ST. LOUIS — Thousands of protesters gathered in major cities throughout Latin America to join the May 24 “March Against Monsanto.” The demonstrators called for their respective governments to require labeling of GMOs, or, in the case of many Latin American countries, to ban them altogether.
The biotech giant Monsanto, operating out of St. Louis, Mo., is one of the main producers and global distributors of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Genetically modified seeds contain DNA that has been altered to resist certain pests and herbicides, and Monsanto claims that its modified products boost crop yields and have positive impacts on the global food supply. Yet concern over the environmental and health implications of GMOs has led to massive protests and heated public debate on a global scale.
Scientists have not yet been able to prove that GMOs are completely safe for human consumption. Some studies have even linked Monsanto’s chemical products to serious health conditions including cancer, autism, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, birth defects, organ deterioration and infertility.
Monsanto is also criticized for its leading role in the development of Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant used by the United States during the Vietnam War. The chemical is responsible for 400,000 deaths and injuries, and an estimated 500,000 birth defects in Vietnam.
The March Against Monsanto movement began in February 2013 as a reaction to the defeat of Proposition 37 in California, which would have legally required food distributors to label all of their GMO-containing products. It all began when frustrated Californian mother Tami Monroe Canal created a Facebook page to organize a rally against Monsanto.
Canal sought to call out cronyism between the U.S. government and big business, and to show that Monsanto is acting in blatant opposition to consumer demand. She declared in a USA Today interview that Monsanto is “poisoning our children, poisoning our planet,” and that the protests will not stop until Monsanto begins respecting the rights of consumers.
The most recent March Against Monsanto, the third global demonstration of its kind since May 2013, saw participants from over 50 countries take to the streets. While protests in the U.S. focused mostly on labeling initiatives, Latin American demonstrations called for Monsanto to withdraw from the region completely.
The U.S. biotech company currently controls a large part of the agriculture market in many Latin American countries. Argentina is a major buyer of modified soy and Roundup-Ready chemicals from Monsanto.
Mexico has also been experimenting with Monsanto’s genetically modified maize, much to the disgust of Mexican farmers who do not want GM seeds to mix with native Mexican varieties. Mexico is recognized as the birthplace of maize, and the food staple is a huge part of Mexican identity. It is even protected by a 2005 biodiversity law. The fear is that Monsanto’s seeds will mix with native crops and destroy the incredible biodiversity that has evolved in Mexico over thousands of years. Additionally, Monsanto’s insect-resistant plants and Round-Up chemicals dramatically decrease the amount of labor needed to maintain a maize crop. The last thing rural Mexicans need is a paucity of jobs.
Monsanto holds that its genetically modified seeds and chemicals provide food sovereignty to impoverished areas through large, pest-resistant yields. Yet a loud voice of protest is coming out of Latin America alongside the global March Against Monsanto movement. The region as a whole is seriously questioning the environmental and health effects of GMOs, and trying to determine what the role of genetically modified foods should be in light of food shortages and rural poverty.