RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Parkinson's, Pesticides
and Organic Standards

The daily newspapers are just dang full of irony these days, and we'd best be alert. So when on May 4 we read: "FDA rejects mandatory biotech food labeling: Altered foods are safe, government agency says," and on May 5: "In-home pesticide exposure increases Parkinson's risk," we sat up straight and paid attention. And you'd better, too.

Pesticides have been a part of our lives since the 1940s, used by farmers to kill bugs on crops and by homeowners to kill bugs at picnics. One of my earliest memories is one 1950s spring evening when a sprayer truck drove down our street spritzing the air with DDT. A few minutes after, birds fell out of the trees. My mother cradled one ever so gently and forced water down its throat with an eye dropper in an attempt to save its life. "What should we do? What should we do?" she asked.

There were no guidelines. DDT had never been tested on birds, or on people or dogs or any other critters. The scientists that created DDT only knew that it poisoned bugs, and our town was anti-bug, so we sprayed.

I remember that bird, a nondescript, brown one. My grandmother called all such plain birds "thrush," and assured us that their beautiful songs made up for their plainness. This thrush trembled in a way I'd never seen before or since, and we didn't know if this was because of the spray or its fear of finding itself suddenly on the lawn among humans.

The bird died, but its memory stayed with us, and soon after my grandmother discovered a book called A Silent Spring, one that was widely discussed at family gatherings. A silent spring? What could that mean?

The town stopped spraying, the nation banned DDT, but pesticides have gone on and on. Now, at the American Academy of Neurology's 52nd annual meeting in San Diego, Calif, April 29-May 6, researchers announced that exposure to pesticides increase the risk of developing Parkinson's disease.

According to the Academy's press release: "people who had been exposed to pesticides were approximately two times more likely to develop Parkinson's disease than people not exposed to pesticides." Pesticides in the home were the biggest culprits.

Clearly, there is a lot of research yet to be done. There are dozens of kinds of pesticides to investigate, but the study determined that certain chemicals gravitate to certain parts of the brain. In the case of Parkinson's disease, the disease is associated with death of cells in the brain sector called "substantia nigra." This is the sector that pesticides are drawn to.

We can live without pesticides, and you probably have never bought a can of Raid. But the Parkinson's press release was the day after the FDA press release, so I've gotten ahead of the story.

The FDA story, reported in an AP press release, begins "The Clinton administration declined to require that food labels disclose ingredients that are genetically engineered and instead announced Wednesday a series of industry-backed steps intended to assure the public that the products are safe."

We could mine every word in that paragraph and come up with nugget after nugget of meaningful irony, but we won't. Instead, let's briefly remind ourselves what genetically-engineered foods are and where they're found. GE foods -- also called GMOs, biotech, Roundup-Ready, transgenic, bioengineered, or Bt -- are plants that have been altered from their natural state by the addition of a gene or genes from another species.

One of the most popular gene additions allows the plant to create its own pesticide. This Frankenplant produces a bug killer engineered to kill a specific pest of the specific crop. The poison is called Bt-. Bt-corn poisons the larva of the corn borer. Bt-potatoes poison the larva of the potato beetle. The pests, raging across huge fields of corn or potatoes, do millions of dollars of crop damage every year, so the new plants have been widely planted.

Understand this: Bt is part of the plant. It's not sprayed on. You can't wash it off. It's part of the roots, the leaves, the flowers, the stems. It's in the edible parts and the inedible parts.

You've eaten this Bt-food when you've eaten corn chips, potato chips, taco shells, or any other commercially-produced corn or potato product. Unless you're eating strictly traditional crops you've grown yourself, crops you've bought from a farmer you trust, or foods you know positively are organic, you've eaten a pesticide that has not been tested on humans, dogs, birds, or other critters any more than DDT was tested back in the 1950s.

Clearly, we must be able to choose whether or not we eat foods that create their own poisons because the effects on humans aren't known for a generation after the poisons are invented.

Since FDA won't allow labels on biotech foods, we must assure that the one label we have is a label we can trust. The one label we have is the "organic" label, with rules now proposed by USDA.

There are giant loopholes in the new USDA organic rules, and one is in the area of GMOs. The new rules prohibit GMOs now in existence, which include the presently-available genetically-engineered potatoes, corn, tomatoes and so forth, but leave open the possibility that future GMO crops can slide under the rules.

These new crops could be considered without any public input. Check it out by calling the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture at 914-744-8448 or see their website (e-mail

Months ago, consumers flooded USDA with letters protesting the first draft rules of the organic standards. We need to be sure the second draft is tight as a drum. The comments deadline is June 13.

Send your comments to Keith Jones, Program Manager, National Organic Program, USDA-AMS-TMP-NOP, Room 2945-So, Ag Stop 0275, PO Box 96456, Washington DC 20090-6456. After writing that entire address, you'll only have a little paper left, so you can be brief. Tell Keith you depend on him to tighten the standard regarding genetically modified crops. Under no circumstances, ever, should any GMOs be labeled organic. Never never never.

And sign your name and print your address so Keith can write you back when he's done your bidding.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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