by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
March steps off
Something offensive …
Crammed on the bridge
Reclaiming Kate Sessions, Balboa Park’s founder, for natural agriculture
Occupying Our Food
For My Descendants
No GMO Cookies
The Bee Dog
March arrives downtown
The honeybee life cycle
Axis of Evil
Kill Me Naturally
Thirteen years ago, San Diego’s lonely protesters against the biotechnology industry in general and genetically engineered foods in particular would have had a hard time believing that over 3,000 people would one day turn out in the streets of this city for a march demanding — depending on which signs you read and which slogans you heard — either the labeling or an outright ban on genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) in food. But that’s what happened on May 24, when as part of a worldwide day of action against Monsanto, the leading corporation in the GMO business, huge crowds turned out for a rally at the Balboa Park fountain, a march through the park and downtown, and a follow-up program of workshops on do-it-yourself farming and beekeeping at the World Beat Center, also in Balboa Park.
Marches against Monsanto have taken place in San Diego before, in May and October 2013, but this was by far the biggest. The organizers had planned to take the march across the park via the bridge over the canyon in which the 163 freeway sits, but construction blocked off parts of the bridge and forced the marchers to walk two or three abreast through a maze of chain-link fences designed to wall off walkers from the parts of the bridge being rebuilt. The mixup forced the march leaders to rest on the west side of the park before they turned downtown and allow the people in the back to catch up to those in front. Nonetheless, the marchers reunited and made it on the long loop the organizers had planned.
The rally before the march featured a wide variety of speakers with different backgrounds but similar messages. Their overall argument was that neither giant corporations like Monsanto nor government agencies can be trusted to protect us against potentially destructive or environmentally toxic foods. Rather, we have to learn to do that ourselves: by growing our own food, starting urban gardens, joining Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups, buying only organic produce and making ourselves more aware of how food gets from a seed in the ground to a serving on our table. Many of the workshops after the march offered similar information, including juicing, aquaculture (a form of underwater farming that generates both produce and edible fish), homesteading, beekeeping, composting and testing your bodies for toxins produced by GMO’s, including the pesticides farmers who grow GMO crops use more of because the whole point of genetically engineering food crops is to sell more pesticide.
That’s the dark connection that has made Monsanto the principal villain in the demonology of those opposed to GMO food. Though other companies are involved in GMO’s — one sign at the rally identified BASF, Bayer, DuPont, Syngenta and Dow as other corporate members of the “Axis of Evil” — Monsanto became the poster child for GMO opponents because it developed so-called “Roundup Ready” soybean seeds to withstand massive applications of their patented herbicide, Roundup. In the late 1990’s, with the patent on Roundup about to expire, Monsanto hatched a scheme to keep farmers using it: they developed Roundup Ready soybeans and sold them to farmers under a contract that said they could use only brand-name Roundup, not any generic version that might come to market once their patent expired. What’s more, they patented the Roundup Ready seeds themselves — and successfully sued farmers whose crops were cross-contaminated with Monsanto’s GMO seeds, whether they’d intended to plant them or not.
Indeed, one of the big fears driving the movement against GMO’s is that, by spreading their genetically engineered versions of common crops so they cross-pollinate with non-GMO varieties, Monsanto may someday claim that all the world’s corn, soy or whatever contains their genes and is therefore their property. Once that happens, it will literally be impossible to grow those foods legally without paying Monsanto a royalty. Other fears driving the anti-GMO movement include the environmental impacts of the huge amounts of pesticides used by farmers who grow GMO’s and the shrinking of the number of varieties of common crops. The fewer varieties of a crop there are, opponents argue, the greater the chance that a pest which develops resistance to Roundup and the rest of the chemical industry’s products will wipe the crops out en masse and there won’t be other, more resistant varieties available with which to replace them.
But the most infuriating aspect of the GMO industry to its opponents is that they not only want to put their altered genes in our food, they want to do that without telling us. Monsanto and other companies in the GMO business have spent hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying against laws that would require food makers to label any products containing GMO’s. Huge donations from these corporations persuaded voters to defeat ballot measures in California and Washington that would have required GMO foods to be labeled. They were also able to stop legislatures in other states from passing GMO labeling laws — until recently, when a labeling bill got through the Vermont state legislature and was signed into law by its governor.
Not that a mere state law is going to stop industry from fighting hard for the right to conceal whether or not our food contains GMO’s. The May 10 Los Angeles Times contained a letter to the editor from Henry I. Miller, M.D., former head of the Office of Biotechnology at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and currently a fellow at the Right-wing Stanford Institution, which said, “The FDA does not require labeling of foods with genetically engineered ingredients because such information is not ‘material’ — in other words, related to safety or appropriate usage — and would be misleading.” Miller claimed that a previous labeling attempt by the Vermont legislature had been struck down by a federal court “because Vermont could not demonstrate that its labeling requirement was motivated by anything more than satisfying consumer curiosity,” and therefore “the court said it could not compel food producers to include that information on product labels.”
It’s that arrogance on the part of the food industry and its advocates both inside and outside of government — that they not only have the right to put genetically engineered ingredients in our food but they don’t even have to tell us, and we don’t have the right to make them — that the first speaker at the May 24 rally, Ocean Beach People’s Food Do-Op manager Nancy Casady, targeted. “I’m not happy if I don’t know what I’m eating,” she said. “Knowing what we’re feeding our children is a basic human right.” She shared both good news and bad news about GMO’s. The good news was that two counties in Oregon have gone beyond labeling requirements and forbidden their farmers from planting genetically engineered seeds.
The bad news, Casady said, was that “169 million acres — about half of all the acreage in the United States — is now planted in GE crops, mostly crops that are designed for the purpose of withstanding more and more herbicides.” She stated that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, “has been found in breast milk in the U.S. in concentrations that are 700 times higher than those allowed in the drinking water in Europe.” Casady also said that 80 million pounds of atrazine, an herbicide that was banned in the European Union in 2004, “is being sprayed on corn [in the U.S.] each year and is causing the feminization of male frogs, a harbinger of the effect in humans.” She called Monsanto “a corporation that is willing to poison and threaten all life on earth for profits.”
Nick Bernabe, a co-founder of the March Against Monsanto as well as an alternative media Web site called http://theantimedia.org/, said, “Millions of people around the world are marching today, but you don’t see any news cameras here. That’s because the media are part of big corporations, just like the GMO companies, and they don’t serve the people by coming to cover events like this.” But he also confidently predicted that “the whole corporate paradigm is shifting towards the grass roots.” Barnaby announced an Overpass Light Brigade (OLB) action later that evening at Clairemont Drive and a “Bee Against Monsanto” protest August 16.
The connection between use of pesticides in agriculture and the massive deaths of bee colonies worldwide since 2006 was a major issue for many participants in the march and rally. “Harvard University just released a study linking bee poisoning 100 percent to neo-nicotinoid insecticides,” said Bernabe — although the two insecticides mentioned in the report (a press release is available online at http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/study-strengthens-link-between-neonicotinoids-and-collapse-of-honey-bee-colonies/), imidacloprid and clothianidin, were developed by the German company Bayer AG (best known for aspirin), not Monsanto.
Still, many participants in the rally either wore T-shirts or carried balloons targeting Monsanto products for causing the deaths of bees, some people dressed as bees, and one woman walked a black dog she’d dressed in a black-and-yellow striped vest to make it resemble a bee. The organizers invited Eric Robinson, co-founder of the San Diego Beekeeping Society, to speak, and he began his talk with a whimsical tale of how he got involved in beekeeping. It seems eight years ago a neighbor’s garage had become infested with bees, and Robinson offered to take the bees off his neighbor’s hands. He got several of them out, including the queen, and the rest of the bees followed her to Robinson’s property. So he ordered a commercial beehive for them and became an amateur apiarist.
Robinson displayed an elaborate chart showing the life cycle of honeybees, and rattled off a long list of crops — including strawberries, blueberries, celery, cherries, avocados, beans, apples, sunflowers, hazel nuts, cucumbers, turnips, flax, apricots, oranges, grapefruit and coconuts — all of which are dependent on bees to pollinate them. He pointed to hieroglyphics from ancient Egypt that indicate that even that early, people were raising bees. Robinson also told an anecdote about a village in China during Mao Zedong’s rule in which “they had a big problem with sparrows because they ate crops. So they poisoned the sparrows, and next year they had a huge infestation of insects because they’d killed the sparrows that ate the insects. So they poisoned the insects, and the next year they had no crops at all because there was nothing to pollinate them. Now they have to buy pollen from other parts of China and pollinate their crops by hand. When you try to tweak Mother Nature, you run into trouble.”
Quin Shakra from Ojai, an organic farmer who said he’d never been in San Diego before and had never spoken to so large a crowd, talked about how he branched out from running a one and one-half acre farm (“smaller than a big farm, but bigger than a garden,” he explained) to starting All Good Seeds, a seed company that encourages farmers to save their seeds and use seeds from the previous year’s crop in next year’s planting. People have been doing that since agriculture was first invented, but it’s a big no-no in the corporate world of Monsanto and its competitors. Monsanto’s contracts with farmers specify that they must purchase Monsanto’s seeds every year, and at one point Monsanto tried to develop a seed with a so-called “Terminator” gene so any seeds the plants produced would be sterile and therefore couldn’t grow if replanted.
Quoting writer Carol Depp’s argument that “crop varieties express the values of their creators,” Shakra said, “Roundup Ready soybeans are altered for fertilizers, herbicides and fertility for one season. But that has no value for an organic farmer. We don’t dump herbicides on crops. Our values are not production at all costs and patenting all life in the name of capitalism. We save seeds, keep heirloom varieties, and improve them through traditional crop breeding. We want varieties that taste good and resist pests, are resistant to erratic weather and drought, and thrive.” Shakra also cited a recent paper by the Rodale Institute — which has been promoting organic farming for over 75 years — which argued that organic farming could essentially end human-caused climate change.
“We could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term ‘regenerative organic agriculture’,” the Rodale paper argues. “If management of all current cropland shifted to reflect the regenerative model as practiced at the research sites included in the white paper, more than 40 percent of annual emissions could potentially be captured. If, at the same time, all global pasture was managed to a regenerative model, an additional 71 percent could be sequestered. Essentially, passing the 100 percent mark means a drawing down of excess greenhouse gases, resulting in the reversal of the greenhouse effect.” (For a press release about the Rodale paper, visit http://rodaleinstitute.org/reversing-climate-change-achievable-by-farming-organically/. For the full paper, visit http://rodaleinstitute.org/assets/RegenOrgAgricultureAndClimateChange_20140418.pdf.)
“Organic food sales in 2012 increased by 25 percent,” boasted holistic healer Susan McKenzie. “Before 2012 it was 11 percent or less. I don’t know what happened in 2012, but now the numbers [the percentage of food sold in the U.S. that is certified organic] are up from 11 percent to 35 percent. It shows that every choice we make in our lives is making a difference.”
Rick Trujillo, retired train operator from the Santa Clara Valley before it was first colloquially and then officially renamed “Silicon Valley,” talked about his work with United Farm Workers founders César Chávez and Dolores Huerta — though, surprisingly, he didn’t mention Chávez’s pioneering opposition to pesticides in the 1980’s, when it was considered improper for a trade-union leader to question whether consumers should buy a product his members produced on the ground that it might be unsafe. “Science is in the wrong hands, and for us Chicanos/mestizos and existing sovereign nations/tribes, science has been in the wrong hands since 1492,” Trujillo said. He did have nice things to say about one Anglo-American scientist — the late Rachel Carson, author of the pioneering anti-pesticide book Silent Spring (1962).
After Alicia Sachs gave a brief presentation promoting community-supported agriculture (CSA), the next speaker, Ray Lutz, brought the critique back to Monsanto and in particular to its CEO, Hugh Grant (“not the actor,” he joked). “Hugh Grant is a monster,” Lutz said. “Monsanto began in the 1920’s by making PCB’s (polychlorinated biphenyls), which weren’t banned until the 1970’s. They made DDT. They make All laundry detergent, Astroturf, Celebrex, Nutra-Sweet and saccharin — so don’t buy those products, and if you want something sweet, use sugar. Monsanto got into GMO’s in 1983 and made the Flavr-Savr tomato in 1996 (a failed product that incorporated flounder genes into tomatoes to make them more oblong and therefore easier to pack into boxes). They made Terminator seeds, and that’s evil. This company is the epitome of corporate insanity.”
Lutz was advertised as the last speaker, but the organizers squeezed one more in: a white-haired woman whose name appeared to be Bilabi Gas, who’s leading a campaign to get genetically modified food out of San Diego’s public schools. “If your child goes to private school, and you can afford $22,000 a year, you can have his or her food catered by an organic restaurant,” she said. “For the rest of us, our kids are being poisoned.”