by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
“When they own food … ”
Jeffrey Smith with U.S. Senator Tom Harkin
Dr. Lori Robbins
Local activist Cathy Mendonça (right) with other participants
“Mankind will stop … ”
It might seem strange that over 700 people would come out to the Balboa Park fountain on a bright, sunny day, listen to speakers for over an hour, march all the way down to Little Italy and then return to Balboa Park to listen to speakers for over an hour again just to target one corporation. But Monsanto isn’t an ordinary corporation. According to protesters, Monsanto’s dominance of the worldwide seed industry, its aggressive promotion of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) and its legal strategy of forcing farmers to sign agreements to buy new seeds every year instead of saving some for future planting indicate that the company will stop at nothing until every atom of food consumed by humans everywhere on earth is a proprietary Monsanto product.
“It’s easy to be angry at Monsanto,” said Jeffrey Smith of the anti-GMO group Institute for Responsible Technology, who addressed the afternoon rally from Denver via Skype. “We can tell stories all day about why they’re the world’s most hated corporation. Three of the Monsanto scientists who did the ‘safety’ studies on rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone, used to get cows to give more milk, which was linked to breast cancer and other human health hazards in some studies) refused to drink milk afterwards, and one bought his own cow. We’ve caught Monsanto doing research that hides problems with their products. Monsanto withholds seeds from other scientists, and if the scientists get them anyway from other sources, Monsanto goes after them in court.”
According to Smith, Michael Taylor was an attorney for Monsanto when he got a job with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), where he signed the paper certifying that foods containing GMO’s were chemically identical to foods without them. “The overwhelming consensus of the scientists at the FDA was that [foods containing] GMO’s were different — and dangerous,” Smith explained. Nonetheless, Taylor, an attorney with no scientific background, made it official U.S. law that GMO’s were harmless and therefore foods containing them didn’t have to be labeled as such. Taylor was rewarded with a higher-paying job at Monsanto — and now he’s returned to the FDA, newly appointed by President Obama to oversee all food-safety regulation.
“In 1999, a Monsanto spokesperson said their goal was to make sure 100 percent of all the world’s seeds came from them,” Smith said. “Their plan was to take over from God. They want to genetically engineer all life and eliminate the products of billions of years of evolution. So when we stand up against Monsanto we are protecting all future generations. We cannot clean up all the self-propagating genetic pollution already released by Monsanto. No ancestor of ours has ever had the opportunity to do this much because no technology has ever been long-lived than theirs.”
How could Monsanto literally take over the entire human food supply? The process began in 1980, when the U.S. Supreme Court first ruled that life forms could be patented. Monsanto got into the business of genetically engineered seeds to protect their patented herbicide RoundUp, which they sold to farmers as a weed killer. When the patents to RoundUp were about to expire in the 1990’s, Monsanto hit on the strategy of genetically modifying soybeans and other crop seeds so RoundUp wouldn’t affect them. But these so-called “RoundUp Ready” seeds came with a catch: you could only use them if you signed a contract with Monsanto saying you’d only use RoundUp with them — not a competing herbicide — and you had to buy your seeds anew from Monsanto each year instead of saving seeds from your harvest for next year’s planting.
What’s more, Monsanto’s legal department aggressively went after farmers whose crops contained genes from Monsanto’s genetically engineered seeds, whether the farmers had deliberately planted Monsanto seeds or not. One victim was Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, interviewed by this reporter in 2001, who had spent over 20 years building up seed lines of organically grown soybeans and rapeseeds (the source of canola oil). Unfortunately for Schmeiser, one of his neighbors was a Monsanto customer, and seeds containing Monsanto’s patented genes drifted over into Schmeiser’s fields and cross-pollinated his plants. Monsanto sued him and won when the Canadian court said it didn’t matter that Schmeiser hadn’t planted Monsanto’s seeds or wanted their genes in his plants; as long as they were there, no matter how they got there, he was violating Monsanto’s patents. As a result, he not only had to pay Monsanto a hefty judgment, he also had to destroy many of his laboriously bred seed lines.
With legal precedents like that, Monsanto could conceivably take over the world’s entire food supply and claim ownership of absolutely everything we eat or drink. All they have to do is get enough GMO seeds of every food crop in distribution and let nature do the rest for them. If they can demand royalties from every farmer who grows a crop Monsanto makes a seed for, they will own not only every form of edible plant life but every food animal as well — since many GMO crops, including corn, are not only consumed by people directly but are fed to livestock. The power Smith says Monsanto wants is not only to control evolution in their laboratories, but to loose their patented genes on the world’s fields so they incorporate themselves into every farmer’s crop — and thus every farmer has to pay a royalty to Monsanto and no one can eat without enriching Monsanto’s coffers.
One result of Monsanto’s strategy that’s already affecting the world is an increase in chronic diseases Smith and other GMO opponents think are associated with the consumption of genetically modified foods. “Thousands of doctors are now prescribing non-GMO diets, and their patients are getting better,” Smith said. Among the health hazards of consuming GMO foods, Smith said, are allergies, asthma, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, migraines, skin conditions, problems with fertility, anxiety, depression, other mental issues, kidney disease, hypertension and diabetes. (For more information on the health hazards of consuming GMO’s, visit http://www.responsibletechnology.org/health-risks.)
So what is Smith suggesting we do about GMO’s? The government isn’t going to solve the problem, he said, not with Monsanto virtually owning the process that supposedly “regulates” them. The answer, he said, is simply don’t buy them — and don’t shop at stores that carry them. It’s because no one is forced to buy GMO’s — at least so far, alternatives to most GMO products still exist in the marketplace — that Monsanto and other companies invested in GMO’s are fighting tooth and nail against laws that require that foods containing GMO’s be labeled as such. In Europe, where products containing GMO’s do have to be labeled, major companies like Nestlé, Unilever, McDonald’s and Bayer have stopped selling GMO products because no one will buy them.
It’s worked in the United States, too, Smith said. Enough consumers became aware of the health hazards of milk containing rBGH that they stopped buying it — and Walmart stopped carrying it. Deprived of a market in the stores of the world’s largest private corporation, dairies stopped using it. (Smith didn’t mention that a key player in the story was Alta-Dena Dairy, which had to go to court to win the right to label their milk as not containing rBGH.) Though Smith and other anti-GMO activists lost a major battle in California in 2012 — they put Proposition 37 on the ballot to require that foods containing GMO’s be labeled, but a multi-million dollar corporate-funded campaign and flaws in the initiative’s wording led to its defeat at the polls — Smith said the Prop. 37 campaign brought the U.S. closer to a “tipping point” at which people will demand non-GMO foods — and the major food companies and grocery stores will have to comply.
Smith’s speech was the final act of a nearly five-hour event that contained a rally in the morning outside the fountain in Balboa Park, a march to the farmers’ market in Little Italy, then back to the park for the afternoon program at the World Beat Center. Makeda Cheatom, also known as Makeda Dread, founded the World Beat Center in the 1970’s in one of two unused water towers in the park — the Centro Cultural de la Raza is in the other — and both have faced ongoing battles with the city ever since for the right to stay there. Makeda boasted that she started San Diego’s first vegetarian restaurant, The Prophet, and at the World Beat Center she offers classes on how to live entirely on raw foods.
Makeda talked about how GMO seeds and foods are being “dumped” in Third World countries, how activists there are fighting back and how we need to take them as an example. “We have to get more First World people in this movement,” she said. “I don’t want to have divisions between Black, white and Brown people. It’s all one people, and y’all come from Africa anyway.”
San Diego State University (SDSU) food sciences professor Dr. Lori Robbins spoke at the morning rally at the fountain about Monsanto’s power in the political system and the health hazards of glyphosate, the key active ingredient in RoundUp. “Why doesn’t our government protect us?” she said. “Monsanto stuffs so much money into the ears of our government that they can’t hear us. We’re paying with our money, our lives and our future. That’s why we’re in the streets — so our government can hear us. Maybe we need a new government.”
“Or no government!” responded a member of the audience.
“Telling you everything that’s bad about Monsanto in three minutes is impossible,” said Hugh Moore of the Green Party of San Diego County. “There’s only one way this gets into us: the government allows it. Internationally, the U.S. government is the lobbying arm of Monsanto. When France decided not to let GMO’s into their country, Monsanto sent the president of the United States, Bill Clinton, to talk to the French government to try to get them to change their minds.” Moore said that 270,000 farmers in India have committed suicide in the last 15 years because they’ve gone broke due to Monsanto’s requirement that they buy new seeds every year instead of saving them from previous plantings — as farmers have been doing since agriculture existed.
“I want to talk about the role of the media in activism and in the situation we’re in in this country,” said Nick Barnaby, one of the organizers of the event. He and other speakers talked about Section 735 from the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013, the so-called “Monsanto Protection Act.” Enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Obama in March 2013 as part of one of the big “compromise” budget bills, Section 735 allows Monsanto and other companies that make GMO’s to keep manufacturing them even if they’re sued.
According to Barnaby, the U.S. media are complicit in Monsanto’s takeover of the worldwide food industry because they aren’t reporting on Section 735 and other issues exposing the risks of GMO’s. “How many of you heard about the Monsanto Protection Act on TV?” Barnaby said. “How many of you heard about this march on TV? Nobody. … I found out about [Section 735] in December. We find these bills and put together campaigns to stop them. If the TV would actually cover these stories, it would be different.”
Barnaby said that anti-GMO activists need both to grow their own food and start their own media on the Internet. “This is just the start of the new food revolution,” he said. “We have to network locally. We’re going to do a lot of activism, including your Senators and Congressmembers. The other thing we need to do is make real-time changes in our own lives. There are a lot of new techniques to grow your own food. I’d like you to grow food and not lawns.”
A number of speakers at both rallies are doing just that in various ways. Tom Eden gave a pitch for aquaculture — a system of underwater farming in which plants and marine animals live, nurture and sustain each other, creating consumable food for humans. He also urged people to visit the Web site http://healthyfoodlocalearth.wordpress.com, which offers help for would-be food growers in San Diego. Another speaker put in a pitch for the Organic Consumers’ Association, http://www.organicconsumers.org, which among other things is launching a worldwide campaign to ban nicotinoid pesticides and Monsanto’s Mon810 genetically engineered corn, which have been linked to the mass death of bees (see http://salsa3.salsalabs.com/o/50865/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=8662).
At the afternoon rally, Eva Roufé showed a PowerPoint presentation promoting an organically grown vegetarian diet. “Organic food is more expensive,” she conceded, “but it’s natural and it’s more nutrition-dense, which means you can eat less. And the more we buy it, the more they’re going to grow it.” She offered tips for storing vegetables, including soaking them in water to keep them fresh longer, and said when you buy organic you can save your own seeds and use them to grow your own food for next year.
Turner Bell of City Farmers’ Nursery also offered advice for people interested in growing their own. “You just need to keep clean and be aware of safety,” he said. “You can find unique ways of doing things. Grow your own foods and learn to eat seasonally. When you’re in the garden, you’re around a lot of oxygen-producing plants. There’s a lot more to a garden than just food. Being in a garden is stress-reducing. I am really blessed to be able to live and work in my garden, to have fresh eggs and honey, and to be able to make my own olive oil.”