Enough Already! Time to Ban Roundup

spring 2013 053

By Madronna Holden

Update 4.23.2015

Monsanto is currently being sued for false advertising for claiming that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is safe.

Protecting our Children’s Future

Yesterday a kind neighbor stopped by to praise my garden in this wonderful blooming time of year. We got on the topic of dandelions and she eagerly shared how her children blew out their puffy white seeds to wish on.

Wishing on dandelion seeds is a tradition around the world linked not only to the visual delight in seeing those seeds drift—but the fact that the dandelion root is medicinal, helping to clean toxins out of our bodies. We have got things backwards when we spray poisons on these plants.

Dandelions also provide essential forage for the bees that pollinate our crops—and greens in early spring.

Indeed, as I pondered the image of the children sending their innocent wishes out on dandelion seeds, I thought about the way that poisoning those seeds may be poisoning our children’s wishes for the future in more ways than one.

Liver and Kidney Damage and Cancer

With the recent World Health Organization declaration that glyphosate (Round Up’s main ingredient) is a probable carcinogen and the recent re-publication, after a second round of stringent peer review, of the Seralini study indicating that ingesting both Roundup and a variety of Roundup Ready seed lead to “very significant chronic kidney deficiencies” and liver damage, it is time to take this chemical off the market.

Notably, the mice in the Seralini study that ingested Roundup’s glyphosate not only died earlier than the control group, but at a two to threefold rate. This two year study replicated Monsanto’s 90 day study for licensing of glyphosate, and Seralini argues that a 90 day trial was simply not long enough for the effects of Roundup to show up—although even the Monsanto study shows indications of the damage to come, which Monsanto labeled “insignificant.”

Further, though Seralini’s study was not specifically geared to test for cancer, the number of tumors in the mice fed both the gmo corn and Roundup alerted the researchers to the need for further investigation on this score.

This kidney and liver damage in all the treated groups is implicated in the epidemic of deaths among agricultural workers in Central America and Asia who work in Roundup Ready fields. They are dying of dehydration from kidney failure—often in their twenties. Following these deaths, Sri Lanka briefly banned Roundup, though they rescinded that ban under pressure from herbicide manufacturers.

2-4 D – a central ingredient in the innocuous sounding Weed and Feed, has its own serious health repercussions—which motivated a doctors’ panel in Quebec to urge the local government to ban it, following its ban in a number of European countries.

The last thing the US needs is “Enlist” seed genetically engineered to be resistant to both Roundup and 2-4-D, leading to the inevitable higher level of both these herbicides in our food.

The Addictive Process

Though Monsanto denounces the studies cited by the WHO as “inconclusive”, it doesn’t argue with one of Roundup’s inevitable results—the development of herbicide-resistant weeds. Indeed, this resistance is Dow’s argument for the certification of its Enlist seed. This is good for Monsanto and Dow’s profits—and bad for feeding the world.

Notably, this is the same process that helped big tobacco addict younger and younger smokers while more data came in regarding the harms of tobacco—until the facts were finally indisputable.

In this meantime, the burden of proof of such dangers must be financed by the public—or enterprising scientists such as those on Seralini’s team– rather than those who profit by the manufacture and sale of these chemicals. Big tobacco is finally being held accountable for its health harms on the basis of its foreknowledge of tobacco’s addictive qualities.

We might well hold Monsanto and Dow to the same standards.

Farmers now reliant on Roundup face an expensive dilemma. They need more and more of the chemicals to accomplish the same result.

The only effective cure for dependence on these toxic chemicals is stopping their use.

Banning chemicals with known or suspected toxicity will cause the agricultural industry to get smarter as well as more efficient. A switch from such toxic chemical usage will not be easy—or instant– but this is the only approach that removes the farmer from the merry-go-round of expensive chemical addiction—and removes exposure to these toxins from our homes and families as well.

Some smart farmers have already seen the handwriting on the wall. They are using such things as crop rotation and mechanical weeding to wean themselves off herbicides. The words of one such farmer turning to organic agriculture in California’s Central Valley after his son contracted cancer are haunting, “What should I tell my son—that my profits were more important?”

Human Guinea Pigs

Since Ronald Reagan ordered the labs at the US Environmental Protection Agency dismantled, the EPA has had no ability to test any products it approves or to verify research industry submits.

Indeed, the EPA operates on the principle that unless a chemical is proven harmful, it should be allowed. This means the real test of such chemicals comes after their release—when their harms on humans and other lives shows up. Thus natural lives become guinea pigs.

And it takes often takes many decades for the results to come in—as in the case of DDT. The smarter and safer standards is that of the precautionary principle used by many developed countries, which states that something should be proved harmless before it is released into the environment.

Meanwhile, the very fact that the EPA exists lulls the US consumer into thinking that whatever is sold here has been tested safe, as evidenced by the overwhelming springtime displays of pesticides in local garden stores. Indeed, household use counts for substantial chemical usage in the US.

Whereas agricultural workers and licensed pesticide applicators must follow label instructions or be fined, home applicators have no such restrictions–unless your next door neighbor complains about drift and (in Oregon at least) is economically damaged by it.

Our laws don’t compensate for “chemical trespass”, but I would rather have someone walk through my yard than spray Roundup that drifts onto my yard. Roundup’s carrier chemical—which allows glyphosate to penetrate living tissue and is in some respects more dangerous than glyphosate itself—may remain invisible and active for 42 days before it even breaks down halfway.[i]

The Destruction of Beneficials

Board spectrum herbicides like Roundup destroy plants that are the food sources of beneficial insects. This exaggerates crop losses from insects—despite growing chemical usage Today US agriculture suffers more crop loss from pests (weeds and insects and disease) than it did before agricultural chemical usage began in earnest in the 1950s.

What can we do to protect our families’ health?

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We can refuse to buy Monsanto’s genetically engineered foods.

We can refuse to use Roundup or 2-4 D (or the Weed and Feed containing it) on our yards and home gardens.

We can support organic agriculture.

We can lobby for banning these dangerous chemicals– and certainly, for prohibiting their use on school grounds and parks where children play.

We can add our voices to those working to reform the US Toxics law, so that health and good science are not compromised by profit.

We can utilize the resources concerning alternatives to pesticide use offered by the Pesticide Action Network and the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides.

And about those weeds…

If we can’t tolerate certain weeds, here is advice from the Eugene Stormwater Department:

  1. Let sleeping seeds lie. Digging and cultivating brings weed seeds to the surface.
    2. Mulch. Don’t give weeds the chance to see light.
    3. Weed early and often. Young weeds pull easier than older ones.
    4. Off with their heads? If you can’t yank ’em out, then deadhead before they go to seed.
  2. Boil or broil. Heat kills weeds and seeds. Boiling water or a torch (carefully applied) blasts them in sidewalks and driveways.
  3. Space your plants closely. Planting tightly shades the soil between emerging weeds.

[i] J. Giesy, S. Dobson and K. Solomon, “Ecological Risk Assessment for Roundup Herbicide”, in Reviews of Envrionmental Contamination and Toxicology, ed. G. Ware, v. 167.

Genetically Engineered Foods Won’t Feed the World

See updated essay on this point.

 

Telling the Stories of Consumer Products

updated 2.10.13

“Ag Gag”  laws attempt to stop us from knowing a product’s story:  see below.

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“We have to remember our source of nourishment. Or we will starve.”

Elizabeth Woody, Warm Springs Indian Reservation (A Song to the Creator)

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In spite of Elizabeth Woody’s warning, modern consumer society is geared to making us forget the natural sources of our nourishment.  Supermarket stacks of saran-wrapped hamburger packages disguise entirely their resemblance to their natural source.

Modern markets also give us the sense that money rather than knowledge is the key to our survival.  And in the capitalist system– in the short term– it is.

But in the long term, it isn’t. There is a limit to the ways in which we can force the land to yield more—even though we are still trying, with such schemes as vertical farming. Without healthy water and soil, food will not grow.  It comes to market from somewhere and the way in which this happens is a story we need to hear and to tell.

If that story is one of abundance and diversity and continuance, it is also a story of grace.  Thus, Wendell Berry once remarked, we should not eat any food we are not willing to pray over.

By contrast, most modern stories of the food we eat are profoundly lonely ones— for humans are the only actors within them.  In these stories we are only consuming, not sharing.  These stories tells us humans made up the cartoon cows that appear on milk cartoon– and humans can make up our food as if we did not need the cooperation of the land to do this.

Thus I applaud Barack Obama’s proposal for a farmer’s market at the White House: for such market’s tell us a different story.

We can never have too much healthy food, too much of the community created by such markets and the urban gardens like that currently at the White House.  Such markets and gardens exude the spontaneous sense of celebration that harvest always engenders.

They illustrate there are human hands and other natural lives involved in producing “the sources of our nourishment”.

At the Eugene Farmer’s Market last year, a booth selling goat cheese and goose eggs displayed a large egg and invited the passing crowd to guess what animal it came from. The farmer was amused at the number of passers-by who blurted out “goats” in answer to this question—evidently since there was a picture of a goat at the booth. Though there was no picture, obviously, of a goat laying an egg!

But perhaps the story of a goat’s egg is better than the story of an egg laid by a corporation with the intersession of a few feathered machines so closely housed that they need antibiotics to survive—and regularly resort to cannibalism.  Or formerly grass-eating machines that never move from their engineered milking stations and are turned into cannibals by the food their human managers give them.

And there is the tragic story that tells how both of these animal-machines in factory farms are slaughtered–under conditions in which humans are maimed and (all too often killed) along with the animals they process.

These stories are documented in books like Fast Food Nation and the film Food, Inc.—and in the lively Story of  Stuff. But they are not told in that supermarket package, where the stories available to consumers consist of things like ingredients and percentage of fat.  These hardly give us the full story.

But this is changing. Grassroots labeling campaigns are a way of telling more of the story of our food.  These stories include “sustainably raised” and “humanely raised” beef and “free range” chickens.

“Organic” itself was not originally a government label, but one created and standardized by farmers’ organizations like Tilth in Oregon.  There was a considerable battle when this label became a federal standard a few years back—since certain corporate interests wanted to water it down so much it would have been a meaningless label that did not distinguish organic from commercial products.  But those who originally instituted it—as well as a vocal percentage of the US public—fought to continue it as a standard that consumers can trust.

The battle continues as Monsanto wants to add genetically engineered foods to the list of those certified as organic.

There is also “fair trade” to combat the “free trade” propagated by the World Trade Organization whose rules specify nations cannot discriminate against products based on the means of production—so that it sued Massachusetts for boycotting products from the terrorist regime in Myanmar.

The label “fair trade” urges us to go more deeply into the stories behind our luxury goods from elsewhere.  How many of use would pick up that Hershey bar at the supermarket checkout lane if it had on it the story of the child’s hands that produced it under slave labor conditions in Africa?

There are other stories that the labeling of sustainably raised lumber, the labeling of buildings with LEED certification, and the proposed LEAF program for labeling of fabrics urge us to think about.  Some of them are gathered on community-based websites under consumer information links here.

The economic effects of such labeling is indicated by the pitched battle Monsanto has waged against labeling genetically engineered foods in the US for the last two decades—since their research tells them US consumers will buy far fewer gmo foods if they know they are buying them.  Monsanto’s dirty tricks included pressure on Fox News to fire two investigative reporters who uncovered the corporation’s unsavory tactics.

Meanwhile, dairy farmers in Oregon collectively agreed to refuse to use the bovine growth hormone—and labeled their products Bgh-free.  Monsanto also fought a losing battle to make it against the law to label milk products in this way.

Such labels signal a move to tell the stories of the products we use—stories that are all too often hidden by the corporate interests that manufacture those products.  Grassroots labels have standards upheld by transparent community groups—as opposed to the decisions deliberated behind the closed doors at the WTO.

Such labels are an important way of telling the story of the products we buy in a global arena in which consumers are often separated from the products they purchase by geographical and social distance.

They remind us all that we are a living part of a living world:  that there are human and natural lives behind all the food we ingest and the clothes we wear—and our houses shelter us with a story that began in the ancient joining of sunlight and trees.

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One of the signs of a farm with ethical production practices is its transparency– its willingness to share the story of its production practices with us.  On the opposite end of the spectrum are those factory farms lobbying for “Ag Gag” laws,  in order to hide their practices from the public, levying jail sentences, for instance, for photographing what is done there.

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And here is a great comment on this point that sums it all up, written by Valerie Fowler:

Ethically produced food is important on several levels. As mentioned here, fair trade food protects workers. Organic food protects the land and the consumers. Humanely raised food protects the animals from abuse. There are so many reasons to support “real” food and only one reason not to- which is money. Yet eating industrial food is actually cost-prohibitive because of the negative health effects. How much does diabetes, heart disease or cancer cost a person? Or even a simple doctors visit because the food they eat is so devoid of nutrients?

The Dandelion Wars: The Costs of Lawn Cosmetics

By Madronna Holden

“The earth wants peace.  The birds who eat the corn do not want poison…The wind does not want to carry the stories of death.”

–Linda Hogan, Dwellings

In many home improvement stores this spring, the first thing you will come upon is a display indicating that humans are engaged in a war against weeds and insects—a war that we can only win with the help of the featured chemical weapons.

These chemical weapons– such as the herbicides Weed and Feed, Round Up, and Week B Gon are poisons, pure and simple.  Thus the EPA states that it impermissible to claim any of them are safe.

But they are poisons on our side, the names are carefully geared to get us to think.  Who wouldn’t want to weed and feed their lawn with a helpful sprinkling of granules? For those who still like the image of the frontier quest of the unruly wilderness, there is Round Up. And for those who would like to banish dandelions as easily as pressing the nozzle button on a sprayer, there is Weed B Gon.

What good gardener would take up their work without getting the weeds and insects under control by enlisting these weapons? One that cares about the quality of our rivers and the salmon that swim there, for one. Certain of these pesticides have been directly linked to destruction of endangered salmon.  All pesticides work their way into groundwater, which works its way into rivers and streams. As a result of a court ruling in 2003, pesticide sales displays in Oregon, Washington and California  are required by law to display a warning stating that these chemicals are harmful to salmon.

Someone who wants their garden to set fruit might also avoid these, since usage of pesticides is linked to “colony collapse disorder” that is currently causing wholesale destruction of honey bees. The links are strong enough for some European countries to outlaw the nicotine-related pesticides that are most directly implicated. In the US, the state of California, whose almond crops have been hit especially hard by the death of bees, is re-evaluating the registration of particular pesticides as a result.

And one who cares about children should opt out of this war.  We can now trace in profound detail the chemical steps by which the most commonly used household insecticide in the US, chlorpyrifos  or CPF, disrupts the brain development of the human fetus and growing child.There are verified “cancer clusters” among the families of agricultural workers who apply pesticides as well.

As a result of its health risks, herbicides with 2,4-D in them–along with many other agricultural chemicals–  have been banned  in Sweden since 1977.  More and more European countries have joined Sweden’s ranks.  Quebec also joined their ranks this spring and is currently standing firm in the face of Dow Chemical’s legal suit in response.

When is enough proof enough? Sweden’s cancer rate has fallen since it banned a number of agricultural chemicals.  By contrast, the breast cancer rate of Israeli women during the period when large numbers of agricultural chemicals were used to remake the land was double that of other industrial nations.  Ten years after they developed stricter controls on these chemicals, their breast cancer rate fell into line with that of other industrial nations (which is already  rising alarmingly). In one study, biopsied breast material of women with cancer had twice the concentration of a class of pesticides  (chlorinated hydrocarbons) as did the breast cells of their peers without cancer. It was this same class of chemicals (organophosphates) which was confirmed as the cause of the death of four children in India on June 1.

Study after study associates commonly used pesticides with numerous cancers, autism and other neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, thyroid abnormalities, asthma and other respiratory diseases, early puberty of girls and sperm decline in boys and other general endocrine disruption, and bone and skin disorders.

All three herbicides above mimic plant hormones that cause plants to overgrow and die.  These plant hormones are chemically similar to human ones:  which is why 2 4-5 T (a key ingredient in the infamous Agent Orange along with the 2,4- D in Weed and Feed and Weed B Gon) is off the market after its byproducts caused abortions in humans.  The combination of the prevalence of 2, 4-D in the environment (including in amniotic fluid and in breast milk) and the clear indication of harm to developing humans has caused the EU nations and Quebec to pull it off the market.

But in the US, chemical companies have lobbied for a standard of proof of harm that is hard to reach in humans. For one thing, as we know from tobacco/lung cancer data and data from soldiers subjected to radiation in early A-bomb tests, cancers may only be detectable twenty years after exposure to their precipitating cause.

I venture that if one found cancer the day after spraying these chemicals, they would be off the market immediately.

There is also the fact that these hazards hit only a certain percentage of those subjected to them. But to use this as an excuse not to limit their use is tantamount to saying it is fine to give a serial killer a rifle and permission to shoot it—as long as some of his bullets are blanks.

The very reason that it is difficult to absolutely prove harm in humans to the current US chemical industry standard (we don’t want to subject humans to experimentation) is the reason why we should invoke the precautionary principle as the European Union has done with respect to man-made chemicals in its REACH program. To prevent making humans into experimental subjects for toxic chemical effects, we should require proof that these chemicals are safe before they are released.

This also leads me to ponder just what is it about the dandelions that incites us chemical warfare?  Is it the fact that they have the audacity to trespass on “our” lawns?  A friend noted that they are so blatant in their yellow flower– they tell the world we are not in control.

One pioneer  story has it is that the dandelion first arrived in Seattle in a doctor’s case, brought along for its medicinal properties.  Dandelion is still grown as a gourmet salad green, and the flower (not the white part, which is bitter), is a sweet addition to salads, as well as the main ingredient in dandelion wine.  Picking off the heads and putting them in salads is a good way to keep them from going to seed so as not to annoy your neighbors.  Of course this is the last thing you want to do with dandelions that have been sprayed.

Check out this site of the University of Maryland medical school for the many medicinal properties and uses of our humble dandelion.  Indeed, we might  see the dandelion as a gift instead of using dangerous chemicals to make war on it. One of the traditional and now research-supported functions of dandelion root is  as a liver cleanser in this modern world in which  our bodies are beset by so many toxins.

Who enforces the aesthetic standard that deems the dandelion so repugnant? Some of the same folks, I daresay, who declare wrinkles and gray hair  disreputable– and urge us to pay to remove them, even if it takes surgery.  As elective plastic surgery rises, so does the death toll from it.

Who decides the standards for which we are willing to make such trade-offs  on  our health?

The European Union and parts of Canada have looked at this issue rationally and decided that flawless lawns are not worth the health risks– especially to those, like children, unable to defend themselves. The ban on lawn chemicals used for “cosmetic” purposes in Quebec joins similar bans in a growing number of Canadian municipalities.  (117 as of 2006) Measuring the potential harm to  human health as evaluated by a professional organization of 6700 physicians, Quebec decided removing a few dandelions was simply not worth  it.

I find it heartening that these Canadians are countering the notion that we must risk our health to achieve an aesthetic that exhibits control of nature: a notion that advertisers are all too ready to have us uphold with respect to our bodies as well as our lawns. Check out the dangerous ingredients in commonly used  personal cosmetics. With eating disorders such as anorexia, adolescents risk death to look good by a standard they can never meet.

There is a dangerous element  in our inherited worldview that tells us we must battle  uncontrolled nature (in the dandelion or the wrinkle in our skin) in order to be an upstanding person.  In accepting the wrinkles on our faces, we must give up the sense that we are at war with the nature that ages us.

In accepting a few dandelions into our lawns, we must give up the sense that gardening is a war over the nature that would go back to its own devices without us. That means giving up on the part of our Western tradition expressed by early fur traders on the Columbia Plateau who wrote in their journals that they put in gardens not to harvest the produce but to illustrate to the Indians how to control nature.

But it is time to end the war on the natural world that sustains us—before we actually win it.


Here are some ways to help end that war with respect to home chemical usage:

  1. Check out the very helpful pamphlet, Natural Gardening, published by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality,which gives info on beneficial insects, as well as detailing least toxic controls for weeds and plant diseases.
  2. Investigate the least toxic alternatives libraries at NCAP.
  3. Inquire about the warning signs about dangers to salmon if they aren’t on display along with pesticides in home and garden stores.
  4. Give your local home and garden store positive feedback for offering least toxic alternatives, as many are now doing as a result of both customer feedback and information coming out on pesticide dangers.
  5. If you see someone applying spray in windy conditions, talk to them. If they are a neighbor, have a neighborly conversation with them.  If they are doing this for money, contact the appropriate agency to file a complaint. In Oregon, call the State Department of Agriculture.
  6. Talk to your neighbors and neighborhood organizations and share information about the dangers of pesticides and options for less toxic alternatives.
  7. Many municipalities have stormwater divisions with programs to help stem pesticide use:  call yours and find out if you can support their effort or help distribute their information.
  8. Avoid buying and using “broad spectrum” pesticides that kill all plants, all broad leaf plants, or all insects.  And if you have any of these around the house, don’t simply throw them away. They are hazardous waste:  call your local solid waste facility to see when they have hazardous waste collections and bring them there to be disposed of properly.
  9. Here are links to information on organic lawn care (site for both professionals and homeowners) and ten reasons to ditch your lawn care chemicals, since they are not only dangerous but unnecessary.

Together we can make peace with the land.

The Green Revolution–Whoops! The Women of Bangladesh Offer an Alternative

The more we try to manage a problem with a technological magic bullet, the less effective we may be in meeting our goals. Take, for instance, the case of high producing variety (HVP) rice in Southeast Asia. The HVP rice provides more calories, but its introduction several decades ago wound up amplifying both vitamin A and protein deficiencies among those who grew it. Not only were the HVP rice strains lower in protein than traditional varieties, but the mono-cropping of HVP rice did away with carotene-laden greens that formerly grew in the rice paddies, along with the fish traditionally raised there.

In a parallel fashion, genetic engineering today may look good on one level, but work against its own purported goals on another.  Take the current “roundup ready” soy sold by Monsanto.  It works in conjunction with the herbicide Round Up to prevention competition in soy fields.  But the “round up ready” gene is spliced into a low-producing variety of soy-a variety rejected some time ago in hybrid breeding programs because of its low yield.

If we want to increase yields, as the “roundup ready” seed promises, why not return to higher yield varieties along with care of the soil– as opposed to low yield varieties plus with Round Up with all its health and environmental hazards?  Of course, then there are no profits for Monsanto?

There is another serious problem with genetically engineered crops:  one that caused British farmers to burn test fields of genetically engineered soy-and the European Union to reject imports of genetically engineered grains.  Through a  mechanism we can neither understand nor control, genes migrate from one plant or field to another. That is, gene reproduction in plants is not entirely contained within single plants.  This is a serious issue with the Monsanto “terminator” genes engineered to create sterility-as a protection for the Monsanto gene patents.  But what if the terminator genes migrate to crops whose seeds we want or need to save?

To return to Southeast Asia and HVP rice, bioengineers are currently working on “golden rice” containing carotene to address the problem of vitamin A deficiency there. But as some local people understand, what they need is something entirely different from a more heavily engineered super-rice.

Thus the women of Bangladesh began the Nayakrishi Andolon, or New Agricultural Movement, practiced by 25,000 households by 1998. This movement fosters biodiversity in the context of the Hindu belief that all life is interconnected through the single spirit that animates it. This movement has come to its striking success, two of its members recently told Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, co-author of The Subsistence Perspective with Maria Mies, by simply doing what brings them joy even as it makes their land beautiful.

These women have led a local movement to replace the beesh, or “poison” of the Green Revolution with a diverse ecosystem which uses no pesticides or chemical fertilizers (phasing these out if necessary); practices mixed cropping; multi-cropping, and agro-forestry; integrates habitat for livestock, poultry, and semi-domestic birds and animals; and practices seed saving and genetic conservation. The farmers in this movement assess the productivity of their fields not by the yield of a single super product, but by the sum of their diverse products. They have not gotten back all 12,000 varieties of rice indigenous to this area, but some individual farmers grow more than 110 varieties. And their methods have been so good for the land that some now grow rice using only surface water rather than drawing up ground water. This movement is an obvious success.

It takes a local community in partnership with nature’s diversity– rather than a single technology developed somewhere else-to reclaim a land. As in this case, global development projects which purport to bring “progress” to a third world community might well take a moment to learn something from the communities they hope to serve.  Maria Mies’ “subsistence perspective” offers some guidelines for doing this.

It is important to note that though the women farmers of Bangladesh have reclaimed their lands in these ways, areas of Bangladesh are currently hard pressed to deal with rising waters in the Bay of Bengal resulting from climate change. As the documentary, “Afloat”,  indicates, what the people of Bangladesh face will be faced by all of us if the global community does not join in ameliorating climate change.

Breast Milk and Salmon Waters: shared contamination and what to do about it.

Post updated 12.12.2013

I reviewed Tainted Milk, in which Maria Boswell-Penc investigates why so little attention has been paid to the contamination of breast milk in the U. S. with dangerous chemicals such as endocrine disruptors.

After assessing the data, Boswell-Penc concludes that breast feeding is still the best way to nourish your baby, especially since organic formula is lacking immune factors passed on in mother’s milk. And since this book came out, even some “organic” formula has been found to have been processed with a toxic chemical. Moreover, today  (September 21) the Washington Post reported that the EPA has bowed to White House and Pentagon pressure in its likely decision to fail to regulate perchlorate in drinking water. This chemical, which causes irreversible thyroid damage in some infants, will be delivered at fifteen  times the body weight safety limits to infants fed formulas mixed with drinking water from many municipal systems.

Breast milk is not only environmentally friendly (no packaging, no processing), but distribution friendly.  When I was nursing my daughter, I could not believe formula makers could get away with marketing their product as more “convenient”.  I didn’t have to buy, prepare and heat my milk in the middle of the night-or ever.

A recent study peer-reviewed by 14 scientists indicates  the contrasting effects of a healthy nutrient in human milk versus its unhealthy variant– at least to infants–  in certain cow’s milk.  The presence of variants of this peptide or protein fragment is implicated in the fact that cow’s milk  formula fed babies are ten times more likely to experience psychomotor developmentally delay than breastfed babies.

Soy milk formulas that are not organic are also problematic.  They are poorly digested, are missing essential nutrients and contain high levels of “proto-estrogens”  or false estrogens that mimic hormones of adult women.  Inorganic soy is laden with pesticides (some of which are also estrogenic). Moreover, current inorganic soy products are overwhelmingly genetically engineered.

Formula is important for mothers unable to nurse. Boswell-Penc suggests a network of breastmilk banks to support such mothers.  She gives examples of successful breastmilk banks-and in fact, this is the ancient human solution for tribal peoples who classically nursed one another’s babies to provide mothers with newborns the chance to sleep through the night or go on extensive gathering trips without their babies.   Here is a link to one such bank.

For now, however, I would suggest that mothers who cannot breastfeed– or do not have access to breastmilk from any other source at least use organic formula.

Altogether, the fact that relatively few US women breastfeed as a matter of course has other repercussions. The facts about breast milk contamination spread rapidly in the European Union where the large majority of women do breastfeed. This led Sweden to prohibit the manufacture of the toxic chemicals found in their breast milk-and thus to make their breast milk supply safe very quickly.  The REACH program in the European Union, based on the precautionary principle, has resulted in the pulling from the market a large number of chemicals.  And it was put into practice partly because of the evidence for contamination in breast milk.

This is a matter of environmental justice to the vulnerable among us.  It goes without saying that the relative concentration of toxic chemicals has a greater potential for harm in small and developing human bodies.  Not incidentally, such contamination has been found in the wombs of pregnant women throughout the U.S.

There is pragmatic logic as well as justice here.  Contamination in breast milk is another of those canaries in the coal mine:  it signals the body burden of toxic chemicals we all bear.  Indeed, as Tainted Milk notes, testing breast milk turns out to be a simple, non-invasive way to test for more general chemical contamination in human bodies.

REACH regulations have led to some interesting responses on the part of manufacturers in the U.S.  Because the European Union will not accept toys made with particular hazardous chemicals, for instance, some US toy makers currently have two assembly lines.  In one they make goods for the European market using EU standards. In the other, anything goes-and they sell toys made that way within the U.S.

Tainted Milk makes the case that one of the reasons we haven’t cleaned up our breast milk supply is the misconception that its contamination is limited to particular “hot spots” of environmental contamination, like superfund sites.  It is certainly true that those living in areas of particular chemical contamination suffer more body burdens of these chemicals. But modern contamination is a systematic rather than an individual “trouble spots” issue-as the quick curative action on the part of Sweden indicates.

Chemical pollution travels:  mercury from coal burning in China can be found on the Pacific Coast of the U.S. And chemicals we dumped on third world countries when we outlawed them here are still found today in the U.S., partly because such chemicals, like DDT, are persistent in the environment, partly because they have come back to us on imported foods-but also because they have spread to us on natural systems.  Thus the air in the White Mountains of New Hampshire tests positive for chemicals produced decades ago in the U.S. and sold to and used in Mexico.

Shouldn’t our alarm bells be going off concerning this?  Why isn’t the U.S. expressing leadership in this arena rather than lagging behind the European Union?  Why are we still allowing the manufacture and sale of chemicals like the dangerous ones found in breast milk-many of which are on the same list as those 7 chemicals which the National Marine Fisheries Service tells might well cause the extinction of endangered salmon species in Oregon?

We could use some national leadership on this issue.

Ultimately, we all swim in the same waters and breathe the same air, and so the fate of the salmon-or the polar bear or the wolf-or the third world countries to which we import certain of our chemicals and from which we buy cheap goods- is the fate we all share.

Concerned about this?  Here are some things you can do:

1.  Don’t use pesticides on your lawn and garden. For alternatives, see the site and newsletter of the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides.  http://www.pesticide.org/

There are other consumer products to avoid here.

They also have a program to stem the use of pesticides in parks and playgrounds.

Support the Safe Chemicals Act.
2. If you want to spread the word to your neighbors, the City of Eugene Stormwater Division has a great postcard with the heading, “Is your lawn pesticide free– maybe it should be”.   If you don’t live in Eugene, get a copy and see if you can get your municipality to print and distribute it.

3.  Support any of the suits brought by earthjustice against the sale and use of dangerous chemicals.

4. If you are in the Willamette Valley, use the detailed map developed by the Corvallis Environmental Center detailing toxic discharge sites along the Willamette River to clean up the river.

Update: there was formerly a petition for you to sign letting US health officials know that breastfeeding should be supported as the healthiest alternative for our babies.  However, that petition has since been sent on.  If you live in Canada, however, here is a current petition you can sign on the same topic.

Moreover, here is the UN program linking child health with infant formula issues from the site of the “International Baby Food Action Network.”

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One thing NOT to do is give to the following charities, which have listed by investigative reporters of the Tampa Bay Times as on the list of the 50 worst charities (they are on that list because they spend the vast majority of their money on their own administrators and on professional fund raising rather than on actual help for breast cancer victims or breaset cancer research).

American Breast Cancer Foundation

Breast Cancer Relief Foundation

Woman To Woman Breast Cancer Foundation

United Breast Cancer Foundation

Links to legitimate charities that support women’s healthcan be found on our links page.

Other information:

Breastfeeding Moms Boot Nestlé from Maternity Wards

Milk sharing networks for mothers unable to breastfeed their babies:

Valerie Fowler provided this link to “milk sharing” (rather than milk banking which can, in the US be very expensive).  Erica Henderson has provided us with links to another milk sharing network noted above.  Thanks to both of you!

“Going on the Side of Life”: Managing Humans to Foster Nature’s Resilience

By Madronna Holden

Given the extensive impact of human actions on the natural world, it is improbable that we can restore our environment to a previously undisturbed state-in terms of climate change, for instance.  Even if it weren’t for the current environmental crises, it is problematic to decide what our “restore” point would be.  In the dualistic framework of the modern industrial worldview,  “wilderness” is that which has no human impact.  However, some lands pioneers in the Pacific Northwest considered “wilderness” since they were not altered by western-style development were in fact the result of thousands of years of a human-nature partnership which fostered the resilience of the local landscape.

More than ever, in the modern age, we need such models to honor and support natural resilience: which I define here as the ability of natural systems to sustain, heal, and regenerate themselves. This is in line with a native grandmother’s words. At a meeting in which her Muckleshoot people detailed the ways in which their sacred sites had been ravaged by developed, she said, “I guess we just have to go on the side of life.” Life has a sacred meaning among many indigenous Northwesterners as it should for all of us: as the animating principle of the earth we share. I cannot think of a more powerful sense of nature’s resilience.

I want to suggest four guiding principles for managing human behavior toward this goal.

One key element in an environmental philosophy that supports the resilience of natural systems is reciprocity. Reciprocity casts human and natural interactions in terms of balanced and mutual exchanges: As such, it enjoins humans to take (food, energy, shelter, medicine) from the natural world only what they return. Though some institutionalized religions link reciprocity with a mentality of accounting, earth-centered societies link it with gratitude, moderation, generosity, and sharing-in which giving back to the circle of life is done without knowledge of how and when a gift will be returned. Enacting reciprocity with respect to natural systems inhibits human actions that undermine the essential vitality of these systems by drawing too much from them. notably, those mid-Columbia River peoples who saw life as a sacred animating principle of our world also saw reciprocity as a key ethical standard.

The precautionary principle or “forecaring” is a second element of a standard of human behavior that supports the resilience of natural systems. Its main tenet is that human actions (especially new technologies) must prove themselves harmless before being enacted. This principle compensates for the intersection of the limits of human knowledge with the power of human actions. As instituted in modern law, this principle protects natural systems from harm in a way that echoes traditional stories stressing the importance of care in human choices-care that extends to future generations. The precautionary principle is linked to environmental justice in the ethical prohibition against inflicting harm on those who share our world both today and in the future.

Honoring the flexibility and diversity of natural systems is another way of supporting their resiliency. Flexibility is essential to the ability of any system to respond to and recover from stress. “Edges” and interstices between ecosystems as fostered by indigenous practices in the Willamette Valley are the most diverse and thus resilient parts of ecosystems. The value of diversity to the resiliency of ecosystems weighs in against practices that create “blank slates” for human use — such as clear cutting, non-contoured plowing for mono-cropping, and wholesale bulldozing for construction projects. Today wilderness set asides might be used to balance some of the diversity lost through human use of the land.

It is important to note that indigenous peoples throughout the world traditionally managed their landscapes for biodiversity and this is one reason that they now steward some eighty per cent of global biodiversity. Another reason consists of the tragic homogenization of nature and culture that results from industrialized development.  In creating such homogenization, we are undermining the options for both ourselves and the natural systems we depend upon to respond to stress such as global warming.

A fourth essential element supporting natural resilience is partnership. Traditional societies enact their partnership with the natural world through ceremonial or diplomatic relationships with other natural beings: animals, plants, and spirits of place. Such personalization (as opposed to commoditization) of others has the pragmatic result of fostering the protection of these natural beings and the habitats upon which both they and humans depend. We might take a first step toward enacting the partnership ethic today by assuming a stance of humility in our dealings with the natural world-and respect for those others that show us how to expand our own humanity. We might also work to learn the “language” of our natural partners, as did contemporary Nobel Laureate Barbara McClintock. Importantly, the partnership ethic shifts the social Darwinian idea of “survival of the fittest” from competition to cooperation. In terms of the partnership ethic, those most “fit” for survival are those who support the lives of the most “others”-and thus the diversity and resiliency of natural systems upon which they depend for survival.

From a somewhat different perspective, the Resilience Alliance works with natural resource managers to  foster natural resilience.

For a more detailed discussion of my sense of the relationship between partnership and resilience, see my “perspectives” piece in response to Brian Walker’s essay at Ecotrust’s online journal:

http://www.peopleandplace.net/perspectives/51

You are always welcome to link to this post.  Note it is copyright 2008 by Madronna Holden. Feel free to contact me if you wish to cite it rather than link here. Thank you.