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White: Food for thought fuel

The price of gas has risen to $4 a gallon in the United States on average. The declining economy is on everyone;s minds. And despite the growing numbers of hungry in the world, corn is being considered as a source for an ethanol fuel additive, biofuel. The U.S. is basing most of its biofuel hopes on the increased production of corn. For Haudenosaunee, this pursuit of cheaper fuels should raise serious questions about the sacrifice of our relationship to the Three Sisters as the demand leads further to genetic manipulation of corn and other plants to yield greater harvests.

While attending a recent conference, it struck me how easily trained we humans are. While a group of us headed out for lunch, we waited at a cross walk. Despite the absence of traffic, we all waited for the signal - a red hand and a walking white man - to change. Impatient and hungry, I walked with the red hand displayed. Once the white man appeared, my friends began to cross. I teased them all about being trained Indians, waiting for the white man to tell us what to do, and how dare we call ourselves sovereigntists after that!

Yet there is an ironic element of truth here. The average age of a U.S. farmer is 55; I suspect it might be slightly older in Native communities. Even more problematic is that we seem to have no next generation of Native farmers or seed conservationists to ensure the healthy future of our food sovereignty. In some sense, we seem to be waiting for the white man to tell us what to do, rather than asserting our own sovereignty when it comes to growing food.

For centuries, farmers have selectively saved seeds from season to season to ensure healthy crops and food supplies for their families and their community. We now have agri-corporations like Monsanto and others, including the U.S. government, turning that very practice on its head. Genetically modified crops, biofuels and chemical fertilizers are forcibly marketed through legal measures as opposed to following the centuries-old practice of subsistence farming.

Let's be clear. Genetically modifying a crop means adding bacterial or foreign genes to the DNA of plants, which is supposed to improve crop yield, kill parasites, and allow more toxic forms of weed control. But this practice is a matter of great debate in many circles. Despite their proliferation in the U.S. and other select countries, GM crops are generally disdained in many parts of the world because of their environmental impact and unknown, long-term health effects.

We have seen the introduction of GM crops in only the last generation. When I was a kid, no GM crops were grown in the United States. In 2007, there were 142 million acres planted in the U.S.; 282 million acres worldwide. In this sense, it is the poor who will pay the price of this gamble against the natural laws and cycles of plants.

Human beings are part of the Natural World, part of the cycle of life on this planet. We are dependent upon plants, fish and animal life for our well-being and survival. If we do not acknowledge that we are but a part of the Natural World, we jeopardize the sustainability of food sources and biodiversity. It will be the poor of the world who will suffer first, as they are the first consumers of these experimental agriculture practices.

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Agricultural research itself is not to blame. It is vitally necessary. What we are really talking about here is modern science versus more pragmatic practices to produce higher yields. It seems unnatural to view a crop as a mere commodity not for human or animal consumption but for economic ventures such as biofuel production. All of this is being couched as necessary development to stave off looming famines due to human population growth that has outpaced crop yields in the last three decades.

We shouldn't forget that three-quarters of the world's agriculture originated in the Western Hemisphere, where bountiful harvests were produced as a result of a culture's relationship with the plants, not artificial tinkering. Traditional farmers accomplished this by selective breeding; they chose next year's seeds from the current season's best crops. There was little, if any, hunger because people collaborated and shared in the bounty as a community and didn't grow crops for economic profit. This is the very mentality behind the shift back to locally grown food and community farming that is becoming popular throughout the U.S. and Indian country.

Huge investment funds are pouring billions of dollars into booming commodities like wheat, corn and soybean. One would hope this is an effort to stave off future famines and ensure the needs of the world's poor. But we know it is in response to potentially lucrative profits to be made in biofuels due to increasing global energy demands.

For all the advances the ''green revolution'' has brought, there has been little improvement in the world's poorest regions. At the recent Emergency Conference of Food Shortage, Climate Change and Energy held in Rome, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture talked more about the benefits of GM crops and biofuels. This despite U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's reminder to those gathered that nearly 1 billion people battle daily food shortages and hunger.

If we are to practice this notion of food sovereignty, and not wait for the white man to tell us what to do, how are we to do it? Part of this task is re-establishing a relationship to corn (and beans and squash) by growing and consuming it, and respecting the original instructions given to the Haudenosaunee. Certainly there are more uses for corn than human consumption. But Haudenosaunee people understand clearly that corn was a gift to us from Creator. I am convinced that corn was not meant to be converted into a biofuel additive to help increase gas mileage, which does little to help stem climate change.

Kevin J. White, Ph.D., Akwesasne Mohawk, is an instructor at SUNY Oswego in the Native American and American Studies programs and a columnist for Indian Country Today. He has been involved with the Pinewoods Community Farming Inc. Iroquois White Corn Project since 1999 with John C. Mohawk. He can be reached at