Jim Hightower

A week of speeches and symposia, concluding with trumpet fanfares and appearances by world leaders, could not overshadow the controversy surrounding the awarding of the 2013 World Food Prize in Des Moines on October 17.

Activists organized the simultaneous Occupy the World Food Prize event to protest the World Food Prize being given to three researchers who pioneered techniques that have led to the development of genetically engineered crops. The work of Mary-Dell Chilton of Syngenta, Robert T. Fraley of Monsanto, and Marc Van Montagu, founder of two biotechnology companies, allowed production of corn and other plants that are resistant to glyphosate herbicide, and to a host of other genetically modified organisms (GMOs) now widely used in agriculture.

But former Texas Agriculture Commissioner, populist, and political commentator Jim Hightower blasted the alleged take-over of agriculture by such corporate endeavors. He said corporations have “hijacked our food policy.”

“Food is life, it is culture, it is community – not just a commodity to be manipulated for the selfish gain,” Hightower said.

Iowa activist Frank Cordaro, who organized the Occupy the World Food Prize event, and who was one of two protesters arrested at the World Food Prize ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol, decried the “problem with wealth in this country – the 1% vs. the 99%.”

Like past Occupy Wall Street protests, “Occupy the World Food Prize is following the money line,” Cordaro said. World Food Prize officials “are glorifying corporate agriculture. The prize isn’t the problem. Corporates are the problem – the global corporate system.”

Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice, spoke both at an Occupy the World Food Prize event and at the World Food Prize ceremonies. He urged “conversation and dialogue” between groups that seem to be poles apart.

Catholics believe that the Earth “is a gift offered by the creator to the human community,” Turkson said, so it is legitimate for humans “to intervene in nature and make modifications.” But humans should be stewards of the world over which they have custody, and should be guided by ethical considerations, Turkson said. They must “have the correct attitude” and “respect for the order, beauty, and usefulness of other individual living beings and their function in the ecosystem.”

That philosophy extends to the Church’s support of using science and biotechnology to end hunger, Turkson continued. But he said efforts to increase food production should be guided by ethics – fairness, justice, and the worth of human beings – and not only by profit motives. That means making improved food plants accessible to poor people as well as to wealthy farmers and agribusinesses. Businesses should be able to recover their research investments, Turkson said, but he warned against “excessive financialization of the fruits of research.”

At the World Food Prize ceremonies, Turkson called for labeling of GMOs. “Transparency” is essential to give people a choice, he said. Although a number of countries require labeling of products that contain GMOs, most U. S. corporations have steadfastly opposed the idea.

Turkson, who once considered a career in science rather than the priesthood, also urged researchers to use caution to avoid unforeseen consequences of GMOs. Genetic engineering must not cause the loss of natural species, he warned. We must protect our biodiversity.

Other speakers at the Occupy the World Food Prize event welcomed Turkson’s cautions about GMOs – but many obviously believed that the Church’s position is much too permissive.

“Agribusiness insults the Earth that God has made and exacerbates the problem of hunger,” said Julius Calvin Trimble, Iowa Bishop of he United Methodist Church.

“Occupy” speakers applauded an alternative to the World Food Prize. The U. S. Food Sovereignty Alliance awarded the Food Sovereignty Prize to The Group of 4 (a coalition of small farmers in Haiti) and to the South American Dessalines Brigade. Both grassroots groups have worked to preserve heirloom seeds and to assist small-scale farmers.

“The Food Sovereignty Prize is awarded to social movements, peasant organizations and community groups working to democratize – rather than monopolize – our food system,” the Alliance explained.

Hightower scoffed at the argument that corporate farming and GMOs are needed to “feed the world.”

“This is not a ‘feed the world’ movement. It’s a feed our profit movement,” he declared.

“We have massive production of food commodities in the world right now,” he argued. “But we don’t have a distribution system.” To get quality food to those who need it most, we need to “work with people themselves in their countries to have sustainable small farms.” Only minor technology inputs – such as improved irrigation systems – are needed, he asserted.

Hightower praised the activists and their goal to reduce the influence of corporate agriculture on food production.

Reconnecting people with the land and food production will take perseverance and patience – and reaching out to others to build their trust, Hightower said. Avoid bombarding people with facts and figures, he advised. The “hard sell” may not be the best approach.

“Martin Luther King did not say ‘I have a position paper,’” he quipped. “We’ve got to learn to tell stories, and have music, and poems.”

“The biggest, fastest-growing, most promising development in world agriculture is the good food movement, which is what you represent,” Hightower concluded.

“It is a movement that is reunifying producers with eaters, rural with urban, economics with environment, pragmatism with idealism, value with values.”

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