These GM protests were 10,000 years in the making

I’m not sure when the phrase ‘reconnecting people with their food’ was first coined (it began cropping up in the media around the time the Curry Report was published, in early 2006). But because it resonates strongly for so many people it’s now passed into general currency.

The fact that we, in the ‘developed’ economies, need to be reconnected with our food is a reminder of the gulf that exists between our own separation from food and farming culture, and the daily experience of hundreds of millions of people around the world who are still intimately connected with their food – just as their ancestors were thousands of years ago.

That profound relationship between ancient peoples and the food they ate, and depended utterly upon, is strikingly present in a hauntingly beautiful sculpture from Mexico, dating from around 700 years BC. It’s featured in Neil MacGregor’s brilliant History of the World in 100 Objects.

This tiny ‘Maize God’ is just a few inches high and comes from a time when the Maya of Central America not only worshiped maize but believed that all their ancestors were descended from it. Which explains why the head of this god is covered in a headdress of a stylized corn cob and his hair resembles the silky stigmas of the maize plant.

As well as representing the agricultural cycle of planting, harvesting and replanting, and the parallel human cycle of birth, death and rebirth, this food god represented the very stuff of which early Central Americans were made.

Maize didn’t become the dominant crop of Central and South America accidentally. It emerged that way because there were no easily domesticated animals on the continent and staple foods became the “trinity of squashes, pulses and maize”. It took thousands of years of selective breeding and the emergence of new cooking techniques before maize became the digestible, sustaining and flexible food it is today.

As well as continuing to dominate Mexican cuisine, maize still exerts a “surprisingly powerful religious and metaphorical charge” says Neil MacGregor. He quotes the Mexican restaurateur, Santigo Calvar, who says that maize “is part of everyday life, it jumps class, everybody eats and drinks it”.

But maize is under assault from those intent on commodifying it at any cost – converting it into bio-fuel, or genetically modifying it. Santigo Calvar says that “when you take corn to be used for something other than food or to worshipped, even to be put in a car, it becomes controversial” but that it is “almost personally, and religiously, offensive that you play god” by genetically modifying it.

Neil MacGregor says that the little maize god gives us clues to why the “idea of GM crops causes deep unease – far beyond Mexico”. It also hints at why the most passionate battles against the corporatizing of the food chain are being fought in the parts of the world where the connection with food is still the strongest – Central America and India for example. Here, GM protests have been literally thousands of years in the making.

By Jim Manson

Natural Products editor and environment journalist
Jim Manson is editor of Natural Products magazine. He’s written widely on environment and development issues for specialist magazines and national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian and Time Out.