Nel's New Day

July 16, 2016

Congress Takes Seven-Week Vacation

Congress hobbled out of town two days ago for a seven-week recess, one of the longest in its modern history after they filed a resolution to impeach the IRS commissioner, John A. Koskinen, who had nothing to do with the issue of asking political Tea Party PACs to show that they weren’t political. Another witch hunt was the committee to destroy Planned Parenthood and anyone who had any relationship—no matter how intangential. Thus far, its efforts have been as unproductive as the multi-million-dollar effort to find an involvement between Hillary Clinton and the deaths at Benghazi, Libya.

Two bills – both bad jokes – were sent to the president for signing: genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and opioids.

The bill to “label” foods with GMO ingredients was designed to stop states from taking action on this issue after the federal government had refused to deal with it. The so-called “label” is a small square code that must be scanned with a smart phone for a person to get information. An option for small food companies is printing a website URL or phone number where customers can request information about the GMO content. Not all ingredients must be identified, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture gets to pick which ones. For example, refined products such as soy oil or sugar from beets might be exempt because they are made from GMO crops but the final product supposedly doesn’t contain GMO material. Corn, an ingredient in a great deal of food products, may also be exempted from the labeling requirement.

The Agriculture Department also determines the quantity of GMO material before requiring identification, leaving many products with GMOs unidentified with a high threshold. In addition, penalties for noncompliant companies are minimal or none, and the bill prevents any states, including those that have already passed labeling laws, from regulations requiring actual information on food labels.

The bill is largely thanks to Sens. Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), who have received more than $2.1 million in campaign contributions this cycle from agribusiness donors. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fast-tracked the bill with no amendments or debate by pasting the content into the empty shell of a bill that had already been passed by the Senate, but not enacted into law. The act was passed by a vote of 63-30.

The FDA pointed out a number of loopholes, and labels won’t start appearing for at least two years. Nicknamed the “Deny Americans the Right to Know” (DARK Act), the bill is in opposition to the 90 percent of people in the nation who want clear labeling for GMOs.

The second bad joke in recently passed bills addresses the painkiller overdose epidemic. The bill that was passed and sent on to the president includes a pain management task force, research, better access to treatment options and drug rehabilitation instead of incarceration. The bill, however, doesn’t provide any funding. President Obama had proposed $1 billion, and Democrats tried to get $920 million in funding. The GOP rejected both.

The rising death tolls from overdoses of painkillers came from the pharmaceutical industry pushing higher and higher levels of prescribing opioids for even minor pain. Thirteen years ago, Purdue Pharma gave doctors 34,000 coupons for free OxyContin prescriptions along with OxyContin “fishing hats, stuffed plush toys, coffee mugs with heat activated messages, music compact discs, [and] luggage tags.” Within ten years, the prescriptions for opioids almost tripled from 1991. Pharma-paid doctors changed pain guidelines to favor opioids.

The bill allows greater access to buprenorphine, a medicine treating addiction, from 100 to 275 patients at a time. Nurses and other medical professionals can also administer the drug. Corporations will now make money from buprenorphine, as addictive as opioids, that gives a high as does OxyContin. While Congress rewards pharmaceutical companies with more money for another addictive drug, it ignores the fact that deaths from painkillers are down 25 percent in states with medical marijuana.

The House passed a $32 billion spending bill for the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency that rolled back regulations on coal-fired power plants, but it’s only the fifth of twelve funding bills for Cabinet agencies. It passed, also on party lines, a bill to impose new sanctions on Iran and the Conscience Protection Act, which prohibits the government from discriminating against health care providers who do not want to perform or cooperate in abortions.

The House “celebrated” the one-month anniversary of the massacre at the LGBT nightclub in Orlando (FL) where 50 people died with a hearing on anti-LGBT legislation to allow anyone to avoid federal protections for LGBT couples and families with an excuse of religious liberty. Those who discriminate would have no legal repercussions, financial or otherwise, for refusing to provide spousal tax, medical, or educational benefits, to same-gender couples. The measure is similar to a Mississippi law overturned by a federal judge  because it would in reality hurt religious liberty by favoring certain beliefs over others. As of April 2016 over one hundred active bills across 22 states legalized discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

The House’s approval of its financial services appropriations bill repealed a law passed by Washington, D.C. that protects workers from employer retaliation over reproductive health choices such using birth control, getting a baby, or obtaining an abortion. Congress has control over the city’s laws and budget because it does not have state status.

That’s what Congress “accomplished.” Their failures? A major one is that ignoring the Zika virus epidemic. When a few cases of Ebola came to the United States in 2014, lawmakers went to pieces and approved $5.4 billion in emergency funding. Yet Florida has over 300 Zika cases reported, among the almost 1,200 cases confirmed in continental U.S. Pregnant women infected with the virus can carry fetuses with a number of birth defects, including microcephaly that causes abnormally small heads in fetuses. Caring for each microcephalic child can cost between $1 million and $10 million.

As of June, seven babies had been born in the U.S .with Zika-related birth defects. A baby was born with microcephaly in Texas on the day that Congress left Washington for the rest of the summer. Zika is also linked with Guillain-Barré syndrome with possible permanent nerve damage and paralysis.  The virus is transmitted either by mosquito bites or through sex and extremely difficult to track because 80 percent of infected people do not exhibit symptoms.

The Zika virus is a public health crisis in the nation, and Congress disappeared from Washington for seven weeks, perhaps hoping that the mosquitoes will be dead by the time they get back. A bill would provide emergency resources for vaccine development, mosquito control efforts, and other research into containment and prevention. House Republicans refused to move the bill forward without restricting abortion, overturning clean water regulations, defunding part of the Affordable Care Act, and undoing the ban on flying the Confederate flag at federal cemeteries. Republicans insisted on blocking Planned Parenthood funding in Puerto Rico to fight the virus, and Democrats voted against the measure.

House Speaker Paul Ryan managed to get out of town before Democrats could stage another sit-in to demand votes for gun safety measures. He had promised to put an NRA-approved gun bill on the floor but called it off after protests from GOP conservatives. Senate Republicans had previously blocked a bill to keep people on the federal terrorist list from buying guns. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said, “This is going to be a long, hot summer for people who aren’t going to be able to take nice long vacations, people who are in our streets fearing for our children, people wondering why Congress has failed.”

The Senate has not moved on a new Supreme Court justice and done little for other judicial approvals. A $575 billion Pentagon funding bill failed because of concern that it would boost defense while freezing domestic programs and unravel the hard-fought budget deal from last year reversing caps on both Pentagon and domestic budget lines. No resolution means that September may bring a stopgap  spending measure to stave off a shutdown.

Lawmakers, mostly in the House, have already been debating whether to write a short-term government spending measure that runs into December or a six-month stopgap measure that would expire in March under a new Congress and president. The last two election years for presidents saw funding bills pushed into March following the election.

The GOP House “celebrated” the one-month anniversary of the massacre at the LGBT nightclub in Orlando (FL) where 50 people died with a hearing on anti-LGBT legislation to allow anyone to avoid federal protections for LGBT couples and families with an excuse of religious liberty. The bill would permit those who discriminate to have no legal repercussions, financial or otherwise, for refusing to provide spousal tax, medical, or educational benefits, to same-gender couples. The measure is similar to a Mississippi law overturned by a federal judge  because it would in reality hurt religious liberty by favoring certain beliefs over others. As of April 2016 over one hundred active bills across 22 states legalized discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

Maybe it’s a good thing that congressional members left town.

December 13, 2013

Push Back at Monsanto

The island of Hawaii has emerged victorious over a monster corporation: Mayor Billy Kenoi signed a bill last week that prevents biotech companies from operating on the island and bans any new genetically-altered crops other than papaya. In October Mexico banned, on an interim basis, planting genetically-engineered corn; last July Italy became the ninth European country to ban Monsanto’s GMO corn.

Europe is so unwelcoming that Monsanto has pulled eight of its nine pending applications with the European Commission. The company plans to continue its conventional seed business there and will try to renew approval to cultivate the one GM corn variety commercially grown in Europe. Its original application, approved in 1998, was the last one to be accepted there.

Millions of small-scale farmers in Africa have repeatedly objected to using GMO crops and want their governments to ban them. Traditional African farming systems developed a diversity of seed varieties to deal with farming challenges. Seeds have been bred for flavor and nutrition as well as adaptation to different soils and weather patterns, a far better system than GMOs. Another problem for African farmers is that saving Monsanto’s GMO seed is illegal while 80 percent of African farmers save seed that they have bred.

Monsanto, the producer of the killer defoliant Agent Orange with annual overall sales of $14.86 billion, claims that the corporation is “a sustainable agriculture company,” but Southeast Asia disagrees. Genetically-modified seeds destroy the soil while demanding repurchasing because of the renewable traits. Since 1995, 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide after insurmountable debt derived from Monsanto’s cotton. Many farmers killed themselves from pesticides intended for their crops. Part of the debt came from Monsanto’s unbelievable increase for a kilogram of cotton seeds from 7 to 17,000 rupees in just the year 2009.

GMO cotton cannot be intercropped with food crops, requires irrigation instead of being rain-fed, creates new pests demanding 13 times more pesticides than the traditional cotton, and fails to meet the claims of 1500/kg/year when farmers were able to harvest only 300-400/kg/year.

Another problem waiting to happen is the “golden rice,” a genetically-engineered variety designed to produce pro-vitamin A (beta-carotene). Millions of dollars have been spent to develop this instead of solutions such as food supplements and fortification. “Golden rice” can easily contaminate non-GE rice, and traditional and organic rice farmers will lose their markets, especially export markets. Any unexpected hazardous effects could put people and food security at risk in countries around the world. For example, a diet based solely on rice could make malnutrition worse. When researchers fed the experimental “golden rice” to children in China, they failed to tell parents what their children were eating.

Europe is denying the applications with good cause. More and more evidence is emerging that Roundup, Monsanto’s top-selling pesticide destroys vital human intestinal bacteria and contributes to rapid increase of food allergies and serious human diseases including cancer, autism, neurological disorders , Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), dementia, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Children and elderly people are most susceptible to this poisoning.

Pigs fed GMO corn and soy feed had a notably higher rate of severe stomach inflammation, according to a recent study. Rats fed GMO corn died prematurely after developing tumors. A 2012 French study regarding these tumors, an investigation into the “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize,” was published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology.

As soon as the study was published, Monsanto raised concerns of bias and choice of rats. Although the researchers stand by their study, Wallace Hayes, editor-in-chief of the publishing journal retracted the study. An exhaustive investigation of the study resulted in no findings of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of data, but that the study was inconclusive. It is to be noted that the journal that retracted the study had recently appointed biologist Richard Goodman as associate editor. Goodman worked for Monsanto for seven years and has a history of supporting GMOs.

In the late 1990s, the scientist Marc Lappé, found that Monsanto’s claims that the increase of yields from their technology was highly overstated. After he wrote Against the Grain, Monsanto threated the publishers if they were to release the book. A year ago Monsanto bought out Beeologics, which had been concerned with studying and protecting bees from “colony collapse disorder.”

Insects are becoming far more resistant to GMOs, requiring the use of more and more pesticides. Sales of corn insecticide doubled in 2012 because of the rootworm resistance in the U.S.  The EPA recently raised the permitted levels of Roundup residue on grains and vegetables to more dangerous levels because of the growing resistance.

Last summer the World Food Prize Foundation awarded a Monsanto executive the “Nobel Price of food” for creating GMOs. The award is given to “outstanding individuals who have made vital contributions to improving the quality, quantity or availability of food throughout the world.” In 2008 Monsanto gave $5 million to the foundation making the award, which favors industrial agricultural. Maintaining seed diversity and promoting healthy soil ecology are essential to “real food security” and a strategy more than worthy of recognition.

Farmers achieved a victory against Monsanto last summer after a court ordered the corporation to not sue farmers for patent infringement as they discover GE contamination. With that decision, farmers can now sue Monsanto for damages in a contamination problem without being concerned about a countersuit of patent infringement. A possible case is the discovers of Monsanto wheat in a crop, wheat that was discontinued several years ago.

Maine, along with Connecticut, has passed a GMO labeling law. There isn’t much chance of these laws going into effect, though, because they have three caveats:

  • Four other Northeastern states must enact legislation.
  • One must border Connecticut/Maine (respectively).
  • The four Northeastern states must have a combined population of at least 20 million.

Maine’s law requires one from New Hampshire; Connecticut can use Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts (which contains one of the world’s leading biotechnology hubs), and Rhode Island. All these states must pass the same law to reach the population unless New York decides to opt in.

Between 60 and 70 percent of all food sold in the United States is genetically engineered, but none of these foods is labeled as such. In last November’s election, Washington state came close to passing a law that would require food labeling of GMO products. Although 93 percent of the people in the United States support food labeling, the $22 million for anti-labeling advertising swung the vote in Washington at the last minute. Sixty-four nations, including all of Europe, have labeling requirements. The Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA) is now planning to block labeling across the United States through federal law.

Much has been written about secret surveillance since Edward Snowden released records from the National Security Agency. Most people don’t know that corporations such as Monsanto and Wal-Mart also spy on activists and non-profit groups with little fear of retribution. These companies employ former CIA, NSA, FBI, military, and police officers to monitor and infiltrate groups critical of the corporations. According to a report from Essential Information:

“Many different types of nonprofits have been targeted with espionage, including environmental, anti-war, public interest, consumer, food safety, pesticide reform, nursing-home reform, gun control, social justice, animal rights and arms control groups.”

Monsanto has purchased many members of Congress who try to pass amendments preventing state labeling laws and anti-lawsuit measures regarding Monsanto to the farm bill. Earlier this year under the guidance of former Monsanto lawyer Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO, the House passed the Monsanto Protection Act that allowed crops with GMO seeds to be planted and sold, regardless of a judicial order.

Fortunately, Congress seems incapable of passing almost any laws. Sending the budget bill to the Senate, once pro forma, was considered a miracle this past week. Let’s hope that Congress continues its pattern of  “first, do no harm.”

April 8, 2013

Can Monsanto Be Stopped?

Over four decades ago I went on a free ride at Disneyland called “Adventures thru Inner Space” sponsored by Monsanto. Forty years, I didn’t know anything about the company—just that it provided a “free ride” once I paid to get inside the amusement park. Little did I know that Monsanto, that started as a small chemical company in 1901, would grow into a huge biotechnology seed company that would be destructive to our environment and our food supply.

Monsanto originally made its fortune selling saccharin to Coca-Cola before it moved on to producing DDT (now banned in the United States) and Agent Orange, an herbicide and anti-defoliant that killed or maimed 400,000 people and caused another 500,000 children to be born with birth defects after its use during the Vietnam War. Its most recent money-maker is selling genetically-engineered seeds complete with herbicides and pesticides. Because of its dangers, people have tried to legislate ways to label food as genetically engineered, for example the failed California’s Prop 37, but Monsanto has been successful in defeating these efforts.

rootworm-300x203Monsanto spent $4.2 million last year to kill the ballot initiative that would bring California’s laws in line with those passed in Japan, China, the European Union, and Australia, which already require labels on genetically modified foods. In the United States, 91 percent of voters support GMO labeling, yet the FDA does not require safety studies before approving genetically-modified foods. Because of the danger of these GM foods, the EPA decided to look into the problem of “superweeds” and “superworms” that resist Monsanto chemicals.

The latest species of worm that has evolved to withstand pesticides are called “armyworms” because their infestation is like a military onslaught. The only answer farmers have at this time is to drastically increase the use of toxic chemicals on their crops.

Thanks to an anomymously-added rider to the Agriculture Appropriations Bill, now signed into law, Monsanto is immune from any lawsuits against its poisoning the public. Nicknamed the Monsanto Protection Act, this law was even written by Monsanto and then slipped in with neither hearing nor review. President Obama signed the protection for Monsanto into law because it was part of the federal budget Continuing Resolution, necessary for continuing the government operations. Members of Congress who might have opposed it have said that they were unaware that it was part of the bill.

More people are familiar with the new law thanks to a segment on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, in which he said that these lawmakers operate “with the same level of awareness as a flatulent grandpa.” He further quipped, “The laws in the most powerful nation on Earth are written with the same level of accountability as Internet comments.”

Section 735 of the Continuing Resolution states that a seed approved by the USDA but challenged by a court ruling can still be used and sold until the USDA says otherwise. A USDA spokesperson said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asked for a review of section 735, “as it appears to preempt judicial review of a deregulatory action, which may make the provision unenforceable.”

Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) proposed an amendment to remove the rider out of the CR, but it never came to a vote. He slammed the House of Representatives for “slipping  ‘corporate giveaways’ into a must-pass government funding bill.” He wrote in a statement:

“Montanans elected me to the Senate to do away with shady backroom deals and to make government work better. These provisions are giveaways worth millions of dollars to a handful of the biggest corporations in this country and deserve no place in this bill.”

bluntRep. Roy Blunt (R-MO) is taking credit for the biorider, saying that he “worked with” Monsanto to craft it. Monsanto’s office is located in Missouri, and the company has contributed generously to Blunt’s campaigns.

A serious problem of Monsanto’s genetically-modified seeds is that farmers cannot use seeds from their crops in the next year. Because Monsanto has patent rights, they are claiming—in the U.S. Supreme Court—that farmers that buy previously harvested soybeans for planting are infringing on Monsanto’s rights. Approximately 90 percent of the country’s soybeans are subject to this ruling because of being genetically modified, giving Monsanto a virtual monopoly to control access to this crop.

The case of Monsanto v. Vernon Hugh Bowman, an Indiana soybean and wheat farmer, surrounded the issue that all Monsanto seed buyers must sign a “Technology Agreement,” prohibiting them from saving and replanting the seeds or doing research on the seeds, and pay a technology fee.

As usual, Justice Clarence Thomas did not recuse himself although he is a former Monsanto lawyer.  Bowman got his seed from his local grain elevator to plant as a high-risk crop after he harvested his wheat. Losing in two lower courts, Bowman is the using the argument of patent “exhaustion,” meaning that the patent owner has no rights to an item after an initial authorized sale of that patented item.

Monsanto also claims that it controls the pollen from Monsanto corn, also dominant in U.S. crops, and seeds distributed by animals, winds, or waterways and mixing with non-GMO plantings. The company maintains that the seeds of Monsanto seeds retain the company’s exclusive patent rights until perpetuity. If Monsanto wins its case—and with its money it is likely to do so—then almost all farmers will be forced to pay Monsanto for all their seeds. Monsanto has the ability to sell seeds that cannot re-propagate, meaning that farmers cannot use its existing crops to plant seeds during the next year.

Monsanto doesn’t stop there. Their products include herbicides, pesticides, and biocides that make soil toxic and water poisonous. Their genetically-modified products have not had enough testing on the health impacts.

Bill Maher put it well in his “New Rules” section: “If you are one of the millions of Californians who voted against labeling genetically modified food, you can’t complain when it turns out there is horse meat in your hamburger.” In his description of mislabeled foods, he said:

“Did you know your Chilean sea bass is neither Chilean, nor bass, nor from the sea? …. And your Mahi-Mahi is really made of mercury drenched bottom feeders like tile fish …. And if you like sushi, you really don’t know what you are eating because those fish are mislabeled 74% of the time.”

If there is any good news about this whole debacle, it is that the Monsanto Protection Act has been passed for only six months because the budget bill is in effect for only six months. It’s up to the people in the United States to stop this from happening again.

Other countries are fighting back against Monsanto’s control:

Five million farmers in India are suing Monsanto for as much as $7.7 billion for taxing the farmers to financial shambles with ridiculous royalty charges for “renewal” seed harvests, crops planted using seed from the previous year’s harvest.

Hungary destroyed 1000 acres of maize after the country found that it was grown with genetically modified seeds. Genetically modified (GM) seeds are banned in the country.

Peru has passed a 10-year ban on GM foods.

Argentina‘s tax agency is holding Monsanto responsible for  “slave-like conditions” among workers at a Monsanto contractor. Rural Power SA hired all its farmhands illegally, prevented them from leaving the fields, and withheld their salaries.

Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Japan, Luxembourg, Madeira, New Zealand, South Australia, Russia, France, and Switzerland have removed Monsanto seeds and banned them.

Poland is also taking action against Monsanto.

Congress is due to return after its latest two-week recess, and the Senate may begin debate on gun legislation tomorrow. Let’s hope that they decide to protect the people in the United States as much as they protect Monsanto.

 

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