For over 20 years, Monsanto has exercised almost dictatorial control over American agriculture. But many people now believe the company is contaminating our food supply and destroying the environment–and public opinion has increasingly turned against the company.
Now, for the first time in those two decades, the number of acres planted with genetically modified (GMO) crops is down. Efforts to label GMO foods are gaining momentum. Family and community farms are taking off. Nearly 40 countries have banned GMO crops and use of Monsanto’s keystone product, Roundup (glyphosate), may not be re-approved by the Food and Drug Administration, while the European Union has done so on a restricted basis.
In marches across the world Saturday, May 21, critics plan to draw even more attention to the agriculture giant and its practices.
In this podcast, one of the leaders of the March Against Monsanto, Ronnie Cummins, speaks with WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman about the company’s rise and potential fall. Cummins discusses these developments in the context of the social justice movement; the conversion to organic agriculture; and an end to factory farming that opponents contend both threatens public health and exacerbates global climate change.
Newsflash: embattled Monsanto has just announced that the giant German firm Bayer hopes to acquire it.
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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from March Against Monsanto (march-against-monsanto.com)
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Full Text Transcript
Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio Whowhatwhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCB as they’re known, Agent Orange, Round Up and GMOs. They all have a few things in common; all may be dangerous to our health, and all are produced by Monsanto. For over two decades, Monsanto has been the leader in shaping agribusiness, encouraging industrial agriculture, and pushing back against growing consumer desire for a safer, and more organic food system. To this end, the organization the Organic Consumers Association began a campaign against Monsanto back in the 1990s. This Saturday, May 21, a global march against Monsanto has been organized. One of the leaders is our guest today, Ronnie Cummins. Ronnie Cummins is cofounder and international director of the Organic Consumers Association. He’s been active as a writer, an activist since the 1960s, and over the past two decades he has served as a director of US International Campaigns, dealing with sustainable agriculture, food safety and genetic engineering. He’s published numerous books and articles, and it is my pleasure to welcome Ronnie Cummins to Radio Whowhatwhy. Ronnie, thanks so much for joining us.
Ronnie Cummins: Good to be with you today.
Jeff Schechtman: Certainly we’ll talk about the health issues related to all of this, the business issues, but there does seem to be as one looks at the totality of this battle over the past twenty years or so, an economic component; that the issue of food and food safety is also an economic issue. Talk about how you see it from that perspective.
Ronnie Cummins: Yes. Well Monsanto and other large transnational corporations have managed, since the second World War, to build up an empire that controls the majority of the world’s seeds, majority of the chemicals used in nonorganic agriculture; that ties in with all the fertilizer corporations. They’ve managed to get governments to pass so-called free trade agreements that are actually corporate trade agreements. They’ve gotten away with murder, literally. In the case of Monsanto, ever since the Vietnam War and the obvious mayhem that Agent Orange caused, that DOW and Monsanto produced, they’ve been coming under fire globally. But it’s only recently that the global grassroots movement around food and farming issues has reached a critical mass that actually threatens the bottom line of corporations like Monsanto and that’s where we find ourselves today. Yes, they built up an amazing genetic engineering industry against the wishes of the public. They were able to hide its dangers, they were able to keep it for many years unlabeled, but the chickens have come to roost and Millions Against Monsanto Campaign, part of the larger global grassroots campaign, is gaining the upper hand.
Jeff Schechtman: A couple of points. First of all, you said that they literally got away with murder. Talk about what you mean by that.
Ronnie Cummins: Yes. I mean, they knew quite well when they produced the defoliant Agent Orange, that it was going to be, you know, deadly to humans. They sprayed it for years in Vietnam, literally millions of children have been born with birth defects. It’s a horrific chemical because it’s transmitted through the generations so a person who was sprayed in the ‘70s passes it on to their kids and now their kids are passing it on to their grandkids. Americans tended to ignore this to some extent, just saying oh yeah it was war, it was a brutal war, but then all these Vietnam veterans started coming down with ailments caused by Agent Orange, and started dying by the thousands, and of course their children have also suffered these effects. But you know, after forty years of trying to get a redress of their grievances, the people of Vietnam have never been able to collect a dime from DOW or Monsanto. It took Vietnam veterans in the United States, over half a million of whom were injured by Agent Orange, took them decades of fighting before they could even get the Veterans Administration to acknowledge what was the cause of their health problems and they still haven’t seen full justice for the full range of health problems caused by Agent Orange. So it’s been a disaster, just like the PCBs, just like the dioxin, just like the genetically engineered foods, and it’s only now I think that opposition is growing so strong that Monsanto is either going to have to go bankrupt or they’re going to have to merge with a chemical company like Bayer if they’re going to survive.
Jeff Schechtman: Why is it, do you think with all of this history, everything going back as you say to Agent Orange, all the other criticism that they’ve come under over the years, why is it only now with respect to food and our food supply and things like GMOs, that only now people are paying attention to Monsanto? Why has this become the fulcrum issue?
Ronnie Cummins: Well, I think because it’s affecting the full range of the population, including middle class people, including upper-middle class people. When they poisoned African American communities like Anniston, Alabama over the decades, these were poor people who didn’t have a very loud voice in the media and it was a slow poisoning that took place away from public view. But starting about twenty years ago when they got the idea to genetically engineer foods starting with the genetically engineering bovine growth hormone, injecting it into cows to force the cows to give more milk, it became an issue for everyone who eats, which of course is all of us, and we should’ve been able to turn this back long ago, but Monsanto and their allies of course are a very, very powerful industry in this country. They’re very clever at buying off research institutions and professors and spending lots of money on advertising and PR and giving, along with their allies, lots of money to federal politicians and it’s taken a quite a while to get to where we are now. But it’s wonderful to see Monsanto’s stock dropping, to see them having difficulty even getting re-approval for their herbicide Round Up in the European Union right now, and to see that they’ve lost the battle in the United States to prevent labeling of genetically engineered foods from going forward.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the genetically engineered foods, and what we know and what we don’t know about the impact of it at this point.
Ronnie Cummins: Well all along the whole reason for genetic engineering, gene splicing foreign DNA from one organism into another, was that they wanted to create a pesticide delivery system. They wanted to sell more of their pesticides, in the case of Monsanto, Round Up. So they engineered seeds to produce crops that could be sprayed with Round Up, in this case and they wouldn’t die. So it was a very efficient killer from that standpoint. Genetic engineering was never designed to increase food nutrition or feed the world’s hungry, or reduce the use of agricultural chemicals. That was their propaganda, but it was always clear when you have chemical companies owing the patents on genetically engineered seeds, what they want to do is sell more chemicals, they also want to charge more for their seeds. So, they had a nice run for twenty years here, the global seed industry got up to almost 30 billion dollars. It didn’t used to be nearly that big, and their sales of pesticides increased considerably, something like Round Up, which was used very little until twenty years ago when genetically engineered foods came on the market, you know, is now become, at least for the moment, the most highly used herbicide in the world. They don’t really care about adapting to the climate disaster that this food system has engendered. All they care about is their short term profits, and they’ve managed to maintain those for quite a while but I think the end is near for this 70-year experiment with industrial agriculture and genetic engineering.
Jeff Schechtman: Over forty countries at this point have banned GMO crops. Talk a little bit about the pressures that created those bans around the world.
Ronnie Cummins: Yeah. Typically, you don’t see a ban, something until there is overwhelming evidence that it’s causing harm and there’s tremendous pressure on politicians. You know, they’re all part of this global trade system where they like to do what the multinational corporations and the powerful nations like the US tell them to do. But in the case of El Salvador, for example, or Sri Lanka, when you literally have thousands of farmworkers dying of kidney and liver disease after being in fields where Round Up was sprayed or spraying it themselves, it became impossible for these governments to continue to allow the use of Round Up. So that’s the kind of pressure that’s been required. In Colombia, where we’ve had this horrific counter insurgency war that morphed into a drug war, they’ve been spraying Round Up from airplanes on crops for decades, but finally they had done such damage to the environment and to the health of the people being sprayed, that it became necessary for the Colombian government to suspend the aerial spraying of Round Up. So it takes things getting to that point, and the problem with ingesting toxic chemicals at a low level, which damages your health and eventually kills you is that it does take a while. The people who are keeling over dead from eating genetically engineered foods at the dinner table, they obviously would’ve been taken off the market right away, but the damage that these toxic chemicals and genetically engineered foods do is gradual over time. Cancers often take 20 to 30 years to manifest themselves, as do these other chronic diseases that have grown exponentially since the onset of the genetic engineering and all the toxic chemicals that go along with it.
Jeff Schechtman: Is the goal of organizations like yours simply the labeling of GMO food, or the elimination of it?
Ronnie Cummins: No, we need to get rid of genetically engineered food and the toxic chemicals that always accompany them. And it’s not just a question of human health. I mean we now understand that a large percentage of that excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the super heating of the planet is actually caused by our food system. It’s caused by destroying the ability of soils and plants and forests to naturally sequester the carbon. We are literally facing a matter of life and death, and it’s not just a question of stopping using fossil fuels as quickly as possible. We’re going to have to suck down a lot of that excess carbon dioxide from the environment that’s lodged up there now. And the only way to do that is through plant photosynthesis and reforestation, which requires a re-carbonization, or re-fertilization of the soils. But when you spray pesticides on soils, when you grow these monocrops like corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, sugar beets over an area year after year after year, you basically kill the soil, you kill the biodiversity of microorganisms, you prevent mother nature from doing her job, which is to recycle the waste, to recycle the carbon, the methane, nitrous oxide and so on. And we literally are not going to survive, at least our kids and grandkids aren’t going to survive until the end of the century without a change. We got to move away from industrial agriculture and genetic engineering and move back to where we were for 8,000 years, basically before the second World War, to a form of organic farming, to a form of grazing animals on grass instead of imprisoning them in factory farms and feeding them genetically engineered grains.
Jeff Schechtman: When we can’t even reach critical mass in terms of agreement on the larger issue of climate in this country, what makes you think we’re going to be able to address it on issues like factory farming and agribusiness?
Ronnie Cummins: Well I think factory farming is the lynchpin of the system. It’s where most farmland is dedicated, it’s where most GMOs go. They don’t go into human food, they go into food for animals in factory farms and they go into ethanol as well. The system of factory farming is indefensible. The only argument they’ve got in their favor is hey, we can produce cheap chicken nuggets to go along with our French fries fried in toxic vegetable oil. It’s like, from a standpoint of health, we have got to stop eating factory farmed meat and animal products or the heart attacks, the cancer, the birth defects, they’re just going to keep getting worse and worse. The meat that comes from a cow that has spent its life eating what they’re supposed to eat, grass, is totally different from the meat coming from a cow that has been fed these genetically engineered chemical tainted grains. Of course they give them drugs, as well as hormone implants in the case of cattle. I mean they can’t defend the system of the feedlots, which is nasty, smelly, it pollutes the air, pollutes the water. I mean you got cities like Des Moines, Iowa now, or Toledo, Ohio where you can’t even drink the water because of what the factory farms upstream are doing. And I just think it’s an ethical issue, the way the animals are treated, the way the workers on feedlots and factory farms are treated. It’s an environmental issue, the water and air pollution, and it’s a climate issue as well. You look at the US food system, what’s the fastest growing component of the USA food system? Well, it’s not organic. Yeah, organic’s growing pretty fast, 12.5% I believe last year. It’s had steady growth for 20 years. What’s really growing fast now are grass-fed beef, grass-fed dairy, pastured products, consumers without really that much help, certainly not from the government and not even from a lot of the food activists have discovered on themselves, hey this stuff’s healthier, this stuff helps regional and local farmers, it’s better for the animals, it’s better for the environment, better for me.
Jeff Schechtman: As we see around the country, here in particular, a decrease in family farms and a greater move towards urbanization coast to coast. How is that going to impact on what you’re talking about?
Ronnie Cummins: Well actually the number of farms in the US for the first time did not decrease last year. It actually rose a little bit. And the type of farms that aren’t being recorded, listed in the USDA, is this urban agriculture movement, which is very interesting. Where I live part of the time in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Minnesota, we’ve got a huge, vital urban agriculture movement led by young people, it’s a multiracial, multiclass movement. This is, I think, the wave of the future. We have 20 million people right now working in the food chain in the United States. This is the grocery stores, the truck drivers, the farmers, the farmworkers and so on. It’s a huge part of our economy. It’s going to get even larger. There’s new technologies coming out, like ocean farming, is very interesting. One where you can grow, in a really sustainable regenerative manner, things like shellfish, things like seaweed and kelp and so on in a way where you can make a living and improve the environment, and improve the climate, and people are going to get into this. I do believe that. People have always said, well, organic food is great, but it’s too expensive, but I think the movement has come up with a solution for this. You know, poor people in polls, and when you talk in conversation, poor people know the difference between junk food and nutritious food. They know why wealthy people, middle class people buy organic, so why don’t they do it? Well, it’s very simple in most cases. They don’t have the money in their pocket to buy it. If they did have the money in their pocket to buy better food, they would do so. It’s like in the food system I described, there’s 20 million workers in the food chain. Well, about 40% of these workers make so little money, that they couldn’t afford organic food at all right now. And so we get people enough money, it’s going to help the economy, not hurt it. And one of the things that is going to change is people are going to stop buying crap and they’re going to start feeding themselves and their children better.
Jeff Schechtman: I also want to talk about what has to happen with respect to agriculture, what has to happen in public policy to address some of these agricultural issues that we’re talking about?
Ronnie Cummins: Well certain countries, it depends on what country in the world you’re living in, certain countries are starting to implement structural changes right now. France, for example, they just passed a law that schools and hospitals and public cafeterias have to purchase at least 40% of locally produced organic food. And they’re paying farmers to stop using fertilizers and pesticides, pointing out that it’s a lot cheaper to pay farmers to do the right thing than it is to clean up the mess public health and the environment are causing. You know, they’ve banned not only Round Up, they’ve banned genetically engineered crops! Alright, but we live in the United States. We live in a system where the federal government is getting worse and worse, not better. There are some openings at the state and local level where we can have some leverage if we organize ourselves properly. But the main driving force in the United States for changes in our food and farming system are going to come through the marketplace. This is the only way when you have an out of control federal government, and an out of control mass media that you can do that. And I think we’re doing it. I mean, we are causing, at this point the largest food corporations on the Earth are in a panic, not just about the fact that Pepsi, and the rest of them are having to label that their stuff is genetically engineered. They’re facing criticism, what is all this crap on the labels? You know, the additives and the chemicals and the coloring and the preservatives, get that out! And I think this is not because the government is pushing this. This is because they’re noting in their bottom line, as Fortune Magazine and others pointed out, they’re losing money and who’s getting that money? It’s the organic companies. It’s local producers. It’s the people who have healthy foods, so we’re going to have to drive this ourselves. At this point we’re not going to see big changes in the farm bill, big changes in the agriculture appropriations. There are some openings in there that we can work on, but we’re going to have to drive this through ourselves with raising public consciousness, taking on these corporations. One of the things we do is sue corporations in court for lying about whether their food is organic enough. We just set up, with others a testing lab where we can test foods for pesticides and animal drugs and GMOs and so on. We’ve got to smear these corporations the way we smeared Monsanto, demonize their devilish practices and force changes in the marketplace.
Jeff Schechtman: And finally Ronnie, tell us about this movement this weekend, this Saturday with respect to Monsanto.
Ronnie Cummins: Yeah, so this Saturday, May 21, there’s going to be a global Marches against Monsanto in hundreds of communities across the US and the world, basically calling attention to the fact that this company needs to stop its crimes against public health, and the environment. We’re also going to be calling attention to the fact that this October the 15th and 16th, which is world food days, October the 16th, we’re actually going to have an international Monsanto tribunal for their crimes against the environment and humanity. We’re holding it in The Hague in the Netherlands because that’s the seat of the World Court. We’re following the pattern of Citizens’ Tribunals ever since – well they’ve gone on for a long time, but the tribunals against US war crimes, the Russell Tribunals of Vietnam were a perfect example, where, if the World Court hasn’t done what they should do already in the nations of the world, sometimes you have to have civilian tribunals, in this case we’re going to use very high profile judges who have been involved in international human rights cases, we’re going to have internationally renowned judges hearing the case, we’re going to have lawyers who are very experienced in pushing cases of ecocide and human rights, genocide, presenting the evidence, going all the way back to Agent Orange through the present time of Monsanto’s crimes against humanity. And we would like on October 16th, next World Food Day, that people congregate in their local communities and call attention to the fact that the whole world is saying this – that Monsanto is a criminal enterprise that needs to be brought down, and we need to do it, the people of the world. So, March Against Monsanto, this Saturday in your local community. You can go to the Millions Against Monsanto Facebook page; the Organic Consumers has a million or so people or friends on that. Also the Organic Consumers Association Facebook page, the March Against Monsanto and find the protests that are in your city or town and show up if you can.
Jeff Schechtman: Ronnie Cummins, I thank you so much for spending time with us on Radio Whowhatwhy.
Ronnie Cummins: Thank you, keep up the good work.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio Whowhatwhy. I hope you’ll join us next week for another Radio Whowhatwhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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