Sour Grapes

 

Legal judgments in lawsuits against the makers of Roundup herbicide continue accumulating in the plaintiffs’ favor, with the latest one entailing an award of $2.05 billion to a married couple who alleged that they each contracted non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) from years of using the herbicide in their home garden. As in many lawsuits, high dollar amounts are likely to come down a great deal in the final settlement, and most of the money will end up in the hands of lawyers, not the plaintiffs.

 

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup and similar generic herbicides, and it is glyphosate which the plaintiffs in thousands of lawsuits around the country are alleging is linked to their cancer. Meanwhile, glyphosate continues to be readily available without label warnings to home gardeners as well as professional landscapers and farmers since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not ruled it is a carcinogen. European environmental and health organizations have ruled glyphosate is a probable carcinogen, differing from their American counterparts because they reviewed independent scientific studies instead of regulatory studies, many of them funded by agribusiness.

Wilted thistle
Welted thistle (Carduus crispus) possesses some fine qualities, including pretty flowers as seen here, but most people consider it a weed. Photo by dae jeung kim.

While United States government agencies continue to tilt the scales in favor of agribusiness, the courts appear to have no such bias. Consumers in that case have little recourse other than to seek compensation through the courts for their pain and suffering, which they allege were caused by the makers of Roundup (first Monsanto, and currently Bayer) and other purveyors of glyphosate herbicides. Consumers who are still healthy and use herbicides might want to exercise caution by looking for other options, though the only way they would know that is through their own research or by word of mouth, since there continue to be no cautionary statements about the risk of cancer on the label of glyphosate products the way there are for instance on cigarette packs.

Bottles of vinegar at a supermarket
Bottles of vinegar at a supermarket. Safer to use than horticultural vinegar, this more easily available common household vinegar may be a better option for casual users who do not require a heavy duty herbicide. Photo by Ms angie gray.

 

A safer herbicide option is vinegar. Ancient cultures derived vinegar from soured grape wine, but since it can be made from anything that produces ethanol, today most of it is sourced from corn, a cheap source. Unlike glyphosate, which migrates to the roots of affected plants, vinegar only burns the tops, meaning gardeners will have to reapply it when the weed sprouts new growth. Also unlike glyphosate, vinegar does not damage soil fertility with long term use. Damage to soil fertility is another effect of glyphosate that the manufacturers dispute even though some scientific researchers have upheld the observations of the effect by attentive farmers and gardeners.

Gardeners will be disappointed in the weak effect of using the vinegar commonly sold in grocery or home improvement stores, and that is because it is only a 5 to 7 percent solution of acetic acid in water meant for pickling food or cleaning surfaces, not killing weeds. For home gardeners, the most effective vinegar for killing weeds that is appropriately labeled as such, with accompanying safety warnings, is 20 to 30 percent acetic acid. Probably by reason of the low popularity of strong vinegar and the danger for casual users in believing it is relatively harmless, it appears to be available online only, not in stores. Vinegar that strong, while still mostly water, is potently acrid stuff which can burn a user’s mucous membranes, eyes, and skin, and may corrode hard surfaces and harm any small animals, such as toads, living in a garden. Test a small area first if there’s a chance overspray could affect something like bricks in a walkway. The best that can be said is it’s a good thing weeds are outside in the open air. Spraying strong vinegar in the garden may be unpleasant for the applicator and those in the vicinity and should be done with caution, but unlike using glyphosate, there’s less risk of serious damage to the gardener and the garden.
— Izzy

 

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Spell It Out

 

This Memorial Day weekend, millions of Americans will gather for cookouts, enjoying grilled foods of all sorts, and many of those people will eat something that includes the following ingredients:

Arsenic, bacteriophages, benzoic acid, chlorine, copper, melengestrol acetate, potassium bisulphite, ractopamine, sodium benzoate, sodium proprionate, tilmicosin, transglutaminase, trenbolone, urea, and zeranol.

And that is by no means a comprehensive list of all the chemicals that may be found in hamburgers made from ground beef produced from factory farmed cattle and sold at grocery stores nationwide. Just about everything we eat can be made to sound pretty scary when it’s broken down like this into terms only chemists might understand.


Critics of the Impossible Burger, a substitute for hamburger that contains no meat, have been using the tactic of decrying the unpronounceable ingredients in its production as well as tacking on the argument that an Impossible Burger is no healthier than a regular burger. The Impossible Burger is necessarily highly processed in order to imitate ground beef in flavor, texture, and the many other characteristics that signify to our bodies and brains that we are eating meat. The goal is to offer meat eaters an alternative to factory farmed beef which contains residues of hormones, antibiotics, herbicides and pesticides, heavy metals, disinfectants, and which is wrought at the cost of enormous animal suffering and the dehumanization of people working the production line.

Burgers and hotdogs flaming on the bbq grill
Burgers and hotdogs cooking on a charcoal barbecue grill. Photo by Luke.

The argument that the Impossible Burger is not a health food is a straw man, set up not by the makers of the product but by critics so that they can knock it down, and by extension get people to dismiss the whole crazy idea of a meat alternative. Critics intentionally ignore that Impossible Foods never claimed its burgers were a health food, and that if consumers are seeking healthy dietary options, perhaps hamburgers should not be high on their list. Vegetarian options have always been synonymous with health food, and whether that was ever entirely true was besides the point since it was the perception people had that vegetarian food was healthier food. The Impossible Burger is a vegetarian meat alternative, hence it’s supposed to be healthier than a regular hamburger, right?

The point again of producing a meat alternative that appeals to meat eaters is to wean them away from supporting the factory farming of animals, with its disastrous consequences for the animals, the environment, and ultimately for the people producing and consuming the meat. The beef industry has a powerful lobbying influence on government, and it has the means and the ability to employ mouthpieces everywhere who can disguise their links to the industry. It’s still early in the development of competition between the beef industry – and agribusiness as a whole – and producers of meat alternatives, but perhaps the meat producers see down the road to where consumer preferences shift away from them in a big way as buying satisfying meat alternatives becomes easier and cheaper.

Oingo Boingo performing “Weird Science”, with songwriter and film composer Danny Elfman singing lead.

It’s wise to read labels and to be skeptical of genetically engineered foods, keeping in mind not all of them are inherently as harmful as Roundup Ready crops, which introduce herbicide residue throughout the food supply. Making informed decisions requires at least a modicum of research rather than merely listening to the loudest voices in print, on the air, or on the internet. It’s also prudent to look ahead and not stay stuck in old ways of doing things when newer, better alternatives present themselves. Ask the makers of BlackBerry smartphones, and any of the other true believers in the status quo throughout history as changes swirled around them. This Memorial Day weekend, if you’re able to grill some tasty, ethically produced meat substitutes then that’s great, and since the holiday cookouts will most likely be hot and thirsty occasions, you may like to accompany your meal with a glass of cool, refreshing dihydrogen monoxide, otherwise known as water.
— Techly

 

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It Grows without Spraying

 

A jury at San Francisco’s Superior Court of California has awarded school groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson $289 million in damages in his lawsuit against Monsanto, maker of the glyphosate herbicide Roundup. Mr. Johnson has a form of cancer known as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and it was his contention that the herbicides he used in the course of his groundskeeping work caused his illness, which his doctors have claimed will likely kill him by 2020. Hundreds of potential litigants around the country have been awaiting the verdict in this case against Monsanto, and now it promises to be the first of many cases.

WEEDING SUGAR BEETS NEAR FORT COLLINS. (FROM THE SITES EXHIBITION. FOR OTHER IMAGES IN THIS ASSIGNMENT, SEE FICHE... - NARA - 553879 (cropped)
Migrant laborers weeding sugar beets near Fort Collins, Colorado, in 1972. Photo by Bill Gillette for the EPA is currently in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. Chemical herbicides other than Roundup were in use at that time, though all presented health problems to farm workers and to consumers. Roundup quickly overtook the chemical alternatives because Monsanto represented it, whether honestly or dishonestly, as the least toxic of all the herbicides, and it overtook manual and mechanical means of weeding because of its relative cheapness and because it reduced the need for backbreaking drudgery.

 

Monsanto has long been playing fast and loose with scientific findings about the possible carcinogenic effects of glyphosate, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently sides with Monsanto in its claim that there is no conclusive evidence about the herbicide’s potential to cause cancer. In Europe, where Monsanto has exerted slightly less influence than in the United States, scientific papers have come out in the last ten years establishing the link between glyphosate and cancer. Since Bayer, a German company, acquired Monsanto in 2016 it remains to be seen if European scientists will be muzzled and co-opted like some of their American colleagues.

 

Empty Glyphosate (Herbolex) container discarded in Corfu olive grove
The intensive use of glyphosate herbicide to remove all ground vegetation in olive groves on Corfu, a Greek island in the Ionian Sea, is evidenced by the large number of discarded chemical containers in its countryside. Photo by Parkywiki.

The scope of global agribusiness sales and practices that is put at risk by the verdict in Johnson v. Monsanto is enormous. From the discovery of glyphosate in 1970 by Monsanto chemist John E. Franz to today, the use of the herbicide has grown to the preeminent place in the chemical arsenal of farmers around the world and has spawned the research into genetically modified, or Roundup Ready, crops such as corn, cotton, and soybeans. There are trillions of dollars at stake, and Monsanto and its parent company, Bayer, will certainly use all their vast resources of money and lawyers to fight the lawsuits to come.

Because scientists have found traces of glyphosate in the bodies of most people they have examined in America for the chemical over the past 20 years as foods from Roundup Ready corn and soybeans spread throughout the marketplace, they have inferred it’s presence is probably widespread in the general population. That means there are potentially thousands of lawsuits in the works. Like the tobacco companies before them and the fossil fuel industry currently, agribusiness giants will no doubt fight adverse scientific findings about their products no matter how overwhelming the evidence against them, sowing doubt among the populace and working the referees in the government.
— Izzy

 

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Change at the Grass Roots

 

It may seem like hyperbole to compare growing a lawn with smoking (not combining the two, as in smoking grass), but when weighing the environmental and health effects of both rather useless activities, they may not be all that dissimilar. A lawn is purely ornamental and serves no practical purpose when it is not used as pasture for grazing animals. Deer may come out of the woods to clip parts of a suburban lawn, but for the most part keeping a lawn within the height limits deemed proper by neighbors is left up to the homeowner. Anything higher than about six inches meets with disapproval from neighbors and, in the case of a homeowners association rules, may merit a written slap on the wrist.

 

There was a time not long ago when most people smoked, and smoked everywhere. Movies of contemporary stories from the 1940s and 1950s showed actors portraying their characters as human chimneys. Few people thought much of it up until 1964, when the Surgeon General issued a report on the dangers of smoking. Even then, it took another generation for the momentum of social disapproval of smoking to build to a tipping point, largely because of the obstructive practices of the tobacco industry. In the matter of lawn growing, the balance is now tipped in favor of the people who dump fertilizers and broad leaf herbicides on their lawns to achieve an ideal of carpeted green perfection, and then burn up fossil fuels in order to keep that exuberant growth clipped to a manicured standard.

20101020 Sheep shepherd at Vistonida lake Glikoneri Rhodope Prefecture Thrace Greece
Sheep, goats, and a shepherd near Lake Vistonida in Thrace, Greece. Photo by Ggia.

Gras
Grass, with buttercups. Photo by Steffen Flor.

Given the information available about the toxic effects of fertilizer and herbicide runoff, and the deleterious effects on the climate of continued burning of fossil fuels, it seems insane to idealize the perfect lawn and what it can take to achieve perfection. Yet as things stand now, the people with model lawns are the ones who look down on everyone else and appoint themselves as standard bearers. Perhaps if more people understood the destructive effects to their own health and to the environment of all their fussing over lawns, then the balance would start to tip the other way toward saner practices.

When homeowners apply fertilizers and herbicides to their lawns, there is no obvious puff of smoke to notify everyone else of the activity. It is not as obvious then as smoking, and therefore general social disapproval will take a long time to build, and may never build to a tipping point the way it did with smoking. Education will probably be the main factor in changing people’s behavior. There are state laws which require commercial herbicide or pesticide applicators to post signs on lawns they have treated. Those are the 4 inch cards on sticks stuck into lawns, and to the extent that most passersby and neighbors give them any attention, they can easily mistake them as advertisements for the lawn care company.

The opening scene of Blue Velvet, a darkly satirical 1986 film directed by David Lynch. Besides demanding large amounts of fertilizers and herbicides to look their best, lawns gulp huge amounts of water in order to stay green throughout the warmest months.

Most people are away at work when lawn care companies do their treatments, and so they aren’t around to catch a whiff of the cabbage smell of the typical broad leaf herbicide as it drifts around the neighborhood. And of course, the homeowner who does his or her own applications, usually on the weekends when neighbors are also home, does not bother with any formal notifications at all. A neighbor might ask such a homeowner “What’s that smell?” To which the enterprising amateur lawn care enthusiast might reply, without apparent knowledge of or concern about the collateral damage of his or her efforts, “That’s the smell of the green, green grass of home!”
— Izzy

 

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Long Live the Monarch

 

The Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, may not seem to have any connection to Halloween other than its orange and black coloration, but in Mexico, where they overwinter, the butterflies are hailed as the spirits of friends and relatives who have died in the past year and are returning at the time of Halloween for one last visit with the living. The important dates for Mexicans, and indeed for many Hispanic peoples, are October 31st, and November 1st and 2nd, known as The Days of the Dead, or Los Dias de los Muertos in Spanish.

From the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter, Robert Mitchum as a murderous and greedy self-anointed preacher sings “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, while Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper protects the children inside her house from harm.

Before the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, the Aztecs and other indigenous peoples believed Monarch butterflies were returning human spirits. After the Spaniards imposed Catholicism throughout the region, the Native Americans transposed some of their ancient beliefs onto the new religion. In the case of the Monarch butterflies, since their annual migration brought them to their winter home in the mountains of Mexico more or less at the end of October and the beginning of November, it was a simple matter for Native Americans to meld their traditional celebration of the dead and honoring of the return of the butterflies at that time of year with the Christian holidays of All Saints’ Eve (Hallow e’en, or evening) on October 31st, All Saints’ Day on November 1st, and All Souls’ Day on November 2nd.


This mixing of indigenous traditions with Christian beliefs and holidays follows a pattern seen in Christian communities throughout the world. In Ireland, for instance, where the version of Halloween celebrations started in a way that most Americans would recognize, the Christian holidays were overlaid on existing Celtic harvest festivals and honoring of the dead. It seems in the northern hemisphere at least, where the harvest occurs approximately in September, October, and November, that honoring the dead at the same time was commonplace. People prayed to their honored dead for a good harvest, and when the work was done they often symbolically shared the bounty with their dear departed at altars in the home. It was a short step for the Church to substitute, or merely add, saints and martyrs to the list of honored dead.

Monarca 1 (60725860)
Overwintering Monarch butterflies in November 2005. Photo by Samuel from Toluca, Mexico.

Monarch butterflies, meanwhile, have troubles beyond being Halloween symbols for human beings. Habitat loss, pesticides, and destruction of food sources have all led to a general decline in their numbers over the last few decades. They are not yet under the protection of the Endangered Species List, and they may not be anytime soon given the hostility toward environmental protection of the current presidential administration.

The ending of the 2010 version of True Grit, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen, with Iris DeMent singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”.

It is more important than ever, therefore, for individuals to do everything they can to assure the continued survival of Monarch butterflies, rather than relying on governmental entities to take the lead. It’s not hard; the butterflies don’t ask for much. Leave some tall weeds standing at the edge of a property rather than mowing absolutely everything down to half inch high grass. Among those tall weeds, plant or encourage some milkweeds as fodder for the caterpillars, and some wildflowers as nectar sources for the adult butterflies. Stop using pesticides and herbicides, at least the general purpose ones that kill all insects or all vegetation. Pay attention, be observant and respectful, and in the end enjoy what you have helped along in a way you could not possibly enjoy yet more grass or asphalt. The spirits are watching.
― Vita

 

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Let It Go

 

Following on the heels of the news story about Internet Service Providers (ISPs) astroturfing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to influence its decision on rolling back net neutrality regulations, and in some cases preceding it by several years, is the revelation that Monsanto, makers of Roundup herbicide and a world leader in producing genetically modified seeds, has allegedly been paying shills to post positive comments online about the company and its products, particularly on websites which portray them negatively. Even more disturbing has been the information from internal company memos which reveal its strategy for tilting scientific opinion in its favor by funding biased think tanks, funneling grant money to friendly scientists and academic institutions and even ghost writing papers for them, all of which are meant to appear as impartial efforts, while debunking contrary news articles and impugning the motives of the journalists who write them. Monsanto refers to its policy as “Let Nothing Go”.
Monsanto-siembra-muerte.B.A.2013
Anti-Monsanto stencil “Monsanto – Siembra Muerte” in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2013 reads in English “Monsanto – Seeds of Death”; photo by JanManu. Monsanto’s policies and practices have engendered large scale protests in Argentina, as well as elsewhere around the world. Strangely, in the United States, the land where Freedom of the Press is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, the mainstream media is largely silent about agribusiness misconduct. Test that yourself with an internet search.

 

Monsanto is not alone among companies in tasking their public relations people with promoting a positive image online in comments sections, forums, and social media. That’s a very good reason for taking such comments with a large grain of salt. It’s akin to what you may hear around the water cooler at work, only in this case one or more of your fellow gossips makes oddly stilted remarks in favor of the company way, as if speaking from a script. When one of those gossips dons a white laboratory coat and purports to speak with scientific authority on the subject at hand, the discussion moves magically from around the water cooler to around the executive conference table. There the discussion is not so much about influencing public opinion as it is about setting the parameters for debate and ultimately public policy.

Robert Morse learns under the tutelage of mail room boss Sammy Smith as they sing “The Company Way” in the 1967 movie of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

However, just because a shill wears a lab coat and has a list of academic degrees behind his or her name does not make that person any less of a shill than the one who makes a few dollars trolling comments sections on behalf of a corporation. The scientific high priest type of shill is morally worse because he or she exploits the respect and gullibility of the general public when hearing pronouncements from them. Not all of the science shills know what they do, of course, because they may be true believers. The others, who know what they do, but go on anyway because of greed and ambition, deserve no leeway from the public or their peers, and more likely deserve condemnation. Jesus knew as much when He denounced the Pharisees.

A scene from the 1970 movie Little Big Man, with Dustin Hoffman and Martin Balsam. Snake Oil Salesmen and their Shills by no means disappeared with the 19th Century.

For whatever topic you care to name that puts at risk the finances of large corporations – tobacco, climate change, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and the herbicides that accompany them – you can find a corporate funded think tank with outreach to a handful of friendly scientists and institutions who scramble to debunk legitimate research and hold back a growing avalanche of negative public opinion. The agribusiness funded Genetic Literacy Project has nothing good to say about U.S. Right to Know, an organization largely funded by the organic food industry. Similarly, U.S. Right to Know dismisses the science of the Genetic Literacy Project. The organic food industry in the United States has about 5% of the market and is steadily growing year after year. Organic foods are by definition non-GMO. You are free to make up your own mind about who to believe, of course, and it’s a good thing then that to help you decide, many sellers of non-GMO foods have begun labeling their products as such. This was after giant agribusinesses successfully lobbied the government to scuttle labeling of products that do contain GMO foods. The big corporations apparently don’t trust you with the facts and with making decisions for yourself based on those facts.
― Izzy

 

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