Middle March, a time to be layering Driftless Alpaca socks and glugging down Kickapoo’s Winter Solstice. Instead, I found myself slathering on buttery sunscreen to join a group of Land Stewardship Project (LSP) members as they set out to ask questions surrounding agriculture, migration, and land rights in Oaxaca, Mexico. The delegation included twenty or so Mid-westerners and took place over a ten-day period of travel through Southwestern Mexico.
We spent our time visiting farmers out in their fields as well as connecting with NGOs to hear about their missions and operations. Our interactions with farmers and engaged community members almost always led to a discussion of NAFTA and the impacts of free trade agreements on Mexican agricultural communities. They told of crumbling economies as a result of cheap U.S. corn and pressure from the government to implement GMO corn as a result of the friendship between large seed corporations and the Mexican government.
Our first visit was to Espacio Kruz, whose work is to “rescue traditional techniques for farming and living, which keep the earth alive and healthy.” We spoke with Román, the owner of the land, who inherited the space from his father. He told us how they use native (criollo) seeds; GMOs are threats. “GMOs are prohibited in Oaxaca, since it’s the birthplace of native corn, but hybrids are allowed. The state government calls them ‘improved varieties’.” He said, “the government’s strategy is to do away with planting native corn.” While it is prohibited to plant GMOs in Oaxaca, you can buy GMO feed corn in local stores. Espacio Kruz is trying to raise consciousness about why it’s better to plant native seeds. Román told us that the community members who used traditional methods had the lowest rates of diabetes and cancer.
Did I come back with the ultimate fair trade solution for the free world? Not exactly. What I did uncover was a fresh energy toward the local gusto that is long lived at People’s Food Co-op. The intent of PFC’s involvement with the trip wasn’t the same as our producer visits to local farms. While we do have fair trade producers in Mexico (think coffee, chocolate, avocados), our aim encompassed more—yet didn’t stray far from the National Co+op Grocer’s motto, “stronger together.”
Through working with Land Stewardship Project as well as Witness for Peace, the nonprofit that did much of the legwork for the delegation, we gain the ability to encounter these anecdotes from an array of perspectives. After our “field trips,” we were privy to a sort of collective processing of these stories. Because of the assortment of backgrounds among those in the LSP group (farmer, pastor, parent, cooperative), I learned just as much from the other delegates as I did from the excursions. Our next steps involve working with LSP on engagements for their members as well as with our own team to refine and set goals surrounding our stance and the strength of our voice on GMOs, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and local empowerment.
PFC’s GM, Lizzy Haywood, put it best in her contribution to the April/May Co-op Shopper when she stated, “When it comes to working toward global food system sustainability, it is so important to understand the food chain, and how our choices at the store can impact that food system.” I look forward to sharing more tales of my trip, the lessons we have yet to uncover, and the good work to come.