O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!
Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 1
A battle royale is ripping through every country against the Monsanto Company’s carcinogenic chemical glyphosate, the primary active ingredient in its most profitable pesticide, “Roundup.” Advocates of pesticides seek to increase crop yields, protect the public from insect-borne diseases, and save labor costs by chemically treating “weeds.” Opponents counter that synthetic pesticides harm human beings, animals, beneficial insects, wildlife, and plants; they pollute drinking water and food chains, increase health-related costs, and represent a disrespectful and colonizer’s way of thinking about life and human approaches to nature. The production and application of pesticides for corporate profit ignores and, in fact, attacks genuine health needs of the populace and the ecological balance of the natural environment.
For every environmental movement success in pressuring governments to ban this or that particularly egregious pesticide, the industry spits out a newer one, and the cycle begins again. Victories on individual pesticides are undermined by a methodology that examines each chemical in isolation from the others; each corporate polluter is over and over again seen as an exception or “bad apple” in an otherwise benevolent system. Thus, arsenic begat DDT, DDT begat organophosphates, organophosphates begat pyrethroids and glyphosate, and now glyphosate begets dicamba.
As Jonathan Latham points out in his chapter in this book, “Unsafe at any Dose? Glyphosate in the Context of Multiple Chemical Safety Failures,” even if we stop the applications of glyphosate after decades in the political trenches and after many people have died from toxic exposures, if history is our guide that victory will not be enough—the chemical corporations will simply substitute another poison. Our movements need to go deeper, beyond the usual concerns about a particular chemical or corporation. If each exposé is thought of as the exception to the rule, then the system itself is assumed to be fundamentally stable and beneficial, save for those few rotten apples. The system itself, though, is fundamentally unstable, unsustainable, and harmful. It generates an approach to nature and to human life in which corporate considerations, as evidenced by Monsanto’s actions, are par for the course (so to speak: golf courses are among the leading abusers of pesticides). They are generated by the economic need for corporations in a capitalist system to expand and monopolize, or die. Effective strategies must grapple with the realization that we will never succeed in saving ourselves, our children, and the environment by opposing one pesticide (or pipeline) at a time. Consideration of more radical frameworks and actions is therefore essential if we are to build upon our limited victories.
When Dewayne Johnson, a forty-six-year-old groundskeeper and pest-control manager at Benicia public school district in Solano County, California, was diagnosed with deadly non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after repeatedly spraying Roundup as directed on school grounds (and thereby unwittingly affecting the lives of 5,000 young students in that district), he sued Monsanto. After a four-week trial ending on August 10, 2018, a unanimous jury awarded Johnson $289 million. As this book goes to press, Monsanto has announced it will appeal the verdict and the judge has cut Monsanto’s penalty by two-thirds.
“The cause is way bigger than me,” Johnson said. “Hopefully this thing will start to get the attention that it needs to get right.” Indeed, Johnson’s was the first of more than 5,000 lawsuits against Monsanto to reach a decision, and it comes not a moment too soon. The Justice Department approved in June 2018 the German pharmaceutical corporation Bayer’s $66 billion purchase of Monsanto, making the new corporation the most powerful agribusiness entity on the planet. It will own and control more than 25 percent of the world’s seeds. The Bayer-Monsanto marriage comes on the heels of the merger between Dow and Dupont’s agricultural divisions, now called Corteva Agriscience. As a result of the Bayer-Monsanto merger, the Monsanto brand will cease to exist, and Bayer will have to decide how to proceed with the torrent of lawsuits. Bayer is now estimated to be on the hook for nearly $1 trillion, and since the jury’s verdict, the $6 billion company’s stock value has dropped by almost 40 percent.
Lawsuits are one avenue by which people involved in modern ecology movements have begun to fight back against grave miscarriages of justice and ecological destruction posed not only by pesticide production and dispersal but also by the production of a whole array of drugs and chemicals. It is no simple irony that the same companies producing pesticides and polluting the environment accumulate their fortunes by also manufacturing pharmaceutical drugs to “save us” from the very cancers their pesticides are causing.
The entire planet is awash in chemical pollutants that poison our drinking water, food, human breast milk, animals, and ecosystems, not only pesticides but also other effluents from many industrial sources. The U.S. government has a long and pathetic history of groveling before and collaborating with the titans of industry, welcoming self-interested corporate assurances and juggling the figures to render more acceptable their contamination of the environment. It knows that most people can, under the right circumstances, be moved to rebel by truthful information, so it contaminates the truth, just as it pollutes the natural environment, to maximize profits, sow divisions and divert from the real issues.
Will the growing worldwide public awareness of pesticides and their effects on our lives broaden into critical challenges on related issues such as habitat fragmentation and destruction, climate chaos, agribusiness based on monocropping, genetic engineering and patenting of seeds, and the loss of biodiversity–that is, the systemic ravaging of the planet in the corporate quest for ever-increasing profits and control? Will activists in the United States and other industrial countries succeed in forcing their countries to reverse course? To do so requires us, those reading this book, to be reborn as ecology activists striving to win society to a different way of looking at human interactions with nature—no easy task—and to take action based on that transformed consciousness.
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Throughout The Fight Against Monsanto’s Roundup: The Politics of Pesticides, the chemical glyphosate and the Monsanto Corporation’s Roundup are treated interchangeably, even though Roundup’s formula of ingredients contains more than glyphosate. Herbicides (for weeds) and insecticides (for insects) are subsets of the overarching category, pesticides. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) is the statute that governs the registration, distribution, sale, and use of pesticides in the United States. With certain exceptions, a pesticide is any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any “pest,” or intended for use as a plant regulator, defoliant, desiccant, or any nitrogen stabilizer.
This book focuses not so much on examining the dangers of each and every pesticide du jour, but on the processes by which corporations such as Monsanto, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Syngenta, Novartis, BASF Corporation, and the other pesticide and pharmaceutical manufacturers are allowed to mask the truth about their products. They are facilitated by the complicity of federal (and global) regulatory agencies, allowing them to intentionally thwart the development and congealing of educated and effective opposition.
How is it conceivable, for example, that despite worldwide medical and environmental exposures of glyphosate’s dangers and its designation as a “probable carcinogen,” governments nevertheless continue to deploy it? Only a handful of government officials throughout the world have joined with environmental activists and health professionals in banning the use of glyphosate and other pesticides, genetic engineering, hydrofracking, chemical toxins like PCBs and heavy metals (byproducts of industrial production), and nuclear power plants. We—you and me, people who want to breathe clean air, drink pure water, preserve what’s left of the old-growth forests, protect the many other species that share this earth with us, and escape from the epidemics of cancer and neurological disorders—need to ask profoundly radical questions about the misuses of science and our relationship to nature:
- What’s stopping officials from effectively opposing glyphosate and other pesticides?
- Since it has never been determined and convincingly reported that Monsanto’s product, Roundup, is safe, why was Roundup allowed to be applied for so many decades, contaminating so much of the earth’s soil?
- In fact, why did government officials, and international as well as domestic agencies, ever allow it at all?
- How did Monsanto and other companies thwart various government agencies’ attempts to regulate glyphosate?
Next comes a question about strategy for anti-pesticide activists: how significant is the fight to ban individual pesticides, since new and equally dangerous ones are manufactured and released rapidly to replace the ones being banned or withdrawn?
Finally, perhaps most important for the purposes of this book, what lessons can ecology and social justice movements draw from victories and losses of the global struggle to ban Monsanto’s Roundup and abolish the manufacturing and use of chemical pesticides?
The Fight Against Monsanto’s Roundup: The Politics of Pesticides encourages readers to think about the weaknesses and contradictions of the process used to approve pesticides. The so-called experts have been proven wrong on too many occasions to take their acceptance of Roundup at face value, especially since many researchers conceal their financial arrangements with corporate funders, thereby biasing the outcome and reporting of their research.
The 2016 occupation and blockade of oil pipeline construction at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota offered a wider vision for how to construct effective social movements. And even there, in the face of unprecedented united opposition to the pipeline among American Indian tribes and environmental activists, many politicians—Democrats and Republicans alike—acceded nonetheless to corporate power, just as they have been willing to accept Monsanto’s blanket assurances as to the safety of its pesticides and genetically engineered products over and over again, without challenge. Those politics, and the politicians who comply with and promulgate them, betray the public good; corporate donations to their campaigns serve to bribe key legislators and government executives into boosting Roundup, despite the dangers. And budget-conscious officials—many of them in thrall to the pesticide industry—have decided that it’s more cost-effective to lay off workers and replace their labor-intensive weeding-by-hand with chemical herbicides like glyphosate, saving public funds in the short-run, until the very large health and environmental costs are factored in.
The fight for clean water, earth, and air remains just as necessary today, unfortunately, as it was in 1962, when Rachel Carson’s magnum opus, Silent Spring, issued a call to arms not only against chemical pesticides such as DDT but, lest we forget, a plethora of pollutants including (especially) radiation from atomic bomb tests. Today, fifty-six years after its publication, it is increasingly evident that to succeed, mass movements need to draw on prior generations’ insights, efforts, victories, and sacrifices.
Standing on the shoulders of those who came before, we become increasingly aware of the connections between glyphosate and other pesticides, hydrofracking, climate chaos, huge dams, mountaintop removal, nuclear power and weapons, oil and gas pipelines, pollution, factory farming, wetlands destruction, and the genetic engineering of agriculture. They are all interrelated products of an industrial capitalism that is, and cannot be otherwise, anti-ecological at its very core. As such, we are impelled to continue the work of prior generations, and to commit ourselves to new forms of action against not only individual pesticides but also the systemic imperial wars initiated by the same corporations and governments for cheap labor, land, resources, and geopolitical control, as Rachel Carson clearly taught.