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Monocultures of the Genetically Modified Mind: My Surreal Encounter with Monsanto in Mexico

Photo: Enrique Pérez S/ANEC

Originally published on Medium, June 6, 2019

I was surprised to find seed giant Monsanto almost everywhere I went to research my book, Eating Tomorrow. But my closest encounter came early, during a five-hour meeting in 2014 with six Monsanto executives in the company’s high-rise office in Mexico. Monsanto and other seed companies were trying to open Mexico to genetically modified corn. At the time of that meeting, the gene giant had been stopped in its tracks by La Demanda Colectiva, a group of farmer, environmental, and community groups who in October 2013 had won an injunction that suspended the companies’ experimental planting on the grounds that it threatened Mexico’s rich diversity of native corn varieties. Scientists called it “gene flow.” Corn farmers called it “genetic pollution.”

I confess: when I arrived in Mexico in 2014, I was not confident that the country’s dynamic social movements could stop the companies. An appeal filed by Monsanto was pending before another judge. As I wrote in Eating Tomorrow, “Since it was Easter Sunday, I attended mass at San Hipólito Church in the heart of Mexico’s historic city center. Locally, the 18th century church is known less for Saint Hipólito than for San Judas Tadeo, the ‘patron saint of lost causes,’ according to the translation at the church entrance. I didn’t think the GM lawsuit was a lost cause, but it sure seemed a long shot. I lit a candle and said a prayer. I’m not Catholic, nor even very religious, but it seemed the least I could do. The next day, the judge denied Monsanto’s request, leaving the injunction in place.”

Remarkably, that injunction has held for more than five years, withstanding a series of legal challenges. And now Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has promised to ban the cultivation of GM corn.

Given those remarkable victories, it seems a good time to revisit my surreal 2014 encounter with Monsanto in Mexico. Being a good journalist, I had asked Monsanto for an interview. I expected a polite “no” or a meeting with a private in the company’s public relations army. Instead, I was greeted by six company officials. Frida Kahlo should have been there. A company official actually told me their goal was to help Mexico achieve “food sovereignty.” I nearly fell off my chair. That is the term coined by radical farmer organizations to protect themselves from multinational firms such as Monsanto who are trying to impose their technologies on small-scale farmers.

That would be my closest encounter with the genetically modified mind. I think I came away uncontaminated. I certainly felt like a corn borer in a field of GM corn; I know I didn’t eat a thing while I was there.

I documented the interview in a series of three articles that at the time ran in different publications. I bring them together below with links to the original pieces, which were also translated into Spanish and published in Mexico. The stories are also woven into my book chapter, “Monsanto Invades Corn’s Garden of Eden in Mexico.”

Monsanto was everywhere I went for my book. In Malawi, they had taken over the national seed company and shelved one of the country’s most popular and productive corn seeds; Monsanto’s former country director had co-authored Malawi’s national seed policy, which threatened to outlaw the widespread practice of farmers saving, exchanging, and selling their seeds. In Mozambique the company was pushing its Water Efficient Maize for Africa scheme, as a way to open the country up to genetically modified corn. India’s cotton farmers were abandoning GM cotton, which put them into debt as local insects developed resistance to the GM insecticide and devoured farmers’ crops. In the United States, of course, blanketed in GM corn and soybeans, three lawsuits have won damage judgments of more than $2 billion for company neglect in failing to warn people that its Roundup herbicide causes cancer.

In my book travels, I thought often of Vandana Shiva’s brilliant essay, “Monocultures of the Mind,” on the reductionism of Western science subordinated to commercial interests. She wrote it even before GM crops came into widespread use. Their quick dominance in places like the United States seemed to illustrate her central thesis, almost to the point of caricature. As one Mexican farm leader told me, “Our problems are not solved with one gene.”

Now the gene giants are losing. Bayer bought Monsanto and now faces multi-billion-dollar liabilities for its cancer-causing herbicide, with more than 13,000 plaintiffs lined up in the United States alone. In Mexico, a judge banned GM soybeans in the Yucatan after pollen contaminated the beehives of organic honey-producers. And, remarkably, the injunction on GM corn is still in place five years after I said my Easter prayer.

I’m a believer, in San Judas Tadeo and in the power of determined, well-organized people to bring down the gene giants….

Read the full article, with the three-part series, on Medium

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