We eat by the grace of Nature, not by the grace of Monsanto

“Organic, schmorganic,” fumes New York Times columnist Roger Cohen sarcastically in an article entitled “The Organic Fable.”

He bases his sweeping dismissal of the organic foods movement on a new Stanford University study claiming that “fruits and vegetables labeled organic are, on average, no more nutritious than their cheaper conventional counterparts.”

Cohen does grant that “organic farming is probably better for the environment because less soil, flora and fauna are contaminated by chemicals…. So this is food that is better ecologically even if it is not better nutritionally.”

But he goes on to smear the organic movement as “an elitist, pseudoscientific indulgence shot through with hype.

“To feed a planet of 9 billion people,” he says, “we are going to need high yields not low yields; we are going to need genetically modified crops; we are going to need pesticides and fertilizers and other elements of the industrialized food processes that have led mankind to be better fed and live longer than at any time in history.

“I’d rather be against nature and have more people better fed. I’d rather be serious about the world’s needs. And I trust the monitoring agencies that ensure pesticides are used at safe levels — a trust the Stanford study found to be justified.”

Cohen ends by calling the organic movement “a fable of the pampered parts of the planet — romantic and comforting.”

But the truth is that his own, science-driven Industrial Agriculture mythology is far more delusional.

Let me count the ways that his take on the organic foods movement is off the mark:

  • Organic food may not be more “nutritious,” but it is healthier because it is not saturated with pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and preservatives, not to mention antibiotics, growth hormones and who knows what other chemicals.  There are obvious “health advantages” in this, since we know—though Cohen doesn’t mention—that synthetic chemicals and poor health, from asthma to cancer, go hand in hand.
  • Organic food is only elitist if it comes from Whole Foods—the one source Cohen mentions.  I grow organic vegetables in my backyard, and they save me money every summer.  We don’t need the corporatization of organic foods, we need local cooperatives (like the CSAs in my region) to provide affordable organic produce that doesn’t require expensive and wasteful transport thousands of miles from field to table.
  • About feeding 9 billion people: first of all, we should be working hard to curb population growth, for all kinds of good reasons.  We know we’ve gone beyond the carrying capacity of our planet, and we shouldn’t be deluding ourselves that we can techno-fix our way out of the problem.  Industrial agriculture is a big part of the problem.  It will never be part of the solution.  Agriculture must be relocalized and brought back into harmony with the natural, organic cycles of the planet.  If this doesn’t happen, and soon, all the GMO seed and fertilizers in the world won’t help us survive the climate cataclysm that awaits.
  • Mankind is better fed and longer lived now than any time in history?  Here Cohen reveals his own elitist, Whole-Foods myopia.  Surely he must know that some billion people go to bed hungry every night, with no relief in sight?  Mortality statistics are also skewed heavily in favor of wealthy countries.  So yes, those of us in the industrialized nations are—again, depending on our class standing—living longer and eating better than in the past, but only at the cost of tremendous draining of resources from other parts of the world, and at increasing costs in terms of our own health. Just as HIV/AIDS is the scourge of the less developed world, cancer, asthma, heart disease and diabetes are the bane of the developed world, and all are related to the toxic chemicals we ingest, along with too much highly processed, sugary, fatty foods.
  • For someone who is calling the organic movement “romantic,” Cohen seems to have an almost childlike confidence in authority figures.  He says he trusts “the monitoring agencies that ensure pesticides are used at safe levels — a trust the Stanford study found to be justified.” And I suppose he also still believes in Santa Claus?  We cannot trust that the “safe levels” established by the EPA or FDA are in fact safe, given the fact that we operate in an environment where thousands of chemicals enter the market without sufficient testing, presumed innocent unless proven guilty—but to win the case against them, first people must get sick and die.
  • Cohen’s zinger, “I’d rather be against nature and have more people better fed,” displays his own breathtaking blind spot as regards the human relation to the natural world.  Human beings cannot be “against nature” without being “against ourselves.”  We are a part of the natural world just like every other life form on this planet.  Our fantasy that we can use our technological prowess to completely divorce ourselves from our material, physical reality is just that—a fantasy.  We eat by the grace of nature, not by the grace of Monsanto.

For the entire history of homo sapiens, we have always eaten organic.  It’s only been in the last 50-odd years, post World War II, that wartime chemicals and technologies have found new uses in agriculture.

The result has been the rapid and wholesale devastation of vast swaths of our planet—biodiversity giving way to monoculture, killer weeds and pesticide-resistant superbugs going wild, the weakening and sickening of every strand of the ecological web of our planet.

The relevant fable to invoke might be the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk.  We might be able to grow a fantastically huge beanstalk if we fed it with enough chemical fertilizers, and we might even be able to climb it and bring back a goose that lays golden eggs.

But in the end, that beanstalk will prove to be more dangerous to us than it’s worth—we’ll have to chop it down, and go back to the slow but solid organic way of life that has sustained us unfailingly for thousands of years.

From Big Tobacco to Big Corn: the time to stand up for the right to health is NOW

Two years ago, I was taking multiple steroid inhalers every day for asthma, which began in the aftermath of a couple of bouts of pneumonia, and was always accompanied by typical seasonable allergy issues—coughing, sneezing, runny nose.

In the summer of 2010, in addition to the usual asthma and allergy symptoms, I also came down with a severe intestinal infection, requiring antibiotics to overcome.

When, in the wake of the course of antibiotics, my digestion was still troubled, I decided to experiment and see if removing gluten from my diet made any difference.

Lo and behold!  After just a month without gluten, my intestinal issues made huge progress.  And even more impressively–and completely unexpectedly–my asthma and allergies also disappeared.

When, after a while, I also decided to give up meat, except for the occasional small portion of chicken, the results were nothing short of miraculous.

Longstanding feelings of intestinal bloating disappeared overnight.  Bleeding hemorrhoids totally cleared up.  And the asthma and allergies, which had sometimes been so severe that I ended up in the ER begging for more drugs, were gone for good.

This remarkable shift in my own personal health, as a result of giving up meat and gluten, really makes me wonder.

Why is it that the gluten-free market is one of the fastest growing packaged food sectors right now?

Why are so many of us getting sick from our food supply?

Could it have something to do with the fact that most of our nation’s food supply is produced by industrial agriculture, relying on GMO seeds, as well as herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides in the growing process, not to mention all kinds of preservatives once the corn and wheat is on its way to the table?

I am heartened by the news that hundreds of thousands of farmers and consumers are pressuring the USDA to reject Dow AgroScience’s 2,4,D-resistant corn.

It is high time that all of us stood up to Big Ag and said enough is enough!  Why should we have to spend top dollar to buy organic, when the truth is that all food should be produced in an organic and sustainable manner?

Big Ag will reply that it would be too expensive to produce tons of corn, wheat and soybeans–not to mention beef and pork– organically.

But you know what?  Being sick is very expensive.  Health care is a huge drain on our national economy, as anyone who has been paying attention knows.

Could it be that the industrial agriculture/pharmaceutical/insurance conglomerates actually want a sick populace?

Imagine the outrage if that story were to break.

Imagine if it were proven that the incredible spike in autistic children is due to pesticide poisoning.

Imagine if we could prove that the asthma epidemic in this country is due to auto-immune problems generated by toxic food.

Imagine if we could nail the chemical companies for the explosive growth in cancers, diabetes and heart disease!

I don’t think this is far-fetched at all.

In fact, it’s low-hanging fruit for a cadre of well-trained lawyers with the guts to go up against the big bad guys.

In our parents’ generation, it happened with Big Tobacco.

The evidence is staring us in the face.

What are we waiting for?

Round up the chemicals–for our children’s sake

When I was pregnant with my second son, born in 1998, I was living out in the country in a small house next to my parents’ bigger house.  My son was born in late August, and all through that third trimester I spent a lot of time outside.

In those years, my mother had the habit of having her pebble driveway sprayed with Round-up a few times during the summer to keep the grass and weeds at bay.  Since the pebbles came right up by the front door of our little house, the Round-up was there too.  I complained to her that it was toxic, bad for our pets, not to mention us, but it took many years for her to pay enough attention to this issue to rate health more highly than a neat appearance for the driveway.

I was thinking about this today as I read the news that finally, at long last, the medical research establishment is beginning to go public in announcing the link between the use of Round-up, skyrocketing rates of autism among children, and colony collapse disorder among bees.

My mother will remember that when my second son was born, we began to worry about him when, by his second and third month of life, he was still not making eye contact, and not returning a smile. He was a sweet, calm baby who slept and ate well, and loved to be cuddled…but unlike his older brother, who was laughing and smiling in his first month, he had a curious detachment about him that was unsettling.

Just like everyone knows someone with cancer, everyone knows someone who has had the hardship of bringing up an autistic child.  It’s a heartbreaker, and in those early months with my second son I was truly frightened that I might be in for that kind of ride with him.

And then, just like that, he started to smile, make eye contact, and all was well.

Could it be that his development was delayed because of the local spraying of Round-up during the last months of my pregnancy with him?

Recent research suggests that this is quite possible indeed.

It’s common knowledge that the Monsantos and Dows of the world use their immense fortune to suppress negative research when at all possible.

Source: U.S. Center for Disease Control

But at this point, with our bee population in serious crisis and the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) telling us that 1 in 88 children is now diagnosed with autism (a figure that does not include all the many, many children who are diagnosed “on the spectrum” with some form of mental impairment), it is impossible for the corporate honchos to keep the lid on this story any longer.

It is an international scandal, bigger even than the Big Tobacco scandals of a generation ago, because in this case there is no way that a defense team could argue that it is a child’s choice to expose herself to toxic chemicals.

France, Germany, Italy and other European countries have already taken steps to ban these harmful pesticides and herbicidesThe U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, finally acting under extreme pressure from concerned citizens, is in the process of “reconsidering” its approval for “Poncho,” one of the most dangerous pesticides, proven to have a negative impact on bees.

Dr. Brian Moench, President of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists this week had the courage to defy Big Ag and describe—I believe for the first time—the missing link between bee colony collapse disorder, human autism, and widespread toxic chemical use in agriculture.

In an article published Monday on Common Dreams, Dr. Moench wrote: “The brain of insects is the intended target of these insecticides.  They disrupt the bees homing behavior and their ability to return to the hive, kind of like “bee autism.”   But insects are different than humans, right?   Human and insect nerve cells share the same basic biologic infrastructure.  Chemicals that interrupt electrical impulses in insect nerves will do the same to humans.  But humans are much bigger than insects and the doses to humans are  miniscule, right?

“During critical first trimester development a human is no bigger than an insect so there is every reason to believe that pesticides could wreak havoc with the developing brain of a human embryo.   But human embryos aren’t out in corn fields being sprayed with insecticides, are they?  A recent study showed that every human tested had the world’s best selling pesticide, Roundup, detectable in their urine at concentrations between five and twenty times the level considered safe for drinking water.”

Just down the road from the house where I lived while pregnant with my second son are fields of corn that are maintained by a local farmer.  It’s nowhere near the scale of agriculture in the Midwest or California, but still, if the wind was blowing while they were spraying the herbicides and pesticides in the spring, or while they were harvesting the corn in the fall, we would certainly be inhaling a toxic brew, that undoubtedly found its way into our well water.

And that’s beside the voluntary Round-up spraying of the driveway, and the fact that in those days I was not aware enough to be making a strong effort to buy organic fruits and vegetables, and avoid commercial meat.

So all in all I must consider myself and my family very lucky to have so far avoided autism or cancer.

This should not be left to luck.  Allowing Monsanto, Dow and the other agricultural chemical companies to continue to profit from poisoning our land and our food supply is absolutely unconscionable.

It’s even worse than allowing the cigarette industry to advertise to young people, which we no longer permit.

The bees are the canaries in the gold mine, and they’re dropping fast.

Are we going to delay until the statistics tell us that 1 in 50 children in the U.S. are born autistic?

This is a national and international outrage that must be addressed now.

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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