In the 1980s, when I was Texas Ag commissioner, my staff and I proposed a comprehensive set of state rules to protect farmworkers, public health, our water supplies and farmers themselves from the life-threatening consequences of toxic pesticides.
But trying to enact these policies in Texas meant taking on the enormous money and power of the chemical lobby, as well as a hostile Republican governor, and a legislature largely made up of corporate lapdogs. All of the above were howling furiously at us, snarling that they were going to shred the new protections we’d laid out. When I told my legislative director that it seemed like the political odds were against us, his response was not a confidence booster: “Some of the evens are against us, too,” he said.
Yet, by rallying a big coalition of family farmers, consumers, environmentalists, labor groups, church leaders, and others, and then bringing these “outsiders” inside the usually closed legislative lair to confront the cozy club of lawmakers and lobbyists – we won!
Fast forward a few decades and I find we continue to fight these very same battles even today. As his first official act as Trump’s EPA chief, industry lapdog Scott Pruitt rejected a petition to ban Dow Chemical’s insecticide, chlorpyrifos. The neurotoxin’s well-documented and persistent dangers include stunting children’s brain development. But never mind: Dow contributed to The Donald’s inauguration festivities.
Meanwhile, after Monsanto’s RoundUp herbicide and its “RoundUp Ready” GMO seeds sparked a global plague of new superweeds, the company responded by apologizing. (Just kidding.) In fact, Monsanto is now rolling out yet another patented and pricey line of genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant crop seeds that the top weed scientists say will evolve even hardier weeds. And both scientists and farmers have also flagged a more urgent problem: The herbicide the company is pushing – dicamba – is volatile and drift-prone. Last summer, Midwestern farmers reported huge losses related to clouds of neighbors’ dicamba drifting over and killing their unpatented crops.
“You’re going to have to buy their [GMO seeds] because their chemical is drifting around,” one Missouri farmer told the New York Times. That’s quite a business model.
But there’s encouraging news, too: farmers, scientists and consumers are fighting back, and global health agencies are responding to the threats. Thailand, Brazil and Canada recently banned a range of toxic agrochemicals, and the European Parliament recently reviewed RoundUp’s key ingredient, glyphosate, now found in 45 percent of Europe’s topsoil, and extended the licensing for the chemical’s use for only another five years.
Today’s Good Food forces (consisting of the grassroots people and groups worldwide striving to build a sustainable, equitable agriCultural system) are under constant attack by the moneyed forces of agriBusiness, which view food as nothing but another assembly line product to be fabricated by any means that fatten the corporate bottom line. We’re in an ongoing, momentous struggle (cultural, economic, political and moral) over the very nature and future of food, and our best path to victory is to do as we did in Texas three decades ago: to forge coalitions of outsiders to confront and expose the self-enriching cabal of insiders.
The Pesticide Action Network is a tremendous worldwide resource for farmers and consumers alike looking for ways to fight for safe, sustainable alternatives.