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This article was originally published on The Huffington Post, May 4, 2015.

"A single corn kernel coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a song bird." As a long time environmental lawyer and campaigner, I should not have been stunned by that fact but I was. Shaking my head in dismay, I read on, "Even a tiny grain of wheat or canola treated with the ...neonicotinoid... can fatally poison a bird."

The report is from the American Bird Conservancy and the neonicotinoids referred to are a relatively new class of insecticides that have become the most commonly used in the world, with several hundred products approved for use in the U.S. These "neonics" are neurotoxins that paralyze and eventually kill their victim. My organization, Center for Food Safety, has been working hard to halt the use of these neonics through litigation, legislation, grassroots advocacy, and legal petitions to the Environmental Protection Agency. We are suing to address the well-publicized threat that neonics present to the survival of honey bees and wild bees. At the time we launched our legal actions, I did not even know about the song birds.

The anger-stirring realization that a song bird could be felled by a single seed and the prospect of bees being silenced forever brought me back to the words of Rachel Carson, written more than half a century ago in Silent Spring. "These... non selective chemicals have the power to kill every insect, the \'good\' and the \'bad,\' to still the songs of the birds and the leaping fish... they should not be called insecticides but biocides." Through Carson\'s crusade, biocides like DDT were eventually banned but new chemicals like neonicotinoids and other similar "systemic" insecticides/biocides have taken their place causing similar ecological havoc. Sadly, our regulatory agencies under the sway of the agrochemical industry have enabled this tragic and continuing environmental destruction.

I think it is long past due that we who work in the food and environmental movement adopt Carson\'s nomenclature. Let\'s not refer to pesticides, whether they are insecticides, herbicides or fungicides, by anything but their real name: biocides. Words do matter.

The "cide" ending in all these terms comes from the Latin caedare meaning "to kill." Given that these chemicals are designed to kill that root word is accurate. But using the word pest-icide gives the impression that all these chemicals do is kill "pests," whether insects, plant, or fungi pests. The neonicotinoids killing bees and song birds puts that delusion to rest. The bee is an insect but not a pest and the song bird is neither an insect nor a pest.

But Carson only referred to insecticides as biocides. Is it fair to put all pesticides, including herbicides and fungicides, in the same pejorative etymological category? Well, let\'s look at Monsanto\'s Roundup. It is the most widely used herbicide in the world because of the adoption of genetically engineered (GE) crops designed to tolerate the chemical. Is Roundup just a pesticide, a careful killer of just those "bad" plants called weeds that farmers wish to remove? Of course not. Roundup does so much more than kill plant pests. It wipes out beneficial plants of all sorts: food crops, fruits in the orchard, flowers in the garden, in fact anything that is green. Most of these are not pests or weeds. Among the beneficial plants it destroys is milkweed, on which monarch butterflies depend. The massive use of Roundup in the U.S. has destroyed so much milkweed that monarch butterflies are now at risk of extinction. Monarch butterflies are not pests or weeds.

Then there were the University of Pittsburgh researchers who a decade ago tested how Roundup might impact immature and mature frogs in ponds. This is how the researchers summarized their results: "The most striking result from the experiments was that a chemical designed to kill plants killed 98 percent of tad poles within three weeks and 79 percent of all frogs within one day." That is very effective killing indeed, but of course frogs are not pests or weeds. Argentinian researchers using animal models then linked Roundup and its active ingredient glyphosate to cranial malformations and other birth defects long reported in the children of farm workers who were repeatedly exposed to the chemical. Infants are not pests or weeds. And then in March 2015, the World Health Organization\'s (WHO\'s) cancer authorities -- the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) -- determined that glyphosate is "probably carcinogenic to humans" based on multiple lines of evidence: kidney, pancreatic and other tumors in glyphosate-treated test animals; epidemiology studies showing higher rates of cancer in farmers that used glyphosate; and research showing that glyphosate damages chromosomes, one mechanism by which cancer is induced.

So Roundup is a butterfly killer, a frog killer and potentially an infant and adult human killer. And it has numerous other untold victims, to be sure. None of these are pests or weeds. So let\'s not continue to use misleading euphemisms. Roundup is not a pesticide or herbicide; it is a "biocide."

And now to fungicides. Their use in agriculture in the U.S. has skyrocketed, almost doubling in the last seven years. Unfortunately, research on their ecological and human health impacts has not kept up with the exponential growth in the use of these chemicals. But there is growing evidence that many of these toxics kill beneficial soil life, disrupting essential soil ecosystems. They are also increasingly becoming a water pollution problem, threatening aquatic life. Research has also pointed to concerning synergistic effects when used in tandem with other pesticides - delivering an even more toxic cocktail to bees and other beneficial insects exposed to the chemicals. Past studies indicate that 90 percent of fungicides are carcinogenic in animal models. To add insult to injury, they are also suspected of increasing obesity, especially in children. These health impacts remind us of yet another Carson insight: "Man is a part of nature and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself."

Overall, let\'s contemplate what these biocides are bringing us: vast areas of this country stripped of all vegetation save for monocultured GE crops, devoid of flowers, bees, butterflies and song birds, with contaminated rivers and streams with little or no insect life, and fish and frogs and other aquatic life dead or deformed. Then there are the birth defects and cancers in our own children. What is the word that would encompass the result of our using nearly a billion pounds of biocides each year? I would suggest it is nothing short of ecocide.

 

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Originally published on the Huffington Post, March 20, 2015

Perhaps no group of science deniers has been more ridiculed than those who deny the science of evolution. What you may not know is that Monsanto and our United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are among them. That\'s right: for decades, Monsanto and its enablers inside the USDA have denied the central tenets of evolutionary biology, namely natural selection and adaptation. And this denial of basic science by the company and our government threatens the future viability of American agriculture.

Third Grade Science

Let\'s start with interrelated concepts of natural selection and adaptation. This is elementary school science. In fact, in Washington D.C. it is part of the basic third grade science curriculum.

As we all remember from biology class, when an environment changes, trait variation in a species could allow some in that species to adapt to that new environment and survive. Others will die out. The survivors are then able to reproduce and even thrive under the new environmental conditions. For example, if a drought were to occur, some plants might have traits that allow them to survive while other plants in the same species would perish. The drought-resistant plants then become the "evolved" species, and they are able to reproduce in the drought environment.

Obvious, you are thinking. But let\'s explore how Monsanto\'s top scientists and government regulators would have failed a third grade science class in D.C. and the dire consequences that it is bringing to us all.

Biotech\'s Dirty Little Secret

First a little background. Since the early 1980s, Monsanto has endlessly hyped genetically engineered (GE) crops they claim could reduce hunger, reduce pesticide use, and survive droughts. In reality, no such "miracle" crops exist. No significantly greater yielding crops, no more effective drought resistance crops. And as for the claim of less pesticide use, behind this myth lies the "dirty little secret" of agricultural biotechnology. Namely, that GE crops actually add hundreds of millions of pounds of pesticides to our fields and crops, and create greater agrochemical residues on our food. Why? Because around 85 percent of all genetically engineered crops in the United States and around the world have been engineered to withstand massive doses of herbicides, mostly Monsanto\'s Roundup. Usually, if toxic weed-killing chemicals such as Roundup come into contact with a crop they will destroy it as well as the weeds around it. But Monsanto scientists genetically engineered a cassette of bacterial and viral DNA into plants that allowed them to tolerate these herbicides. So the weeds are killed, but the crops remain.

In the United States, more than 50 percent of all our cropland is devoted to GE corn, soy and cotton. They are commodity crops that feed cars, animals in industrial meat production and are used for additives like high fructose corn syrup. Almost none directly feeds people. So rather than feeding the hungry, this technology is about chemical companies selling more chemicals, a lot more chemicals. So as noted, each year 115 million more pounds of Roundup are spread on our farmlands because of these altered crops.

Profits versus Science: Science loses

If half of our nation\'s cropland is doused year after year with a particular herbicide, that is a significant change in the environment. The accompanying problem of adaptation and selection has probably already occurred to you. Wouldn\'t that massive increase in Roundup use over that huge a portion of our cropland cause some weed populations to develop resistance? Wouldn\'t weeds with natural resistance thrive in this new environment? Wouldn\'t these new "superweeds" eventually become a major problem for U.S. farmers, overrunning their crops?

As government regulators were considering whether to approve these plants in the mid-1990s, they asked Monsanto just that question. No doubt considering the billions they were going to make selling more Roundup, this is a moment when Monsanto\'s scientists seemed to find it convenient to their bottom line to deny basic evolutionary science. They stated, "Evolution of weed resistance to glyphosate (Roundup\'s active ingredient) appears to be an unlikely event." They also suggested that massive use of Roundup would lead to "no resistant weeds." Independent scientists were aghast. They mocked Monsanto\'s view that Roundup was somehow "invincible" from the laws of natural selection, and pointed out that the company\'s scientists purposely ignored numerous studies that showed there would be weed resistance. But incredibly, despite the strong contrary evidence, the USDA regulators just nodded in science denying agreement with Monsanto.

Of course, adaptation and natural selection did take place. As a result, in less than 20 years, more than half of all U.S. farms have some Roundup resistant "superweeds," weeds that now infest 70 million acres of U.S farmland, an area the size of Wyoming. Each year we see major expansion of this "superweed" acreage. Texas has gone so far as to declare a state of emergency for cotton farmers. Superweeds are already causing major economic problems for farmers with a current estimate of $1 billion lost in damages to crops so far.

Last year in a panel discussion with Robert Fraley, Chief Technology Officer for Monsanto and a founder of these herbicide tolerant crops, I confronted him. How could he and the other Monsanto scientists have claimed that natural selection would not take place? How could they ignore basic evolutionary science and clear contrary evidence? He just shook his head and said "You\'re right, weeds have evolved resistance." But apparently, Monsanto and their government regulators still haven\'t learned this third grade science lesson. They\'re denying science once again, and the stakes are even higher.

"Agent Orange Crops" and More Science Denial

Now Monsanto and Dow Chemical have received government approval to market new genetically engineered corn, soy and cotton, that are "stacked" with engineered DNA that make them resistant to Roundup as well as 2,4-D (one of the chief elements of "Agent Orange"). Monsanto has also gained approval from the USDA for the same three crops that can tolerate Dicamba. 2,4-D and Dicamba are older, more toxic herbicides than Roundup, and these companies are reverting to them because they have brought us to the point of peak herbicides. They simply don\'t have any new ones, similar to the current crisis in antibiotics.

But won\'t the weeds simply become resistant to these herbicides as well? Not according to the science deniers at Monsanto and Dow Chemical. Despite predictions that their new crops will add hundreds of millions more pounds of these herbicides each year, they say not to worry. They claim -- as they did 20 years ago -- that natural selection will not happen; that it is extremely unlikely for weeds to survive simultaneous attacks from two or more different herbicides with different methods.

Weed scientists have shredded this argument, noting that weeds in the past, through adaption, have done this and will almost certainly do it again. So in a few years we will be overrun with "superweeds" that are virtually indestructible by any known chemical. But by then Monsanto and Dow will have made billions selling their chemicals and can leave the "superweed" agronomic nightmare for others to solve. Nor will they have to deal with the other nightmares that could possibly occur: increased rates of cancer and diseases like Parkinson\'s associated with exposure to these herbicides.

A Better Way

A science-based, and safer, way forward is to abandon this doomed-to-fail chemical arms race against weeds and use ecologically based weed control. There are proven organic and agroecological approaches that emphasize weed management rather than weed eradication, soil building rather than soil supplementing. Crop rotation and cover crops can return productive yields without ridding the land of genetic biodiversity, and could reduce herbicide use by 90 percent.

So it\'s long past due that our government required real and rigorous science when regulating GE crops. It\'s time for them to say "no" to these herbicide-promoting crops, and prevent the looming agronomic disaster they will inevitably bring with them.

In the meantime, the next time you read hear about "GMO science deniers" -- think of 70 million acres of superweeds; think cancer, Parkinsons and other diseases caused by this growing use of herbicides; think Monsanto and its enablers at the USDA.

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Originally published on Huffington Post.

You probably have not read about it in the mainstream media or heard it reported by pundits on TV, but there is some very good news about the spread of local democracy across the country. Remarkably, this democratic surge has taken place despite the massive influx of corporate dollars from those who want to stomp out popular rule as it threatens their power and profits.  But more about them later. 

Let’s start with the big positive.  Too often democracy has meant voting every couple of years for a candidate that is “the lesser of two evils.”  But now citizens and their representatives all across the country are voting directly on major social and technology issues that impact their families and neighborhoods.  Often, they are saying no to technologies that will poison their water, destroy their land and biodiversity, and threaten the health of their children and communities.  

One example is the issue of genetically engineered (GE) crops and foods.  More than 80% of GE crops are designed to withstand massive doses of toxic herbicide and still survive.  This has meant the addition of hundreds of millions of pounds of these chemicals to our farmland and food crops.  Even as weeds develop resistance to multiple herbicides, corporations such as Monsanto and Dow have their cronies in government approving GE crops that will be doused with ever more hazardous herbicides in order to kill these resistant “superweeds.”  The nightmare scenario is clear: scientists predict that unless these GE crops are stopped, nearly a billion more pounds of 2,-4D (an element a of Agent Orange) or dicamba (a notoriously dangerous weed killer), will be sprayed over your land, water supply, neighborhoods and schools over the next five years. 

Luckily, some folks are taking action and voting “no thanks,” either through ballot initiatives or through county or city council votes. Five counties in California, two counties in Oregon and three counties in Hawaii have placed bans, moratoriums or major restrictions on these crops and the inundation of toxic herbicides they bring with them.  Some of these counties include farm communities aware that GE crops can contaminate their organic crops, or threaten export markets for their non-GE conventional crops.

Biotechnology companies have fought every one of these laws with all the money at their disposal, but with little success. Perhaps the most remarkable story took place in Hawaii in Maui County.  Residents passed a moratorium on all genetically engineered crops despite an $8 million dollar media campaign waged against them by Monsanto and its allies.  That means the opposition spent more than $350 per vote they won, an amount believed to be the most ever spent per vote in a U.S. election – and they still lost!

These democratic actions are not just happening at the county level.  Vermont, Connecticut and Maine have also passed laws at the state level requiring labeling of genetically engineered foods. Bills for labeling having been introduced in over two dozen other states.

We have seen the same kind of expansion of democracy where communities are rejecting the destructive and controversial technology of hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking.   This technology is an environmental nightmare and a brutal ordeal for residents living near these sites.  Fracking results not only in the massive overuse of water resources but also contamination of them with a plethora of dangerous chemicals, many of them carcinogenic.  It also causes wide-ranging air pollution, including potential exposure to benzene and methanol. Fracking’s dangerous toxic waste can even be radioactive. 

Well, once again, citizens are looking at the many ecological and human health impacts of fracking and voting “no.”  Cities and towns in Colorado, West Virginia, and Ohio have voted for a dozen outright bans.  Among these towns is a former pioneer in the technology, Denton, Texas, where the ban was established by an overwhelming vote.  Numerous counties around the country, in states from Colorado and New Mexico to California and Hawaii, have also fought major oil and gas industry financial pressure and voted to ban or severely limit fracking.  Bans are pending in several towns and counties. And recently, New York State joined Vermont in banning fracking.  

But all this democracy is too much for the chemical and oil and gas industries.  They have launched a two-pronged attack on what they view as a dangerous outbreak of democracy.  First, to defend their bottom line and rollback these electoral losses they have hired some of the nation’s highest paid legal guns and filed dozens of lawsuits to rescind these city, county and state laws. This is often an effective strategy, as small cities such as Denton or counties such as Kauai, Hawaii, or Jackson, Oregon, are already strapped for operating funds and now have to confront millions in legal fees to defend their right to say “no” to the poisoning of their children or to the exhaustion of their water supply. 

Fortunately, public interest legal organizations (as CFS members know, we are representing many of these communities in defending these laws) are representing some of these communities pro bono to defend their laws. But more effort and media attention is needed both locally and nationally to ensure this democratic revolution thrives and is not crushed by corporate lawyers. 

The second corporate strategy in their attack on democracy is to use their undue campaign financing influence in getting state legislators to “preempt” counties or localities from taking action. The corporations know that if they cut off democracy at the local level they can use their financial heft to gain more control over state legislatures. 

While many of these bills have been beaten back, sadly some have passed, including a recent bill in Pennsylvania stripping communities of any power to restrict fracking. And the companies don’t stop there.  When a state goes against their wishes, such as Vermont with its GE food labeling bill, these chemical companies not only sue to keep the bill from informing citizens about what is in their food, but in their biggest move to subvert democracy, they are lobbying Congress to support a bill that we call the “Dark Act.”  This Monsanto-backed bill would rescind all current state labeling laws, and preempt any state from enacting a GE food labeling law in the future.  That’s right, this Dark Act would nullify the labeling bills that have been passed and would permanently halt the democratic will of the citizens of any state to demand their right to know. 

So we find ourselves on this President’s Day in an historic moment for our democracy.  On one hand, in an unprecedented extension of democracy, we have a surge of citizens voting at the community and state level on some of the most important issues of the day, including critical technological decision-making.  Against this wave are the self-serving chemical, oil and gas corporations who will wield all the financial and legal power that they can muster to crush this democratic blossoming, and establish a corporate oligarchy that protects their bottom line from the will of the people. 

The antidote to this corporate attempt to poison our democracy is of course to defend those that have been courageous enough to vote their conscience and for their communities.  But even more important is for every concerned citizen to organize their towns, counties, cities and states to say “no” to these hazardous technologies. If that happens, the democratic wave of the people will overwhelm the corporations’ obstructions, and together we’ll create a more responsible and responsive democracy.  

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It should be no surprise that Monsanto\'s PR machine is working hard to spin the truth in this morning\'s decision in the first-ever Supreme Court case on genetically engineered crops (Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms). Despite what the biotech seed giant is claiming, today\'s ruling isn\'t close to the victory they were hoping for.

The 7-1 decision issued today by the Supreme Court was on the appeal of the Center for Food Safety\'s (CFS) successful suit, which resulted in a ban on GMO alfalfa. And, while the High Court ruled in favor of Monsanto by reversing an injunction that was part of the lower court\'s decision, more importantly, it also ruled that the ban on GMO alfalfa remains intact, and that the planting and sale of GMO alfalfa remains illegal.

This point, which seems to be lost in some news reports, is actually a huge victory for the Center for Food Safety and - most importantly - for the farmers and consumers who we represent.

The Supreme Court ruled that an injunction against planting was unnecessary since, under lower courts\' rulings, Roundup Ready Alfalfa became a regulated item and illegal to plant. In other words, the injunction was "overkill\' because our victory in lower federal court determined that USDA violated the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental laws when it approved Roundup Ready alfalfa. The court felt that voiding the USDA\'s decision to make the crop legally available for sale was enough.

A different ruling could have had far-reaching ramifications that might have extended beyond our borders, affecting the health and status of world markets for U.S. alfalfa, and impacting the fastest growing sector of the US agriculture market - organic. But the court clearly saw that, and opted instead to rule very narrowly.

And yet, Monsanto is out there in a public statement saying that they\'ve won a great victory. They claim that they\'re ready to sell Roundup Ready Alfalfa seeds now, and that they hope that their farmers should be able to plant by fall 2010. It\'s a canny statement, but neither of those potential situations is by any means possible at this point. The bottom line: the ban on planting Roundup Ready Alfalfa still stands.

The Center is victorious in this case in several other ways: most importantly, the High Court did not rule on several arguments presented by Monsanto about the application of federal environmental law. As a result, the Court did not make any ruling that could have been hurtful to National Environmental Policy Act or any other environmental laws. In addition, the Court opinion supported the Center\'s argument that gene flow is a serious environmental and economic threat. This means that genetic contamination from GMOs can still be considered harm under the law, both from an environmental and economic perspective.

This Court opinion is in many ways a victory for the environment, the Center for Food Safety, for farmers and for consumers and a defeat for Monsanto\'s hopes of a green light. To represent this opinion in any other way is just spin.

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“I really appreciate CFS for what they have done... I'm really pleased that there is somebody that can act as a counterweight to these big corporations that are taking over the seed industry”
— Phil Geertson
Alfalfa farmer and CFS Plaintiff

Supreme Court Case a Defeat for Monsanto's Ambitions

June 21st, 2010
Center for Food Safety

It should be no surprise that Monsanto's PR machine is working hard to spin the truth in this morning's decision in the first-ever Supreme Court case on genetically engineered crops (Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms). Despite what the biotech seed giant is claiming, today's ruling isn't close to the victory they were hoping for.

The 7-1 decision issued today by the Supreme Court was on the appeal of the Center for Food Safety's (CFS) successful suit, which resulted in a ban on GMO alfalfa. And, while the High Court ruled in favor of Monsanto by reversing an injunction that was part of the lower court's decision, more importantly, it also ruled that the ban on GMO alfalfa remains intact, and that the planting and sale of GMO alfalfa remains illegal.

This point, which seems to be lost in some news reports, is actually a huge victory for the Center for Food Safety and - most importantly - for the farmers and consumers who we represent.

The Supreme Court ruled that an injunction against planting was unnecessary since, under lower courts' rulings, Roundup Ready Alfalfa became a regulated item and illegal to plant. In other words, the injunction was "overkill' because our victory in lower federal court determined that USDA violated the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental laws when it approved Roundup Ready alfalfa. The court felt that voiding the USDA's decision to make the crop legally available for sale was enough.

A different ruling could have had far-reaching ramifications that might have extended beyond our borders, affecting the health and status of world markets for U.S. alfalfa, and impacting the fastest growing sector of the US agriculture market - organic. But the court clearly saw that, and opted instead to rule very narrowly.

And yet, Monsanto is out there in a public statement saying that they've won a great victory. They claim that they're ready to sell Roundup Ready Alfalfa seeds now, and that they hope that their farmers should be able to plant by fall 2010. It's a canny statement, but neither of those potential situations is by any means possible at this point. The bottom line: the ban on planting Roundup Ready Alfalfa still stands.

The Center is victorious in this case in several other ways: most importantly, the High Court did not rule on several arguments presented by Monsanto about the application of federal environmental law. As a result, the Court did not make any ruling that could have been hurtful to National Environmental Policy Act or any other environmental laws. In addition, the Court opinion supported the Center's argument that gene flow is a serious environmental and economic threat. This means that genetic contamination from GMOs can still be considered harm under the law, both from an environmental and economic perspective.

This Court opinion is in many ways a victory for the environment, the Center for Food Safety, for farmers and for consumers and a defeat for Monsanto's hopes of a green light. To represent this opinion in any other way is just spin.

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