Hope for a Beleaguered Planet....

Our book Milpa: From Seed to Salsa - Ancient Ingredients for a Sustainable Future explores through a blend of essays, recipes and documentary photography how the ancient agricultural knowledge and the wealth of 1000 year-old seeds and planting practices still in use among the Mixtec peoples of southern Mexico can help us to meet the ecological and food crises of today.

The essays, written in conjunction with campesino farmers, serve as a warning about the complicated dangerous effects inherent in the rapidly expanding distribution of GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds in Mexico, the birthplace of corn. Our documentary cookbook discusses alternatives for campesino farmers across the world and gardeners and consumers who care about food safety. Using the example of the Milpa planting system in the Mixteca Alta region of Southern Mexico just north of Oazaxa City, the book supports recent studies by UN investigators that show that small plots of land, heritage seeds and sustainable practices can in fact feed the world while enriching the soils on which we all depend for life…….

Milpa contains the traditional recipes lovingly shared by the local indigenous Mixtec women, allowing readers to re-create the culinary magic that flows from this ancient agricultural system. Recipes are painstakingly tested and photographed in traditional indigenous kitchens as well as in a professional modern test kitchen. Please purchase the book, below.....

All Rights Reserved: © Phil-Dahl Bredine, © Kathy Dahl-Bredine © Judith Cooper Haden Photography, © Susana Trilling SOMH.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


© Phil Dahl-Bredine

A few months ago my friend Pedro called me over to his computer to see a video. To my surprise I saw Mixtec campesino farmers thanking a regional foundation and the “Fundacion Monsanto” for gifts of vegetable seeds, dip irrigation systems and chickens. As the video extolled the work of these foundations in assisting poor indigenous farmers, it displayed signs from the Monsanto Foundation in the background and at the end of the video simply the well known “Monsanto” logo.

I have spent the last 11 years working with Pedro and an organization of Mixtec campesinos on sustainable agriculture projects, the promotion and protection of the vast native seed heritage of this center of origin of corn, and the revival and promotion of traditional Mixtec farming techniques such as the Milpa. I found the video surprising given the rather isolated character of the Mixteca Alta of Oaxaca, Mexico where we work. But in the busyness of more pressing work I passed over the disturbing character of the video until a neighbor in our small village announced one day that she had found a foundation willing to help villagers with vegetable growing and small animal production. Indeed, it was the foundation in the video.

“What would have attracted the largest seed and agricultural chemical company of the world to the isolated mountains of the Mixteca Alta and to our little village? And what did they have in mind by being here?”, I wondered. I remembered the recent scandal caused by the revelation that the Walmart Corporation, now with one of every five of its international stores in Mexico, had bribed officials throughout the country to get permits and environmental impact studies. Even more striking for me were its techniques of bribing local community leaders to undercut community opposition to new stores in environmentally, historically or commercially sensitive sites.

A few months ago the Mexican government approved planting of genetically modified corn varieties on a pre-marketing basis on thousands of acres in the northern Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora. Part of the process that led up to these approvals after years of moratoria on GE corn in this center of origin of the world´s most popular grain involved a scientific mapping of the areas in the country that still possessed native corn varieties. In these areas planting of GE corn would be “restricted”.  Oddly enough, the mapping claimed that two small areas of this state of Oaxaca no longer used native corn. Friends from these communities expressed great surprise that the studies inaccurately claimed they no longer planted native varieties.

Not known for its philanthropic concerns, the Monsanto Corporation has reaped large profits from collecting on crops contaminated by its modified genes and even by the “illegal” introduction of its modified seeds across the Americas. The illegal or “unintended” spread of its genes has become both a marketing and a patent revenue strategy in places like Brazil and Paraguay. Could the open doors of the Oaxacan communities Mexican government studies claim no longer use native corn varieties be part of a contamination strategy? Recent discoveries of ancient corn remains indicate that the state of Oaxaca is the center of origin of corn. Hundreds of native corn varieties resistant to drought, flooding, wind, insect pests and poor soils still flourish in the communities of the Mixteca Alta. Is Monsanto looking for such rich biodiversity to modify and patent , a practice for which the government of India is presently suing the company?
And is the company buying friends, a la Walmart, in the campesino communities of the Mixteca Alta so that when the contamination and/or biopiracy of native varieties becomes a scandal it can divide and undermine the opposition?

Here in the village we asked ourselves what we could do in the face of much needed free handouts given by a corporation whose expressed aim is nothing less than to control the agricultural systems of the world for its corporate profit. We speeded up our own non-profit efforts to create small, integrated, diverse, sustainable, family farms to head off the Monsanto attraction in our small village. But we can only do that on a very limited scale. And what is at stake is vast.

According to U.N. special rapportuer, Oliver De Schutter, there are still 1.6 billion people on the planet who live by being subsistence farmers producing, above all, the majority of their own food needs. Here in Oaxaca most of our subsistence farmers own most of their input needs to keep farming. They use animal traction, make their own plows, access natural fertilizers from animal manure, collectively own a richly biodiverse native seed heritage, and possess an agricultural tradition and collective know-how that serves them well. Enterprising international and national businesses such as Monsanto naturally long to replace these independent tools and techniques owned by indigenous farming communities with commodities that they can supply at a profit. Where possible they would also like to create new “necessities” for this subsistent farmer sector; new machines, new pest control products…new patented genetically modified seeds that can only be planted once before having to be purchased once again. In short, they would like to turn all of these collective needs into commodities which farmers would need to buy to continue planting.

But here in the Mixteca Alta and around the world 1.6 billion subsistence farmers succeed because they practice a low-input farming which needs very little cash input to yield food for the family. “Commodify” this subsistence sector and you will unleash, among other drastic results, a wave of migration as we have never before witnessed.

Doing this with genetically modified seeds here in the center of origin of corn will, in addition, threaten the future existence of corn for us all.

That´s why a few weeks ago 300 campesino men and women from across Oaxaca met in the beautiful  ethno-botanical gardens of Oaxaca city to strategize about promoting and defending the incredibly rich biodiversity of native corn varieties in this state where more than 36 of the original 56-60 land races of native corn are still planted along with hundreds of varieties of each race, each adapted to the challenges of the growing conditions of its specific region. With this incredible biodiversity and these rich genetic resistances we hold the future of corn on the planet in our hands.

In addition to developing plans to promote the planting and improvement of native seeds and to strengthen the custom of planting in milpa in Oaxacan communities, these 300 farmers put together a defense plan with coordinating committees in the various regions of the state. Educational “brigades” will bring information to indigenous communities and coordinate the use of traditional governance structures and appropriate formats to assist agrarian communities and cooperative landholding ejidos to declare themselves GMO free territories and pueblos independently of the federal processes that favor corporations such as Monsanto.

Meanwhile, what do we say to our neighboring communities about the Fundacion Monsanto? Perhaps, pragmatically, “Accept the gift, but don’t for a minute trust the giver?”