I come from a long line of seed traders in the small village of Gönningen in the Swabian region of Germany. As far back as the 17th century, my ancestors were traveling all over Europe, selling tulip, hyacinth, and narcissus bulbs and heirloom tubers, from the Netherlands to the Black Sea. In the 18th century, these intrepid villagers took their high-value seeds all the way down the Mississippi River Valley, traveling by foot, ship, and train via Liverpool and New York all the way to Memphis, Tennessee.
Books have been written and films have been made in Germany to document this important piece of history, not just for the entertainment value of this pre-television version of The Amazing Race, but because the very idea of small-town merchants disseminating saved seeds has all but become a thing of the past, thanks to giant agribusiness conglomerates like BASF, DuPont, and Monsanto. When my uncle, Wolfgang Ziegler, closed his small seed store a few years ago, he was the last member on my mother’s side of the family to have called himself a seed trader.
Fast forward to November 6th, 2012, an ocean, continent, and centuries away from the Gönningen of yore: In the State of California, USA, residents are being asked to vote on Proposition 37, a referendum whose passing would require food products made from plants or animals with genetically modified organisms (GMO) to be labelled as such.
At issue is whether or not consumers should have the right to know if their dinner is the result of experimental gene-slicing techniques that neither occur in nature nor in traditional crossbreeding. As a descendant of world traveling merchants, it is not entirely surprising that I would find myself thousands of miles away from home, a long-time California resident and recently minted US citizen, casting my vote on an issue not only related to my ancestral trade’s demise but arguably at the core of food and agriculture, and thus life on planet Earth.
A month earlier, right as Monsanto, Dupont, BASF and Co. were beginning to pump millions of dollars into television ads to demonize Prop 37, my roots had come calling me to a family gathering at my mom’s house in the rural village of Opfenbach in the Alpine foothills of Southern Germany. Uncle Wolfgang, now 82 and sharp as ever, was sitting on the couch reminiscing about his former trade routes when I told him what we were about to vote on in California. He had a bit of a puzzled look on his face, like someone who had just missed the setup for a joke.
Surely there must have been a previous vote to allow GMO-engineered food on the market in the first place, he was thinking. And if the good people of California had agreed to such a thing, GMO labeling must naturally have been part of the deal. When I told him that nobody in the United States was ever asked whether they would like to have their animals and plants crossbred and that genetically modified products are now found in about 70% of all American processed foods, he was baffled. He understands that small traders can no longer compete against big seed companies, but it’s harder for him to fathom how people would allow the very foundation of life to be put up for an unpredictable, commercially motivated genetic experiment.
Uncle Wolfgang is not alone in his skepticism. Anyone traveling outside the US will have noticed that in many parts of the world a heated public battle has been raging for years on whether bioengineered seeds should be allowed at all. Not only is there widespread concern about the unknown long-term consequences of merging DNA from different species (playing God) and placing pesticides within seeds to make them resistant to the pests (and going directly into our bodies), but about a handful of huge corporate conglomerates patenting seeds and pushing laws to enforce compulsory registration, forcing farmers into dependency on these unstable seeds and suing the ones whose fields get contaminated with them. While most Americans seem to be fairly indifferent to the reality that about 90% of all their corn, soybeans, and cotton is now grown from genetically engineered seeds and Monsanto controls about 90% of them, traveling to most other countries in the world can be eye-opening.
In India, local governments are trying to keep Monsanto out. In Peru, a 10-year ban on GMO seeds and food went into effect recently. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales just signed the Law of Mother Earth, granting nature equal rights to humans and prohibiting the introduction, production, use, and release of genetically modified seeds in the country. I experienced this edginess around GMO seeds in Latin America firsthand a few years ago on a trip to Mexico, where public displeasure with GMOs is commonplace and often expressed through demonstrations right on the Zócalos. In the birthplace of corn, farmers and now the government are increasingly fighting Monsanto’s “Frankencorn,” worried that it is going to contaminate the many varieties of indigenous “maize” essential to their culture and survival.
And back home, Uncle Wolfgang isn’t the only one concerned about gene-splicing — despite Monsanto’s continued fight against it, a GMO ban has been in place in Germany since 1993 and the EU is constantly expanding its GMO policies. People everywhere are realizing that this is not merely an issue of choosing one crop or food product over another, but that genetically engineered seeds are irreversibly changing the face of entire countries and landscapes, replacing biodiversity and plant variety with mono-crop agriculture, with no possibility for the commons to ever reclaim sovereignty over a genetically diversified seed bank.
Back in the United States we are now playing catch-up, but it’s a worthwhile and growing effort. As you may have guessed, Prop 37 did end up losing by the slightest of margins, despite my very passionate legal immigrant vote in favor. And yet, what was lost at the ballot box was gained in public awareness. Before Prop 37 most Americans didn’t even know that their food supply had almost completely been taken over by one giant biotech corporation, and while the Monsantos, DuPonts, and Coca Colas of the world were able to buy themselves enough fabricated fear by invoking rising food prices to avert accountability this time, the genie is now out of the bottle.
California has a way of going boldly where no one has gone before, and win or lose, setting off waves of change rippling across North America. Already, Washington State is proposing a similar GMO labeling referendum, and the City of Cincinnati, OH passed a resolution requiring the labeling of genetically engineered food in the wake of Prop 37. Perhaps most importantly, people are becoming more educated about their food, looking more and more for non-GMO choices. There’s still a long and winding road to travel, but just the sense of departure that’s in the air is enough to make this seed trader’s soul smile.