by Devon Peña

It is well known that the American family farm has suffered a dramatic decline over the past fifty years, a period defined by a tumultuous shift toward large-scale industrial, monoculture- and corporate-dominated agriculture. The rise of commercial agricultural biotechnology is the most recent expression of this industrial, anti-nature, paradigm.

A lesser-known trend is that the past thirty years also have marked a steady increase in the number of Latina/o farm owners and operators. We may be seeing a new phase involving the “Mexicanization” and not just “mechanization” of agriculture.

The latest USDA data document an increase of 40 percent between 1987 and 1997 in the number of Latina/o owned and operated farms -- from 16,183 in 1987 to 23,000 in 1997. If current trends continue, in twenty years the number will increase to more than 50,000. Similar trends are evident among some Asian immigrant groups.

The number of family farmers among all other ethnic and national-origin groups, including Euro-Americans, continues a pattern of steady decline. Together, these trends suggest that by 2040 close to 30 percent of family farms will be owned or operated by Latina/os and Asians. This will constitute a major demographic shift in American agriculture.

A question of concern for environmental justice activists is whether these farmers of color will use genetically modified (GM) crops or can they be persuaded to adopt more sustainable and community-oriented practices?

Most Latina/o farmers in the U.S. are Mexican-origin. Some are tenth generation Spanish-Indian mestizos farming ancestral lands in New Mexico and Colorado; these are the oldest family farmers in the United States and many have pre-Hispanic Pueblo Indian roots. Others include recent immigrants, among them Mixtec, Zapotec, and other indigenous groups. These new settlers are buying farm, ranch, and orchard lands at a remarkable pace. Latina/o farmers now own some 8 to 10 million acres of farm, ranch, orchard, and open space lands. By 2040, they will own close to 20 million acres of land.

Why should Latina/o farmers, and other farmers of color, be concerned about biotechnology? We must first recall that aboriginal Mexican farmers developed some of the world’s most important crops like corn, common bean, scarlet runner bean, squash, chile, peanut, avocado, amaranth, sweet potato, tomato, cassava, yam bean, and vanilla bean.

We recently witnessed a struggle over the patenting of the Mexican yellow bean, a locally adapted native crop grown for centuries by Indian and mestizo peasants. Larry Proctor, the president of an American seed company, POD-NERS, brought a yellow bean that is commonly farmed in Mexico to the US. After a few years of planting and selecting for an even size and shade of yellow, he applied for and received a patent for the seed, despite the fact it has been grown for centuries in Mexico. The Mexican government has challenged the patent because POD-NERS is attempting to ban exports of the beans from Mexico and because they are charging Mexican farmers royalties. The “Enola bean” patent conflict illustrates the threat posed by commercial agricultural biotechnology to the traditional crops of Mexican and Mexican American farmers.

These farmers should become more concerned with the efforts by biotechnology corporations to appropriate locally stewarded germplasm. How many of the traditional Mexican crops will be collected, genetically modified, and patented? How will these practices affect the autonomy and integrity of Latina/o farmers as plant breeders and seed savers?

There is a saying among Mexican American farmers in Colorado: “We have always been organic. We were just too poor to call it that.” Biotechnology poses additional threats to traditional organic practices among Latina/o farmers. The dangers are primarily posed by the threat of horizontal gene transfer, in which GM crops exchange genes with non-GMO crops and their wild weedy relatives. This would clearly undermine the increasing number of Latina/o farmers who are working to protect traditional organic crop varieties and farming practices.

Small farmers have no use for biotechnology. Anything that can be done with genetic modification can also be done naturally, with fewer, if any, environmental consequences. In addition, the political and economic interests of small farmers are not served by the contractual obligations created by the use of biotechnology. They, and the environmental justice movement, are far better protected with traditional methods of farming.

The environmental justice movement must articulate a coherent critical analysis of the threats posed by commercial agricultural biotechnology to farmers of color. Moreover, the environmental justice movement must support the efforts of farmers of color to preserve or adopt sustainable and regenerative farming practices that are grounded in local and regional economics.

Resistance to biotechnology dovetails with resistance to globalization. The biodiversity-based livelihoods of farmers of color will prove to be an important battlefront in the movements for global environmental justice and a sustainable and equitable future.

Devon Peña is a CRG board member. He is Professor of Anthropology and Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington and is coordinator of the Ph.D. Program in Environmental Anthropology. Professor Peña serves on the National Planning Committee for the Second National Indigenous and People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. His most recent book, Tierra y Vida: Mexican Americans and the Environment, is forthcoming from the University of Arizona Press (Spring 2002)

GeneWatch: Current Issue
Lobbying and propaganda around gene drive technologies threaten to erode public trust in science. By Christophe Bo√ęte
Review of the film A Dangerous Idea: Eugenics, Genetics and the American Dream. By Jaydee Hanson
Book review: Making Sense of Genes by Kostas Kampourakis. By Stuart A. Newman
GeneWatch: Archives