Food is an important part of most holiday celebrations, not just because we need food to live, but because food connects us to our culture, our past and, whether we know it or not, our future.
"Food Is Different: Why we must get the WTO out of agriculture" is a great book by Peter Rosset 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 Sept. 16, 2003, at the WTO protest march in Cancun, Mexico.
He killed himself just a few yards from where we stood among the other protesters near the barricades. I stepped aside as they carried him past 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 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 is this: Farming is about much more than making money; it is life.
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 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. During the Vietnam War, we occasionally heard about a soldier who threw himself on a live grenade to save the lives of his comrades -- it's like that.
These peasant farmers are willing to sacrifice their lives for what they feel is the greater good.
Food, farm, heritage, family -- these are the issues Lee Kyung Hae gave his life for. He, like other peasant farmers in Cancun, was determined that the WTO would not sell out Korea's farms, its 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.
What is so special about food? Why is it different from 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, he says, 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.
We need food every day. Some may want a big screen TV, but they do not need it, they can live without it. But they can't live without food; food is different.
Lee Kyung Hae's sacrifice was a very visible and selfless act, yet every day peasant farmers around the world are forced to 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, 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.