The unbearable subtleness of agribusiness

Sometimes it takes a bit of waiting in line for a sandwich to realize how deep-rooted agribusiness is in Puerto Rico and our many connections to the global food system. It takes a small moment of thoughtless wondering to tie loose ends and realize how the agribusiness biotech research that is conducted in Puerto Rico has profound effects on the livelihoods of local communities, in Argentina and Colombia, and around the globe.

Plane coming in to spray the rice field.

As I waited for my pastrami sandwich, my sight was lost in the emptiness of the bakery and looking around, my eyes focused on a navy blue shirt. The shirt was dirty as if it had been dragged through the mud and appeared to be made of ClimaCool, the material used for expensive Adidas apparel.  The person inhabiting the shirt was big and his boots were even bigger. His head was square and looked as tough as an anvil. He turned around to ask his daughter– “Do you want anything else”. As he turned his exhausted body, his dirt covered face became visible and the front side of his dirty shirt glimmered underneath the store light. The dirty shirt had a colorful Monsanto logo, with the word “imagine” under it.

Imagine I did… I imagined the world without Monsanto, but as I dared to “imagine” that world, a noise in my brain, similar to a screeching vinyl record brought my thoughts to a halt. The screeching sound was replaced by a memory of a previous day in the “Colmado”.  While in line to pay for artichokes and peppers for my homemade pizza, a comment was made by a local patron. The man pointed at another man leaving the establishment– “He’s the one that spreads the pesticides in La Parguera.”. The “guy” that spread the pesticide in the valley of Lajas, works for Rice Tec. He flies the pesticide plane over the rice fields off Rd. 116 that lead into La Parguera.

The U.S. signed a free-trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia in 2012 and within the FTA there are small provisions (Sección 9.70) that mandates Colombia to adopt laws that require farmers to buy certified seed and outlaws farmers from saving their own seeds. Farmers are prohibited to practice a generations old tradition of saving their best seeds for the following season. Most certified seed companies in Colombia are U.S. multinational firms like Rice Tec. These same U.S. firms have conducted and continue to conduct their research in Puerto Rico, where paradoxically, the local farming sector is insignificant. Many of these seeds developed in Puerto Rico are then exported to countries like Colombia, to be sold to farmers.These new FTA requirements and subsequent prohibitions have to lead to protest and increased violence in Colombia. The people rose against the government and they achieved a partial victory. 

The spray.

The spray.

In Argentina there is a different story, but with similar elements. A lot of the R & D of soy is conducted in the abandoned farmlands of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s tropical climate is optimal for modified soy to be tested for their heat resistance, in isolated conditions. The seeds are perfected in Puerto Rico, are mass produced in the U.S. and then exported to Argentina. Monsanto and its troublesome product have made its way to Cordoba, Argentina. The city of Cordoba is the second largest in Argentina and is surrounded by some of the best farmlands in the country. These farmlands were once owned by local families and were mainly dedicated to dairy, ranching and vegetable crops. However, Monsanto and other multinationals have bought great land extensions, displacing local farmers and started planting BT soy on these lands. Unfortunately, in Cordoba, pesticide control is lax and the authorities have not enforced current environmental laws. Large groups of people are getting sick, cancer rates have increased, and the numbers of congenital conditions have skyrocketed. Monsanto maintains the claim that the glyphosate (pesticide that BT soy is resistant to) does not reach the water supplies and that there should be no problem with the water. Research from the Universidad Nacional de Cordoba has refuted Monsanto’s claim, demonstrating how glyphosate and other pesticide are making it into the watershed and food system. In addition to the university’s research, the people are fighting back and they are achieving small victories along the way. The neighbors of the Barrio Ituzaingo sued the Argentine government and Monsanto, winning their legal battle.    

So there I was, thinking of all of these things while waiting for my sandwich. Puerto Rico is integrated to the global GM seed commodity chain and the R & D that goes with it. The actions of Monsanto and others in Puerto Rico have profound effects in other regions of the world. I thought of the unbearable subtleness of agribusiness and how they have their hands and money in every corner of the world. How they have made food a business that they want to monopolize. I was thinking how agribusiness has converted the food system into a simple M-C-M’ relation, in which they start with money to produce commodities and end with more money.

The plane sprayed the fields adjacent to small community of Lajas.

The plane sprayed the fields adjacent to small community of Lajas.

Finally, I thought of the similarities between Puerto Rico, Colombia, and Argentina. I came to this conclusion: Multinational seed and agribusiness firms are exploiting workers and low-income communities to rake in huge profits. They contaminate the local watershed, they slash and burn through biodiversity in the name of profits (or higher yields?), and when they have raped the land they leave without saying “Thank You”. ISER’s purpose is not to fight against big agribusiness, but to show people that there are other options for growing and producing foods. As consumers, we can choose not to buy their products. The time has come to pause, reflect, educate and take action and here at ISER, we are taking the first steps in this battle.