Science & Technology

The Battle of Valle Verde

Mexican campesinas choose biotechnology over fear


Valle Verde, Quintana Roo, Mexico—This dusty hamlet of tin and scrap wood shacks outside Cancun just off the main road to Merida became the latest battleground in the global war over genetically enhanced crops. The occasion was the distribution last Friday of two tons of food by a group of pro-free trade and pro-biotechnology nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

The effort to bring food to Valle Verde's 300 residents was organized by the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). These NGOs gave away parcels of food that contained corn meal, cooking oil, beans, and a large box of Kellogg's cornflakes. Some of these items contained ingredients made from genetically enhanced crops like corn and canola.

Besides being a charitable act, the gift of food, naturally, was done to make the point to the media and the World Trade Organization negotiators gathered in nearby Cancun that the poor are not afraid of genetically enhanced crops. And given what happened at Valle Verde, that point was made even more strongly than the event organizers had intended. That's because a contingent of anti-biotechnology and anti-globalization activists showed up and tried to frighten the villagers into declining the food.

They failed.

The activists, many claiming to be associated with Friends of the Earth, circulated among the villagers before the food was distributed. One activist from Brazil was particularly shameless in his tactics. He kept telling several village women over and over that the food was "contaminated" and "toxic" and would harm their children.

Even if he actually believed that genetically modified crops might be harmful in some way, he knew full well that hundreds of millions of Americans, Canadians, Argentines and others have been eating such food for nearly a decade without any ill effects at all. So telling poor Mexican village women that eating the parcels would harm them straight away had to be a knowing falsehood. It is all very well to be passionate about one's cause, but one does not advance justice by means of lies.

The apparent leader of the anti-biotechnology group was Raul Benet, a Mexican activist from Morales. Benet tried to disrupt the distribution by yelling to the villagers that the food was being handed out by agents of Monsanto, a big transnational that wants "to control the food of the world." (I later asked the CFACT organizers if they had ever received any funding from Monsanto and was told, "Not so much as a penny nor any money from any biotechnology company so far as we know.")

Meanwhile other anti-biotech activists unfurled a huge banner that read "Comida Transgenica Mata La Gente" ("Transgenic food kills people.") One activist was circulating through the crowd, screaming out, "Food for pigs!" Simultaneously, another was passing out four-color posters that claimed genetically modified foods could harm people's health by causing allergic reactions and anti-biotic resistance. Never mind that there is absolutely no scientific evidence for those claims.

When I asked several of the women what they thought of the claims they were hearing, one of them waved her hand toward the Friends of Earth banners, and dismissed them as "foreign craziness." I asked another villager who had been listening to the Brazilian, what she thought of what he was telling her. "We don't understand. We just know that the food is good; we buy it all the time in the stores."

This hubbub went on for perhaps twenty minutes with activists from both sides talking furiously to the reporters' cameras and into their tape recorders. Finally, after standing patiently in the hot sun while being harangued by the anti-biotech activists, the food distribution to the villagers began. Would they take the food?

Yes, without hesitation. The women formed an orderly line and took the parcels as they were handed down from the truck. As far as I could tell, not a single village woman was persuaded by the scare tactics of the anti-biotech activists.

Activists on both sides of the global war over crop biotechnology claim to care about the poor. But in this case, it was the pro-biotechnology side that brought the food. The Friends of the Earth came empty-handed, bearing only dishonesty and fear.

The war over crop biotechnology will be decided in the hearts and minds of people like those who dwell in Valle Verde. On Friday, the pro-free trade and the pro-biotechnology forces won a small victory in the dusty plaza of Valle Verde.