Food is an important part of most Holiday celebrations, not just because we need food to live, but food connects us to our culture, our past, and whether we know it or not, our future. Food Is Different: Why the WTO Should Get Out of Agriculture is a great book by Peter Rosset — one that everyone who cares about food should read. The book is dedicated to Lee Kyung Hae, the Korean farmer who took his life in protest against the World Trade Organization on September 16, 2003, at the WTO protest march in Cancun Mexico.
I was there. He took his own life just a few yards from where I stood among the other protesters near the barricades. I stepped aside as they carried him past me on a stretcher, but I had no idea what had happened until I heard later that night that he had died in protest.
Many people have and will continue to discredit his act, write him off as a crazy or some sort of fool. While I didn’t know him personally, I have spent time with peasant farmers like Lee Kyung Hae and the one thing I have learned from them; farming is about much more than making money, it is life. They are ready to do anything, to protect their farms, their families, and their way of life.
One might ask, what is so special about food? Why is it different than other commodities? The cheapest food is the best food, right? Rosset makes it clear that food is “not a typical commodity because it affects so many people and the environment in such intimate ways … Food is both personal, as it affects our bodies, and political as it affects the world.” Food does have political power, and as we have seen in the current world food crisis, it has real economic power as well.
Unlike most commodities, we need food every day. Some may want a flat-screen TV, but they do not need one. They can live without a fancy TV, but they can’t live without food.
We were shocked by the death of a Wal-Mart worker trampled by crazed Christmas shoppers, but if food supplies become short, everyone will become crazed. Eating is part of that basic survival instinct, we will do what we must to survive. A new TV or a car, we might want them, but few would kill for them. Food is different.
Most farmers I know, myself included, have a strong attachment to our farms, the land, our heritage, but it is a life or death attachment for very few of us. These peasant farmers are different, they have the passion, they will die for what they believe.
Those who would write Lee Kyung Hae off do not understand the commitment, the connection, the interdependence these farmers have with each other and their communities. Back in the ’60s during Vietnam, we occasionally heard about a U.S. soldier who threw himself on a live hand grenade to save the lives of his comrades, his brothers; it’s like that.
Peasant farmers have told me stories of those who stood in front of bulldozers in their attempt to stop Plan Puebla-Panama, the giant transportation project linking Central and South America to the North, another part of the corporate effort to extract the wealth of the South.
These peasant farmers are willing to sacrifice their lives for what they feel is the greater good. Perhaps there is no thought given to a spontaneous act of sacrifice, perhaps there is, I don’t know. I do know that in order for a human to overcome the strongest instinct we have, self preservation, there needs to be an extremely urgent life altering issue at stake.
Food, one’s farm, one’s heritage, one’s family: these are the issues Lee Kyung Hae gave his life for. He, like all the peasant farmers in Cancun, was determined that the WTO, would not sell out Korea’s farms, it’s families and their right to produce food to a parasitic group of multinational corporations intent only on making a profit. They knew if the trade provisions of the WTO were enacted they would loose their right to feed themselves and their families, their right to grow the food their ancestors had grown; the food that maintained their heritage as well as their lives.
Lee Kyung Hae’s sacrifice was a very visible and selfless act, yet every day peasant farmers around the world give up something — their land, their rights their ability to feed themselves, their food sovereignty.
How could we have let our world slip so far? Why must people die for their right to feed themselves? At what point did the profits of multinational corporations become more important than the lives of farmers? We must get agriculture out of the WTO.
Food is different. We need to understand that people are willing to die for their right to farm, to grow what they want, and to feed their families and communities. While few are inclined to make the ultimate sacrifice, we need to think about how important food really is. It is life and death. Good food, local food, food that supports the farmer, nourishes the eater and supports the community, that is what Lee Kyung Hae died for.