- Photo by Jonah Raskin
- Nichole Warwick, a breast cancer survivor and Sonoma County environmental activist. The words on her chest read: ‘Pesticides used in Sonoma County Annually for Wine 2.3 million pounds.’
Call it Wine Country or call it Glyphosate Country. According to Padi Selwyn, the cofounder of Preserve Rural Sonoma County, and Laura Morgan, a local physician concerned about the health of the environment, millions of pounds of pesticides have been applied, mostly to wine grapes, in Sonoma County. They say that in 2015, for example, 2,839,007 pounds were applied.
Exact figures for recent years are hard to come by. Winery owners aren’t publicizing that information. It would undermine their claims to be “sustainable.” Still, the scientific evidence is strong enough for Sonoma County to ban the use of synthetic pesticides such as glyphosate—the most important active ingredient in Roundup—on public property, including parks and bike paths. But land owners, ranchers and farmers have been free to go on using synthetic pesticides.
Not only that, but once an old pesticide is banned, the corporate giants concoct new ones that are even more deadly, according to Mitchel Cohen, who has devoted much of his life and work to the study of Roundup and glyphosate.
Selwyn speaks for Cohen and for many others when she says, “Our paradise is poisoned with herbicides and pesticides.” She’s alarmed and thinks her neighbors should start asking questions and taking action to protect children who have been developing cancers at an alarming rate. According to data from Wine and Water Watch, an organization that coalesced during the last big drought, Napa County has had the highest cancer rates for children in California at 22.8 deaths per 100,000 kids. Sonoma is a close second at 20.6 deaths per 100,000 kids. Any number is too high. Nearly everyone knows someone—a mother, a sister, an aunt, a daughter or a friend—with breast cancer.
Dr. Kurt Straif, a key researcher at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), argues that glyphosate—which can be absorbed by humans though “our daily bread”—is “genotoxic,” which means that it damages human DNA, and can lead to cancer.
Buying organic foods and beverages is beyond the means of most working families. For the unemployed it’s impossible. You have to be wealthy or grow your own fruits and vegetables—which requires land and access to water—to eat healthy. The only real salvation is a total transformation of the for-profit food system and the creation of an alternative that doesn’t trash land and labor. Marketing campaigns like “Sustainable Sonoma” and “Sustainable Napa” are little more than sops meant to disguise what’s really happening in fields and on farms, though some who are eager not to offend say they’re a step in the right direction.
Right now, Covid-19 occupies front and center in the American consciousness, but N-(phosphonomethyl)glycine, aka Glyphosate, has to be confronted and abolished soon or the planet will be totally polluted. Rachel Carson warned about toxic chemicals, especially DDT in Silent Spring, published in 1962. American women who looked to Carson for inspiration are at the heart of the movement today to ban the contemporary equivalents of DDT.
Zen Honeycutt, the founder and executive director of Moms Across America, points out that “moms buy 85% of the food” in the U.S. and that “moms are taking the helm here.” Honeycutt adds, “Husbands and kids help, too.” The organization Honeycutt founded amplifies voices from coast to coast and targets the powers-that-be. All across the U.S. and especially in Wine Country, women’s voices are growing louder and more eloquent, too,
Increasingly, judges and juries are listening to complaints against Bayer, which recently bought Monsanto for $66 billion. Bayer’s stock recently tumbled, but there’s still big money to be made in toxic chemicals and the seeds that the company sells and that are resistant to glyphosate.
Monsanto/Bayer has just developed a new corn seed that can survive bombardment not only from glyphosate but also by dicamba, glufosinate, quizalofop and 2, d-D, one of the ingredients in Agent Orange which defoliated Vietnam. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been asked to approve Bayer’s new seed for corn. The company also manufactures the pharmaceuticals that are used to treat the illness caused by toxic chemicals, which has prompted activists to say, “They get you coming and going.”
Marion Nestle, a New York University professor and the author of Food Politics, points to the growing body of evidence that “glyphosate is carcinogenic, promotes weed resistance, and causes genetically modified crops to require even greater use of toxic chemicals.” The more we poison, the more we need to poison, or so it seems in the world according to Bayer/Monsanto.
Welcome to our poisoned planet. The picture is grim, though some activists, including Sonoma County filmmaker Carolyn Scott, use humor to tell stories about cancer-causing chemicals. Her satirical animated short, Roundup Wine, is an official selection at film festivals this summer.
At the start of summer 2020, when Bayer reached a $10 billion settlement rather than go to court and fight thousands of claims, environments were crying, not cheering. After all, Bayer continues to insist Roundup is perfectly safe when used “properly.”
Thousands of farmers, ranchers and gardeners use glyphosate to kill weeds, as though weeds were un-American and had to be exterminated as quickly as possible, no matter what the risks to life itself.
No warnings appear on the labels for the product. A large container of glyphosate sells for $21.99 and comes with what’s called a “comfort wand” that supposedly makes for an easy application on “the toughest of weeds.”
Mitchel Cohen, the editor of the book, The Fight Against Monsanto’s Roundup: the Politics of Pesticides, who recently bought his message to Sebastopol, says that glyphosate is still used widely in New York City where he lives and works, and that kids (and adults, too) come in contact with it every day and are made sick. Jonathan Latham, the director of the “Poison Papers” project, the editor of Independent Science News and one of the contributors to Cohen’s book, suggests that glyphosate is “unsafe at any dose.” He tweaks consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who insisted that Ford’s Pinto was “unsafe at any speed.”
Bob Cannard, who raises organic fruits and vegetables and sells them at Petaluma’s Green String Farm, and who cultivates organic grapes that go into Cline wines, asks, “What business do you know that benefits financially from poisoning its customers?” For years, Cline used glyphosate in his vineyard. Cannard persuaded him that it was harmful to the environment and to all living things, including humans. Now sheep eat the weeds and fertilize the soil.
Cannard wants the state of California to ban toxic chemicals. He calls his cause “Organic California 2050.” Cannard isn’t rushing anyone. Nichole Warwick, who belongs to a new, hardy breed of environmentalists, is eager to have Roundup banned now. Her own friends have cancers. Kids exposed to toxic chemicals often don’t show symptoms for years, Warwick says. Acting today can prevent health issues tomorrow.
A survivor of breast cancer—it was first diagnosed in 2012 when she was 37—Warwick was born and raised in Merced in the Central Valley, where ag is king and glyphosate is ubiquitous. She thinks she developed cancer because of her proximity to farms and fields that were sprayed with chemicals.
“There is no history of cancer in my own family,” she tells me.
Soon after Warwick moved to Sonoma County, her son came home with a note from his school, Forestville Academy, that said that Roundup would be sprayed on the campus.
“I was appalled,“ she tells me. “At first, I felt despair and depressed, but I also wanted to protect my son.”
She adds, “My birth as an activist was very personal.” Nichole joined the Petaluma-based organization Daily Acts and became the Environmental Health Program Manager.
She co-founded, and has served as the executive director of, Families Advocating for Chemical & Toxic Safety (FACTS). She also co-founded and co-directs Sonoma Safe Agriculture Safe Schools (Sonoma SASS). The Sonoma SASS has links to the state-wide body of SASS organizations and is affiliated with Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR).
For a time Warwick taught school. Now, she’s a full-time activist. At her son’s school, she worked with the principal and helped to educate the custodial staff. After her campaign, there was a moratorium on the use of Roundup. Warwick was successful, she says, because she was persistent and wouldn’t take “No” for an answer. She lobbied for a stewardship program at Forestville Academy, but the school wasn’t ready to take that step.
“Schools in Sonoma County, especially in Forestville and Sebastopol, are flanked by vineyards,” Warwick tells me. “Chemicals get into the dirt, the dust, the air. They drift. Kids are routinely exposed to toxic chemicals. They cough, their eyes itch, they get sick, have respiratory problems, stay home and miss school.”
Students aren’t the only population that has reported health issues. Teachers have also been sick.
Warwick and her fellow activists know what they're up against in a county in which Sustainable Sonoma is more a reflection of greenwashing than genuine ecological awareness or the embodiment of best practices. Philanthropic organizations, which are often dependent on funding from wineries, are loath to fund the groups that Warwick works with, though funding for pesticide education, outreach and policy change has come from the Jonas Children’s Environmental Health Fund and the Rose Foundation.
Warwick doesn’t go out of her way to make enemies where there’s no need to do that, though she can be persistent and even a tad confrontational, as she was during a recent Zoom meeting with Sonoma County Ag Commissioner Andrew Smith. Still, she wants allies, not foes, and, as she points out, “farmers and their families are also getting sick. There’s Parkinson’s Disease, dementia and non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, a form of cancer that attacks the lymph nodes.”
Sonoma County’s Edwin Hardeman, now in his 70s, was exposed to Roundup for decades. He developed non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and was one of the first American citizens to win a suit against Monsanto. A jury in San Francisco determined that his exposure to Roundup was “a substantial factor” in the development of his cancer. Hundreds of others have filed complaints and are ready to go to court. Tens of thousands of them refused to accept the terms of the June 2020 settlement.
In Sonoma County seven environmental organizations work together to ban toxic pesticides and herbicides: Wine and Water Watch, Families Advocating for Chemical and Toxic Safety, Daily Acts, Preserve Rural Sonoma County, Sonoma Safe, Ag Safe and the North Bay Organizing Project.
Local organizations work with groups around the state. Warwick recently spoke at a meeting of the St. Helena City Council and recommended banning Roundup. She also had a recent online meeting (due to Covid-19) with Val Dolcini, the Director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), for the state. Warwick told him that citizens had a right to know when fields, vineyards, orchards and parks were going to be sprayed. He seemed to agree with her.
GRAPE, the Graton Pesticides Research Project, in partnership with UCSF and CPR—with funding from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation—has embarked on a much-needed study of the use of pesticides in and around Graton, where Alexis Kahlow has helped to lead the grassroots opposition to toxic chemicals.
At a West County organic vineyard, Nichole Warwick tells me, “I’m aware of corruption and collusion, but I’m optimistic about changing the trajectory for the health of our children and our children’s children.”