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Stolen Land, Stolen Medicine: Biopiracy and Food Sovereignty (Part II)


In another blog post, I discussed the concept of biopiracy in the context of stolen medicine, how it affects the environment, Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge keepers, and several trade policies that have yet to suppress all loopholes in international resource trade and intellectual property protection. This post will focus on how biopiracy, the theft of Indigenous and non-Indigenous local knowledge without adequate benefit sharing, affects the agriculture industry and food sovereignty. This will serve as a general overview of how large food corporations, such as Monsanto, use genetic engineering to "patent nature," as world-renowned, Indian-born food sovereignty advocate Dr. Vandana Shiva has defined biopiracy in the context of agricultural development.

Biopiracy and Biotechnology

Dr. Vandana Shiva, who has a PhD in Quantum Theory, has been advocating for food sovereignty and farmer's rights against large corporations for over twenty years. "Life itself is being colonized," she says about the food industry. She notes that science is commercialized and nature is being commodified by using the advances of biotechnology to patent seeds via genetic engineering. Dr. Shiva further explains that nature already has a system of organized chaos, and manipulating this system has had a number of undisclosed repercussions on our ecosystems, and possibly our health outcomes.

Dr. Shiva. Image from Good Food World.

Farmer Restrictions

The World Trade Organization passed the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPS), which allowed corporations to use biotechnology to genetically modify seeds to patent. One of the major modifications of organisms is taking away the ability to reproduce. GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds do not re-germinate, forcing GMO farmers to buy seeds from corporations every planting season. For many farmers, this creates a financial burden, especially if there is a bad harvest season. American farmers have crop insurance to protect them from financial losses on bad farm years, but the same cannot be said for all other countries. With an 8000% rise in cost of seed, there are studies that show that there has been an increase in farmer suicide because of debt and poverty, for farmers that are unable to make a sustainable living with these restrictions.

What about Non-GMO farming? Non-GMO companies appear to be morally less void than GMO companies, but many farmers have been punished for testing positive for GMO crops as registered non-GMO farmers. Natural processes like cross pollination causing some of their crops to test positive for GMO seed. Because of the legal repercussions by GMO franchises, farmers have to take extra precautions such as growing their non-GMO crops in green houses.

Dr. Shiva says that seeds are renewable resources that Mother Earth gives us, and that we are "fighting land grab," or in other words, new manifestations of colonialism. Dr. Shiva launched a seed saving program and website known as Navdanya in 1997 to resist food and seed slavery. On the market, seeds are genetically modified. The seeds do not re-germinate and this forces farmers to buy seeds from corporations every year.

Rishi Kumar says that hybridized, genetically modified foods are not designed to be more nutritious, but are designed to be more equipped to last through transport and have a longer shelf life. They look good but are not as nutritious and healthy as non-GMO foods. Growing our own food allows us to not only grow better quality food, but also assist in restoring ecology and benefiting the environment.

Indigenous Food Sovereignty

Reclaiming food sovereignty for Indigenous people is a significant milestone for decolonization. As the United States continued to expand on Native American lands and on Native Americans to reservations, they also subjected Native American people to rely on a food rationing program in the 1880's. The 1883 congressional act states that, “they may live after the manner of white men.” Native American men were not allowed to hunt for normal game such as buffalo. A massive number of buffalo were killed in the mid-1800's to control the Plains Native population. Natives did not only eat buffalo meat, they also used buffalo hide for clothing and to create homes. This was a deliberate act of genocide and control via assimilation. Instead Native American people across the country were forced to make the best of ground beef, beans, corn, flour, salt, sugar rations provided by the government. Rations would sometimes be spoiled or molded.

In the United States, Native American run organizations such as Alliance of Native Seed

Keepers and Dream of Wild Health are decolonizing food supply by saving ancestral seeds. Ernie Whiteman, Arapaho from the Wind River Reservation, says that it is important to save seeds because the seeds on the market are genetically modified not to germinate. He has Cherokee corn that has been passed down through generations and traced back to the Trail of Tears. Native American food sovereignty advocates and community leaders and creating programs to pass this important ancestral knowledge down to the next generation by having youth farming programs and workshops.

Mexico recently passed federal legislation that protects the intellectual property of corn grown from traditional Indigenous methods and knowledge. This is a huge victory in favor of Indigenous knowledge keepers, and sets a precedent that other nations to follow to show solidarity with their Indigenous populations. Issues have arisen about inadequate benefit sharing with Indigenous and non-Indigenous local farmers in regards to their intellectual property and contributions to breeding coveted strains of food. For example, bush harvesters in Australia wonder where their crops are going, and are generally left out of the loop after their crops are exchanged with third-party food distributors.

The rematriation of ancestral seeds to Native American and Indigenous peoples promotes the healing of traumas from colonization, attempted genocide, and assimilation. Indigenous and Native American people have deep ties to traditionally harvested crops. These stories associated with their planting and harvest are rooted in the culture and history.

Native American "Glass gem corn." Source: Earthly Missions.

Indigenous farming methods are environmentally friendly, such as growing the three sisters, corn, squash and beans, together. The three sisters is a common combination of seed planting. Each crop has a property that optimizes the growth of the others. Corn stalks grow tall, bean plants like to wrap around and grow upwards up the corn stalk. The squash leaves are large and create a micro-environment that prevents weed growth. Microorganisms work more to replenish the soil and create more nutrients for the other crops. Indigenous farming methods also includes the concept of rotating multiple fields. They would use one field at a time, one field to hunt and another field empty according to local Lumbee farmer and agricultural specialist, Jeff Hunt. Through this method of farming, water conservation is increased, and soil depletion is limited.

Three sisters art. Corn, squash, and beans. Artist unknown. Image pulled from New Mexico Nomad.

Dr. Michael Yellowbird is an ancestral eating activist and has offered input on the lack of morality when it comes to the theft of Indigenous intellectual property in regards to food and medicine. He states that, "genetic engineering, is a direct result of population growth and the colonization of people from their connections to the lands. However, we've been going in that direction for a long, long time, with agriculture. But, again, that's what's enabled human population explosions all over the world; and of course folks always seem to figure out a way to justify these cultural, intellectual, and economic shifts and circle back to the idea that God somehow shed his grace on thee and made this possible."

Decolonization Handbook. Available on Amazon.

Dr. Yellowbird also shared his thoughts on trade regulation in regards to protecting Indigenous intellectual property:

"I think international regulation trade laws to protect Indigenous intellectual property would be wonderful, but of course, unenforceable. We're to the point on the planet that nearly every Indigenous intellectual idea and source has been pillaged, plundered, and, get this, some companies have also copyrighted any future discoveries, some that might come from Indigenous intellectual property."

Despite this unfortunate truth, we can all still be mindful. Indigenous people traditionally had no concept of capitalistic gain from their knowledge. This is a colonial construct entirely. Nevertheless, it is still infuriating to see multi-billion dollar corporations benefit from the knowledge passed down for generations by the Indigenous wisdom keepers. The least we can all do with this knowledge is be respectful, and find other ways to support Indigenous knowledge keepers. Wisdom is not meant to be bought, it is meant to be passed down. As Indigenous descendants, we have elders to learn knowledge from, while they still walk in this world with us. We have the option to learn these ways and pass them down to our own children.

The next generation of seed keepers. Wix images.

Trailblazers of advocacy against large corporations, that suppress food sovereignty and destroy the environment, have paved the way to continue to reject these forms of neo-colonialism. Indigenous seed banks and farmers have a divine relationship with Mother Earth. We all have the ability as human beings to care for seeds, nurture growth, and sustain ourselves and the lives of those around us. We must preserve our individual rights to grow our own crops, and reject corporate control over what goes into our bodies and our children's bodies. We have the power to support corporations that value Indigenous knowledge. We can demand that farm workers are paid livable wages.

Cesar Chavez, Chicano farm worker who dedicated his life to creating better working conditions for farm workers by using nonviolent tactics including hunger strikes. He contributed to creating the United Farm Workers organization in 1972.

The next blog on the topic of Biopiracy will venture into the theft and misappropriation of sacred herbs and ceremonies.

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