by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The Bronner brothers
Donna (right) says “Occupy Monsanto!”
The bee die-in, protesting the mass death of honeybee colonies because of pesticides made by Monsanto and other giant corporations
“Monsanto Makes Hitler Look Good”
The “Frankenfood” Monster
Monsanto Owns the FDA
“My children are not lab rats!”
Over 200 people gathered at the water fountain in Balboa Park Saturday afternoon, October 12 for the second major demonstration in five months targeting the Monsanto Corporation. Featuring many of the same speakers who’d appeared at the previous anti-Monsanto demonstration on May 25 in the same location, the opening rally contrasted Monsanto’s vision of the future of agriculture — massive uses of Monsanto pesticides over fields of a Monsanto-patented single variety of every sown crop, genetically engineered by Monsanto researchers to resist Monsanto’s chemicals, with every farmer in the world paying royalties each year and buying only Monsanto-owned seeds — with the speakers’ preferred alternative. That is a biologically diverse network of small farmers, growing on whatever land they can use, planting different varieties of crops and saving seeds for reuse in next year’s planting.
The opening speakers — Ray, Michelle and Jennifer from Blue Sky San Diego — announced that Monsanto had just bought a company called Climate Corporation for $1 billion. Climate Corporation’s goal is to combat human-caused climate change with more human-caused climate change. Specifically, according to the Blue Sky Project spokespeople, Climate Corpiration is spraying “aluminum oxide and other toxic chemicals” into clouds. From this, they said, the aluminum oxide would fall to earth and some of it would settle in trees. “Trees containing aluminum catch fire,” they explained. “We need to stop the geo-engineering projects. They will contaminate the soil, and then we’ll have to rely on Monsanto’s seeds.”
The speakers generally portrayed a dark future in which Monsanto’s network of patent-protected seeds and pesticides holds so total a grip on the world’s agriculture that literally no one will be able to eat anything that doesn’t contain Monsanto-owned genes. They quoted authorities as diverse as Thomas Jefferson and Henry Kissinger saying that anyone who controls the food supply controls the people. “Thank you for joining us in an action against the most evil corporation in the world,” said an early speaker, a woman who was identified only as Chris.
According to Chris, over one million people participated in anti-Monsanto demonstrations worldwide on May 25. Among their demands was repeal of the so-called “Monsanto Protection Act,” officially known as the “Farmers’ Assurance Provision,” that was slipped into a must-pass farm bill in June 2012 but — at least as of October 12 — wasn’t contained in the Senate proposal that ended the government shutdown. It basically said that Monsanto and other companies selling genetically modified seeds could continue to do so even if a federal court reversed the decision of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approving them.
“"Essentially, what that Monsanto Protection Act rider said is that even if a court were to determine that a particular product might be harmful to human beings or harmful to the environment, the Department of Agriculture could not stop the production of that product once it is in the ground,” U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) told CNN last May 28. “So you have deregulated the GMO industry from court oversight, which is really not what America is about.”
At the October 12 rally, Chris hailed the death (at least for now) of the Monsanto Protection Act but warned, “The fight for our rights is not over until Monsanto’s GMO seeds are gone. The food [containing Monsanto’s GMO’s] is being sold openly without us knowing. Monsanto’s seeds are subsidized by the taxes we pay our government. Many countries are passing laws against GMO’s — including, just yesterday, Mexico. In California, Mendocino, Marin and Tulare Counties have made it unlawful to propagate or grow GMO’s.” She called on the participants in the protest to lobby the San Diego County Board of Supervisors to pass a similar ban here.
Hugh Moore, an activist and spokesperson for the Green Party of San Diego County, said, “The bad news is the corporations own government.” He warned that even if the bill to reopen the government and raise the U.S. debt ceiling doesn’t contain the Monsanto Protection Act, the next farm bill to come out of Congress probably will. “Back in May over two million people gathered in over 50 different countries” to protest Monsanto, Moore reminded the crowd. “We need to keep this pressure up. Seven highly-placed figures from Monsanto have been hired by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA no longer works for you; it works for Monsanto.”
Among the people Moore cited were Margaret Miller, who as a Monsanto employee wrote the memo asking the FDA to declare that genetically modified foods were safe — and then, as an FDA staff member, was assigned to “review” and approve her own memo! “You’re the start of the revolution,” Moore said, “but many people are still supporting the Republican and Democratic parties. The Green Party at this point is a protest vote.”
Moore said that rather than electoral politics, “the first step is protesting and the second step is civil disobedience: standing in the way of the machine.” Moore cited a paper by self-proclaimed “ecosocialist” Chris Williams (International Socialist Review, May 2013: http://isreview.org/issue/89/what-ecosocialism-and-how-do-we-get-there), and endorsed the article’s call for a “System Change, Not Climate Change” movement. “We have to move on from a government that works for the corporations and works for capitalism,” Moore said.
Ned Barnaby, self-described “anti-media” activist, reminded the audience that at the May 25 rally he’d given a report on how little coverage the mainstream corporate media give to GMO’s in general or Monsanto in particular. “None of you heard of this march on TV,” he said. “The mainstream media are in bed with Monsanto, just like the government. If the media were covering this story, we wouldn’t have former Monsanto executive Michael Taylor running the FDA and former Monsanto attorney Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court.”
Questioning how “the same people who were trying to start a war in Syria two months ago now say they don’t have the money to keep the government running.” Barnaby said, “We can’t trust the government to regulate our food supply. We have to grow our own food. The government gives people tickets for growing food and vegetables in their front yards. We have to end this.”
The Positive Alternative: Grow Your Own
Throughout the 85-minute rally there was this continual yin and yang, with some speakers denouncing Monsanto and its cozy relationship with the government agencies supposedly “regulating” it, and other speakers — sometimes the same ones — urging people to opt out of the commercial food system, either by growing their own or buying direct from farmers through so-called Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs.
“We can grow food instead of lawns,” said Barnaby. “You can grow food inside your apartment.” Barnaby particularly promoted a system called “aquaponics,” which involves growing both food crops and fish in water-filled tanks. “It’s a closed-loop system with living fish creating the fertilizer for your plants,” he explained. “You can grow organic food and fish, and eat the fish as well.”
“I didn’t know my grandfather was pulling seeds and feeding his family with the same varieties his dad did,” said Carrie Driscoll of the San Diego Seed Company. “That kind of life has been lost as we’ve moved to cities and convenience has become the number one factor in how we feed ourselves.” Driscoll was particularly critical of Monsanto and other giant seed companies for reducing the number of different varieties of farm crops, to promote an industrial model of agriculture in which farmers plant the same variety year after year — and have to buy new seeds from Monsanto or its competitors every year.
“The Potato Famine and the Dust Bowl both occurred because of the lack of seed diversity,” Driscoll said. “Because industrial agriculture has made many crops less genetically diverse, I started San Diego Seed Company to bring back diversity to San Diego.” One risk of losing genetic diversity and shifting to what’s called “monoculture” — in which every seed for a particular crop is of the same variety — is if a pest comes along that attacks that variety, there are no other types of that crop to replace it. The Potato Famine was caused by a pest that attacked the kind of potatoes Irish farmers were growing in 1846 — and it ended when new varieties of potatoes were brought in from South America and proved resistant to that pest.
Alicia Sachs brought two large blue bins and held them up — they were empty — to demonstrate what she gets from participation in Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA). CSA is a system by which a group of consumers pay one or more farmers to grow crops in advance, then get regular shipments from that farm, either delivered to their homes, picked up at the farms, or picked up at farmers’ markets. But she warned that some of the “farmers” who offer food for sale that way don’t farm organically, and others are hustlers or con artists who don’t have farms at all.
“You have to ask where their farm is, and if you can visit it,” Sachs warned. “My first CSA farmer was mostly fruits, and I wanted vegetables. The CSA I belong to now is J. R. Organics. You can take a tour and see their compost pile. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me.” She also recommended shopping either at farmers’ markets or at stores like the Ocean Beach People’s Food Co-Op. If you buy food from CSA’s or other non-traditional sources, “you become a better cook,” she said. “Sometimes I get stuff and I don’t know what it is, but if it tastes good I can put it in juice or a smoothie. I can shell beans — and you can’t be on your computer or make a phone call while you’re shelling beans.”
A man who introduced himself as “Sustainable Santa” and came more or less dressed for the part — he didn’t wear a long fake beard or a pointed hat but he did have a beard (a real one) and a red shirt — credited his vegan wife with putting him on a healthier diet that helped him lose 75 pounds. “Leave an apple, not a cookie, for Santa, and tell him next time you want to see 25 pounds less of him,” he said. “The guy who’s a role model for kids should not be someone who looks like Rush Limbaugh.”
“I am living proof that any and all diseases can be cured by working with nature,” said Susan McKenzie. “Life has been around for billions of years. Its intelligence knows what works for our bodies and what doesn’t. Our body is programmed to work best on natural food. Fifty years ago, we didn’t have ‘organic’ food. All food was ‘organic.’ Have we forgotten we are raw, living organic beings, too? Everything we put in our bodies either feeds or fights life. Unnatural substances in our bodies cause stress. Our immune system responds to them as if they’re foreign invaders. We are beings whose bodies are at war with themselves. These chemicals just make things worse.”
One Woman’s Toxic Story
Tanya Mack knows all about a body being at war with itself. Hers has been at war with itself since she was born. Her father was a Viet Nam War veteran who had been in charge of dispersing Agent Orange — a combination of two herbicides, 2, 4-D and 2, 4, 5-T, one made by Dow Chemical and one by, you guessed it, Monsanto — over Viet Nam. It was part of U.S. war strategy to starve the opposition as well as destroying the rain forest in which enemy fighters hid. Her presentation was a litany of medical horrors she’s dealt with all her life, including four total and 15 partial hip replacements and a series of cancers, including a particularly terrifying one called “multiple squamous-cell carcinomas.”
There are, Mack explained, only two ways you get the sort of cell mutation that gives you multiple squamous-cell carcinomas. One is by inheritance; the other is by exposure to toxic chemicals, either personally or via your parents. “There is no history of these cancers in my family,” Mack recalled. So her doctors sent her to UCLA for genetic tests — and they found that she had a brand new cancer mutation most likely caused by her dad’s exposure to Agent Orange in Viet Nam.
“In 2010 I was diagnosed with melanoma,” Mack said. “I was fortunate in that it was caught early, before it spread to my lymph nodes. In 2011 I was diagnosed with another cancer, one caused by arsenic, which makes up 35 percent of Agent Orange. In 2012 I had to have my gall bladder removed.” That year she was also put on a clinical trial for a new cancer drug. The good news was that the drug worked: it brought all her cancers under control. The bad news was that once the FDA approved the drug, she could no longer get it for free as she had during the trial. Now it costs over $12,000 per month — and she can’t afford it.
“So for the last five months, I have had my cancers return,” she said. “I have had 282 biopsies, of which 189 were positive for cancer. My medical needs have hurt my family, both physically and psychologically. In 2009 I applied to the Veterans’ Administration (VA) for care and was denied because my biological mother had not served in Viet Nam. In 2010 my father died at 100 percent disability.”
Mack explained that children of women who served in Viet Nam can get coverage for cancer, but the only disabilities the government recognizes for the children of male Viet Nam veterans are two types of spina bifida. Why? Pure economics, Mack said; 2.8 million American men served in Viet Nam, as opposed to just 8,000 women — and if the government were to open the floodgates of VA coverage to the children of male Viet Nam vets their expenses would go through the roof.
“During Viet Nam servicemembers were told that Agent Orange was safe,” Mack recalled. “They did not wear protection when they handled or applied it. There was even a press conference where a scientist said you could drink it. An estimated 19 million gallons were used in Viet Nam during the war.” The U.S. military stopped using Agent Orange in Viet Nam in 1971, but it’s been the gift that keeps on giving not only for children of American Viet Nam vets but for the Viet Namese as well. “Children in Viet Nam are still being born with [Agent Orange-related] birth defects,” Mack explained. “The U.S. government did not admit Agent Orange had health effects until 1995, and they refuse to do research that could show damage to children and grandchildren.”
What Else You Can Do
Michael and David Bronner talked up a campaign to pass a citizens’ initiative, I-522, in Washington state to require that foods with genetically modified ingredients be labeled. A similar bill, Proposition 37, went down to a narrow two-point defeat in California in November 2012 after what the Bronners called “junk-food manufacturers and pesticide manufacturers” funded a $47 million campaign against it. “If GMO’s are labeled up there, they’ll be labeled down here,” Michael Bronner said.
“American farmers need to get off this pesticide-GMO treadmill,” David Bronner added. “Americans need to wake up to the secret changes the chemical industry are making in our food, and demand food labeling. As soon as we get that right, most people are going to say maybe I’m not going to have the genetically engineered tofu. That’s what happened in Europe. They didn’t ban it; they labeled it, and the market evaporated. This is why [the industries] is fighting us. … They’ve got $17 million already because they’re desperate. They know if a state like Washington goes, the sky’s not going to fall, prices aren’t going to go up, and we’re going to have national labeling.”
The Bronners urged people to visit the I-522 campaign Web site, http://yeson522.com/, for information and volunteer opportunities. They also promoted the http://occupy-monsanto.com/ site through which the international anti-Monsanto actions October 12, of which the San Diego event was a part, were organized, and recommended that people view the video on http://occupy-monsanto.com/ of what they called the “Monsanto’s Minions Awards,” a mock ceremony on October 10 in which activists presented phony “awards” to Congressmembers especially friendly to Monsanto.
Chris, who had spoken earlier in the event, came out again after the Bronners’ presentation. “If we label GMO’s, who’s going to buy them?” she said. “Those who can’t afford organic food are going to be forced to buy GMO’s. I say ban them! If there are countries around the world that are banning GMO’s, then why are they legal here? Monsanto had its chance to label GMO’s. Right now we should aim for the sky and protect nature, because nature doesn’t have a voice.”