Monday, June 29, 2015

Two Visions Revisited



by Bill Duesing


There has been remarkable positive movement toward growing food for people near where they live, which is often called agroecology. Methods used in this local, healthy and sustainable food system model maximize use of local resources, including sun and waste products and minimize use of fossil fuels, agro-toxins and abuse of people.

Almost two decades ago, I was inspired by a speech delivered by visionary organic farmer, Fred Kirschenmann, to write "Two Visions" for my October 3, 1997 Living on the Earth broadcast. 

Two Visions

Two distinctly different visions for the future of our food system have emerged: one is industrial, the other is ecological.

The industrial paradigm urges society to amplify research and the application of intensive, high-input technologies for growing, processing and marketing food in order to feed an expanding human population.

Proponents of the ecological paradigm for our food system believe that if the human species is to survive, the work of feeding ourselves must be incorporated into the "larger task of restoring the health of local ecosystems" and communities. They "suggest that this requires not only a redesign of farming methods, but also of the entire food and agriculture system." Producing and preparing food should become an integral part of our lives.

The basics of a food system are really quite simple. Soil supports plants which use sunlight to turn air and water into delicious things to eat. Animals turn some of the plants into other good food. Meals are prepared and eaten.

In the ecological model, the plants, animals and eaters share the same ecosystem. Wastes from one species nourish others by way of nature's elegant cycles. Growing and preparing food are integral to the culture, education, joy and the spirit of each community. While home, school and community gardens are the most important elements of an ecological food system, community-supported-agriculture projects, farmers markets, organic farms, as well as small and part-time farms (especially in urban and suburban areas) are also critical. All of these human-scale endeavors are expanding steadily here in the US and around the world. Grassroots organizations believe that these elements help restore the health not only of people and local ecosystems, but of rural and urban communities, as well.

The approach of the industrial food system is very different. This system disconnects people from direct experience in producing food and disconnects food production from the elegant natural cycles that allow ecosystems to function. Instead it creates concentration of ownership, extremely large-scale monocultures and highly-subsidized facilities which produce, for example, millions of hogs or chickens, millions of pounds of margarine or millions of gallons of herbicide each year. It also tends toward boring, inhumane and oftentimes dangerous employment for its workers.

Because food is produced very far from where it is eaten, distribution becomes the most important element in the industrial model. Large agribusinesses use contracts with farmers, vertical integration and other forms of coordination to control the flow of food from "farm to mouth." Large chemical, drug, seed and equipment companies take an increasing share of farmers' earnings for their high tech, toxic, dangerous, and genetically-engineered inputs. Globalization of all these activities is big right now, with the overriding goal in all cases being higher profits to please investors.

While the ecological approach maximizes the use of solar energy, recycles organic wastes and uses non-renewable resources sparingly, the industrial approach voraciously consumes soil, water, packaging materials and energy.

In fact, energy from fossil and nuclear sources used for growing, processing, transporting, packaging and marketing has become the most important ingredient in the industrial food system.

This system discards farmers and their knowledge as it eliminates locally-adapted plants and animals in favor of laboratory creations. The industrial system is quickly narrowing the diversity of food plants that we eat and the diversity of plant and animal species on Earth.

Proponents of the industrial vision would have us forge recklessly ahead on their path, putting all our hopes for future eating into the hands of genetic engineers, large-scale, far-away farms and global food processors. Their record so far is not good.

Practitioners of the ecological system strive to involve as many as possible in the rewarding work of feeding themselves. They have found that local, ecological food production nourishes more than bodies. It nourishes spirits and communities, too.

(This transcript, and those from all of my weekly Living on the Earth broadcasts from late 2005 through the fall of 2010 are archived online by the University of Massachusetts Library. The special collections unit there also houses the NOFA archives.

Progress

That was 1997.  The issues haven't changed much.  Progress in the last 18 years, however, toward the ecological vision is evident all over Connecticut (and indeed the planet). It is inspiring what people can do. There has been a veritable explosion of gardens, small farms, community farms, college farms, farmers markets, and food and farming related organizations.  Each of these inspires and connects more people directly with their food. 

In 1997, the Hartford Food System and at the time, all-volunteer CT NOFA had been around for about 20 years and Common Ground High School (on a farm in New Haven) was just beginning.  The founding of the Working Lands Alliance and from that the Connecticut Farmland Trust wasn't even on the drawing board.  Farmers markets were few and mostly small.  There were only a handful of CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture farms) offering a weekly share of the produce. 

In this century, notable markets such as CitySeed's four in New Haven and the famous Coventry Regional Farmers Market got going.  Those markets and others all over the state stimulated farmers to produce more food and grow more kinds of crops for a longer season. They encouraged a wave of new and young farmers which in turn encouraged CT NOFA and UConn to begin beginning farmer-training programs.  The new farmers started their own organization, the New CT Farmer Alliance.

Community Farms are one of the most promising of these developments.  They are run by non-profit, community-based organizations to produce food for people where they live, to provide education and a connection to the soil. Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, New Britain and New London all have one or more community farms. Many suburban towns have them too, connecting with school children and enthusiastic volunteers from local businesses. The Community Farm of Simsbury trains new organic farmers as well as providing food for the needy.

Land trusts and churches are growing food for food pantries and towns are establishing Agriculture commissions.  There's now a ConnecticutFood System Alliance.

In our town, the number of people producing eggs and maple syrup increases each year.  More of our neighbors are growing their own food.

We have a long way to go, but based on this growth and the concomitant benefits (called positive externalities) they have a very promising future.

Small Farms Feed 70 Percent of the World's Population

Local agriculture has a good track record.  According to a report from the ETC Group, 70 percent of the world's population is fed by a variety of peasant and small-scale food systems.  The ETC Group is an international organization which is dedicated to "the conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights." It traces its roots to Eleanor Roosevelt's work to help poor, mostly black tenant farmers in the 1930s.

That means that only 30 percent of the earth's population is fed by the agro-industrial food system.  However, the system that fills our supermarkets and chain restaurants to overflowing uses 75 to 80 percent of the arable land and 70 percent of the water and fuel used for agriculture. Not so efficient, but they always want us to buy and consume more.

Despite the widespread benefits of agro-ecological systems, the agro-industrial system is growing steadily because of its power and wealth, and the fact that it can spread many of its real costs (called negative externalities) elsewhere: the planet, people, even, maybe especially, farmers. Recent news provides good examples.

Big agriculture was a huge supporter of the recently-passed Trade Promotion Authority (and the Trans Pacific Partnership that it enables) in part because it would mean more hog factories and more corn and soy farms to feed them in Iowa. (To my thinking, more hog factories is a sufficient reason to reject this trade process.)  However, as one farmer there said, "It's really important that we are able to export our product.  We have a moral duty. We're feeding the world here."  I guess she hadn't read the ETC report about who really feeds the world.

This chart indicates the drastic reduction in diversity of crops on Iowa farms in the last century. You can imagine a lot of delicious meals on farms and in communities in 1920. Especially since many of the farms had large, bountiful gardens, too. It would be tough to eat well from the farms in 2002.  Any other crops are only grown, if at all, on less than one percent of the farms. All the Roundup, and now 2-4,D to control weeds in the GMO corn and soy makes gardening much harder.

External Costs

One aspect of the system used to produce more pork for people to eat in Asia is particularly negative: the millions of tons of nitrogen applied to and leaking from corn fields and draining out of confined hog feeding operations. Nitrogen is a critical ingredient for growing corn to feed pigs, cows, chickens, people and cars. (Covering 90 million acres, corn is the most widely grown crop in this country.  Except for the produce section, corn is a part of almost everything in the supermarket: meat, dairy, one or more ingredients for many processed foods and a key ingredient in soda.) 

A recent study by an international team of scientists found that the annual human and environmental costs of nitrogen pollution attributable to agriculture is twice the value of all the corn produced!  The nitrogen running off of farms and animal factories already adds a million dollars a year to the Des Moines, Iowa water company's costs.  Nitrogen is also a major cause of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico (the size of Connecticut this year, I hear) and the trouble in our own Long Island Sound. Nitrogen fertilizers also release greenhouse gases when applied to the soil.

Nitrogen pollution is just tip of the iceberg when it comes to the environmental costs of the industrial approach to growing food. Broad spectrum herbicides and insecticides greatly diminish biodiversity and resilience, above and below ground, over vast swaths of the Midwest which was once one of the planet's most diverse and productive ecosystems.

And, it looks as if even the farmers who apply the nitrogen will bear some of the costs this year.  According to the University of Illinois, farmers who grow corn in central Illinois, some of the best land in the country, may lose money on every acre they harvest after paying rent for the land.  However, we taxpayers will make up some of the difference through crop insurance and other subsidy programs. You can see complete crop budgets here.

The barrage of low cost meat and processed and fast food adds another external cost - to human health.  A recent Brookings Institution Study found that "if all of the American children who are now obese mature into obese adults, the cost to the nation would be $1.1 trillion in additional health care expenses and lower productivity over their lifetimes." What are the costs of other diet-related diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and dementia?

This system is clearly not sustainable.  Environmental pollution, farmers driven out of business and sick people do not bode well for our future. 

And yet industrial agriculture isn't giving up.  It is deeply committed to growing more of a few, largely genetically-modified crops for processing into foodstuffs to be shipped to wherever people have money to pay.  As Richard Manning says in his very thought-provoking and provocative, 2004 book, Against the Grain: How agriculture has hijacked civilization, "The goal of agriculture is not feeding people; it is the accumulation of wealth."  Powerful voices from many public sectors are aware of how unsustainable and dangerous the industrial food system is. And they are speaking out about it.

Pope Francis, for example, recently said: A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.

And The People's Test on Climate in 2015 stated: "Nothing less than a systemic transformation of our societies, our economies, and our world will suffice to solve the climate crisis and close the ever-increasing inequality gap."

It's challenging work to make social change, but in this case, our lives depend on it.




Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Product and Process

by Bill Duesing

To understand the importance of organic agriculture, we need to look beyond the difference between the possible pesticide contamination of conventional produce and the possible blemishes of organic produce.
Organic farming and gardening work by using the processes that have allowed the Earth to evolve to its current beautiful and exciting state.
Photosynthesis, the growth, death and decay of an incredible variety of organisms, constant change and the nearly total recycling of materials are the processes of nature and of organic agriculture.
This agriculture uses sunlight, carbon dioxide, water, minerals, local waste products and the genetic information in seeds to build and maintain complex ecosystems. These ecosystems produce food while they build topsoil and fertility, hold water, protect diversity and create beauty and pleasant work.
This contrasts with the focus on the product in our current food system, which in striving for the perfect marketable fruit or vegetable, is willing to use toxic materials and methods such as monoculture, widespread irrigation, and annual agriculture on the dry high plains to produce its product. The results of this approach are soil erosion, depletion of aquifers, pollution of wells, a decline in the diversity and stability of our ecosystems, and one of the most energy- intensive food systems in the world.
Long-distance food shipping, modern packaging, processing, freezing and food-irradiation techniques have put an ever greater amount of energy, time and space between the plant absorbing sunlight and the reversal of that process in our bodies, as energy is released from the food.
Our current food system (and therefore our ability to live) is dependent on Chile's political stability, Mexico's pesticide regulations, California's water resources, Kuwait's oil, a small and shrinking number of farmers, and the very few corporations which control any given commodity.
This focus on product has produced farmers who grow a square mile of wheat and then buy all their food from the supermarket. Peasants in Mexico labor to grow winter vegetables for us on land that used to produce corn and beans for them. Many can barely afford the imported American fast food they now get to eat. The traditional small farms of old and New England, with vegetable gardens, small orchards, chickens, cows and a few pigs, produced most of the fertility for the farm and the food for the farmer's family, with surpluses of several kinds for their neighbors. This agricultural model is nearly forgotten and almost extinct.
Our current system uses fossil fuel-powered factories instead of leguminous plants like peas and clover to obtain nitrogen. We grow lettuce (which is 95 percent water) in the desert and then use oil to move it 3,000 miles to our mouths. We use millions of pounds of chemicals that are toxic to much of the life on our planet, but the apologists for the chemical industry say it's okay because there is little or no residue left on our food. The cheapness of taxpayer-subsidized chemical fertilizers, pushed by industry and their government partners, has caused materials like food wastes, animal manures, and leaves to change from being valuable resources, to being garbagenow a global problem.
The real key to organic gardening and agriculture is a healthy soil, full of living things (6 billion to a teaspoonful) and decaying organic matter. The understanding and care needed for good garden soil is symmetrical with the understanding and care needed by our Earth.

I wrote and delivered this essay in the winter of 1991, nearly a quarter of a century ago, early in the decade-long series of my Living on the Earth radio pieces on WSHU from Fairfield, CT. It was included in the collection Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful Future published in 1993. I'd certainly use a few different details now: perhaps Mexico's political environment, China's pesticide regulations, and fracked natural gas. And California's water resources are worse than ever.
I dedicated this essay to NOFA/CT as the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut was then known.  At the time, CT NOFA was a small, all-volunteer organization that educated and advocated for a local and organic food system, certified organic farms in Connecticut and was just beginning its education and advocacy program in organic land care. NOFA was a pioneer in this work.
Think for a minute about the changes in the food and farm landscape in Connecticut (and nearly everywhere else) since that time. I believe that there is more local food availability now than at any time since the 1950s.
In the past 24 years, there has been tremendous growth in local, small and sustainable farms, in farmers markets, community and college farms, and many more young people are actually interested in growing food.  There are more community gardens and school gardens as well as a greater focus on food justice and sustainability. Enthusiastic believers in good food, social justice and ecological care now bring these issues to the educational, environmental and faith communities who are joining in this work. Farmers and gardeners are growing food in inner cities, in the suburbs and in traditional farm country.
CSAs or farm-share programs, food delivery businesses and farm stands connect growers and consumers in new ways.  Federal, state and municipal programs, local agricultural commissions, food policy councils and non-profit organizations support this growth in many ways.  Producers and consumers alike are excited by the increasing diversity of foods grown or produced here.  There are more kinds and varieties of vegetables available, many year round, as well as cheeses, fruits, grains, meats, other dairy products and fungi.  Nearby food is fresher, tastier and better for the climate. It has helped to create vibrant communities around farms and markets, as people learn more about our essential connection with Earth.
Meanwhile, in the intervening years, genetically-modified seeds have become the norm in the industrial system.  The first round of herbicide tolerant crops is failing to perform (because nature works like nature and evolves) so soon our industrial food crops will be sprayed with a cocktail of not one, but two toxic herbicides.
Agricultural suppliers, commodity traders, meat processors and food marketers have consolidated to gain market share at the expense of farmers, consumers, democracy and the planet. They all seem to have unlimited money for lobbying and marketing and to make sure we don't know which foods come from genetically-modified seeds.
This evermore distant, industrial, capital intensive, high-tech food system marginalizes and impoverishes farmers for the benefit of the folks who control the inputs as well as the space between the soil and our mouths. This system has also caused an enormous increase in the very expensive chronic diseases which are diet related: diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and some cancers. Besides the confined animal feeding operations, food processors and fast food operators, other beneficiaries of this system include the venture capitalists who buy and sell restaurant chains like so many monopoly pieces in order to take advantage of cheap food inputs and tax benefits.  In contrast, this year, Illinois corn farmers, growing on some of the best farmland in the world are projected to lose money on every acre they harvest. Wisconsin dairy farmers are going out of business because of plummeting milk prices which approach just half of their production costs.  Clearly something is very wrong.
The industrial system and its allies are now in a full court press to convince us that its way is the only way to feed ourselves. It is exciting that so many people are involved in the critical work of re-creating a local, sustainable and just food system.  It is likely to take much of our energy for the rest of our lives to make this happen. However, the vision of a triumphant industrial system that destroys biological and food diversity, worsens climate change, pollutes the planet with excess nitrogen, drives farmers out of business and greatly increases health care costs, is bleak indeed.  
So grow some or more of your own food, find farmers or a community garden in your area, learn to eat and cook local, seasonal food. These are the most powerful things we can do for our health and the health of the planet that our grandchildren will inherit.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Hail to the Dandelion!

By Bill Duesing



Little is more emblematic of our culture's dysfunctional relationship with Earth than our relationship with the dandelion. We spread cancer-causing, chemical toxins around our homes and public places to kill plants that produce healthy and delicious dark green leaves (and may also help cure cancer). Check on pesticide toxicities here. Meanwhile we eat store-bought dark green leaves (which are mostly water), packaged in plastic and grown 3,000 miles away in a state in its fourth year of serious drought.

I really enjoy snacking on dandelion leaves when I'm working in the garden. Dandelions were the last food I harvested outside in January before the snow buried everything and the first green leaves we ate this spring.  Besides garden snacks, we've used these vitamin-rich greens in salads and stir fries for at least a month now.

Although I've long appreciated the dandelion as a harbinger of spring, have snacked on and cooked the leaves for decades and have even made earthy wine from the flowers, I hadn't actively cultivated dandelions until last year.  I started getting serious about this when the advantages of growing perennials to improve soil health finally sunk in.  Disturbing the soil damages it.  Perennial crops cause far less soil disturbance.  We've grown a number of perennials for years: strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, hazelnuts, mints and other herbs, garlic chives, comfrey, horseradish, grapes and more.  Dandelions are perennials that already grow in the garden.  Why not weed around them as we do with clover, another valuable perennial, and learn to harvest and eat them?

Important Connections

Dandelion roots
Plants connect the atmosphere and the soil.  Whenever they are photosynthesizing, they are pumping a variety of carbon-containing compounds (called root exudates) into the soil to feed soil organisms.

Those organisms - billions of bacteria, fungi and the rest of the soil food web - respond to chemical signals in the root exudates and provide the specific nutrients that plants need.  Managed properly, this process can also result in carbon being sequestered in soil organic matter, helping to fight or reverse climate change.  That's why bare soil is such a violation of nature - it starves the soil organisms.

Dandelions photosynthesize between nine and ten months a year, so they are feeding soil organisms all that time, probably with a variety of helpful exudates mirroring the complexity and richness of the leaves' contents. Their tap roots open up passages deep into the soil for water, air and organisms.  When leaves are picked, some of the roots die and slough off to keep the plant in balance. This adds more carbon to the soil. (Managing this process on pastures with careful grazing can result in large increases in soil carbon.)

The dandelion is scientifically known as Taraxacum officinale which translates roughly to "the official remedy for disorders." All parts of the plant have been used medicinally for more than 1,000 years. Dandelion greens have at least as much vitamin A per gram as any food except red hot chile peppers and liver, more potassium than bananas and more calcium per gram than whole milk. Its leaves have been fed to English racehorses to build strength and health and used to make beer.  Recipes are here for the flowers, here, here and here for leaves. I favor the last one with the double garlic and ginger or capers.  We've never boiled the dandelions before cooking.

The bright yellow dandelion flowers also make an earthy wine. About one gallon of flowers makes a gallon of wine. The leaves are said to get more bitter once the plant flowers, but that is a matter of taste.

Dandelion root is a diuretic. As such, it may be useful for premenstrual syndrome, high blood pressure and congestive heart failure. It is said to be good for the liver and to help prevent gallstones, too. A dandelion root extract is currently in clinical trials in Canada to study its cancer-killing effect.

Dandelions provide important above-ground benefits to the ecosystem too. Honeybees and at least 92 other insects collect its nectar and/or pollen. Birds are fond of its seeds.

Dandelion as Target

Yet, advertising images of dandelions are a marketing tool for toxic pesticides.  That's the way most Americans probably think about dandelions. Selling more of and getting greater profits from whatever it is that you are making or selling is the name of the game in this system.  But if certain real costs (to the environment, taxpayers or society) aren't included in those calculations, we have flawed and expensive results.

Our current system is clearly not sustainable.  Undifferentiated, exponential economic growth is a dead end. A simple example is the increase in bigger garden centers stocking larger piles of weed and feed lawn products (combinations of one or more herbicides with water-polluting fertilizer) to sell to more homeowners and landscapers who become further disconnected from reality. Where will it end? In many ways and places, we are reaching the limits of the damage we can do to our environment and still live here.  There are definitely limits to the disconnection we can tolerate between marketing and ecological reality if we are to survive.

Cultivating lettuce in the California desert
In our kind of economic/political/cultural system, the costs (toxicity, fewer soil organisms and bees, less stored carbon and perhaps more cancer and disease) are spread broadly throughout society and the environment. Concurrently, the profits are concentrated more and more in fewer and fewer hands.  A recent report compiled for the United Nations showed that many of the world's most profitable industries would not have any profits at all and could actually have very large losses if environmental impacts were considered.  And that study ignores social costs and taxpayer subsidies which would decrease the profits of pesticide, big ag and many other industries even more.

Learning about dandelions, their relationship with other living things and the costs of having them as an enemy provide a model of the kind of holistic thinking needed for our survival.  Everything is connected.

Coming to the rescue is the idea of holism, of using all the costs and benefits to guide us to a sustainable future.  I'm not an economist, but I like what I see in the Capital Institute's report Regenerative Capitalism: How Universal Principles And Patterns Will Shape Our New Economy by former banker John Fullerton. In consultation with a diverse advisory group, he produced this report which explores using holistic thinking and planning to address the problems our very un-holistic system has caused. More on this in the future.

So next time you see a dandelion, think of it as an ecological champion and delicious food and remember the importance of holistic thinking.  It has long been a part of the organic gardening, farming and land care movement.

To learn more about caring for your yard organically visit organiclandcare.net and see especially this downloadable booklet.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Glyphosate News Round Up

By Bill Duesing



Our current, conventional food system is based on the use of glyphosate, an herbicide which is designed to kill all green plants.  (Remember for a minute that all of our oxygen and food comes from green plants. Then consider a business plan that depends on selling more of this green-plant-killing chemical every year.)

In 1970, a Monsanto scientist discovered that glyphosate killed plants. The company started marketing it as Roundup® in 1973 and held exclusive rights in this country until its patents expired in 2000.  Now glyphosate and its formulations are made by many other toxic chemical companies all over the world. Over 100 million pounds of this herbicide are applied in this country alone; about half a billion pounds are applied worldwide, every year!

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup.  You can buy it almost anywhere in a convenient spray bottle or by the gallon. You may presently have some in your home.   Town and state governments spray it freely along our roadsides. (For a long time Monsanto advertised Roundup as "biodegradable" and "environmentally friendly." In 1997, the New York Attorney General sued the company to stop that deceptive advertising.  Monsanto paid a fine and stopped using that marketing strategy, at least in New York.)

Glyphosate's most extensive use, however, is in the industrial food system where it is sprayed on the vast majority of our food crops.  That's because the plants have been engineered by the makers of Roundup and other herbicides to resist death when sprayed with this chemical.  What is actually sprayed on our food crops is mixture of glyphosate with various, undisclosed "other ingredients" that make up over half of this toxic cocktail. 

Roundup Ready® is the dominant brand in herbicide-tolerant crops.  Roundup Ready corn, Roundup Ready soybeans, Roundup Ready canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, cotton, lawn grass, etc.  You get the picture.  Roundup Ready wheat, potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce aren't on the market yet, but they have been in development for years.  (Just so wheat doesn't feel left out, helpful agricultural scientists discovered that they could spray Roundup on wheat just before harvest, to help it dry and kill weeds for the next crop.  More sales. Farmers are encouraged to spray Roundup before harvest, called dry down, to barley, oats, canola, flax, peas, lentils, soybeans and dry beans.)

The Classic American Glyphosate Meal

Go to a local fast food joint, get the classic American meal of a double bacon cheeseburger, fries and a soda and you are participating in a glyphosate-based food system. The cows (producers of the beef and milk for the processed cheese product) and the pigs (source of the bacon, all ate genetically modified Roundup Ready corn, soybeans and/or alfalfa.

The bun is made wheat that was sprayed with glyphosate just before harvest.  The sweeteners in the bun, the ketchup, and the soda are made from genetically-modified corn or sugar beets. The fries are usually cooked in one or more of the following oils, cottonseed, canola and/or soy -  all genetically engineered to resist death by Roundup.  Even the bubbles in the soda come from genetically modified corn sprayed with glyphosate!

Currently, almost all non-organic animal products, processed foods, vegetable oils and lots of food additives depend on crops sprayed with glyphosate.

Old News: Glyphosate is a Probable Carcinogen

It is not surprising that there was a big news splash last month about the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer finding that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen.

That "discovery" is really old news and barely scratches the surface of the problems connected with this chemical poison.  In 1985, an EPA panel classified glyphosate as a Class C Carcinogen (meaning that there is suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential). Six years later, just as genetically-modified crops were being readied for market, the EPA, under what some report as "industry pressure," reversed that ruling.  A bit of government slight of hand switched glyphosate to the Class E category, meaning "evidence of non-carcinogenicity for humans."

This chemical poison is the brainchild of Monsanto, the company that also produced the toxic PCBs that contaminate fish in this region's rivers and polar bears in the Arctic whose icy environment we are melting.   Monsanto also produced DDT, Agent Orange, saccharin and bovine growth hormone. This company has a documented history of creating toxic substances and spreading them around as far as possible. It often takes decades before scientists, citizens and regulators are able to stop them.

Although causing cancer may be a big problem, there are many other health problems associated with glyphosate. As an endocrine disrupter it messes with our hormones, often a route to cancer and other problems. Glyphosate was patented as an antibiotic (with all the problems that suggests, e.g. antibiotic resistance) and was originally patented as a metal chelator.  Chelators grab onto metals, including those critical to plant, microorganism and human health, and doesn't let them go. (A new study by Seneff and Samsel (2015) links its chelation of manganese to a host of neurological diseases including autism, Alzheimers, Parkinsons and Prions, anxiety and depression, as well as reproductive and developmental problems. Another study finds problems from phosphorus chelation.)

Endocrine disruptors, antibiotics and chelators all have negative effects on living systems. There is good evidence that glyphosate plays havoc with the microbial communities upon which soil health and human gut-health depend.  This is yet another mechanism for disease.

Dr. Don M. Huber, emeritus professor of plant pathology at Purdue University, discovered in his research that Glyphosate draws out the vital nutrients of living thingsin turn removing most nutritional value from foods made with Genetically Engineered Organisms, (GMOs).

For those of you who want to know more about the health effects of glyphosate and Roundup, look at this thoroughly referenced document from The Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides. 


A recent study published in the Journal of Organic Systems finds close correlations between the use of glyphosate, with the concurrent percentage of genetically engineered corn and soy grown in this country and the rise in 22 chronic diseases, including diabetes, obesity, hypertension, Alzheimer's and other illnesses.  Although correlation doesn't prove causation, this work suggests that further study of glyphosate's effects on human health is needed.

It is easy to see why most Americans want to know which foods contain GMOs (and therefore glyphosate or other herbicides as well) and why Monsanto and its allies spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on lobbyists, politicians, information suppression and propaganda to keep us from knowing.

There's more. Earth's current rapid loss of biodiversity is one of the greatest challenges we face. As an herbicide designed to kill all green plants except GMOs, glyphosate is a very effective biodiversity eliminator. The use of glyphosate and a few other broad spectrum herbicides on GMO crops is blamed for the steep decline in the monarch butterfly population. The milkweed on which they depend has been killed by herbicides, as have the many wildflowers native to farm country which nourish pollinators

In a 2013 study on glyphosate the authors found that glyphosate's negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body.  Consequences are most of the diseases and conditions associated with a Western diet, which include gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimers disease.

Just like PCBs and DDT, glyphosate and its breakdown products are now found in air, water, breast milk and many other places where we'd rather not find manmade poisons.

Where's the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in all this.  Surely, they must carefully regulate the residues of this chemical on our food.

Not so! In 2013, under industry pressure and/or petition, the EPA raised the allowable limits on glyphosate residues in our food.  Glyphosate residues allowed on oil-seed crops such as flax, soybean and canola were doubled from 20 ppm to 40 ppm, and residues on food crops were increased from 200 ppm to 6,000 ppm.

The tightly connected revolving door between Monsanto, the FDA and other important branches of government surely had an effect on this decision.

Do GMOs Work?

Is this genetically-modified system of growing our food a success?  Not really.  It worked well for a while.  The Roundup killed most weeds.  But then, as any student of evolution and science could tell you, a few weeds became resistant and spread.   Now there are at least 16 types of resistant weeds in at least 24 states.

So, having created "monster weeds" with glyphosate, these chemical companies have a new solution:  more complicated and toxic chemical cocktails.  Mix some 2,4-D with that glyphosate and spray it on a new breed of GMO seeds engineered to resist two deadly killers. 2,4-D is one half of Agent Orange, widely used as a chemical defoliant during the Vietnam War.  This use decades ago is still creating human misery for our soldiers, their families and for the Vietnamese people and their environment.

Even as the biotech/chemical industry's multimillion dollar campaign to cast those who want GMO labeling as anti-science, the whole idea of herbicide tolerance goes against all we know about the way plants behave over time in response to being poisoned.

Where will this chemical warfare end?

What to do?
Grow more of your own food using organic methods.

Buy organic food.  More and more people are doing that. Between 2007 and 2012, farms sales of organic went up 83 percent.

Eat more fruits and vegetables.  They are good for you and, except for GMO sweet corn, you know they are not sprayed with glyphosate.

To learn more about the long strange road that got us to a food system dependent on one toxic chemical, read the new, highly recommended book Altered Genes, Twisted Truth: How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public, by Steven Drucker.  In her forward, Jane Goodall calls it "one of the most important books of the last 50 years."