(Note: this piece was originally published on October 25 at Hyphen Magazine)
Angela Angel at work on "Free Our Seeds: Seeds Are Free." Photo by Robin David.
It was 1985: the era of Madonna, the Reagan administration, and the Millenials. It was also the year that the US Patent and Trademark Office first passed a patent allowing seeds and seed-bearing plants to be patentable. The generation born in that era would become witnesses to the rise of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), from the laboratory to the field to the grocery store.
Flash forward to 2012. Barely a week remains before California decides on the heated Proposition 37, a ballot initiative requiring the labeling of products containing GMO ingredients. As Hyphen blogger Nancy Wei explained, GMO critics are concerned about its impacts on health, farmers, agriculture, and the environment, and insist consumers have the right to make informed food choices. GMO products currently do not require labeling in the US, although many developed countries - including Japan, Taiwan, and the European Union - do.
No matter where people stand on the issue, Prop 37 is significant. It could send a ripple effect throughout California (called “America’s salad bowl” for the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables that are grown there), and into the rest of the country. Given its past, we can be sure that the GMO debate will continue beyond this initiative, no matter the outcome.
AAPI communities are woven deeply in the history of California’s food and agricultural landscape. So where do our communities stand on GMOs?
Growing up alongside the rise of GMOs is a new generation of Asian/Americans who claim a voice in the future of food. I spoke with Robin David and Angela Angel, two San Francisco cultural workers whose politically-infused artwork often touches on issues in the environment. Their most recent, eye-catching series “Free Our Seeds: Seeds Are Free” focuses on the danger to seeds, or what Angela calls “the nucleus of life.”
I’m noticing several of your recent pieces center around food and biotechnology. What inspired this?
Robin: We decided to prioritize food and land in our work. Our last project was on water, and our work tends to reflect the most pressing issues of the time. Both of us come from community organizing backgrounds. With the rising fight against agribusinesses such as Monsanto and Syngenta, we decided our theme for this latest series would be seeds.
Angela: I've spent time in parts of the world where agribusiness mortally affects local communities. In India, I stayed with Adivasi cotton farmers as the farmer suicide rate climbed by the thousands. I lived in Mexico and witnessed how the rise of corn prices, and the monopoly of corn produced for ethanol instead of for food, affected tortilla prices. Living outside of the States helped me see just how these decisions directly affect the people.
What do you see as your role in connecting people, and in particular, AAPI communities, with farming and food issues?
Angela: All peoples came from a land-based society. So everyone should be involved with food! Food is one of our most intimate relationships in several interconnected directions. I realized from a very young age that I wanted an intimate relationship with my food. It's basic, but the world is so fast and disconnected that this simple relationship has been strained. With our most recent piece about corn, I've realized how profound the cycle I have with corn is: I grow it. I eat it. I make art out of it. I fight for it. As the Maya embody: "We are people of the corn."
Robin: My dad grew up in a farm. Many Filipino/Americans like us come from a lineage of farmers, who tilled the land and produced the food on their plates. Here in America, where farming is not encouraged, we have lost that intuition, that labor of love, that control and awareness of where our food really comes from. I want us to remember that past, and imply that in our present.
GMOs are an especially heated issue right now, especially in California. If you had just one sentence to express your feelings about GMO labeling of foods, what would you say?
Robin: I want to know what I’m putting in my body!
Angela: I met this woman working on the Prop 37 campaign and she was wearing the best shirt. It said: "GMO OMG WTF are we eating?" 'Nuff said.