excerpts from Roundup the Usual Suspects

As imperceptibly as grief

the Summer lapsed away

—Emily Dickinson

It was not a silent spring. For decades, ecology activists have been target­ing the Monsanto Company, its herbicides, and genetically engineered crops as the embodiment of an industry that will do anything it can get away with for profit, regardless of how much environmental damage it causes and havoc it wreaks on human health.

In March 2017, the state of California, following in the footsteps of the United Nation’s World Health Organization, declared its intent to list the widely used chemical glyphosate—the main active ingredient in the Mon­santo Company’s herbicide Roundup—as a cancer-causing agent. Monsanto challenged the state’s designation in California State Supreme Court. And, in a substantial defeat for the corporation in July 2017, Monsanto lost.1

And then on April 19, 2018, a California appellate court delivered a crushing blow to Monsanto, rejecting the company’s appeal of the earlier decision and reaffirming that Monsanto’s glyphosate pesticide can be listed as a known carcinogen under California’s Proposition 65, which “requires notification and labeling of all chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm, and prohibits their discharge into drink­ing waters.”

Grassroots activists had been advocating that action since the early 1990s. What took California so long? Small farmers as well as gigantic indus­trial agricultural companies had for decades applied greater and greater amounts of Roundup, especially once Monsanto’s genetically modified Roundup Ready corn and soy crops had been engineered to withstand the herbicide. It’s a lucrative technological fix, where an herbicide is patented and plants are engineered to “tolerate” that chemical.

When the court released heretofore secret Monsanto documents to pub­lic scrutiny, ecology activists’ decades-old suspicions were confirmed. The secret Monsanto documents revealed that those active in anti-pesticide pro­tests, along with those opposing the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 and hundreds of lesser-known actions, indeed had the good sense to give voice to their outrage. According to the New York Times, “The records suggested that Monsanto had ghostwritten research that was later attributed to academics.” Moreover, they “indicated that a senior official at the Envi­ronmental Protection Agency had worked to quash a review of Roundup’s main ingredient, glyphosate, that was to have been conducted by the United States Department of Health and Human Services.”

The documents show that both industry and regulators “understood the extraordinary toxicity of many chemical products and worked together to conceal this information from the public and the press,” according to the Bioscience Resource Project, which publishes groundbreaking and topi­cal analyses of the science underlying food and agriculture systems in the peer-reviewed academic literature and elsewhere. “These papers will trans­form our understanding of the hazards posed by certain chemicals on the market and the fraudulence of some of the regulatory processes relied upon to protect human health and the environment.”

. . . <snip>

Roundup, and another pesticide, 2,4-D,19 have been deployed by the United States and other governments since the mid-1970s to defoliate entire forests, eradicate unwanted plants, facilitate extrac­tion of minerals, and clear land for monocropped and pesticide-saturated export crops.

In the country of Colombia, where people indigenous to the coca-growing areas have for millennia harvested coca plants as part of their culture and local economy, the U.S. government’s “war on drugs” has funded—and U.S. citizens have piloted—airplanes spraying massive amounts of glyphosate over the tens of thousands of acres of coca fields, part of the U.S. government’s “Plan Colombia.”

In Argentina, the same toxic brew is sprayed over miles of monocropped genetically modified soy.

The Parks Department in New York City, as well as hundreds of agen­cies in towns and villages throughout the United States, applies Roundup and other herbicides in public parks and sidewalks for “cosmetic reasons.” Under the spell of TV images of grassy suburban homes and Monsanto’s propaganda depicting what a happy lawn looks like, homeowners spray Roundup and 2,4-D on their lawns and gardens to kill what they deem unsightly weeds, like dandelions and crabgrass.

. . . <snip>

Of course, spraying Monsanto’s Roundup and other toxins for cosmetic reasons is unnecessary and should simply be stopped. Even small amounts of pesticides are poisonous to children. Further, what some call “weeds” in today’s urban environment were once upon a time medicinal or nutritious plants used by American Indians and healers. … The dyes the city had added to the herbicides expressly to warn the public to “stay away”were actually having an unintended opposite effect. We had observed children attracted to the bright yellow and green areas, which they saw as play zones. I also witnessed numerous children in Coney Island rolling around in the newly sprayed weeds and riding their bicycles and scooters through them. They tracked the chemicals into their classrooms and parents’ apartments.

. . . <snip>

Activists kept meeting the same intransigence from government officials, even after a federal judge ruled in favor of the No Spray Coalition and against New York City in a lawsuit the Coalition brought under the Clean Water Act, and even after the City administration signed a settlement agreement with the No Spray Coalition that it soon ignored. When New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, assigned two assistants in 2015 to meet with the Coalition, it became clear that the City had learned nothing in the sixteen years following the filing of the lawsuit; there was no institutional memory.

Rev. Billy Talen and Savitri D., the choreographer and director of the Church of Stop Shopping’s performances, led New Yorkers in the fight to block NYC officials from applying Roundup to city parks. Weekly performances of their show, “Monsanto is the Devil,” sold out fashionable Joe’s Pub in the Public Theater in SoHo and mobilized audiences for protests. … But instead of assigning workers to weed by hand, the city govern­ment continued to spray glyphosate, which bioaccumulates in bone mar­row. It also “applied”—and continues to apply—other cancer-causing and endocrine-disrupting adulticides throughout the five boroughs, despite the well-documented harmful effects on people and the environment.

As a result of the work of the No Spray Coalition and sister groups such as East Bay Pesticide Alert (Don’t Spray California), Beyond Pesticides, and Organic Consumers Association, California has now listed glyphosate as a likely carcinogen. Meanwhile, an important study (2018) of glyphosate’s affect on pregnant women confirms that the widely used herbicide ends up in women’s bodies and that prenatal glyphosate exposure may be linked to shorter pregnancies and lifelong adverse health consequences for children. In New York City, Paula Rogovin, a teacher at Public School 290-Manhat­tan New School on the Upper East Side, and jazz pianist Jill McManus are currently mobilizing students, teachers, and the community to press the City Council and the Mayor to ban all synthetic pesticides from city parks.

Despite the increasing consciousness over the dangers of pesticides, environmental and health activists are at every turn confronted by corporate power, corporate profiteering, and corporate ways of thinking that Mon­santo and others, in conjunction with governments, propagate at the expense of future biodiversity and children’s health. What we do today makes all the difference in whether there will even be a future in which to argue the finer points of our philosophies, theories, and proposals. There’s a saying from the 1960s: “The future will be what we the people struggle to make it.” While micro-organisms will no doubt continue to thrive no matter what, humans won’t. The fate of complex life on this planet, including human beings, is in our hands.


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