A Government for Hire?

I am increasingly concerned about Genetic Modification in our food supply.  It seems that Americans are suddenly awakening to the fact that a large amount of the food we eat every day has been modified in one way or another.  We all know about corn and soybeans:  it’s almost impossible to find those staples in their non-modified form.   If you are concerned, the only choice is to stop eating them.  But have you ever tried to stop eating corn?  It’s in everything!

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Do you know what Canola Oil is?  I used to joke that nobody had ever been able to show me a canola . . .  and now it turns out, there’s a good reason: there is no such thing.   Canola Oil is extracted from genetically engineered rapeseed.  It does not exist in nature without the intervention of science. It was concocted in Canada some years ago – hence the “Can” at the beginning of the name.

Here’s what’s prompting me to talk about this today.  Last week, our lawmakers overwhelmingly turned down a bill that would allow States to require labeling for genetically modified ingredients in food.  Overwhelmingly.

By the way, the FDA has already said such labeling won’t take place on a national level.  They say it would “confuse the public,” and make them think there is something wrong with GMO food.

It got me thinking about our Senators and Congressmen, the people we elect to represent us in Washington.  I truly believe if you put it to a popular vote, asked Americans if they thought GMOs should be labeled, 75% or more would say YES!  But our legislators, representing us, overwhelmingly turned down a bill that might lead to that.

Why would they do that?  Are they privy to some secret knowledge the rest of us don’t have?  Do they know better?  Are they protecting us from hurting ourselves?  We’re talking about food labeling here, not guns, not terrorism.  It makes me wonder if maybe, just maybe, our lawmakers – elected by us – are somehow controlled by the big businesses that always seem to benefit when it comes time for a vote.  The phrase ‘Bought and Paid For’ comes to mind.

What about the companies that benefit from the genetic modification of food?  There are a number of them.  However, the one that is most aggressive, that has moved furthest along with this trend is Monsanto .  In 2009, President Obama appointed Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto exec and chief lobbyist, to be the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner, essentially putting him in charge of regulating his own industry.  Seems there are quite a few former Monsanto people in a variety of food regulatory positions today.  They’ve been very successful in advancing the Monsanto agenda despite what We The People might want.

Here’s a little bright news.  States may not be able to require labeling of GMOs, but Whole Foods can.  They say that ALL GMO foods in their stores will be properly labelled by 2018.  They note a steady increase in sales of products labeled ‘Non-GMO’.

I want to be clear about something:  I’m not particularly opposed to the genetic modification of food.  In principal, I think it might help us solve the problem of world hunger.  What I am opposed to is industry running unchecked, headlong into something nobody is really sure about, all for the billions that may lay there.  I’m opposed to industry selling us food without telling us what’s in it.  I’m in favor of consumer empowerment which starts with giving consumers the information they need to make an informed decision.  That’s what this industry, this Monsanto, is opposed to:  giving us the information.

You know I love Oaxaca, Mexico and spend quite a bit of time there.  It is Southern Mexico, very far away from Washington DC and even from Mexico City.  Their corn – which they hold to be sacred – is not genetically modified.   But they see this frightening trend occurring all around them and they are already taking to the streets to protest, inform and, hopefully stop the big money that would drive GMOs to their front doorstep.  Unfortunately, there may be nothing they can do about it – even if they are successful in creating protective legislation.  Corn propagates by pollenization.  And pollen is spread by bees and by the air.  Eventually, the GMO cloud that we created to forever alter our own crops will make it to Southern Mexico and to the rest of the world as well.  At that point we will all be eating GMO corn, like it or not.  And the corn we ate as kids?  It will become extinct.

Are You a Tourist? Or a Traveler?

(I spoke to a group this week about my trip to Oaxaca earlier this year. (You can read about that trip HERE and HERE). I spent January and February there, specifically to work on my Spanish, but I learned a whole lot more than verb conjugations. For me it was a transformative experience; it changed me, fundamentally, at my core.)

There are two ways to go on vacation: as a tourist or as a traveler.

A tourist goes to ‘see the sights.’ Think about that phrase for a moment: ‘See The Sights.’ It implies a level of detachment. The ‘Sights’ are out there and the tourist stands back and looks at them. At the same time, deep in the dark corners of the tourist’s mind, hardly noticeable, is a short-time clock, ticking down the hours and days until the tourist returns home to the familiar.

If that sounds judgmental, it’s not. Tourism is great and everyone loves to be a tourist from time to time. I’ve been on half a dozen cruise vacations in my life and there’s nothing more touristy than a cruise vacation. You get dropped off in some exotic port-of-call in the morning and have six hours to run around and ‘See The Sights.’ Great!

But a traveler, on the other hand, puts ‘home’ in mothballs when he leaves. He tries not to think about it, to give his full attention to the destination. He abandons the familiar and tries to learn a new way to be. There is no detachment. The traveler doesn’t just want to ‘see the sights,’ he wants to become part of them. He wants to inhale the culture, learn how to function within it, merge with it – not just snap a picture of it. It’s the difference between going to the beach to look at the ocean and going to the beach to swim.

As a traveler, you have to abandon the familiar.

A traveler is horrified when he comes across McDonalds within eyesight of the Arche de Triomphe on the Champs de Elysee in Paris. It’s jarring. It is a disconnect in the way seeing a wallow of pigs in the lobby of a bank might be for a farmer.McDonalds on Champs de Elysee

I spent nearly 40 years doing business travel – flying from place to place, staying in well equipped hotels and eating in nice restaurants. I never need to see the inside of another Hilton-Hyatt-Marriott Hotel again. Ever. They have their place, but give me the unadvertised, almost secret place the locals go, the one the tourist might be uncomfortable going into. And, given the choice between a nice steak by table cloth and candlelight, or rubbing shoulders over a taco with people in the street . . . well, I’ll usually choose the taco.

I went to Oaxaca as a traveler. So my month of studying Spanish (which turned into two, because, as a traveler, I had personal permission to be flexible with my exit date) had a much greater impact on me; it changed me.

Speaking to this group this week, I wanted to not only do a nice travelogue, I also wanted to communicate the change. I wanted to leave them wanting to go to Oaxaca, sure. But I also wanted them, for a fleeting moment, to question their own beliefs in the way I did for eight weeks.

I have lived my adult life in the American business world. I know how to write a business plan, set a goal, create an action plan, get from point A to point B and rise to the next level. It’s what you do in business and, for many of us, it’s what we do in life.

But in Oaxaca, the poorest and most disenfranchised State in Mexico, that mindset is very rare. These people have no power, no voice and little opportunity to transform their lives unless they are willing to pack up and leave – and leave not just Oaxaca, but probably leave the country. It’s very telling that the two largest sources of ‘new’ money in Oaxaca are not industry and innovation, but rather, tourism and money sent home by those who have left.

Even as a traveler, this bothered me no end. I got really upset when I learned that Volkswagen, in the late 90s wanted to build their big Mexican Beetle plant in Oaxaca but were denied by the State government. All of those jobs and all of those millions of dollars went to Puebla instead. This year alone, Volkswagen will spend $700 million transforming that original Beetle plant to produce the next generation VW Golf, AND they’re also going to build a whole new plant to produce Audis – all in Puebla, not Oaxaca.

One of the big protests occurring in Oaxaca today involves planned construction of a windfarm in the Isthmus of Tejuantepec. A windfarm. What the heck?!? That’s clean, renewable energy! Why in the world would you protest that??Windfarm protest, Oaxaca

It took a lot of conversation (in Spanish, of course), with a lot of people to kind of get it. These people are, very consciously, not taking the bait.

The Western World has marketed the Coca-Cola lifestyle to the entire planet. We’ve put it all over television, in all of our movies and more recently on the Internet – all of which get beamed all over the world. It’s powerful imagery. It can make that poor but happy family living in the countryside of Bolivia . . . un-happy . . . with what they have, with who they are. It can make an entire generation of women – in the West as well as around the world – so unhappy with the way they look, that they will carve themselves up to look different.

In Oaxaca, the people have seen that message and have made a decision NOT to embrace it. They’ll look at it, even admire it, much as a tourist will look at a Cathedral, but they won’t swap what they have for it. In fact, they’ll fight to keep what they have rather than surrender it.

Deep into my Oaxaca journey, I realized I wasn’t seeing something. I wasn’t seeing angry, drugged out kids. Anywhere. Maybe there are some, but I was all over that city for eight weeks and I sure didn’t see them. Instead I saw bright, smiling young people, often walking arm and arm with their parents or laughing with their friends while eating an ice cream. Oh, and kissing. Like crazy. It wasn’t at all unusual to see a couple of high schoolers in full lip-lock as I crossed Parque Llano to catch a bus on Calle Benito Juarez to go to the Mercado . . . only to see the same couple in the same location, still kissing away two hours later when I came home! (No wonder they look so darn happy all the time!).Happy Kids in Oaxaca

And the smiles aren’t just on the kids. As I clicked through my photos, over and over, I saw the same happiness in the people who filled the background of the pictures.

Oaxaca woman

I can’t help but wonder if their choice to not only accept what they have, but to hold it sacred, isn’t,  well . . . wise.

It’s something my dog has been trying to teach me for eight years: being completely present and engaged in the moment. I take him on walks, of course, during which I’m returning calls, making plans, waiting impatiently for him to hurry up piddling for the 23rd time on the trek, urging him on and on until we finally get back to the starting point: home.

More than a few times, he’s turned back to me and said, ‘Dad! Could you just chill out?? Just enjoy the day, the smells, the sights. This is a stroll, not a time trial. It’s not about getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Could you please just suspend your goal orientation long enough to be here with me right now?

I’m not saying that my trip put my drive to achieve on ice, that I will now spend the rest of my days blissed out in the moment like my dog or the typical Oaxaqueno. I am an empowered American, born and bread to continually grow and become until the day I die. I will always make plans, set goals and achieve. But I can now see that sometimes that driven lifestyle can make you sick, can breed unhappiness, can lead you astray. Being bred to achieve comes with its own set of challenges and its own downside . . . just as living in the moment does.

And I can see that ours is not the only way to be. Other people in other places with other histories and other values can be completely fulfilled NOT chasing after what the Western World holds forth as being ‘desirable.’ That’s what the bait was in Oaxaca when VW wanted to flood the local economy with money: change your life. And the people said no. Poor as they are, their lives and families are sacred.

The bait with the windfarm in the Isthmus is jobs and cheap, renewable energy. windfarmBut what the people are saying to the German, American and Chinese investors behind the project is this:

You’re going to defile our sacred land, destroy the migratory routes our birds have used for millenia, and ruin our view forever . . . all for a few jobs and some electricity . . . so that you can make billions?

The windfarm protesters have adopted the image of Don Quixote jousting at a modern windmill as their theme. I fear that, like Quixote, they will never stop that windmill . . . but I really respect their wisdom at recognizing what the windfarm represents to their lives, their culture and their families.  It is a fundamental change, from which there will be no return.

Oaxaca Windfarm Quixote