Canaries in the Roundup Ready Fields

This morning I woke up with the phrase “canaries in the coal mine” playing over and over in my mind.

Maybe it’s because one of the last things I read before going to sleep last night was an article about the harmful effects of methylmercury in songbirds.  Methylmercury is the organic form of mercury, a biproduct of coal burning, which falls to the ground with rain, gets into the groundwater and begins to make its way through the food chain, starting with leaves, snails and worms, and going up into birds, fish and mammals.

Mercury poison is slow and insidious, showing up in erratic behavior and a kind of deadly dullness in birds and other animals.

“Songbirds with blood mercury levels of just 0.7 parts per million generally showed a 10 percent reduction in the rate at which eggs successfully hatched,” writes Anthony DePalma in the New York Times. “As mercury increases, reproduction decreases. At mercury levels of greater than 1.7 parts per million, the ability of eggs to hatch is reduced by more than 30 percent, according to the study.

“Over all, birds in contaminated sites were found to be three times as likely to abandon their nests or exhibit abnormal incubation or feeding behavior. In some nests, the chicks seemed to have been affected most; they vocalized less and did not beg as aggressively to be fed.

“Such consequences mimic the effects of mercury on humans whose primary contact with the toxin is through the consumption of fish. The contamination can be passed to children in the womb or while they are nursing, damaging their nervous systems and impairing their ability to learn.”

Still mulling this information over, thinking about the mysteriously rising rates of autism, Asberger’s and other neurological disorders in our children, I poured myself a cup of coffee and opened up Facebook, often a good source of information about what is on people’s minds on any given morning.

At the top of my news feed, I found several glaring stories about Monsanto, the biggest and baddest of the industrial agriculture corporations.  Much has been written about the evils of GMO crops, terminator seeds, and the effects of Roundup on the environment.  But now, as with mercury poisoning, we’re beginning to realize how glyphosate, one of the main ingredients of Roundup, is infiltrating water and food and making its way up the food chain—to us.

Glyphosate is being blamed for infertility, mental illness, decreases in beneficial gut bacteria, and cancer.  Of course, it’s hard to find large-scale, reliable studies documenting these side effects, because no one spends more money than Monsanto in discouraging research that might affect its sales.

And Big Pharma is also along for the ride, since the more sick people, the merrier the cash register rings.

Yesterday I went for a walk on the golf course that sits in one of the most beautiful pieces of land in my neighborhood, a flat plain with the Housatonic River looping through it.  As always, I was struck by the complete absence of broadleaved plants in the thick grass of the course.  Not a dandelion; not a plantain; nada.  And nary a bird, either, except for a few stray chickadees chirping in one of the few thickets remaining by the river.  A microcosm of the Roundup Ready world we live in.

It strikes me that we are far beyond the canary in the coal mine moment now.  The canaries have died…but we are still advancing into the darkness, taking our chances, going on a toxic mixture of blind faith, naïve optimism and sheer stupidity.

The politicians have been paid to keep their eyes shut, and the rest of us don’t want to see what’s right in front of us.  Most of us who do see don’t act.

Until now.  Tomorrow there will be a big protest in lower Manhattan, in front of the Courthouse on Foley Square, where a major lawsuit has been brought against Monsanto by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA).

It’s no secret that Monsanto has used harsh bullying tactics to force farmers to use its expensive artificial seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides—the rash of farmer suicides in places like India and South Korea have borne mute testimony to the despair that comes of the resulting debt bondage.

European farmers have been more savvy about keeping Monsanto and its GMO crops at bay, and although we in the U.S. have been fairly passive until now, the times they are a’changing.

Listen to the combative tone in OSGATA President Jim Gerritsen’s voice as he rallies his 300,000 members to stand up for their rights:

“Today is Independence Day for America.  Today we are seeking protection from the Court and putting Monsanto on notice.  Monsanto’s threats and abuse of family farmers stops here.  Monsanto’s genetic contamination of organic seed and organic crops ends now.  Americans have the right to choice in the marketplace – to decide what kind of food they will feed their families – and we are taking this action on their behalf to protect that right to choose.  Organic farmers have the right to raise our organic crops for our families and our customers on our farms without the threat of invasion by Monsanto’s genetic contamination and without harassment by a reckless polluter. Beginning today, America asserts her right to justice and pure food.”

A bus for farmers and allies from Columbia County will be leaving for New York at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning (meeting at the old Walmart parking lot at 351 Fairview Ave in Hudson) to join the protest in front of the federal courthouse.  I’ll be in my classroom tomorrow, but my heart will be at Foley Square.

How many canaries have to die before we wake up?

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