Do you know who Lee Kyung-Hae is? It’s ok if you don’t. After all he was just a South Korean farmer who died at a protest against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Cancun, Mexico in 2003.
But what you should try to remember are the words he once said: “My warning goes to all citizens that human beings are in an endangered situation in which uncontrolled multinational corporations and a small number of big WTO official members are leading undesirable globalization of inhumane, environmentally degrading, farmer-killing and undemocratic policies. It should be stopped immediately, otherwise the false logic of neo-liberalism will perish the diversities of global agriculture with disastrous consequences to all human beings. “
The words do sound a bit exaggerated and uncesessarily alarming, but are they true? Looking back at how our food system developed in the past 10 years the words ring shockingly true.
In 2002 Monsanto and DuPont agreed to become close collaborators. They willingly exchanged their pattented seed technologies and agreed to drop any outstanding lawsuits. This year it seems the last of the lawsuits was finally dropped. In March Bloomberg reported that Monsanto and DuPont have “agreed to drop their antitrust and soybean patent lawsuits and enter into licensing agreements for making genetically modified crops.”
This means that DuPont will license the newest versions of Monsanto soybean crops that can tolerate Roundup and other weed killers. To do this, the company will pay royalties to Monsanto for up to $1.75 billion in the next 10 years.
What does this blossoming relationship between two food giants mean for you? It depends on who you are. For South Korean farmers and others like him all over the world it means loss of profits. Consolidations between suppliers and processors have left farmers with fewer options in regards to seed buying and produce selling. And with the rise of patented seeds farmers find themselves caught in the spider web of ownership rights, lawsuits and debts. Farmers who choose to plant seeds that vary from the mainstream sort find guards in the form of supermarket ‘marketing standards’ barring their entrance to the global market.
Consumers who shop at conventional supermarkets will find this hard to believe. A 15-minute walk through the grocery store and you will see aisles filled with different brands of cereal boxes, endless array of bottled drinks and beautiful apples suggesting that you should take them home.
But the high from ‘cheap produce’ quickly comes crashing down as you realize that the monopoly of the retail sector can only lead to one thing: lack of choice, higher prices and cheap labor. For example: This same attraction to ‘cheap’ produce has made Wal-Mart one of the biggest companies in the world. They sell grocery produce at 14% below the competing supermarket prices thanks to the hiring of workers at below the poverty line.
What we as consumers fail to realize is that the cheapness of our food comes at the price of our small farmers, lands and health. Our food is now cheap and filled with chemicals that cause obesity, heart disease and other chronic illnesses. Our lands and waters are polluted with fertilizer and pesticides. Our small farmers are disappearing off the map, and traditional farming practices are replaced with big scale factories. So do we really have more choice?
As the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and power is gripped more tightly in the hands of the wealthy, it becomes difficult to ignore the dreadful state of our food system. And the only question that remains is: in the next 5 years what would you consider to be the turning point for our food? And was it for better or worse?
No matter what, one thing is for sure. With less food diversity it seems our buffer zone against large-scale disasters is growing ever so tiny.