off only by certain chemicals produced, of course, by the same company that owns the seed patent. Biotech promoters claim that this technology will assist the poor and the hungry, but I wonder how it will benefit anyone but the chemical companies themselves.
Jensen: How could a farmer be compelled to use that seed? It certainly doesn’t seem to be in his or her best interest.
Mittal: Farmers around the world have been seduced by the promise of increased production and lower costs. The corporate media machine has sold this idea to both the farmers and the policymakers. But many farmers have been denied any choice over whether to grow genetically modified crops. Some of them do it without even meaning to do so. Percy Schmeiser, a farmer in Canada, was served with a lawsuit by Monsanto because detectives hired by the company found evidence of their patented seed in his field. Now, how did it get there? He didn’t plant it. Its presence was a result of genetic pollution from a neighboring field. Because some plants are pollinated by the wind, and others by insects, they can’t be entirely contained.
Jensen: Honeybees have been known to fly a dozen miles.
Mittal: Say you want to be an organic farmer. If a neighbor, or even someone many miles away, uses genetically modified seeds, that crop can cross-pollinate with your own. And there are other concerns, as well. For example, organic farmers have long used Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a naturally occurring insect toxin, as a pesticide, but genetic engineers have spliced Bt into cotton, potato, and other plants. This overuse will quickly result in insects resistant to Bt, forcing organic farmers to hop on the bandwagon of using toxic chemicals.
Jensen: How do we bring about this revolution that you’re talking about?
Mittal: The revolution has already begun. We see it around us. It is multicultural and has the energy and passion of youth and the spirit of the working poor. Think about the protests at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. The battle there was not between the industrialized nations of the North and the so-called developing nations of the South. The youth of the Northern nations were out in the streets — all those beautiful young faces — while the leaders of the Southern nations were walking out of the meetings, saying, "This is not good enough."
This revolution is built on cross-border organizing, forming links between local and global issues, seeing the relationship between "structural adjustment programs" in the Third World and welfare reform — or just plain economics — in the U.S.
We need to nurture this revolution in our minds and souls. We need to sustain it with the determination that we will no longer ask whether we can speak. We are going to demand that our voices be heard. And we will sustain it with the knowledge that these are our fields, and the land is our inheritance.
This revolution recognizes access to food, water, health-care, education — every basic necessity of life — as a human right and not a need. If it were only a need, it could be serviced by a corporation. As a human right, it cannot be sold by anyone. This revolution is not dependent on the benevolence of dictators but gains its legitimacy from its soldiers: the landless and the dispossessed. This revolution is nonviolent and based on the truth: that the land belongs to the landless, the farms to the small family farmers — who are the best stewards of the land — and our natural resources to the local communities. And this revolution does not differentiate between civil rights and economic, social, and cultural rights. It recognizes that land and liberty, jobs and justice go together. Freedom from want is as important as freedom from fear.
The success of this people’s movement depends on us. I have one message for all: get involved. It does not have to be at a policy level in Washington, D.C. You do not have to change your lifestyle or quit your job. You might choose involvement in the community, such as the local housing association, or the food bank. You might call or write your Congressional Representative. But do get involved. Change starts at the local level. If power is not taken back there, nothing will change at the national or international level.
Each human being has an incredible amount of power that comes from having human rights. So let’s educate ourselves about our rights: the right to unionize, the right to have a decent job, the right to feed our families. These rights are not dependent on the whims and fancies of corporations or presidents. They are dependent on real people exercising real democracy. And that requires that we get involved. Human rights are never won without a fight.
Originally published in the February 2002 issue of The Sun,
Edited version published in the May 2002 issue of “Ecology Action Newsletter”