Category: Sustainability


Monsanto Wins Worst Company of 2011 Award

Natural Society has awarded Monsanto the Worst Company of 2011 award for its ongoing work to threaten human health and the environment.  Currently responsible for 90 percent of all genetically-modified (GM) seed in the US, the biotechnology giant is also the leader in developing genetically-modified (GM) seeds and the resulting crops worldwide.   But Monsanto is perhaps best known for its herbicide Roundup, which many experts link to soil damage and herbicide-resistant superweeds, not to mention potential health problems.

Contrast “Worst Company of 2011” to Forbes Magazine’s listing of Monsanto as one of the “World’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies.” Monsanto may be innovative if you consider its genetic modification of the world’s food supply without concern for the environmental and health impacts “innovation.” (As an aside: you may recall that Nazis were called “innovative” too yet look at the atrocities they committed!) More and more scientists would disagree with Forbes.

In a recent study of genetically-modified corn, scientists found that the genetically-modified food may be linked to organ damage, namely liver and kidney damage, in rats.  Published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences, this study is calling into question the safety of “Frankenfoods” as they are also known.

John Fagan, PhD, molecular biologist and genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) expert commented on the study and Monsanto’s neglectful reporting methods on nongmoproject.org:

“The paper was a landmark study. Monsanto was forced by court to release raw data and Gilles-Eric Seralini and his team applied careful statistical methods that revealed the Monsanto had glossed over many important effects of the GMOs. In particular, Monsanto had used inappropriate criteria for judging whether results were biologically significant or not. A common case was that they rejected as biologically unimportant any effect that showed up in male animals or in female animals but was not observed in both. The fact is that sex related differences are common in physiological responses particularly in liver and kidney responses. Also, Monsanto rejected as biologically unimportant effects that were not proportional to dose. That is, if the effect was strong at low doses but weaker at high doses, they would reject the effect as biologically insignificant. Yet it is well known that many effects, especially endocrine effects, are stronger at low doses than at high.”

But Monsanto continues to disregard the warning signs about GMOs and instead, ships them in droves around the world.  Monsanto has also been blamed for the many suicides of farmers in India who used Monsanto’s GM-seed but failed to yield crops to support their families.

Now, American farmers are taking a stand against Monsanto by launching a lawsuit against the billion-dollar corporation for widespread genetic contamination. The farmers, like many others, are concerned that Monsanto is threatening the integrity of organic farms worldwide.  Many organic farms have been devastated by genetically-modified crops.  Currently, most of the world’s wheat, soy, canola, and corn are now genetically-modified.

Percy Schmeiser—a humble farmer in the Canadian prairies endured a decade-long lawsuit initiated by Monsanto—and is now declaring victory. His farm was contaminated by GM-seed so Monsanto slapped a lawsuit on HIM, as they have done with other farmers, charging him with patent infringement.  But in this modern day David-and-Goliath story, Percy fought back.  Over 320 hectares of his land were found to be contaminated with the company’s patented “Roundup Ready Canola.”  Schmeiser slapped a lawsuit back on Monsanto, charging the company with libel, trespassing, improperly obtaining seed samples from his farm, callous disregard for the environment for its introduction of genetically-modified (GM) crops without proper controls and containment, and contamination of his crops with unwanted GM plants. Monsanto finally settled out of court to clean up Schmeiser’s land.  Percy Schmeiser’s victory over Monsanto is a victory for all farmers, all Canadians, and everyone who eats…that’s everyone.

Is it any surprise that Monsanto was selected as the Worst Company of 2011? Perhaps that it didn’t receive Worst Company of the Century award…but such an award doesn’t exist.

For more information about the Worst Company of 2011 Award, visit Natural Society.  For more information about Percy Schmeiser’s victory over Monsanto or to help him with his giant legal bills visit his website:  percyschmeiser.com.

Read more: http://www.care2.com/greenliving/monsanto-wins-worst-company-of-2011-award.html#ixzz1lKuwPn24

Read more:http://www.care2.com/greenliving/monsanto-wins-worst-company-of-2011-award.html#ixzz1lKuGVcLq

BY DARRIN NORDAHL

6 AUG 2010 5:41 AM
Madison city hallThe produce outside the capitol building at Madison, WI, is donated to a food pantry.(Kelly Hafermann/Flickr)Montpelier VT city hall with chard 
Chard is one of the many plants growing in the Montpelier, Vt. state house vegetable garden.Photo: Waldo Jaquith via FlickrThere’s a new breed of urban agriculture germinating throughout the country, one whose seeds come from an unlikely source.
Local government officials from Baltimore, Md., to Bainbridge Island, Wash. are plowing under the ubiquitous hydrangeas, petunias, daylilies, and turf grass around public buildings, and planting fruits and vegetables instead — as well as in underutilized spaces in our parks, plazas, street medians, and even parking lots. The new attitude at forward-thinking city halls seems to be, in a tough economy, why expend precious resources growing ornamental plants, when you can grow edible ones? And the bounty from these municipal gardens — call it public produce — not only promotes healthy eating, it bolsters food security simply by providing passersby with ready access to low- or no-cost fresh fruits and vegetables.

But is this really city government’s job?

As long as municipal policymakers strive to create programs to reduce social inequity and increase the quality of life for their citizens, I contend that it is. Access to healthy, low-cost food helps assure the health, safety, and welfare of citizens every bit as much as other services that city governments provide, such as clean drinking water, protection from crime and catastrophe, sewage treatment, garbage collection, shelters and low-income housing programs, fallen-tree disposal, and pothole-free streets.

Median magicians

In Seattle, a forgotten strip of land that once attracted only those engaged in illicit behavior is now a source of fresh food and community pride. Residents of the Queen Anne neighborhood worked with the Department of Transportation to transform a neglected street median, rampant with invasive plants and pricked with hypodermic syringes, into a community garden and gathering space. They cleared the median of its debris and weeds, and have recently constructed raised vegetable beds and planted fruit trees. (I had the honor of attending the dedication ceremony back in April, and planted — what else? — an apple tree.)

Planting a medianVolunteers plant a median in the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle with edible landscaping.Photo: Darrin Nordahl

Parks and Recreation staff in Des Moines, Iowa, meanwhile, are cultivating the land in neighborhood parks and around schools and community shelters. Fruits and nuts are the foods of choice for Des Moines staff, since once established, these woody perennials require considerably less maintenance than annual vegetable crops such as corn, beans, and tomatoes. Des Moines’ reasons to turn public space into food gardens are profound: bolster food security, improve economic self-sufficiency, increase community access to culturally appropriate and nutritious food, and to make connections between community members, organizations, and resources to ensure the longevity and viability of the urban food system.

Interestingly, city staff purposely plant fruits that are unfamiliar to many. By encouraging Des Moines citizens to try new foods they hope to increase dietary diversity and to improve “food literacy.” That these plants are unfamiliar to many is somewhat ironic, as many of the fruit trees and shrubs — such as paw paw, spicebush, and serviceberry — are actually native to Iowa.

Parking garage plans An eyesore of a parking garage           (top) will become an edible oasis (bottom), thanks to a joint effort by the city of Davenport,  Iowa, volunteers, and nonprofits.A bit further east along Highway 80, city planners in Davenport, Iowa, where I work, are refining plans to turn an underutilized downtown parking lot into an edible oasis. What is today a one-acre eyesore will become green space filled with fruit and nut orchards, garden plots, and pergolas replete with rambling grape vines. The renovation of this parking-lot-cum-park is being funded out of the municipality’s Capital Improvement Program: $370,000 is allocated for construction, with ongoing maintenance supplied by volunteers from United Way, Big Brothers Big Sisters, students from local grade schools and universities, and even the proprietor of the Thai restaurant across the street. (The produce he will plant and harvest — such as Thai eggplants, chilies, and basil — is essential to his authentic cuisine, but difficult to source in Davenport.)

The willingness on behalf of these local organizations to help the City of Davenport with the ongoing production of fruits and vegetables should placate anyone concerned with maintenance of these public produce plots. Imagine how few takers there would be if municipal leaders were to offer citizens an “opportunity” to help city staff mow the grass in the neighborhood park or weed the petunia beds in the downtown plaza. Ask those same citizens to help grow food for their community, and it is remarkable the legions who step forward, trowel in hand.

Capitol ideas

Higher-profile landscapes around city halls are also shedding their purely ornamental visage for an edible makeover. Such garden transformations have already occurred in Baltimore, Md. and Portland, Ore. In Montpelier, Vt., chard, beets, kale, collards, and red lettuces adorn the public grounds around the historic statehouse. Madison, Wisc. staffers ripped out the flowers around the Capitol and replaced them with potatoes, cabbage, carrots, corn, peppers, and tomatoes.

Municipal government officials have no doubt been inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama’s transformation of a portion of the White House South Lawn into a vegetable garden. But there’s an important distinction between the produce being grown at the White House and that at city hall. The food from the First Family’s garden is primarily for them and their dinner guests. At these green-thumbed city halls, the growing of food is an endeavor by the people, for the people.

“I want people to see city hall differently — that it’s our public land, and that it works for us and with us,” Sallie Maron, a Bainbridge Island resident who recently helped transform the landscaping around the town’s city hall into an edible bounty, told the Kitsap Sun. The volunteers planted more than 40 plants, including cauliflower, kale, and strawberries, and any resident is welcome to grab a tomato and some basil for their dinner. As another Bainbridge Islander remarked, “It’s for people in need or people who just want to try some fresh food.”

The Bainbridge Island folk were inspired by the tale of Provo, Utah, where — as in many municipalities across the country –
– the recession has reduced budgets and forced cutbacks on maintenance. Fussy ornamental landscapes adorning civic places just don’t seem a high financial priority for elected officials.

Seedlings in a cubicleCity planners in Provo, Utah germinated seeds for the city hall plaza in their makeshift greenhouse — in this case their cubicles in city hall.Photo: Darrin NordahlBut nobody likes to look at empty plots of dirt or weed patches outside their window. So in Provo, three planners volunteered their time to re-establish the landscape outside their city hall — but did so in a manner that adds immense value to the landscape and the community. They sowed melons, beans, cucumbers, and beets in the many brick planters.

During their first season (which was last year), the city planners harvested 350 pounds of produce from 250 square feet of dirt and donated it to the local food bank. This year, with a bit more gardening know-how under their hats, they plan to cultivate an expanded 500-square-foot space from which they hope to reap more than 1,000 pounds — quite a harvest from such diminutive plots. (The group is also blogging the progress of the city hall “farm.”)

San Francico City Hall victory gardenSan Francisco planted a Victory Garden in front of its city hall during World War II.Photo: SF Public LibraryAs with many of the urban agriculture projects, the idea of growing food on municipal land is not new. (See the introduction to the Feeding the Cities series, “The History of Urban Agriculture Should Inspire its Future.”) Vegetable gardens have helped bolster America’s food supply when times were tough during the Long Depression of the 1890s and the Great Depression, as well as both World Wars. The most popular of these public veggie patches — the Victory Gardens of World War II — were planted not only by patriotic citizens around the nation, but by city governments in public spaces to provide, teach, and inspire their people.

With unemployment in many cities, food stamp use, and pressure on food banks at an all-time high, it simply makes sense to grow food, not flowers, where possible. Victory Gardens supplied the nation with 40 percent of its fresh vegetables. It is staggering how much edible bounty can be produced from small-scale gardening efforts on public land. The time is ripe to revisit Victory Gardens in public spaces: with just a little bit of organization and encouragement from our government officials, we could bring the community together to brighten the landscape and nourish the needy.  Read more

Darrin Nordahl is the city designer at the Davenport Design Center, a division of the Community & Economic Development Department of the City of Davenport, Iowa. He has taught in the planning program at the University of California at Berkeley and is the author of My Kind of Transit and <a href=”http://islandpress.org/bookstore/details607b.html?prod_id=19155&#8243;Public Produce, which makes a case for local government involvement in shaping food policy.

By RP Siegel | February 3rd, 2012

Those of you who can remember the Vietnam War will be familiar with the term “escalation.” That was when the powers in charge of our “limited military operation” were compelled to increase the size and scope of our involvement, as the enemy increased theirs.

If you remember that, then you will also remember Agent Orange, the powerful chemical defoliant, whose heavy usage resulted in close to 40,000 disability claims from US military personnel who suffered numerous maladies ranging from skin conditions to various cancers as the result of limited exposure to it. As bad as that was, it was minor compared with the 400,000 Vietnamese citizens who were either killed or maimed by the more prolonged exposure they suffered.

Both of those terms will apply to today’s story.

Bio-tech giant Monsanto has now applied for USDA approval on a new variety of genetically-modified corn that is not only resistant to its well-known glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup, but is also resistant to the far more potent and dangerous 2,4-D produced by its competitor, Dow Agro-Science. Not surprisingly, with all thefriends Monsanto has in the government, the USDA appears likely to approve it.

Why, you might ask, would they develop a new variety of corn that is compatible with its competitor’s product?

Because, as many critics have long maintained, the proliferation of genetically modified crops would eventually lead to the proliferation of herbicide-resistant superweeds, such as pigweed, which is exactly what has happened. Hence, we now have a dangerous escalation of chemical warfare in the fields from which our food is being harvested.

This completely undermines the basic (and patently false) original premise behind Monsanto’s Roundup Ready™ crops. The company claimed that since Roundup was one of the least toxic herbicides on the market, and since it could be sprayed directly on the crops themselves, the proliferation of these crops was actually beneficial to the environment, because less herbicide would be required. At one time they might have actually believed that. However, their claims that Roundup is biodegradable were shown to be false. In fact, Roundup is among the top three causes of pesticide-related illness among farm and landscape workers in California, and the NY Attorney General has required them to remove the words “environmentally friendly” from the label.

So what does any of this have to do with Agent Orange? The “new” herbicide 2,4-D that Monsanto’s latest corn will be resistant to, is actually one of the two active ingredients in Agent Orange. (The other is 2,4,5-T in a 50/50 mix).

Monsanto’s genetically-modified seed program for herbicide resistance appears to be spinning out of control. This was a predictable and inevitable outcome of a cash and hubris-rich chemical company wandering into the field of biology, of which they blithely overlooked the basic principles that guaranteed that it was only a matter of time before resistant varieties would begin to evolve continuously. Now, with everything to lose, they are locked in a desperate battle to save the billions they have invested, literally throwing all caution to the wind, while we, as consumers, unless we scrupulously buy organic, have no choice but to eat the fruit of their desperate experiments.

Keep in mind that when a food crop has been developed to be resistant to an herbicide, that means farmers can spray liberal amounts of the poison directly on the food itself without killing it.

Despite the company’s  initial assurances that this would not happen, proliferation of these crops has led to an increase of 318 million more pounds of herbicides and pesticides used in the past 14 years as a result of planting GM crop seeds like Roundup Ready corn and soy, much of which ends up in our bodies.

California currently has a ballot initiative, Proposition 65, that would require all GM foods to be labeled. Biotech executives have admitted that the impact of this would be devastating, considering that 70% of all foods now on grocery shelves now contain GM ingredients. Several countries including the European Union, Japan, China, Korea, Australia, New Zealand now have GMO labeling laws on their books.

Generally speaking, GMO crops offer little in the way of advantages to consumers, though they are more convenient for farmers to grow. But the biggest beneficiaries by far have been the companies that produce them.

One potentially effective alternative to this biochemical arms race that has been proposed is Integrated Weed Management (IWM), similar to Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which combines biological controls with a modest amount of chemical controls.  Read more

[Image credit: Zoe Spumoni: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water.Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

By Susan Andrew on 01/31/2012 06:49 PM

Farmers enter the courthouse

Carol Koury, owner of Asheville‘s Sow True Seed, joined some 82 other farmers, advocacy groups and seed companies as part of a class-action lawsuit brought in federal court today, Jan. 31, in New York City. The Organic Seed Grower and Trade Association and others are taking on agricultural giant Monsanto, in a filing by the New York-based Public Patent Foundation. Koury and Sow True Seed staffer Cathryn Zommer traveled to New York to hear the opening oral arguments in what participants say is a groundbreaking food safety case against the bio-tech behemoth, Monsanto.

This morning, before the hearing, the two joined an assembly of citizens gathered in support of family farmers and seed companies that hope to counter Monsanto attorneys’ opening motion to dismiss the case as frivolous.

What’s at stake is anything but frivolous, say the growers participating in the lawsuit: At stake is the ability to provide high quality, open-pollinated and heirloom seeds. That task is becoming considerably more difficult, the growers say, with the rise of genetic engineering (GE) in agriculture, spear-headed by Monsanto.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of some 300,000 organic and non-GMO farmers seeking judicial relief, “protecting themselves from ever being accused of infringing patents on transgenic seed,” Zommer tells Xpress.

“Unlabeled and untested, pollen drifting from GE crops is a threat to the integrity of organic and non-genetically modified crops,” says Zommer. “This is in direct conflict with our right to produce and consume pure, natural food.”

To bring this message home, Zommer says, Sow True Seed has launched a petition drive that seeks to establish an agricultural conservation zone in Western North Carolina, free from genetically modified crops.

“The petition gives a voice to the overwhelming majority of people who support mandatory labeling of genetically modified ingredients in our food,” Zommer tells Xpress. Readers can sign the petition online or in person by visiting the Sow True Seed warehouse at 146 Church Street.

The complainants in the class action argue that in the past two decades, the seed monopoly staked out by Monsanto has grown so powerful that the company controls the genetics of nearly 90 percent of five major commodity crops: corn, soybeans, cotton, canola and sugar beets. The complainants say the result is increased costs to farmers in support of high-tech patent fees for seed, as well as burdensome litigation costs incurred in defending themselves against lawsuits brought against them by Monsanto.

The complainants further allege that organic and conventional farmers have been forced to stop growing certain crops in order to avoid genetic contamination and potential lawsuits. Between 1997 and 2010, they say, Monsanto filed 144 lawsuits against American farmers in at least 27 different states, for alleged infringement of its transgenic seed patents; another 700 such cases have been settled out of court for undisclosed amounts. As a result of the aggressive lawsuits, the growers say, Monsanto has created an atmosphere of fear and driven dozens of farmers into bankruptcy.  Read more

Watch some of the protest staged in solidarity with the farmers-

You may not want to eat genetically modified (GM) foods, but chances are, you are eating them anyway. There are urgent reasons why we need to ban them altogether.

Monsanto is one of the most malevolent organizations and considered the most hated company in the world. Genetically modified foods are now accepted as one of the biggest threats to all living things.


7 REASONS TO NEVER EAT GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS

1. Increased Pesticide Use

US government data shows that in the US, GM crops have produced an overall increase, not decrease, in pesticide use compared to conventional crops.

“The promise was that you could use less chemicals and produce a greater yield. But let me tell you none of this is true.” — Bill Christison, President of the US National Family Farm Coalition.

2. They Have Been Shown To Be Dangerous To Your Health and Unsafe To Eat

Genetic modification is a crude and imprecise way of incorporating foreign genetic material (e.g. from viruses, bacteria) into crops, with unpredictable consequences. The resulting GM foods have undergone little rigorous and no long-term safety testing. However, animal feeding tests have shown that GM foods have toxic effects, including abnormal changes in organs, immune system disturbances, accelerated aging, and changes in gene expression. Very few studies have been published on the direct effects on humans of eating a GM food. One such study found unexpected effects on gut bacteria, but was never followed up.

It is claimed that Americans have eaten GM foods for years with no ill effects. But these foods are unlabeled in the US and no one has monitored the consequences. With other novel foods like trans fats, it has taken decades to realize that they have caused millions of premature deaths.

GM foods are an imminent threat to humanity’s food supply. Besides the ethical concerns, genetic pollution is self-perpetuating. It can never be reversed or cleaned up. Genetic mistakes will be passed on to all future generations of a species. Wind, rain, birds, bees, and insect pollinators have begun carrying genetically altered pollen into adjoining fields, polluting the DNA of crops of organic and non-GM farmers. This has been happening all over the world for more than a decade. Theoretically, it genetic pollution continues, it could obliterate the world’s natural organic food supply. Use of herbicide-resistant crops will also lead to an accelerated increase in the use of herbicides, resulting in even greater pollution of our food and water with toxic agrochemicals.

“We are confronted with the most powerful technology the world has ever known, and it is being rapidly deployed with almost no thought whatsoever to its consequences.” — Dr Suzanne Wuerthele, US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) toxicologist

3. GM Foods Are Hidden In Animal Feed

As a spokesperson for Asgrow, a subsidiary of Monsanto, said, “If you put a label on genetically engineered food, you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it.” The GM industry has avoided, to a degree, the problem of consumer rejection of GM foods by hiding them in animal feed. Meat, eggs and dairy products from animals raised on the millions of tons of GM feed imported into Europe do not have to be labelled. Some studies show that contrary to GM and food industry claims, animals raised on GM feed ARE different from those raised on non-GM feed.  Other studies show that if GM crops are fed to animals, GM material can appear in the resulting products and affect the animals’ health. So eating these “stealth GMOs” may affect the health of consumers.

4. GM and non-GM Cannot Co-Exist

GM contamination of conventional and organic food is increasing. An unapproved GM rice that was grown for only one year in field trials was found to have extensively contaminated the US rice supply and seed stocks. In Canada, the organic oilseed rape industry has been destroyed by contamination from GM rape. In Spain, a study found that GM maize “has caused a drastic reduction in organic cultivations of this grain and is making their coexistence practically impossible”.

The time has come to choose between a GM-based, or a non-GM-based, world food supply.

Alfalfa is the main forage crop for dairy cows and one of the principle foods for beef cows, especially grass-fed cattle. Alfalfa is a perennial, easily lasting five years once planted. And it’s bee-pollinated, which means each year, every non-GM alfalfa plant within five miles of every GM alfalfa plant will likely be contaminated by GM genes.

“If some people are allowed to choose to grow, sell and consume GM foods, soon nobody will be able to choose food, or a biosphere, free of GM. It’s a one way choice, like the introduction of rabbits or cane toads to Australia; once it’s made, it can’t be reversed.” — Roger Levett, specialist in sustainable development.

5. Long-term Economic Disaster For Farmers

A 2009 report showed that GM seed prices in America have increased dramatically, compared to non-GM and organic seeds, cutting average farm incomes for US farmers growing GM crops. The report concluded, “At the present time there is a massive disconnect between the sometimes lofty rhetoric from those championing biotechnology as the proven path toward global food security and what is actually happening on farms in the US that have grown dependent on GM seeds and are now dealing with the consequences.”

6. GM Companies Cannot Be Trusted

The big biotech firms pushing their GM foods have a terrible history of toxic contamination and public deception. GM is attractive to them because it gives them patents that allow monopoly control over the world’s food supply. They have taken to harassing and intimidating farmers for the “crime” of saving patented seed or “stealing” patented genes — even if those genes got into the farmer’s fields through accidental contamination by wind or insects.

Monsanto has been the largest player in the GM foods game. They have single handedly made the United States the world’s biggest producer of GM foods, pesticides and herbicides. Founded in 1901, Monsanto has manufactured industrial chemicals (e.g. sulphuric acid), plastics and synthetics, and saccharin, a carcinogenic artificial sweetener. It has also produced or granted production licenses for most of the world’s toxic PCB’s which are now mostly banned worldwide.

“Farmers are being sued for having GMOs on their property that they did not buy, do not want, will not use and cannot sell.” — Tom Wiley, North Dakota farmer.

7. GM Foods Will Never Solve The Food Crisis

A 2008 World Bank report concluded that increased biofuel production is the major cause of the increase in food prices. Biofuels are crops grown for fuel rather than food. GM giant Monsanto has been at the heart of the lobbying for biofuels — while profiting enormously from the resulting food crisis and using it as a PR opportunity to promote GM foods!

“The climate crisis was used to boost biofuels, helping to create the food crisis; and now the food crisis is being used to revive the fortunes of the GM industry.” — Daniel Howden, Africa correspondent, The Independent (UK).

“The cynic in me thinks that they’re just using the current food crisis and the fuel crisis as a springboard to push GM crops back on to the public agenda. I understand why they’re doing it, but the danger is that if they’re making these claims about GM crops solving the problem of drought or feeding the world, that’s bullshit.” — Prof Denis Murphy, head of biotechnology, University of Glamorgan, Wales.  Read more

Kelley Bergman is a media consultant, critic and geopolitical investigator. She has worked as a journalist and writer, specializing in geostrategic issues around the globe.

Say "no" to GE rice.

Say “no” to GE rice.

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The fight to keep GE rice out of China is one that can be traced back to the beginnings of Greenpeace in Mainland China itself. And it’s a story that encapsulates much of what Greenpeace stands for: Even with the most formidable of opponents, from both government and industry, positive change can be achieved.

First let’s introduce the bald guy. He’s 38-year-old Sze Pang Cheung, also known as Kontau (which means bald in Cantonese). He’s now the Campaign Director of Greenpeace East Asia.

Sze Pang Cheung in front of the Nestle HQBack in 2004, the GE rice campaign was one of the first campaigns for the new Greenpeace team in Mainland China. Fujian-born Kontau had just joined the organization, having learnt the ropes as a student activist in Hong Kong. His face breaks into a smile when he remembers those early Greenpeace days.

“We launched the campaign with a five-day bus tour of Guangzhou,” he says. “Actually it was more like a van than a bus, and it wasn’t even ours. We were borrowing it from another environmental NGO in China called ‘Friends of Nature’.”

It was chocolate that gave us our first media win. In Guangzhou, the team released test results that showed Swiss-owned Nestle manufactured chocolate powder contained GE ingredients. Shanghai mother Eileen Zhu sued the company because she was angry that she had unknowingly been feeding her child a GE product. The media pounced and the GE public debate had begun.

ONE OF THOSE FUNKY THINGS

Farmer holding a duckThe origins of rice cultivation can be traced to the valleys of China’s Yangtze River, with some estimates putting it at over 7,000 years ago. In that time, rice has become an integral part of Chinese life and culture. It dictates the lives of millions of farmers in the Chinese countryside, feeds over a billion Chinese citizens each year and is synonymous with Chinese cuisine and culture. And Yunnan, in southwestern China is where much of this rice originates from.

In October 2004, Kontau and his team headed to Yunnan where many of the locals employ traditional sustainable farming methods. They handed out cameras so that the locals could record their rice lives including “duck-rice” farming where ducks paddle about the flooded rice paddies, eating up pests and fertilizing fields with their manure. Duck-rice farming has been around for 2,000 years.

“It was one of those funky things we did in those early years,” says Kontau.

The tour was such a success that the cameras were lent out for an extended period of a year and a beautiful book was made to record the images.

But just as they were about to head south, the team got some bad news. Chinese scientists had applied to commercialize four varieties of Chinese GE rice.

“I was totally shocked,” says Kontau. While the scientists’ move didn’t mean that GE rice would be commercialized any time soon – there were lots of steps to pass first – it was a major step towards commercialization.

What’s wrong with genetic engineering? Genetic engineering (GE) enables scientists to create plants, animals and micro-organisms by manipulating genes in a way that does not occur naturally. These genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can spread through nature and interbreed with natural organisms, thereby contaminating natural organisms in an unforeseeable and uncontrollable way.

Their release is ‘genetic pollution’ and is a major threat because GE foods cannot be recalled once released into the environment. And there have been over 140 documented cases of GE crop contamination in the past 10 years. Once they are released into the environment, they are out of control. If anything goes wrong, if crops fail, human health risks are identified or the environment is harmed, they are impossible to recall.

Read more

11 year old Birke Baehr lays out very clearly what’s wrong with our food system, and why he wants to be an organic farmer.  What we consume in today’s world is far from the “real” food that our grandparents, or even our parents ate when they were young.  GMOs, pesticides, herbicides, high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, monocultures, biodiversity loss, fertilizer runoff, ecosystem destruction, dead soil ecology, colony collapse disorder, the list seems to go on forever.  It’s very assuring to see the next generation taking interest in helping change our food system back to being healthy and sustainable again.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7Id9caYw-Y

Published on Friday, May 12, 2000 in The Nation
By Nancy Beiles
In a small brick house strung year-round with Christmas lights, behind curtains made of flowered sheets, Jeremiah Smith is listening to his favorite preacher on the radio. As tonight’s installment of the Gospels winds down, Smith, who has warm brown eyes and a shock of graying black hair, takes a seat at a table draped with a zebra-print cloth and piled high with papers and drifts back thirty years, to the brief period when he was a hog farmer. Like others in Anniston, Alabama, an industrial town with rural traditions, Smith used to raise vegetables and livestock in his yard to provide additional food for his family. “We were poor people,” he says in a thick drawl. “We had to raise food ourselves…. We were trying to survive and live.”Smith planted potatoes and greens in his backyard. He also had a cow and rabbits, but most of his time and attention went to his hogs. In 1970 he had about fifty–too many for his small plot of land, so he led them, Pied Piper-like, past the old Bethel Baptist Church, the Lucky-7 Lounge and the labyrinth of pipes and smokestacks that surrounded the Monsanto chemical plant his father helped build, to a grassy hill where they could graze. Each evening before heading off to work the night shift at a pipe company, Smith would check on them, give them some feed and, when the need arose, he’d bring home some bacon.

One night, as he was feeding the hogs, a man from the Monsanto plant drove up the hill in a flatbed truck and made him an offer: $10 apiece for the hogs and a bottle of Log Cabin whiskey. The offer was intriguing. Smith had begun to notice that something was wrong with some of his hogs anyway; their mouths had turned green. And Smith, ever in need of cash, could hardly afford to pass up $500. He sold. But for more than twenty years, he wondered what on earth a chemical company would want with his hogs.

Problem: Damage to the ecological system by contamination from polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB). Legal Liability: Direct lawsuits are possible. The materials are already present in nature having done their “alleged damage.” All customers using the products have not been officially notified about known effects nor [do] our labels carry this information.       –Memo from Monsanto committee studying PCBs, 1969

People Jeremiah Smith’s age are old enough to remember Monsanto’s glory days in Anniston. The company provided well-paying jobs and helped nurture this friendly Southern town’s sense of community. Residents used to marvel at the plant’s well-manicured grounds, which the company sometimes let them use for Easter-egg hunts. Most never thought to connect Monsanto to some of the odder features of life in Anniston. Like the creek, known locally as “the ditch,” which passed through town carrying water that ran red some days, purple on others and occasionally emitted a foggy white steam.

Public Image: The corporate image of Monsanto as a responsible member of the business world genuinely concerned with the welfare of our environment will be adversely affected with increased publicity…. Sources of Contamination: Although there may be some soil and air contamination involved, by far the most critical problem at present is water contamination…. Our manufacturing facilities sewered a sizable quantity of PCB’s in a year’s time….       –Monsanto committee memo, 1969

* * *

Over time, the residents of West Anniston, Alabama, came to believe they had been silently poisoned for decades by Monsanto. Many also believe that if the contamination had occurred in the more affluent (and more heavily white) east side of town, there would have been more scrutiny by the government. The change in attitude was spurred by what at first seemed like a straightforward real estate transaction between Monsanto and a local church.

In December 1995 Donald Stewart, a former state legislator who served briefly in the US Senate, was taking some time off from his legal practice when he received a phone call from a former client, Andrew Bowie. Bowie, a deacon at the Mars Hill Missionary Baptist Church, explained that a Monsanto manager had approached him about buying the church. “It doesn’t seem like we’re going to achieve a satisfactory deal,” Bowie told Stewart. “I think we need a lawyer.” Stewart agreed to help. “I thought it was a simple case,” Stewart says. “And then it just mushroomed.”

Stewart soon learned that Monsanto wanted to buy the church’s property, which was across the street from its plant, because it had discovered high concentrations of PCBs in the area and was planning a cleanup. After an open meeting at the church, Stewart began fielding a flood of calls from concerned residents, who had a dizzying array of health problems they now attribute to the contamination. The neighborhood around the plant is populated by people with cancer, young women with damaged ovaries, children who are learning-impaired and people whose ailments have been diagnosed as acute toxic syndrome. (Medical studies have shown that PCBs cause liver problems, skin rashes and developmental and reproductive disorders in humans. The EPA says that, according to animal studies, they probably cause cancer.) In addition to the church, which filed its own suit against Monsanto, more than 3,000 Anniston residents who have high levels of PCBs in their blood and on their property have filed suit against the company since 1996, alleging that beginning in the sixties, the company knew it was introducing PCBs into the environment, knew the hazards of doing so, failed to inform the community and tried to conceal what it had done.

Monsanto denies the allegations. While it concedes that much of Anniston is contaminated by PCBs, the company says its chemical discharges were negligible–and maintains that it did not fully understand how PCBs affected the environment at the time they were released. “As soon as we discovered there were PCB discharges from the plant, we began our operations to limit and hopefully eliminate those discharges,” says Bob Kaley, director of environmental affairs for Monsanto’s now spun-off chemical division. “At the time, there were no federal regulations with regard to PCBs…. Everything was done voluntarily, and there was really almost no understanding of the effect of PCBs on the environment and human health.” Kaley adds, “I think as we’ve moved forward in the past thirty years, there are potentially some effects at high levels in the environment. But we do not believe even today that there are concerns for human health at those environmental levels.”

The case is beginning to attract the attention of environmental activists, 150 of whom will be taking a bus tour of the contaminated areas this month. The EPA is currently considering whether to order a federally monitored cleanup, and it may declare the area a Superfund site. The likelihood of that is enhanced by PCBs’ number-six spot on the agency’s list of toxic substances at contaminated sites.

Monsanto lawyers have had plenty of practice defending against liability, since the company has been named as a co-defendant in dozens of PCB suits across the country. The company’s track record in court on this front is excellent; while Monsanto has settled a few suits, it has succeeded in getting the vast majority of complaints–most of which have been brought by companies that purchased the chemicals from Monsanto–thrown out by arguing that these companies knew what they were getting into.

But the Anniston case stands out in the annals of PCB litigation in the extent of damage to property and people it alleges. It is also among the first brought by ordinary citizens rather than sophisticated corporations. And this time Monsanto will have to confront its own paper trail in court. The black binders that the plaintiffs’ lawyers have stuffed full of internal memorandums and reports, branded “Hot Documents” and “Hottest Documents” with yellow Post-it notes–many of which have never been seen by the public but which will become public record when the trial begins–make this an especially difficult defense to mount.

* * *

Karen McFarlane lives in plain view of the plant. It’s a mild morning in February, and Karen didn’t sleep much last night. Clothed only in a T-shirt and underwear, with a sweater draped over her lap, she lights her first cigarette of the morning–a bent Basic–and promptly drops it on the shaggy blue rug. Dakota, Karen’s 16-month-old, is playing with the severed head of a Barbie knock-off and there’s not much to eat in the house. But Karen has other worries. Outside, a chain-link fence, six feet high and capped by barbed wire, surrounds the gray Buccaneer trailer where she lives with her husband, Ryan, and their five children, blocking access to gray-green fields once populated by neighbors and small businesses that have been chased away by PCB contamination. “I never thought I’d say it, but I just want to get away from here,” says Karen, who has lived in Anniston her whole life.

She has PCBs in her body fat. According to tests done by a local doctor, Ryan’s blood has nearly triple the level considered “typical” in the United States; for Tiffany, their 6-year-old, it’s double. Nathan, 8, has severe developmental problems, and everyone in the family suffers from respiratory problems and the skin rashes associated with PCB exposure. Chris, Karen’s 11-year-old son, who’s home from school with an upset stomach and is splayed out on the couch, lifts his Panthers basketball T-shirt to reveal brownish-red blotches climbing up the sides of his chest. “It smells like decaying flesh,” Ryan warns. “Like it’s rotten.”

Most of their friends and family have already left, but the McFarlanes can’t afford anything other than the small dirt lot where they park their trailer. Karen was recently hospitalized for respiratory-stress disorder and had two strokes at age 30. Her most recent Pap smear was abnormal, but she says she’s too scared to have a follow-up exam. Ryan, who has small pink growths dotting his neck, wistfully talks of going to an oncologist for a full cancer screening, something he’s unlikely to get soon because he doesn’t have health insurance. The McFarlanes are stuck in a place where, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health, cancer rates are 25 percent higher than in the rest of the state.

* * *

Anniston was founded as a company town. In 1872, Samuel Noble, a British-born businessman, and Daniel Tyler, a Union general and a cousin of Aaron Burr, established Woodstock Iron in a then-barren outpost at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains. The company built a church, a schoolhouse and a general store. To guarantee the moral fiber of their fabricated utopia, the townspeople threw away their whiskey bottles, declared their own Prohibition and erected a fence around the town’s perimeter, creating one of the nation’s earliest gated communities. During World War I, chemical producers arrived, and in 1929, the Theodore Swann Company became the nation’s first maker of PCBs, nonflammable chemicals that lubricate industrial systems that generate heat. By 1935 the Monsanto Company recognized PCBs as big business and bought Swann’s Anniston facility. For close to forty years, Monsanto sold PCBs to companies like General Electric and Westinghouse, helping them insure that webs of electrical wires wouldn’t burst into flames.

In the sixties Monsanto encountered a serious threat to its success. While chemical manufacturers throughout the country were scrutinizing the environmental impacts of their products amid growing pressure to reduce emissions, a team of Swedish researchers discovered PCBs in wildlife. For every electrical wire kept from overheating, some of the chemical had been escaping. This discovery, which received wide publicity in 1966, raised concerns for Monsanto, which worried that it would usher in governmental regulations limiting PCB use. “Truly the PCBs are a worldwide ecological problem,” declared a company memo that included a list of concerns under the heading “Business Potential at Stake on a Worldwide Basis.”

At the time, the government had not yet declared PCBs to be hazardous to human health, but suspicions had been growing for quite a while. As early as 1937 the medical community was examining PCBs to see if they were a public health hazard–a study published that year in the Journal of Industrial Hygiene and Toxicology suggested links between PCBs and liver disease. In the mid-fifties Monsanto researchers and executives began writing confidential memos describing their fears about the chemicals’ toxic effects, but they drafted plans for continuing to sell them despite these suspicions. In 1956 Monsanto considered the chemicals toxic enough to give workers protective gear and clothing, and encourage them to hose off after each shift. Along with other chemical manufacturers, the company publicly expressed skepticism about PCBs’ association with disease, but over the next decade the evidence became harder and harder to dismiss. In 1968 the links between PCBs and disease won wide credibility when residents of a Japanese town were harmed by consuming PCB-contaminated rice oil. Subsequent studies published in leading medical journals showed that PCBs damage the immune system, the reproductive system and the nervous and endocrine systems.

Monsanto had hundreds of millions in PCB sales to lose if regulators placed restrictions on their use. By 1969 the company established a committee to keep abreast of the state of knowledge on PCBs. The issue was beginning to look like “a monster,” in the words of one former executive.

Make the Govt., States and Universities prove their case, but avoid as much confrontation as possible…. We can prove some things are OK at low concentration. Give Monsanto some defense…. We can’t defend vs. everything. Some animals or fish or insects will be harmed…. The Dept. of Interior and/or state authorities could monitor plant outfall and find [discharges] of chlorinated biphenyls at…Anniston anytime they choose to do so. This would shut us down depending on what plants or animals they choose to find harmed….
–Monsanto researcher, September 1969

* * *

At issue in the lawsuit is whether the company was aware of the extent of the PCB contamination and whether it could have protected or warned the community. Many of the answers may be found in the documents.
In the late sixties Monsanto began keeping track of its PCB discharges in an attempt to reduce emissions. According to the company’s July 1970 progress report, Monsanto was dumping about sixteen pounds a day of PCB waste into the town’s waterways. It was a significant amount, but in the closed world of Monsanto executives, it almost seemed like good news–the year before, the company had been dumping about 250 pounds a day.

Monsanto went on the offensive, reporting to regulators at the now-defunct Alabama Water Improvement Commission that it was finding PCBs in the water near the plant. But the regulators, according to a company memo, agreed that “all written effluent level reports would be held confidential by the technical staff and would not be available to the public unless or until Monsanto released it.” Monsanto never did.

To predict whether federal or state regulators would find the chemicals to be a threat to the environment or human health, Monsanto began commissioning animal toxicity studies; the results, in the early seventies, didn’t look good. “Our interpretation is that the PCBs are exhibiting a greater degree of toxicity in this study than we had anticipated…. We have additional interim data which will perhaps be more discouraging,” a company executive wrote. “We are repeating some of the experiments to confirm or deny the earlier findings and are not distributing the early results at this time.”

Testing continued, but the results didn’t get any better. In 1975 the lab submitted its findings from a two-year study of PCBs’ effects on rats. An early draft of the report said that in some cases, PCBs had caused tumors. George Levinskas, Monsanto’s manager for environmental assessment and toxicology, wrote to the lab’s director: “May we request that the [PCB] 1254 report be amended to say ‘does not appear to be carcinogenic.'”

The final report adopted the company’s suggested language and dropped all references to tumors.

Anniston residents got their first glimpse of Monsanto’s troubles with PCBs in late 1993. A contractor doing dredging work on the nearby Choccolocco Creek noticed largemouth bass with blistered scales. Tests showed the fish contained extremely high levels of PCBs. Around the same time, the Alabama Power Company broke ground on land it had acquired from Monsanto in the sixties, opening up a PCB landfill that bled black tar. Alabama Power insisted that Monsanto take back the land and reported its discovery to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. Testing ordered by ADEM and carried out by Monsanto found that a wide swath of West Anniston and local waterways were highly contaminated with PCBs. Soon after, the company made its quiet buyout offer to the church.

The contamination came as news to residents, but Donald Stewart quickly discovered that Monsanto had known about it for decades. “There have been some big bonanzas,” Stewart says of the internal company documents he has collected. “Someone’s going to have to sit down somewhere in the bowels of that company and make it right.”

Since Stewart had never handled a case like this before, he enlisted the help of a Mississippi firm and Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman, a New York firm that represented Liggett in the tobacco suits. Even with all that legal firepower, Stewart still has a formidable task ahead. “It just seems these folks have the skill and the capability to avoid having somebody pin the tail on their donkey. I mean, they’ve just been able to walk away from it,” he says. “I can’t wait to get before a jury to say, ‘Well, this is what happened.’ I’m looking forward to hearing how they’re going to explain this away.”

Early in 1970, we established a target of 10 ppb [parts per billion] of PCBs in our plant waste streams which we expected to achieve by the third quarter 1971. No specific target was established for the quantity of PCBs we could tolerate in the atmosphere. During the year as the plant gained tighter control of known sources of PCB pollution, it became increasingly obvious that the high levels would continue because of the PCBs trapped in the soil and in the sewer systems. Clean-up of these sources can be economically impractical.
–Former Monsanto plant manager, January 1971

Adam Peck, one of Monsanto’s lawyers, isn’t sweating it. The company, which spun off its chemical division as a stand-alone firm, Solutia, in 1997, assigned an environmental manager to lead a $30 million cleanup focusing on everything from a landfill where 150-200 million pounds of PCB waste are buried to waterways and contaminated land in the neighborhood. Beginning with the Mars Hill church, the company began buying out small businesses and residents in West Anniston. They bulldozed buildings, laid thick plastic tarps over the contaminated soil and covered them with clean soil. The company plans to convert some of the contaminated land into a wildlife refuge. It has built perching posts near the landfill to attract purple martins, and recently released salamanders into a pond that catches runoff water from the landfill.

In Peck’s mind, these activities demonstrate convincingly that the corporation has behaved responsibly. “Our position is that when a jury hears all the evidence they will conclude that Monsanto and Solutia acted responsibly in the manufacture of PCBs and in efforts to remediate,” he says. “I think liability will be for a jury to determine. We have offered to acquire property. We’ve offered to clean property. What does that mean? Does that mean we acted responsibly or that we should have done more?” After a pause, he adds, “I’m not sure what more we could have done.”

Peck says Monsanto didn’t notify the community about the PCB releases years ago because at the time there wasn’t sufficient understanding of how the chemicals migrated through the environment. Yet one of the documents Stewart obtained, a sample Q&A on PCBs produced by Monsanto for its customers in 1972, reads in part: “PCB is a persistent chemical which builds up in the environment. It, therefore, should not be allowed to escape to the environment.” Peck continues: “And if you think about it from the perspective of the plant manager and the folks who were there at the time, the levels that were escaping the plant were extremely small compared to the levels that those guys were working with on a daily basis. They weren’t worried for their own health. Why should they be thinking the minute levels that are escaping are of any concern to anybody outside there?” The protective gear worn by workers, Peck insists, was simply routine.

* * *

Ryan McFarlane is lumbering across the dirt lot outside his trailer. Overweight and easily winded  es s y past a broken trampoline to a set of wire pens that house his chickens. Undersized and lethargic, they huddle in the corners of the rusty pens, occasionally exhaling a thin cluck. For years, Ryan raised chickens for food. But these days, knowing they are probably contaminated, and since his health problems have kept him from working for the past five years, Ryan keeps chickens around to give him something to do.

Until the PCB contamination came to light, the McFarlanes, like many of their friends and former neighbors, regularly ate fish from the creeks, and chicken and vegetables raised in their yards. They might have given the practice up long before if Monsanto had told Jeremiah Smith in 1970 when it bought his hogs that it made the purchase because it was worried that people were eating PCB-contaminated pork. (Monsanto admits that the hogs were later shot and buried, although the company contends that its concern about PCB contamination was secondary to its concern about the hogs’ trespassing on its property.) The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services, completed a health study in Anniston in February, which found that PCB exposure in the town is a public health hazard. It also suggested that eating local pork, fish and chicken has been a major source of PCB contamination. The EPA says eating PCB-contaminated food is one of the most dangerous means of exposure because PCBs biomagnify, or increase in intensity, as they travel up the food chain.

Residents are anxiously awaiting the EPA’s decision on whether to order a federal cleanup. “All they want to do, seem like, is study, study, study, we got to study some more,” says one plaintiff in the case. The lawsuit is also taking longer than residents anticipated. Two weeks before the case was to go to trial, in March 1999, Monsanto appealed to the state Supreme Court to establish procedural rules for the circuit court. Now, more than a year later, the Court still hasn’t returned its rulings. In the meantime, Stewart prepares for trial and works on other cases. He’s hoping the jury will award compensatory damages for the property contamination and punitive damages for the fear the exposure has engendered. He also wants Monsanto to pay for regular health screenings. Early settlement talks went nowhere, both sides say.

Monsanto did settle the original suit on behalf of the Mars Hill congregation. It made no admission of guilt but paid $2.5 million to rebuild the church at another location. “In the Mars Hill case they protested all the time that they didn’t do a thing,” Stewart says. “Then they paid $2.5 million for a church they said was worth $400,000. Sounds like they did something, to me. Now, I’m just a small-town country lawyer, but I wonder how they arrived at that decision.”

Nancy Beiles, a reporter at Talk magazine, lives in Brooklyn.

Copyright �2000 The Nation Company, L.P.

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 2:43 PM PST
Expect to see lots of this stuff blanketing the Midwest for a long time if Monsanto and Dow get their way. Rastoney/Flickr

During the late-December media lull, the USDA didn’t satisfy itself with green lighting Monsanto’s useless, PR-centric “drought-tolerant” corn. It also prepped the way for approving a product from Monsanto’s rival Dow Agrosciences—one that industrial-scale corn farmers will likely find all-too useful.

Dow has engineered a corn strain that withstands lashings of its herbicide, 2,4-D. The company’s pitch to farmers is simple: Your fields are becoming choked with weeds that have developed resistance to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. As soon as the USDA okays our product, all your problems will be solved.

At risk of sounding overly dramatic, the product seems to me to bring mainstream US agriculture to a crossroads. If Dow’s new corn makes it past the USDA and into farm fields, it will mark the beginning of at least another decade of ramped-up chemical-intensive farming of a few chosen crops (corn, soy, cotton), beholden to a handful of large agrichemical firms working in cahoots to sell ever-larger quantities of poisons, environment be damned. If it and other new herbicide-tolerant crops can somehow be stopped, farming in the US heartland can be pushed toward a model based on biodiversity over monocropping, farmer skill in place of brute chemicals, and healthy food instead of industrial commodities.

Yet Dow’s pitch will likely prove quite compelling. Introduced in 1996, Roundup Ready crops now account for 94 percent of the soybean crops and upwards of 70 percent for soy and cotton, USDA figures show. The technology cut a huge chunk of work out of farming, allowing farmers to cultivate ever more massive swaths of land with less labor.

When Roundup Ready crops hit the market in the mid-1990s, farmers started applying more and more Roundup per acre.: From Mortensen, at al, "Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management," BioScience, Jan. 2012

When Roundup Ready crops hit the market in the mid-1990s, farmers started applying more and more Roundup per acre.: From Mortensen, at al, “Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management,” BioScience, Jan. 2012But by the time farmers had structured their operations around Roundup Ready and its promise of effortless weed control, the technology had begun to fail. In what was surely one of the most predictable events in the history of agriculture, it turned out than when farmers douse millions of acres of land with a single herbicide year and after year, weeds evolve to resist that poison. Last summer, Roundup-resistant superweeds flourished in huge swaths of US farmland, forcing farmers to apply gushers of toxic herbicide cocktails and even resort to hand-weeding—not a fun thing to do on a huge farm. A recent article in the industrial-ag trade journal Delta Farm Press summed up the situation: “Days of Easy Weed Control Are Over.”

Dow’s new herbicide-resistant product promises to bring those days back. In itspetition to the USDA to approve 2,4-D-resistant corn, the company explicitly pitched it as the answer to farmers’ Roundup trouble. The 2,4-D trait will be “stacked” with Monsanto’s Roundup trait to “generate commercial hybrids with multiple herbicide tolerances,” the petition states. Note that the new product marks a point of collusion, not competition, between industry titans Dow and Monsanto—they plan to license the 2,4-D and Roundup traits to each other to form “stacked” hybrids.

And once they do, farmers can douse their fields with both 2,4-D and Roundup—and 2,4-D will kill whatever weeds Roundup can’t, and leave the crop pristine. Farmers growers will be able to “proactively manage weed populations while avoiding adverse population shifts of troublesome weeds or the development of resistance, particularly glyphosate- [Roundup-] resistance in weeds,” the petition promises.

The USDA, for its part, is buying what Dow is selling. Its Draft Environmental Assessment(PDF) offers no critique of Dow’s claims, and recommends that the product be deregulated. The agency is currently seeking public comment on the matter; the comment period ends Feb. 17. Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told me that when the USDA brings a GMO product to the comment stage after having recommended deregulation, it “almost always” greenlights the product. “The only times I’ve seen the USDA hold off at this stage is when there’s a lot of public pushback,” Gurian-Sherman says.

Dow’s new GM corn merits just such a public uproar, it seems to me. A just-released paper from a group of researchers led by Pennsylvania State University crop scientist David A. Mortensen makes a strong case that new herbicide-tolerant crops will lead US agriculture down a path of ever-increasing addiction to agrichemicals. (The abstract is here; I have a PDF of the full paper but can’t upload it because it’s under copyright.)

The authors note that even by Dow and Monsanto’s reckoning, a new stacked 2,4-D/Roundup-resistant product would immediately lead to an increase in herbicide use, because the companies have been advocating an herbicide program that combines current rates of Roundup use with a roughly equal amounts of 2,4-D. That’s good for sales; but not so good for the environment.

And wouldn’t such an herbicide cocktail just lead to weeds that defy both 2,4-D and Roundup? No need to worry about that; Dow and Monsanto claim that it’s extremely unlikely for weeds to survive two different herbicides that attack them simultaneously in entirely different ways.

The authors shred that argument. They retort that resistance to two or more herbicides isn’t a rare occurrence at all—globally, no fewer than 38 weed species across 12 families show resistance to two or more herbicides—”with 44% of these having appeared since 2005.”

They add that in that on millions of acres of farmland in the Midwest and South, many weeds will only need to develop a single resistance pathway, because they’re already resistant to Roundup. That is, when farmers apply 2,4-D at will to weeds that are already resistant to Roundup, they’ll essentially be selecting for weeds that can resist both.

The authors predict that glyphosate (Roundup) use will hold steady at high levels—and use of other herbicides, like 2,4-D, will soar.: From Mortensen, at al, ""Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management," BioScience, Jan. 2012The authors predict that glyphosate (Roundup) use will hold steady at high levels—and use of other herbicides, like 2,4-D, will soar.: From Mortensen, at al, “Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management,” BioScience, Jan. 2012All in all, the authors conclude, chances are “actually quite high” that Dow’s new product will unleash a new generation of superweeds that resist both Roundup and 2,4-D. If 2,4-D resistance does indeed emerge, farmers will likely respond just as they responded to the advent of Roundup resistance—by applying ever higher doses.

Thus the authors project that 2,4-D use will surge for at least decade before the new seeds reach market. Their main ecological concern with an explosion in 2,4-D use is pesticide drift—they say the compound is quite volatile and prone to be carried in air, where it can do damage to non-target plants like the neighbor’s vegetable farm. “Landscapes dominated by synthetic auxin- [2,4-D]–resistant [crops] may make it challenging to cultivate tomatoes, grapes, potatoes, and other horticultural crops without the threat of yield loss from drift,” they write. They also fear that if you’re a farmer determined not to use a stacked 2,4-D/Roundup seed, you could be forced to if your neighbor’s 2,4-D spray keeps knocking down your corn.

As for its toxicity to people and animals, the study’s authors take at face value the EPA’s assessment that 2,4-D and other chemicals in it class have “low acute and chronic toxicities to mammalian, bird, and fish model organisms; degrade fairly rapidly in the soil; and are not known to bioaccumulate.”

However, as I’ve reported before, the advocacy group Beyond Pesticides points to both epidemiological and lab-based evidence linking it non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and other cancers. It’s also an endocrine disruptor, Beyond Pesticides reports, meaning it can “interfere with the body’s hormone messaging system and can alter many essential processes.” And in 2004, a coalition of more than a dozen environmental and social-justice groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Pesticide Action Network, wrote a letter to the EPA rebuking it for underestimating the health risks of 2,4-D—in particular, its carcinogenicity. The EPA, it goes without saying, brushed those concerns aside.

The frustrating part is, there no reason to send a flood of this stuff onto US farm fields, where it will likely run off into ground water, as both Roundup and Syngenta’s toxic herbicide atrazinealready have.

As the authors of the Bioscience paper show, a simple program called Integrated Weed Management (IWM) could rescue US farm fields from Roundup-resistant superweeds without recourse to more herbicides. The approach relies on low-tech techniques like crop rotation, cover crops, tillage, and targeted herbicide applications. IWM would mean bringing skill and thought back to farming, and it would push farmers into planting more crops than just corn and soy.

The biggest obstacle to IWM over the Dow/Monsanto vision doesn’t lie in efficiency or economics. The authors cite research showing that “cropping systems that employ an IWM approach can produce competitive yields and realize profit margins that are comparable to, if not greater than, those of systems that rely chiefly on herbicides.”

Rather, the obstacle lies in in political economy: the power of the agrichemical companies to set the research agenda both in public universities and at the USDA, and to use farm supports to reward farmers for growing a narrow set of crops. Farmers have been using Roundup technology for nearly a generation; they will grope for the next fix to it until our public ag-research complex shows that them there’s a better, cheaper way.

And here’s where we get to the crossroads in our agriculture. If the agrichemical companies manage to ram through the regulatory process a bunch of patches to Roundup Ready farming, then their herbicide-drenched vision will continue dominating huge swaths of prime farmland throughout the country for the forseable future. We don’t have to go that way. It’s time to raise hell.

In the graphic below, Penn State ag scientist David Mortensen and his co-authors lay out what they see as the crossroads facing US agriculture.

Fork in the road. : From Mortensen, at al, "Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management," BioScience, Jan. 2012Fork in the road. From Mortensen, at al, “Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management,” BioScience, Jan. 2012

Food and Ag BloggerTom Philpott is the food and ag blogger for Mother Jones. For more of his stories, click here. To follow him on Twitter, click hereRSS | TWITTER

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