13 August 2019 — Climate & Capitalism
Activists make the case that this widely used pesticide is wreaking havoc on the earth, killing not just weeds but multiple species, including our own
Mitchel Cohen, editor
THE FIGHT AGAINST MONSANTO’S ROUNDUP
The Politics of Pesticides
Skyhorse Publishing, 2019
Reviewed by Chris Kinder
Better Living Through Chemistry? Think Again!
Better Living Through Chemistry was an advertising slogan, I think for Dow Chemical, seen on black and white TV when I was a youth in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It all seemed so innocent back then. But it never was.
The stuff chemical giants like Dow, Dupont, etc., were selling then—pesticides such as DDT and malathion for instance—were all part of an explosion of chemical products following World War II, most based on the development of chemical warfare during the war. Development for war continued, as with the notorious Agent Orange—the long-lasting and harmful effects of which were covered up by Dow and Monsanto—used in the devastating U.S. war on Vietnam. But proliferation of toxic chemicals doesn’t stop there.
Massive applications of pesticides and herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup, along with genetically-engineered crops and artificial fertilizers, have transformed big agriculture in a new sort of war. The “green revolution” was supposed to help “feed the world,” but we now see it as not only promoting U.S. imperialist interests for market domination, but also actually destroying healthy food production worldwide, all in the name of profit. But imperial domination on the farm fields is only one side of the widespread effects of chemical saturation on humans, animals and the environment.
Roundup’s reputation as a cancer-causing poison has been getting some well-deserved ink lately, with a couple of precedent-setting court wins by victims. Over a thousand additional cases against Monsanto are pending. Despite Monsanto’s lying insistence that Roundup attacks plants only, not animals, a high correlation between Roundup usage and contraction of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer that starts in the white blood cells—which are key to the body’s immune system—has been found—but not by U.S. regulatory agencies!
It took the World Health Organization’s cancer unit, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), to find that glyphosate—the key ingredient in Roundup—was a “probable cause” of cancer in humans and animals. U.S. regulatory agencies, compromised by collusion with chemical corporations—under both Democratic and Republican administrations—were AWOL on this issue. Unfortunately, the IARC finding came only in 2017, over 40 years after the introduction of Roundup as a herbicide, and after it had already been widely used by the cancer victims coming forward today.
Activists and scientists take on Monsanto
Environmental activist, anarchist and poet Mitchel Cohen is the lead author and editor of this book, which includes 14 other authors, including Brian Tokar, lecturer on environmental studies at the University of Vermont; Steve Tvedten, who describes the lessons of his 50 years as a pest control operator; and Stephanie Seneff, PhD, a senior research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. The preface is by Vandana Shiva, PhD, an Indian scholar, physicist, and environmental and food sovereignty advocate and activist. Together, these writers describe a disturbing and alarming story of the poisoning of the earth in graphic detail.
Cohen, as a co-founder of the No Spray Coalition, is a veteran of this struggle and many others. As a leader of the No-Spray Coalition, he helped win a seven-year fight against then New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani’s indiscriminate spraying of the organophosphate malathion by aircraft and spray trucks over the city to combat the so-called West Nile Virus. He also organized a campaign to rid NYC public schools of milk from cows injected with Bovine Growth Hormone, a genetically-engineered monstrosity also from Monsanto, also discussed in this book. Mitchel is a long-time Green Party activist who has run for mayor of New York City. And he’s a poet, with compilations delightfully titled, One-Eyed Cat Takes Flight, and The Permanent Carnival.
This West Nile virus was much less of a threat than it was portrayed. The spraying operation killed more people than the virus ever did, including people sprayed, and operators of the trucks doing the spraying! Eight members of the No-Spray Coalition itself died from cancers or other disorders caused or exacerbated by the spraying.
Mitchel describes his first encounter with the spraying:
“[September 4th, 1999] I was strolling through Prospect Park in Brooklyn on that warm day near the end of summer. Hundreds of people were out in the park sunbathing, reading, kissing, walking their dogs. Kids were everywhere playing baseball and soccer. Suddenly, helicopters buzzed just above the tree line spraying a substance we later learned was malathion—one of a class of organophosphate pesticides invented as a nerve gas by the Nazis in World War II—spewing out in substantial bursts. They drenched 526-acre Prospect Park that afternoon, spraying the malathion over and onto hundreds of children. There were a few police cars patrolling, but none of them warned people to get out of the park and off the streets. I ran like a lunatic trying to get the kids away from the spray. And then I held my breath as long as I could and ran out of the park.”
The politics of pesticides
The politics of all this is never far from Cohen’s (and the other authors’) rendering. The title of the Chapter in which this personal experience is reported is, “Poisoning the Big Apple—Forgotten History in the Lead-Up to 9/11.” Two years before 9/11, as Mitchel reports, U.S. government officials were ramping up preparations for an attack on Saddam Hussein. Hussein, they said, “…had sent to New York City some arcane virus that was killing birds, mostly crows, and that it could be transmitted to people by mosquitoes. Panic ensued.” Just as today as Trump’s personal lawyer, Giuliani, then working from his bunker in the World Trade Center, was in lock-step with the nefarious plans of U.S. imperialism.
The intertwining of the development and use of noxious chemicals such as malathion and Monsanto’s Roundup with the international aims of U.S. capitalism is central to this book. Roundup, as well as genetically-engineered crops pioneered by Monsanto to work in tandem with it, is shown to be a key to the transformation of agriculture in the U.S., and to U.S. designs to dominate world food markets, as well as to Monsanto’s immense profits, of course. This war by other means has devastated agriculture worldwide from Mexico to India, and threatens the health of farmers and others who use Roundup, as well as the health of the soil, the very basis of all agriculture.
Roundup’s key ingredient, glyphosate, is a derivative of the amino acid glycine. (This connection with glycine forms another whole side of the story.) It was discovered in 1950, acquired years later by Monsanto, and formulated for use as an herbicide. Widespread usage began in the 1970s, but the proliferation of this poison shot up dramatically when Monsanto came up with a neat little trick to corner a key agricultural market for itself: the development of genetically-engineered (GE) “Roundup ready” crops. Use of these pesticide-saturated GE crops—soon to be dubbed “franken foods”—caused sales to skyrocket for Monsanto because Roundup could be sprayed randomly over the fields, killing “weeds” everywhere, without harming the crop.
While Roundup reduced labor costs for farmers by eliminating the need for weed removal by hand, Monsanto profited both from Roundup sales and also by monopolizing the market for the seeds. This, together with other GE monstrosities such as seeds programmed to produce plants which lack viable seeds, prevents farmers from saving their seeds for future planting. But this is what farmers have done for millennia!
A death-knell for agriculture
All of this is part of a swift and sure demolition of today’s agriculture. The advent of synthetic pesticides after World War II helped launch a new era, that of mono-cropping on huge factory farms using pest control with chemicals sprayed regularly as preventatives. Mono-cropping itself encourages the development of insect predators on the huge single-crop fields, but the pesticide spraying (allegedly) took care of that—until it didn’t.
Insects, given their short life-spans—like the bacteria that have developed resistance to antibiotics—can evolve many, many times faster than large mammals such as humans. Crop-eating insects did just that, developing immunities to pesticides, despite numerous replacements of pesticide/herbicide chemicals with new, stronger poisons. This includes Roundup.
Steve Tvedten, a former pest-control operator for over 50 years, reports in Chapter 11 that despite 70 years of “waging continuous chemical warfare, we have not controlled much less eliminated a single pest species. In fact, there are now many more pests causing much more damage than when we first began to spray pesticides after World War II!” One would think that scientists could have predicted this disaster.
As I was starting to write this review, and wondering how I could even begin to describe the vast amount of information in this book, a front-page article in the New York Times caught my eye: “Fungus Immune to Drugs Quietly Sweeps the Globe” (NYT April 7, 2019.) The story, part of a series called “Deadly Germs, Lost Cures,” documents the “urgent” threat posed by a fungus germ, Candida auris. Apparently impervious to medications, C. auris has caused panic in some medical establishments because of its apparent immunity to treatment, its ability to stubbornly permeate hospital environments, and its sometimes lethal effects. C. auris has been around in relatively harmless forms for thousands of years, but apparently now there is this new strain. Dutch researcher Dr. Meis is quoted saying that “drug-resistant fungi were developing thanks to heavy use of fungicides on crops.”
Enter Roundup. While Cohen’s book does not deal in any detail with fungi or fungicides specifically, it does make the point that glyphosate is toxic to more than just plants, and that it destroys the soil on farms by attacking the living organisms within. As University of Vermont lecturer Brian Tokar reports in Chapter 4, “[Roundup] is 100 times more toxic to fish than to people and is toxic to earthworms, soil bacteria, and beneficial fungi.” Roundup and similar pesticides have to continually be ramped up or replaced with more toxic formulas, due to the rapid evolution of plants, which—as with bacteria, and the fungi in the soil—adapt to these poisons quickly.
This connection with a story on a fungus run amok in the New York Times goes to the heart of Mitchel Cohen’s book: the interconnection of everything. In his Chapter 18 (Mitchel’s seven Chapters are dispersed throughout the book,) He goes to the heart of science today; that is, science as dominated by capitalist corporations like Monsanto, versus what it ought to be. This not just about the facts—well discussed in this book—of Monsanto’s use of ghost-written reports and other “scientific” documents that were never peer-reviewed or published to hoodwink corrupted U.S. regulatory agencies into passing on glyphosate. It is about the scientific method—as applied under capitalism—which tends to isolate the parts from the whole, and the whole from its parts. It’s about the reductionist methodology that corporations like Monsanto use to isolate the pests it wants to eliminate from the overall environment. And it’s about the need for a holistic approach, which views every element as part of a whole that needs to work together.
“What is a weed?” Mitchel asks. Is it a pest to the farmer, but also a food for another species? We need only to consider the plight of the Western Monarch Butterfly. “It’s not that anyone wants to kill butterflies,” says Cathryn Swan, author of Chapter 7 in the book. Want to or not, Monsanto wasn’t paying attention to this “part” of the whole. The widespread use of Roundup to destroy “weeds” has contributed to the obliteration of milkweed, which is the essential, and in fact only, food that the Monarch’s larvae can eat. Monarchs migrate across the continent in an amazing three-generation-long cycle, in which the milkweed-eating larvae are an essential part. But these beautiful butterflies are now on the point of extinction, after a rapid several years-long decline due primarily to the loss of milkweed in California’s rural farmland areas.
Many interconnections such as this proliferate in this book, such as those in Robin T. Falk Esser’s Chapter 13, “Consequences of Glyphosate’s Effects on Animal Cells, Animals, and Ecosystems.” Falk Esser demolishes Monsanto’s claim that glyphosate’s water solubility would prevent it from harming animal species. Esser shows that, when combined with the fat solubility of other key ingredients in Roundup, glyphosate is in fact “found to be bioaccumulated by animal cells as well as plant cells!”
Also, MIT scientist Stephanie Seneff, in Chapter 20, “Glyphosate Acting as a Glycine Analogue, Slow Insidious Toxicity,” makes some frightening conclusions about the possible links between glyphosate exposure and a whole raft of human conditions and diseases, including diabetes, obesity, Autism, kidney failure, Parkinson’s and ALS, among others.
As the title of Seneff’s Chapter indicates, glyphosate is derived from the amino acid glycine; and thus it retains glycine “residues,” as Seneff describes it. This chemical connection allows glyphosate to imitate glycine, or “act as an analogue” of this amino acid in the human body’s development of proteins. This, in turn, can corrupt and render useless certain proteins that the body needs. It also, says Seneff, could trigger an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system detects something wrong with this protein, and launches an attack, which could encompass the actual, uncorrupted protein.
Seneff also points to another alarming trait of glyphosate, that is, its ability to bond with toxic metals, such as arsenic, aluminum and lead. Noting that glyphosate was first used as a pipe cleaner because of its ability to strip metals off of metal pipes, and noting that Roundup is used widely in the agricultural areas surrounding Flint Michigan, Seneff says that, “one has to wonder whether glyphosate was a major contributor to the high levels of lead found in the drinking water” in that city!
Seneff makes sure to point out that her theories have been indicated as possible by many studies, they have not been scientifically proven. While acknowledging that, she suggests several laboratory experiments which could be performed to validate her theories; and she says, “While many chemistry experts are skeptical that glyphosate could insinuate itself into proteins by mistake in place of glycine, it has not yet been proven that this does not happen. And, in my opinion, no compelling reasons preclude the possibility.”
She goes on: “In my opinion, the evidence is overwhelming that glyphosate is wreaking havoc on the earth’s ecosystem, with multiple species beyond our own being adversely affected by this insidious, pervasive, toxic chemical.” She advocates the shutting down of “the factories where it is being produced,” and advises one and all to “switch to a 100 percent certified organic diet.”
In an introductory comment at the head of Seneff’s Chapter, Mitchel notes that the decision to include Seneff’s hypotheses in the book “…is mine and mine alone, [and this inclusion] should not be used to malign or detract from the work of the other brilliant contributors to this book. We are opening up space for thinking outside the spray truck.” (Emphasis mine)
My opinion? I think this is great; all avenues suggested in this book should be looked into. Hopefully the book will inspire other honest scientists with access to labs to pursue proofs of Seneff’s hypotheses.
Monsanto’s future? Or the future of our planet?
Monsanto has recently been acquired by Bayer AG, the German chemical and pharmaceutical giant. Already a major producer of fungicides, insecticides and herbicides, Bayer also comes with a back-story of complicity in the Holocaust. This merger will give the combined company further ability to monopolize the world seed supply, and dominate the pesticide business. But why, Cohen asks in a recent radio interview about his book, would Bayer buy a company like Monsanto that comes with a multi-billion-dollar liability potential in over 11,000 lawsuits (and climbing,) in which cancer victims are now starting to win huge settlements? His answer: the company is planning to make a fortune on GE cannabis and herbicides, the business plan that made Monsanto huge profits! They’re planning to ramp up Monsanto’s example in new markets, and continue the poisoning of the earth.
That’s just another reason why I agree with Eve Ensler, whose comment, “This may be one of the most important books you read this year. We are being poisoned and this book is sounding a well-informed alarm,” is on the cover of the book.
This work—and it did take several years of hard work to produce this—does sound a very important alarm. But the point, paraphrasing Marx, is not just to analyze the world, but to change it. And here I also agree with Bill Ayers, of Weather Underground fame, who writes in the first of 15 endorsements on the opening pages, “Seriously engaging the environmental catastrophe, which this important collection edited by Mitchel Cohen does brilliantly, and taking the necessary steps to solve it, will mean—I’ll spit it out—overthrowing capitalism. This is the real choice in front of us: the end of capitalism or the end of the habitable earth, saving the system of finance capital or saving the system, which gives us life. Which will it be?”
This review is also published in Socialist Viewpoint.