Activist Occupy the World Food Prize

Representatives from Monsanto, Cargill, Pioneer, Dow Chemical, Syngenta, and other corporate sponsors met in Des Moines Thursday, October 18 and boasted that the World Food Prize promotes an increase in food production that will end world hunger.


“That’s just a lie,” said food activist Bob Waldrop, who stood outside with a dozen others holding protest signs and umbrellas in the cold rain. “The narrative of the World Food Prize is that the world needs more food production, we need GMOs, we need large commercial agriculture because that will keep people from starving. It’s a false narrative.”


Waldrop, who came from Oklahoma City to join the week of protests and educational events organized by Occupy the World Food Prize, says those who pretend hunger is about farm production avoid dealing with the real issues. “We are here to expose the lie,” he said. “Hunger and famine are about politics and economics.”


Jessica Reznicek read the group’s statement outlining their concerns with corporate control of world food systems and offered, instead, the idea of food sovereignty. “The modernization of agricultural technology eliminates the small farmer as well as the entire biodiversity essential to maintaining a healthy planet,” she read. “All people have a right to decide what they eat and to insure that food in their communities is healthy and accessible for everyone.”


Megan Felt brought her nine-month-old son to the protest and says she believes, like any parent, that her son deserves the best start to life she can provide. “If my son deserves the best, then every child deserves the best and that includes healthy, safe food,” said Felt. “People really buy the World Food Prize agri-rhetoric that they’re feeding people around the world and that famine is because of a lack of food and that’s a lie. It’s all been political for years. People are starving because of food speculation.”


“This is our Wall Street,” said Frank Cordaro a former priest who founded two Catholic Worker houses in Des Moines.“It’s agribusiness and behind them are the great foundations of the one percent elite, the Rockefeller Foundation, the DuPont Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation…”


Civil Disobedience


Iowa State Patrol officers arrested Cardaro, Reznicek, and two others as they made a symbolic attempt to walk to the Capitol where the World Food Prize was being awarded.


Cordaro, a long-time peace and justice activist who has trained hundreds of people in non-violence, had been arrested 2 days earlier with 4 others after an estimated 30 activists held a “soap box” outside the new home to the World Food Prize in downtown Des Moines.


The building once served as a public library but was renovated at a cost of $30 million. Monsanto contributed $5 million to the renovations, while other money came from DuPont Pioneer, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the John Ruan Trust, MidAmerican Energy, the State of Iowa and other donors. It will house the organization’s new Youth Institute Program, as well as conference and community events for other local groups and organizations.


“When corporate Ag wants to write off a tax, they donate to things like the World Food Prize,” says Cordaro. “It’s sort of like the corporate Nobel Prize for food, a giant kind of ideological boost for the dominant corporate Ag message that truthfully owns the state.”


“How do I know they run this state?” Cardaro said, pointing to the Capitol behind him. “They got the cops to work for them and they got the state to pay the rent. So we’re doing what they did on Wall Street, we’re bringing it home.”


Like Cordaro, Julie Brown was also arrested at both actions.“They’re using the World Food Prize as a way to advertise for free to all these different places that they need to buy into this corporate agriculture the way that Iowa does it, locking them into contracts and debt,” says Brown. “It’s actually corporations controlling our food.”


A 32-year-old native of Jasper County, Iowa, Brown says her activism started with Occupy Wall Street, and then she joined the Catholic Worker community in Des Moines. She says some people don’t understand the connection between Wall Street and the World Food Prize and that what little the large bio-tech industry doesn’t own, it is working to obtain. The World Food Prize and the new building are part of their plans.


“You’re worried about corporations controlling the loan on your house. What’s more basic than the food you’re eating?” asks Brown. “They’re investing millions and millions of dollars into bringing these people in, so why are they doing that? Why would for-profit companies do that?” Brown notes that the agenda for the week includes taking youth groups to places like Pioneer and Monsanto. “They are promoting this way of farming to young people from other countries so that when they graduate, they’ll think that this is good and they’ll promote it in their regions.” says Brown.


Dominating the Industry


Cordaro says though people understand the issues, there aren’t many legitimate venues—political, media-wise, social, or religious—to start making demands for change.


Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau agrees, noting in his presentation on food sovereignty that agribusiness corporations don’t have any real connection to the consumer public.


“They don’t sell to us,” he said. “Maybe if you buy Roundup for your garden or something, but Monsanto has a relationship with farmers. There are so few farmers in the United States, only 1 or 2 percent, so it’s difficult to mobilize pressure.”


Quinn-Thibodeau, who works with the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, says the message that comes out of the World Food Prize is that there is not enough food in the world, farmers do best when their yields are high, and farmers around the world are incapable and they need agribusiness technology.


“It’s completely the wrong message and it’s also the only message,” he says. “It may be different in Iowa, but in New York we never hear anything about agriculture. If all you get is the World Food Prize message, you’re going to have a completely warped idea of the world.”


Quinn-Thibodeau says the industrial agriculture model is incredibly chemically intensive. “It causes lots of pollution, especially with pesticides,” he says. “Weeds have gotten used to Monsanto’s Roundup, so now they’re trying to push through Congress a new herbicide resistant GMO called 2, 4-D which is in Agent Orange. Statistics show that despite agri-business claims, herbicide and pesticide use has increased with GMOs because you don’t have to be careful about ruining your crops, you can just spray liberally.”


However, he says, the biggest problem with GMOs in terms of hunger and poverty is their price.  “They cost a ton of money and when you’re talking about small farmers, they don’t have a lot of income and are going into debt to afford seeds for one year….  And if they ever have a year where the seeds don’t produce well or there’s a drought, so many things that can happen, they are left with no chance of getting out of debt. In India, a couple years ago, it’s still going on, there was a rash of farmer suicides with Bt Cotton. They didn’t get the yields and were way into debt so they drank the pesticide.”


Norman Borlaug


Norman Borlaug, a native of Iowa, established the World Food Prize in 1986 to recognize individuals whose work contributes to any field that improves the world food supply. Credited with starting the Green Revolution, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his lifetime of work to prevent hunger by increasing yields in Mexico and later in Asia and Latin America.


Unfortunately, today, even though there is enough food in the world, an estimated billion people are still hungry and the technologies that produced the Green Revolution produce a new set of problems.


Waldrop says GMO contamination and the increasing use of pesticides and herbicides in rural areas is creating dead zones. “You know parts of the Great Plains, you can go up a road and stop and you won’t hear any insects and you won’t see hardly any birds and there aren’t any trees because they chopped down a lot of the shelter belts that were planted in the Depression in the dust bowl because they’re going fence row to fence to fence row,” says Waldrop. “They’re desperate for every bushel because maybe they’re only making 50 cents on each bushel and so they have to sell a lot of 50 cent bushels.”


Waldrop says the expense of chemicals, seeds, and harvesting frustrates farmers and says he remembers how his father got angry when the price of wheat would go up a dollar a bushel and the price of a loaf of bread would go up 50 cents.


“A bushel has about 60 pounds and so you could make 60 one-pound loaves of bread out of a bushel and the price of a loaf of bread would go up 50 cents, this means that they were increasing the price of bread $30 per bushel at the retail level, just because of a one dollar increase in the price paid to farmers,” said Waldrop. “That’s the kind of unfairness in the production system that we address in growing local food.”


The Walmart Model


It’s the Walmart phenomenon,” Quinn-Thibodeau told the audience. “When Walmart has cheap prices, but pays next to nothing, it devastates other businesses. So that’s basically the way we try to end hunger. The model of the World Food Prize is the Walmart model, the industrial agriculture model for ending hunger.”


Quinn-Thibodeau points out that most companies measure success by how much profit they make per square foot of retail space, but for Walmart, it’s gross sales per square foot of retail space. “So they’re not so concerned with making things profitable,” he says. “They’re concerned with dominating the market, of being the only seller, and that’s a very insidious business strategy that’s been extremely successful.”


Quinn-Thibodeau says the kind of agriculture they do want to see is organic and works with nature rather than against it. He cites the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a report sponsored by the World Bank and the UN, that found that the best way to feed the world is with agroecological farming methods.  “It relies on bio-diversity, it relies on clever planting, it relies on the ecology of the region and it involves local markets,” says Quinn-Thibodeau.


“We need to grow food that doesn’t have to travel long distances, food based on biodiversity because it’s more resilient to climate change. It’s basically a full diet.”


Author Jill Richardson says that though the Second Green Revolution champions genetically modified seeds, the IAASTD report found them incompatible with the needs of developing world farmers. Richardson says that though GMO advocates dismiss sustainable agriculture, the time-tested growing methods of crop rotation, composting, and cover crops work. She says studies demonstrate how these methods exceed the potential of GM seeds alone to produce high yields or resist drought.


“Borlaug gave the developing world the latest science of his time,” notes Richardson. “We should honor his memory and his legacy by following through with his goal of solving hunger by giving the developing world the tools to grow their own food, but we need not use his outdated Green Revolution technologies to do it. Rather, we will honor him far more by using agroecological methods and accompanying them with economic and social reforms needed to bring his dream to fruition.”


Buying Local


Waldrop cites the 1998 Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, whose work conclusively proves that all the famines of the 20th Century were caused by politics and economics, not by an absolute shortage of food. “And that remains true here in the 21st Century,” says Waldrop. That means we need two things. “First of all, we need markets that sell products of sustainable, just and humane farms and we need customers who are willing to buy them. So that was how the Oklahoma Food Cooperative got started.”


The first food cooperative in the United States to only sell locally grown food and nonfood items, their business does about $800,000 a year.


“We represent 120 Oklahoma farmers. We work with a volunteer delivery system on a once a month delivery day,” Waldorf explains. “It’s superficially like a farmer’s market, except that it goes year round. And people order online, which the farmers like because that way they know what to bring to town, as opposed to the farmer’s market where they have to guess. You know, maybe they’ll sell it and maybe they won’t. But with the food coop they know exactly what they need to have a week in advance.”


Waldrop says they have helped 19 other local food cooperatives get started in the United States, Australia and Canada. “It’s still very small, but we hope to do better,” he says.


The Past and the Future


Back at the Catholic Worker House, Renee Espeland is cooking in the kitchen as she recalls how her grandfather farmed into his 90s in South Dakota and was vehemently opposed to the use of the combine. “Combines spread disease everywhere, whereas a threshing machine, you keep it all in one location and you don’t have a problem with weeds,” says Espeland, noting how combines lead to the unsustainable use of herbicides and pesticides.


As she sets up the high chair for Felt’s son, Espeland says she thinks part of the problem is that people don’t understand that the GMO cornflakes of today are not the same as those before corn and soy became modified.


“These GMOs have permeated absolutely everything that you’re going to buy, whether it’s corn chips or whatever. If it’s coming from the grocery store in a box, it is GMO…. We don’t have enough research on GMOs because we depend on the industry that develops and manufactures them to do the research and to tell us the truth, but we need outside independent re- search.”


“In other countries, the only way they’ve tackled the GMO problem is by labeling because then the producers know, consumers do not want this,” says Espeland. “And so if you label, that’s the first step in taking this all down.”


“The sooner we can label the better,” says Quinn-Thibodeau. “Labeling is not the end of the fight. There is a lot more we need to do.”


“This is not the last time,” says Cordaro. “We’re coming back next year. Let’s change the script.”  


Gloria Williams is a freelance journalist and peace and justice activist. Photos in this article are by Williams. Photo 1: Megan Felt and her nine-month-old son Henry stop for photo before going to protest the World Food Prize awards. Photo 2: Julie Brown holds sign protesting the World Food Prize before being arrested at the Iowa State Capitol, October 18, 2012.