(You may want to read my essays in order.)
Tipping Points 5
April 9, 2010
The movie Food, Inc. came to Rockland, Maine, this past July (2009), and I missed it. My husband heard an interview with Michael Pollan, who is in the movie. Pollan discussed how commercial potato fields are sprayed with a chemical fungicide so toxic that workers do not go into the fields afterwards for a full five days. I confirmed Pollan’s statement and discovered he also says that once grown, the potatoes have to sit for up to six months before the toxins they contain dissipate.
In August, while chatting with two other people in a windjammer galley, I said that I was looking forward to seeing Food, Inc. when the DVD is released. A nearby crew member, a high school student, said, “I saw the preview, and I thought it was trying to scare me.”
Setting aside my sudden memory of a recent preview I had seen of a summer blockbuster which involved robots killing everything in sight and a soundtrack that blew me out of my seat, I asked the young man if he had seen the whole movie. “No,” he said, and followed with what was a heartfelt and emotionally delivered statement: “I know that the food in the supermarket is ok. I know that my food is safe and is good for me.”
Belief systems are notoriously powerful. People will shed blood and, even, life for them. Belief systems are laden with “facts” that are easy to disprove, but which the heart embraces. The mystery to me is what this young man’s heart was embracing. What lay beneath the belief that the great majority of our national food system is producing food that is safe and nourishing when it is demonstrably neither?
Another reaction I experience often is anger. One young mother did not like hearing about food issues because “they make me feel like a bad mother.” What emerged next was “I do not know what to do.” And, she’s right. With all the industry-produced junk science claims circulating, how does anyone know what or whom to believe? Plus, it is time consuming to do the research necessary to figure out who is attached to industry claims and who is not.
The current, awesome cultural power of our modern food industry represents a development span of over 150 years. This industry has acquired massive political clout–our government supports and promotes cheap, dangerous, and fake foods and oversees an irresponsible regulatory system. This industry has successfully managed the legal system; has driven out or co-opted competitors, like organic foods or real milk; has bought scientists who create and promote junk science; has gained control of unregulated media advertising; and has placed this fake, tainted food in one-stop, convenient outlets. Together with the drug industry, the food industry has manipulated the academic and medical industries so that they create, promote, and teach their junk science and promote their products.
But, if one takes seriously that the safety of our food system has been co-opted by unregulated industry acting rationally in its own interests, one has to begin making personal changes if one wants to be healthy. Our personal changes can create a new paradigm, one that supports belief with facts that can be investigated and substantiated.
Change always involves first changing the stories we tell ourselves. There is, thus, a role for emotional belief when it supports the ethic that human and societal health have to trump industry profit. Have hope, for there are at least three powerful philosophical concepts emerging: the Precautionary Principle, the rights of all to “the commons,” and the rights of all against toxic trespass.
The Precautionary Principle states that no chemical can be used unless it has been thoroughly demonstrated not to be harmful for human life. This concept animates recent regulatory and legal changes in Europe and Canada. The EU’s Regulation, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals Act (REACH) went into effect in June 2007. Though considerably mitigated in the political process, especially by efforts of the US State Department under Colin Powell, which acted as agents for the US chemical industry, REACH represents a big crack in the dike.
In Canada, activists trying to ban ChemLawn chemicals used the Precautionary Principle as a legal strategy rather than pitting their experts against ChemLawn’s experts. ChemLawn lost. This story is told in the film A Chemical Reaction, shown this fall at the Camden (Maine) International Film Festival (CIFF). Portland’s Paul Tukey (Safe Lawns) became ill after applying lawn chemicals, primarily 2, 4-D–a synthetic chemical in the phenoxy class (which includes Agent Orange) and which has a strong association with the rise of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Also, Tukey’s son was born with severe ADHD which doctors think was caused by Tukey’s exposure to lawn chemicals as they affect reproduction. After losing this particular case in Canada, ChemLawn changed its Canadian name to GreenLawn and its American name to TruGreen.
“The Commons” concept is taken from the lost use of peasant-farmed common land in Europe in the 1400-1500s. Today, “the commons” concept supports the ability of local areas to stop industrial dumping of Class A sewage sludge into a local environment. Or, the extraction of local water for bottled water sales. Or, in the case of our Port Clyde, Maine, fisherman, as detailed in the local movie recently shown at CIFF, The Fish Are For The People, the unsustainable harvesting of too many fish from our local waters by nonlocal industrial boats. Certainly, clean air and water can be seen as “the commons.”
Toxic Trespass covers both the spread of unwanted chemicals and of Genetically Modified (GM) seeds. In 1997, Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser noticed that Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GM seeds had taken root at the edges of his fields next to public roads. He collected his own seed, as usual, but by 1998, 95 percent of his 1030 acres were contaminated with Monsanto’s GM canola. Monsanto tried to charge Schmeiser $400,000 for this seed, but he refused to pay or to settle since settlement included a legal “gag” provision. Under patent law, Schmeiser lost his trial, his appeal, and, later, in the Supreme Court.
Schmeiser quit planting. The work of his life, the development of his own seed, was destroyed. The movie The Future of Food (2004) suggested the idea that Schmeiser’s situation involved a trespass concept. Monsanto seeds either blew into Schmeiser’s fields from truck beds or spread there on their own. In 2005, Schmeiser found more Roundup Ready Canola in his fields. He had the fields cleaned ($660) and sent the bill to Monsanto, but they refused to pay. Schmeiser sued, and this time, Monsanto lost.
To date, no one is holding chemical applicators responsible for chemical drift into the soil, water, or air in any meaningful way. But, the idea of toxic trespass linked to the Precautionary Principle and our right to a clean “commons” holds promise for those willing to insist on a different, safer world.