In Claire Hope Cummings fine book, Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds, she dedicates a chapter to corn, and her visit to a region of Mexico, the center of origin where ancient corn began. Centers of origin, as Cummings explains, are the few places on earth where a species first came into existence, and evolved over thousands of years. Plant varieties were selected by farmers and adapted to fit a local region. It is the place where the greatest diversity of a given species continues to survive. In Oaxaca, a southern mountainous region in Mexico, there are believed to be over 85,000 subvarieties of corn cultivated over a 7000 year period of time.
Corn to the indigenous people in this region is more than just an economic good, it forms a foundation for how their culture has evolved throughout time. Corn “prescribes reciprocity,” when someone performs a favor, a favor is also returned. This is extremely important, writes Cummings, since there are often land conflicts between members of the community. Corn provides food, and the promise of food for the next harvest, taking care of the corn, means also taking care of each other, and the environment.
In her story about corn, and the culture that grew up around the corn, there is a cautionary tale to consider. As “modern agriculture” became introduced through NAFTA (the North America Free Trade Agreement), cheaper, (highly subsidized) U.S. corn supplanted native corn in Mexico. As the Zapotec farmers switched to modern hybrids promising higher yields, they also took on greater economic debt for the needed fertilizers and pesticide chemicals the hybrid plants required. When their crops underperformed, many farmers gave up, and left their community. The sharing of seeds among farmers also largely disappeared.
This all brings us back to one of Cummings central themes in her book, and also in her interviews here. Food is more than just a means of making money. Food is necessary for physical survival, but it’s also necessary for the social, and moral lessons that we draw as a people that help define our own lives and culture. Industrial agriculture separates the production of food from the biological systems that interact and nurture life; those systems are seen as largely obstacles in the way of achieving efficient production.
Cummings makes an impassioned plea on behalf of the natural world, if we ignore these warnings, we do so at our own peril.
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