Jun 30, 2019
By Jonah Raskin
It started here in Sonoma County: the statewide movement to ban chemical pesticides and herbicides by 2050.
Robert Henry (Bob) Cannard, the man who jump-started the movement—with help from Karen Lee and Nellie Praetzel—has grown organic fruits and vegetables ever since 1972, and sold them to cooks and chefs, and at farm stands and farmers’ markets in northern California. The website is https://organiccalifornia2050.org. For decades, Cannard has supplied Alice Waters flagship Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, with fresh produce. He’s also taught thousands of students the practice and the philosophy of organic farming at Santa Rosa Junior College and at Green String Farm on the edge of Petaluma, a destination for shoppers who want olive oil, bread and preserves, as well as cabbages, potatoes, radishes and apples cultivated in soil free of toxic pesticides and herbicides.
Now, at the age of 66, and with a lifetime of opposition to corporate farming and agribusiness, Cannard might kick back and watch the weeds grow in his backyard. No one would fault him if he did, and certainly not his son, Ross, who is beginning to assume more farming responsibilities and ease some of the pressures on his father. Bob Cannard could retire and not grow another potato, tomato, grape, or olive.
But at 66, he’s ready to take on the giant companies that manufacture deadly chemicals such as glyphosate (Roundup). “I’m not really an activist,” Cannard says. “I’m a farmer and a gardener who grows local food for local people.” No, he’s not a flaming activist, but he’s an enraged citizen, and he’s primed to mount a grassroots campaign to make California the first all-organic state in the U.S. “You’re goddamned right I’m angry,” he says. “I’m pissed off.”
There are others like Cannard all across Sonoma, including the members of Preserve Rural Sonoma County and the organization’s outspoken representatives, such as Padi Selwyn who points out that “about 37 tons of Roundup are used each year in Sonoma County which is approximately 1/3 of a cup for every man, woman and child!” Selwyn adds that “Research has tied this poison to a range of cancers, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Parkinson’s, reproductive disorders and more, not to mention soil health degradation, harm to pollinator habitat and wildlife health problems.”
Selwyn asks, “Does Sonoma County really want to allow the continued use of this devastating pesticide?”
Preserve Rural Sonoma County will host an event titled “Pesticides in Paradise? Winning the battle for a safer and healthier community.” The event is on Monday, August 5, 201, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., at the Sebastopol Grange. Guest speakers include Mitchel Cohen and Robin T. Falk Esser whose writings are featured in the new book, The Fight Against Monsanto’s Roundup: The Politics of Pesticides.
Bob Cannard comes to the world of politics from the ground up and from Sonoma County, the environment he has known almost all his life. His questions have a disarming frankness about them.
“I don’t understand why anyone would want to play baseball on a field sprayed with toxic chemicals,” he says. “I also don’t understand why anyone would want to sit under an oak tree on the campus of SRJC that has been sprayed with chemicals to kill fungus. And why would anyone want to buy and eat vegetables grown in soil that has been poisoned by products like Roundup.” Cannard adds, “It’s not surprising that there’s a high level of health disorders, especially for children, but for adults too.
Cannard envisions a campaign of epic proportions that will be waged from Oregon to the border with Mexico, and from the Pacific Ocean to the Sierras. It’s a battle between David on one side, and Goliath on the other. In Cannard’s view, the people of the State of California play the role of David and companies like Bayer and Monsanto play Goliath.
He calls his campaign, “Organic California 2050.” For his opening salvo, Cannard wrote a ballot measure that directs “the duly elected governor of our state and subservient officers to develop protocols resulting in all commercial and domestic agricultural activities to conform within the parameters as set forth under the National Organic Program as executed by the USDA by the year 2050 in an annually progressive schedule.” Ambitious, yes, but human health, wellbeing and survival are at stake.
Cannard has been prompted to take action now in part because of the growing body of scientific evidence that has shown that there’s a dramatic link between the use of products like glyphosate and cancer rates among human beings. A jury in San Francisco recently awarded Sonoma County resident, Edwin Hardeman, 70, $80,000,000 after a trial in which the overwhelming body of evidence showed that Monsanto’s Roundup was a likely cause of his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. https://www.weedkillercrisis.com/topics/roundup-cancer-risk
Thousands of other American citizens with cancer have filed lawsuits against Monsanto, which was recently purchased by Bayer, the German-based multinational corporation, and one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. In 2018, Bayer revenue was $40 billion euros. No wonder the company has insisted, even after the verdict in the Hardeman case that Roundup has no harmful impacts on human beings. For years, cigarette-manufacturing companies denied the proven links between smoking and cancer.
“Companies like Bayer must want to poison us,” Cannard says. “They won’t change unless and until they’re forced to change. Fortunately, we still have the freedom to speak and to act publicly. Speech is better than silence.” He holds the same core beliefs as Rachel Carson, who told a close friend not long before she wrote Silent Spring, “Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent.”
Cannard would like the Golden State to move away from products such as glyphosate well before 2050. He’d like all use of glyphosate to stop now, before it causes more harm than it already has caused. But he knows that grass roots democracy moves slowly, as does big government. So, he doesn’t expect changes to take place anytime soon. Indeed, he knows that it will take time, energy and human will power to gather the 600,000 or so signatures that will be necessary to put the “Organic California 2050” measure on the ballot in 2020, during the next presidential campaign.
In the spring of 2019, Cannard tried to launch a petition drive in Sonoma County that would have placed on the ballot a measure banning glyphosate. Bruce D. Goldstein, county council, told him in a letter dated May 30, that what Cannard aimed to do went against state and federal law. If he accepted Cannard’s petition, Goldstein explained, “I would have to violate my oath to uphold the constitutions of the United States and the state of California.”
Cannard considered the option of taking the county to court and decided against it because it would have meant the expenditure of time and money. Instead, he’s upped the political ante. From the stage of Sonoma, he has leapt to the bigger stage of California.
Cannard suspects that, even if his state-wide measure wins on Election Day, corporate agriculture will fight it tooth and nail, and aim to go on farming in the same harmful ways that it has been farming for the last half century. “They’ll cheat and not honor the will of the people,” he says. He adds, “I don’t trust the Environmental Protection Agency. Long ago, the EPA sold out to the people peddling the harmful products.”
The petrochemical industry lambasted Rachel Carson after Silent Spring was published and blew the lid on DDT, which killed birds and wild life.
A kind of evolutionary revolutionary, Cannard takes the long view, whether he looks forward or backward. Indeed, he knows that before the arrival of grapes and vineyards, and before the arrival of apples and raspberries, Sonoma County was covered with redwood forests and inhabited by all kinds of wild animals, including mountains lions and bears, that are now largely extinct.
If present farming practices go on, and if humans do nothing to stop climate change, Cannard envisions a time when Sonoma County will be a desert. Alarmist? Possibly. But these are alarming times. Cannard knows that green, fertile lands in what is now Iraq were turned into sand because human beings weren’t responsible stewards of land and water.
Years ago, Cannard launched a ballot measure in Sonoma County to require the labeling of foods with GMOS. “I didn’t succeed but I raised the issue and increased awareness. The State of Oregon has adopted GMO labeling.”
Cannard is optimistic about “Organic California 2050.” “We will have petitions everywhere,” he says. “We’ll also be on social media. I have thousands of potential followers in the state, many of them students who took my classes at the JC and who worked as interns at Green String. I’m getting o
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