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Food

Biological Meltdown: The Loss of Agricultural Biodiversity

Soon after peasant farmers first led plant explorers to wild stands of Zea diploperennis (perennial maize) in Mexico's Sierra de Manantlan in the late 1970s, plant breeders hailed the discovery as one of the botanical finds of the century. The rare perennial maize proved to be resistant to seven viral diseases that plague domesticated maize, and scientists predicted that Zea diploperennis could be worth as much as $4.4 billion to the commercial maize (corn) industry. Conservationists called for the establishment of a nature preserve to protect the rare maize in its natural habitat because they feared that poor farmers living nearby, in constant need of grazing land for their cattle, would soon wipe out the few remaining patches of wild maize by grazing cattle in the area. A nature preserve was eventually established, and peasant farmers no longer threatened the rare diploperennis. But within a few years, the forest began to invade the fields of wild maize. The plants were crowded out and began to disappear. Scientists soon realized that the local farmers had been intentionally conserving the wild maize by using a traditional practice of grazing their animals on dry fodder during the dormant season. Local farmers controlled the growth of the surrounding forest without harming the rare perennial maize plants. Retired vice-president for research at Pioneer Hi-Bred (the world's largest seed company), Donald Duvick, respectfully observes, "It seems that the farmers knew exactly what they were doing, and had more wisdom than the well-meaning environmental scientists."

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Growing Local Food into Quality Green Jobs in Agriculture

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"I couldn’t stand; my eyes were watering and my throat hurt from the gas. I would run outside the field to get some air. The boss made me go back, to keep working without a mask. Now I can’t breathe well, and my vision is blurry, cloudy.” Jorge Fernandez pauses to gasp for breath, a result of chronic on-the-job exposure to pesticides. Fernandez is a Salinas, California farmworker who spent 11 years applying fumigants without access to protective equipment. “The inspectors are friends with the bosses. They say, ‘So what if this Mexican dies, there are more.’ They just find other workers.”[1]

Industrial agriculture is notorious for low wages, workplace health hazards, racial discrimination, and dependence on the legal vulnerability of undocumented immigrant labor. This is especially true in California, where twenty-first century agriculture was built on wringing short-term utility from workers, soil, and petrochemicals to minimize costs and maximize profits.

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The New Face of Agriculture

Alternative models to corporate agribusiness

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For thousands of years, small family farmers across the globe have grown food for their local communities, planting diverse crops in healthy soil, recycling organic matter, following nature’s rainfall patterns, and maintaining our rich biodiversity. Today, this agricultural system—which was built on knowledge accumulated and passed on from one farming generation to the next—faces both an environmental and moral crisis.

What’s called “modern industrial agriculture” is replacing family farms with corporate farms, and biodiversity with monocultures. This agricultural model is trading local food security for global commerce.

Predatory Patents

Biopiracy and the privatization of global resources

By Hope Shand

The primary stewards of the world’s biodiversity are the farmers, Indigenous peoples and local communities, primarily in the global South, who developed, nurtured and continue to use these resources today. Rural poor people in the global South rely on biological products (i.e., derived from plants, animals and microorganism) for an estimated 85 to 90 percent of their livelihood needs. More than 1.4 billion rural people depend on farm-saved seeds and local plant breeding as their primary seed source. More than three-quarters of the world’s population rely on traditional medicines for their primary health needs.

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