Wafaa' Al-Natheema
on GMOs & Globalization

2013 Interview by Thea Mathues

“Planting one's food and eating it
are sacred practices.”

In 2003 the US invaded Iraq. George W. Bush highlighted that the Iraqi people would be freed from Saddam and ‘the seeds of democracy’ would be planted.  Ten years later the only seeds that have reached Iraqis are those of insecurity, bombs and deterioration to the industry and agriculture. As the founder of the Institute of Near Eastern & African Studies (INEAS) Wafaa’ Al Natheema sheds light on recent developments in Iraq, fears for the (agricultural) future of Syria and discusses the lack of awareness in Europe and the US concerning the food industry.

Can you describe the situation in Iraq today regarding order 81? What have been the consequences for farmers so far?

Because Iraq has not been a stable country and overwhelmed by conflicts, bombs and insecurity, order 81 was not implemented in the way the Americans wished it to be. From my conversations with experts in Iraq I was told that the law did not become effective after 2004 (the year the law was passed), but considering the instability and the lack of monitoring and quality control there are many other problems.

There is no such thing as labeling. This means that with unreliable monitoring and the absence of quality control any company can come to Iraq and bring Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) into the country even though GMOs are not allowed in Iraqi law. At the moment there is no strong government in Iraq. So it is very difficult to ensure that laws are taken seriously and implemented, or to bring those to court who break them.

Agriculture and the whole debate about GMOs are not a priority to the population. People worry about lack of electricity and drinking water, basic needs come first. This seriously influenced the launching of International Seeds Day. Many people in Iraq did not understand the significance of the day putting in mind the millions of orphans and widows as well as the tens of thousands prisoners.

People are facing enormous problems, like killing, torture and water shortage. Experts have estimated that the Euphrates might not even be there by 2040. If you are living in these kinds of conditions you tend to set different priorities than International Seeds Day. You just want to put food on the table and continue with your life.

However it is unfortunate to see that there is no such thing as organic agriculture anymore, not only in Iraq, but in the entire region. Crops are being planted with pesticides and herbicides. We are facing the same situation in the US where chemicals are being produced by companies like Monsanto.  But in the US organic crops do exist unlike in the vast majority of South Asia and Africa.

A similar pattern is taking place in Syria, the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) has had its headquarters in Aleppo since the 1970’s. Because of the recent conflicts in Syria they were forced to relocate during the summer of 2012. All the seeds were taken out of the country.

I feel rather concerned about this situation because it is not very clear where all the seeds are kept now. I believe most are in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey but it seems as if nobody really wants to answer my questions. I am hoping by visiting Jordan and meeting with some experts, I’ll obtain more details about the status of this seed bank.

My concern goes out especially to the heritage of the countries that provided the seeds for ICARDA in Asia and Africa. These seeds have been controlled by Europeans. It seems they don’t consider farmers in some parts of Asia, Africa as independent, smart and knowledgeable enough or don’t want them to be. They don’t even tell them where their seeds are guarded.

When the seed bank was relocated, the black box with Iraqi seeds, which was sent to ICARDA during the 1990s, relocated as well. They did this to keep their Iraqi variety seeds intact but now the seeds are gone. Every agricultural expert I have asked about the whereabouts of the black box tells me that they don’t know. Some say that they are in Turkey, others point to Jordan.  These answers make me worried.

Europe vs the US

Let’s turn away from the situation in the Middle East and focus on the US for a while. Has anything changed regarding food policy since Obama became president?

In 2009 Obama appointed the vice-president of Monsanto, Michael Taylor, to be the Senior Adviser of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This happened despite the fact that the FDA has an obligation to protect people from unhealthy food and from food that has not been labeled well. Activists all over the US objected to this nomination by writing a petition, which had over 60 000 signatures.

This appointment shows very clearly that Obama is also into GMOs. Last year in September some activists were arrested just because they were demonstrating and occupying a Monsanto-plant. Tell me what is this if it isn’t dictatorship! And I’ve seen this all over the world; the minute people protest against the government they bring in the teargas and jail people, yet the US still dares to talk about democracy.

Obama may look cute and hard to hate, but his policies are no different than George Bush’s. The best example to illustrate my point is his policy toward Guantanamo. All he did in this regard was to bring the mostly innocent Afghan and Arab detainees to the USA instead of Guantanamo, and to continue the intimidation and torture, not to mention complete media blackout about these atrocities committed against the detainees.

We, Europeans, like to think that these kinds of problems do not take place in Europe, but is this really true?

It is very important to speak about Europe. Europeans tend to think they are more independent than Americans, yet they’re equally dependent on the US as the rest of the world. The very fact that you see MacDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks and Duncan Donuts everywhere you go in Europe is a good example. I know they will argue “well this is free market, it is ok” but actually it is not ok, just like it is undermining and unhealthy for people in Asia and Africa who have been bombarded by American culture.

I was recently in Germany, Austria and Hungary, and I couldn’t even recognize those countries anymore. I only saw the US. The culture in general, the films, TV series and game shows as well as the style of breaking the news and the junk food was mostly American or Americanized. Germany and France are supposed to be leading Europe in the fight against GM and unhealthy food. I don’t understand how Germany allows these big junk food chains into the country. That’s just wrong; these giant food chains should not have been allowed in, period.

In  Asia, the population traditionally used to eat delicious and healthy food and you didn’t see many overweight people. But in the last decade, MacDonald’s, Burger King, Subway and other food chains found their way in many countries and so their diet and eating habits changed incorporating the US diet; muffins, burgers and greasy fries. As a consequence the rate of obesity has considerably risen. 

But to allow those big food chains into other countries isn’t this just part of this ‘new world’, a part of globalization?

I don’t think we should let globalization dictate everything, we can still be selective. For instance governments can say, we allow x, y and z but we not s, t, v.  So far, globalization has been very unhealthy for the world.

As a result of a decade and a half of globalization, there has been a significant loss of cultural identity. If citizens of the world have any power left, they should not adhere to it and whenever possible resist it.

When I was in Hungary I asked a Hungarian hotel receptionist if he could lead me to a place where I could hear some Hungarian folk music. And he said: “do you mean gipsy music?”. I thought to myself: “I came to your country in the 70s when you were not even born yet, and you had such a beautiful folklore. I used to love listening to Hungarian music. Now you are telling me that it has become a ‘gipsy thing’.”  I was completely astonished by this.  This is aside from the fact that I value and enjoy gipsy culture, but from the way he referred to it, he didn’t give the impression of valuing his folklore. This hotel’s restaurant played American music day and night. Globalization (Americanization) is being witnessed all over Europe and the world.

Awareness

Are people really aware of this danger? Or are they kept in the dark?

Europeans and especially the public in the US are unaware of the highly negative role globalization has inflicted and the loss of culture it contributed. I see more awareness and resistance in Asia and Africa because they have tasted the bitterness and tragedies, which increased many folds because of globalization. They’re losing their heritage, whether it is the seeds, the food, the manuscripts, or the natural resources. Iraq, for instance, was completely ransacked. The country is not only rich in oil but also in uranium, copper, gold, gas, ancient ruins and manuscripts. Besides that, Iraq used to have a strong scientific tradition, but since the war started more than 600 scientists and university professors have been assassinated.

Do you have the feeling that the American public has enough access to information about GMOs? Are issues concerning GMOs being debated in the mainstream media?

Well I don’t think it is being discussed as it is supposed to be, but every once in a while you see it being thrown in on TV shows. At one point it was mentioned very briefly on Oprah. Now you can see it on doctor Oz show, but when they talk about the issue, they are very careful. You can lose your job over this.

I remember an incident with Oprah talking about burgers

It was absolutely amazing. Four years of courts and steep legal costs, all because she questioned the safety of red meat on her show. Some Texas cattlemen filed suit against Oprah and her guest, which was dismissed by the federal judge in 2002. This Oprah incident was not even about GM food, so imagine how much worse it could have been had they mentioned GMOs.
On Doctor Oz show they recently spoke about organic food. This is very new. He brought in several researchers and doctors to present its benefits.

Activism

 Do you feel that organizing International Seeds Day has made an impact?

Many people became aware of the ‘food conspiracy’, not only in Iraq but also in neighboring countries as well as in Europe, Asia and the US. Unfortunately we have not been effective in reaching Africans and South Americans. Also more activists in Australia and New Zealand are needed to join our efforts.

In the future we plan to promote International Seed Day (ISD) as a world calendar event. Seeds deserve to be celebrated, just like mother earth. In the end, earth remains more powerful than us, but we do have a considerable power to manipulate seeds and cause harm to the food chain in general. It is very important to raise awareness about food sovereignty and seed.

I think that if we want to increase the impact on people’s awareness about the subject, we should help provide them with information on how to save seeds, plant them and enjoy the crops right at their homes. I believe it is a spiritual practice. It is so delicious to harvest these crops, to clean and cook them your way. Not only are they organic, they have no additives like when you eat in restaurants or when you buy ready-made food in supermarkets, not to mention it’s cheaper. 

Scientists, organic food advocates, women and farmers have an obligation to learn and educate about the pros and cons of organic food and GMOs. Bringing awareness makes people more independent when making their choices, and understand and react better to the food-industry and its money motives.

Can the focus on the non-political issues make people more interested in the subject and appreciate healthy food again?

 Yes I think so, and they will get the message without us pushing: “do this, protest that, sign this petition” and so on. As an activist, I believe becoming aware and sharing your information and knowledge with others are empowering, it produces better results politically and socially. Personally I don’t think there is much room for political activism in the industrial west because there is much more deception and misinformation than any place on earth.  

The governments in these countries are far more vicious and non-democratic, even though they come out with a smile on their faces pretending civility and calm.  It is called diplomacy. I feel that the difference between Easterners and Westerners is that Easterners don’t really know how to articulate deception, the exact opposite of Westerners.

During our conversation you spoke about many worrying developments, but after all these years you are still an activist, this must mean that you still believe in another way, is another agricultural model possible?

Yes, I still firmly believe in this, but we should not be afraid to find different ways to get the attention of the public. We need a very broad alliance to actually push for change. When you focus too much on politics people tend to get intimidated. After what happened to the Occupy Wall Street movement, people became reluctant to protest. If you watch the footage of how the US police badly treated the demonstrators, you can ask yourself the question, is this footage by a democratic system? It was horrible.

That’s why I think we should use different tactics that involve science, the arts and other aspects of culture.

Of course we can’t avoid politics. When Monsanto’s vice president, Michael Taylor, was appointed by Obama to head the FDA, we need to emphatically speak out against it. We simply have no other choice, because this is wrong and should always be brought to the attention of the public.