Honouring Force of Nature Cathleen Kneen

Rebecca Kneen                                   February 22nd, 2016 

Cathleen (née Rosenberg) Kneen passed away peacefully at home in Ottawa on February 21st, 2016, aged 72. She is survived by her beloved life and work partner of 53 years, Brewster Kneen, children Jamie Kneen (Soha) and Rebecca Kneen (Brian McIsaac), grandson Theodore, and many colleagues and friends across the country and around the world.

Cathleen attended university at Edinburgh, Memorial, and Carleton, meeting Brewster through her activism in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and soon marrying him, in 1964. Cathleen’s activism wove together common themes of healthy communities and people. Her early years in the peace movement shifted to women’s liberation, as a founding member of the Pictou County Women’s Centre, and after moving back to Toronto, as Executive Director of the Toronto Assaulted Women’s Help Line. During her fifteen years in Nova Scotia, she also developed her admirable skills as a potter, ran a successful sheep farm with her family, organized the Sheep Producers of Nova Scotia’s annual sheep fair, and for many years, contributed a weekly Farm Diary to the local noon program on CBC Radio.

When the Kneens moved to BC in 1995, Cathleen began to integrate her commitment to social justice with her farm background. She was instrumental in founding the Mission City Farmers’ Market, the Sorrento Village Farmers’ Market, and the BC Food Systems Network and served on the board of the Certified Organic Associations of BC. Upon her return to Ontario in 2006, Cathleen was elected Chair of the newly formed Food Secure Canada, served on the management team of the People’s Food Policy Project and was chair of Just Food Ottawa and the Ottawa Food Policy Council.

For 25 years, Cathleen worked alongside Brewster as editor, co-writer, illustrator and designer of The Ram’s Horn newsletter, which had a worldwide following, as well as editing his books. Whatever she involved herself in, Cathleen committed herself fully, applying her considerable energy to building a participatory, feminist path for people to connect and make positive change together to bring about the vision of a just and peaceful world she held so clearly. The work of her hands will be held by many on a daily basis, in the pottery she made.

There will be a visitation on Friday, February 26, from 2-4pm, at the Ottawa Funeral Co-operative, 419 St. Laurent Blvd., bus route #7. In lieu of flowers, please send donations to Inter Pares, the BC Food Systems Network , the National Farmers Union, and/or MiningWatch Canada/the Canary Research Institute for Mining, Environment and Health.

Scroll down for the following Columns:

Sacred Seed: Heritage Breeds     

Feb 6th, 2016 

Organic is not elitist. It is honest.     

Jan 27, 2016 

Social License, Agribusiness and the new “Agvocacy”   

Dec 26, 2015                                                                    

Questioning Regulatory Systems and "Science-Based" Regulation 

Dec 12, 2015 


Why We are Asking the Wrong Questions When it Comes to GMOs

Jodi Koberinski 2015 Oak Fellow                                    February 14th, 2016 

Dangerous Ideas challenge the status quo. They can begin a transformation of collective actions that threaten current power structures. What makes an idea dangerous in this sense, then, is that it speaks truth to power.

In preparation for the November 2015 Cotter Debate, GMO: Promises and Perils, I needed to refresh my reading of the current debate about the “Science” of GMO. I predicted the focus would undoubtedly be on the supposedly elegant work in the pipelines for new and improved approaches to genetic engineering (GE). I also revisited the dangerous idea that the GMO debate is not actually about the science of GMO at all.

Rather than focusing on the promises of future technologies as the scientific question, we ought to ask what the agronomic implications are of our love affair with genetic modification. And we owe it to ourselves to start with the first 20 years of commercial GE in agriculture when exploring these questions.

The current wave of commercialized GE in agriculture is not about feeding the world, adapting to climate change, or reducing pesticide reliance: it is about controlling the market by pairing pesticides with seeds. And the three main talking points - feed the world, climate change, less pesticides - illustrate perfectly the limit of the world view of the people who espouse them: social and political change is messy, technology is not, therefore if we “techno-fix” our way out of hunger, global heating, and chemical ecocide through GE, we don’t have to disrupt the power structure or give anything “up” or accept the hard truth that this very model is destructive to our shared interests. (see side bar, below).

While focusing on the safety of GMO and GE in agriculture is crucial to and seems to be an entry point for conversation, it is far from the central point. Civil society actors and scientists calling for precaution and shift from biotechnology to agroecology as our system of choice are not alone.

Farmer Forest Pritchard agrees with many of us involved in food systems issues that today’s debate in the US about “safety” of GMO in the diet is a huge distraction from the real issues.

Today in the US and Canada, 96% of agriculture is based in the industrial model. That model predominantly grows GMO corn, soy, and cotton. With 69% of the average American’s body carbon coming from corn alone, the lack of diversity in the field and in the diet is taking its toll:

“Instead of worrying about whether a bag of GMO corn chips is safe to eat, we should probably be asking ourselves some bigger questions. Such as, are we okay with using billions of gallons of herbicide each year, supplied by many of the same companies that provide our seeds? And perhaps most importantly, what are the viable alternatives?” (Prittchard, Huffington Post)

The bulk of the vegetable varieties grown in the US already have approvals for herbicide-resistance (RoundUp Ready). Add to that fact that America’s orchards, potatoes, and produce rely on a steady cocktail of chemicals to keep produce looking “picture perfect” and avoid crop loss due to “pests”, and we can see the enormity of the problem our industrial approach to agriculture creates. In Ontario, more than 50% of all pesticides that are sprayed are glyphosate based.

While Farmer Pritchard raises the point about GMO being about pesticides, Maude Barlow decries the impacts GMO and industrial food have on our precious water supplies. Ninety percent of our water use is by resources sectors, of which industrial agriculture is a primary user. It takes thousands of gallons of water to produce one gallon of GMO-grown ethanol. And today’s land grabs are “securing” tomorrow’s control over soil and water further exacerbating the situation of water scarcity in the places its most needed to grow food. Seventy percent of global food is grown in regions already suffering under and most likely to feel the worst impacts of climate chaos. Eutrification of waterways around the globe can be seen from space, yet another cost of our dependence on industrial agriculture and its latest promise, GMO corn and soy.

Water, of course, is also rendered undrinkable with over-use of pesticides.

In addition, we are beginning to see a more widespread "GM tech fail", such that more and more pesticides are being used in regions where the promise of GE has simply not materialized.

The whitefly infestations in the Punjab Dr. Vandana Shiva writes about in Asian Times (September 2015) and elsewhere, has decimated bT cotton, destroying over 40% of the entire crop. As the infestations become obvious, desperate farmers grab ever more pesticides in hope of salvaging something.

Shiva’s work for the past 30 years on the issue seed patents and control of seeds by a handful of companies has enlightened many, but has not turned the tide on ever greater concentration of seed resources in the hands of the Big 6 Chemical Cartel - now on the verge of becoming the Big Three.

Pesticides kill off an area the size of Montana and California combined - 170 million acres of herbicide resistant corn and soy - in the U.S. alone. Water is rendered undrinkable or stolen for export in the form of industrial commodities. Loss of seed diversity and concentration of corporate control of seeds increases. The inherent reliance on the chemical, industrial agriculture paradigm is at the heart our agricultural GE opposition, and we do well to follow Brewster Kneen's 1998 advice in Farmageddon and not be sidetracked by discussions about safety or promising technology applications of GE, or get lost in debate centred in genetically deterministic world views.

The long forgotten question Kneen poses in this book is - just because we can, ought we?

Winona LaDuke asks us to consider whether our approaches to technology are enlightened. Is it enlightened to steal and degrade water at a time when our global ground water footprint is 3.5 times greater than actual aquifers? Is it enlightened to reduce the diet to a handful of genetically identical plants? Is it enlightened to poison ourselves, our soils, and the water resources upon which all life depends?

Regardless of one’s personal feelings, then, about GMO “science”, the arguments about  the techniques of GE and their safety ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence that our addiction to cheap food, export agriculture, and industrialization absolutely must end if we are to survive ourselves, and that is a dangerous idea.


Feed the World. Adapt to Climate Change. Reduce Pesticide Use. And other talking points. 

For me, the question has never been what system of agriculture will “feed the world” but what the possible avenues are to “end world hunger”. If we focus on the notion “feed the world”, we make some very false assumptions about what will actually address “hunger” - a symptom of poverty more often than a simple lack of available food. Additionally, “feeding the world” export focused approaches to trade and aid create a dependency model, ignoring the non-commercial aspects of local and subsistence agriculture that keep communities healthy.

Climate adaptation requires localized seed breeding for localized conditions. It requires re-thinking the landscape and what can be grown well and profitably rather than what commodity prices are commanded in Chicago. The reason we have no marketed drought-tolerant GE crops is not because of activists, it is because drought tolerance is a complex effect of multiple factors-some genetic, some not.  Further, “genetically engineering” a crop is far less an efficient method than traditional seed selection and cross breeding from drought tolerant land races and community seeds.

And the ruse that GE is reducing pesticide use and reliance is simply untrue. Given that 1) the bulk of bT seeds are engineered as “stacked” traits, meaning in combination with herbicide tolerance; and 2) that since 2014, tolerance to 2,4-D has been stacked with glyphosate tolerance to deal with the inevitable and now widespread evolution of weeds resistant to glyphosate, the pleas from the industrial agriculture sector and the genetic determinists whose well appointed labs and armies of grad students dutifully exploring RNA sequences that GMO is about reducing pesticide use and reliance are of little comfort. 

Sacred Seed: Heritage Breeds

Jodi Koberinski 2015 Oak Fellow                                    February 6th, 2016 

Dangerous Ideas challenge the status quo. They can begin a transformation of collective actions that threaten current power structures. What makes an idea dangerous in this sense, then, is that it speaks truth to power.

i first learned about this notion of sacredness of plants from Ojibwe elders in my community, and later from Susun Weed. This notion and my lifework dove-tailed at the 2012 launch of the Seed Freedom Campaign at Navdanya with founder and mentor Dr. Vandana Shiva.

Dr. Vandana Shiva has been speaking of the sacredness of seed since she first learned about Monsanto’s plans to genetically engineer seeds in the 1980s. She was inspired to start Navdanya, or Nine Seeds, to reclaim seed varieties lost to the Green Revolution.  She asserts scientists genetically manipulating seeds do not invent anything: they commit an assault, ignoring the sacredness of seed and its potentiality. For Dr. Shiva, the privatization of our collective seeds commons is about power, not feeding the world.  

But it is not just plants that are under attack.  Case in point? Farmer Montana Jones and her Shropshire sheep.

We all know the phrase species at risk, “but extinction”, Farmer Jones warns,  “doesn’t just happen in the wild. A heritage breed is traditional livestock raised by farmers in the past before the rise in industrial agriculture caused a drastic reduction in breeding varieties”. In the last 15 years alone 190 breeds of farm animals have gone extinct worldwide, another 1500 are at risk. “We are not hearing about it. We are hearing about rhinoceroses but we are not hearing about extinction of our own livestock.” And so Jones chose to reclaim the Shropshire breed.

This love of diversity threatens the mechanistic world view- where uniformity rules the roost and the sacred has no place. It is an idea dangerous to models based on control, uniformity, and degeneration. In fact, Jones’ efforts to protect her endangered Shropshire breed from genotype genocide has rendered her “officially Farmed and Dangerous”. 

“The CFIA charged myself and three others with conspiracy, obstruction - 9 charges in total for me and $100,000 in legal fees. I face 12 years in prison and $1.5M in fines”.

Shropshire sheep were once dominant across North America, as they are hearty, disease resistant and acclimatized to pasture. Today they number roughly 100 registered sheep after the CFIA slaughtered Jone’s herd over unfounded fear of Scrapie. These sheep were targeted not because they were ill, but because they were a genotype which CFIA considers less resistant to the disease than the predominant commercial breeds. Biological determinism of the worst sort.

So powerful this profane world view in which biological determinism reigns that Montana’s “seed”, her breeding stock, was slaughtered to protect “economic” interests of the sheep industry. With no sign of illness, the genes themselves were a death sentence. Typical scrapie poses no human health risk, but can impact bottom lines for the cheap food system. New science suggests the genotype preferred by the CFIA and industry might be more susceptible to atypical scrapie, which does potentially have human health impacts.⁠

“Scientific findings have confirmed that genotype genocide and the elimination of our biological diversity is a very dangerous thing, in nature and agriculture,” says Jones. Once a gene pool is gone, there is no going back. This lost diversity means the adaptability to ever changing environments is wiped out, leaving us at risk of ruin.

 Every country has its cultural heritage woven with family traditions. When we allow monoculture to take over we are not just losing breeds and seeds, we are losing our heritage. Today, 90% of  world food comes from just 8 animals and 15 plant species. If you drink milk, odds are it came from a Holstein. If you eat chicken in Canada, it is a hybrid variety. And over 60% of our beef come from just 4 breeds. We’ve lost 93% of commercial seed varieties in the past 100 years. And over 60% of carbon found in North Americans are directly or indirectly corn derived.

“Its not just about sheep or what they did to me, its about the power we hand over… By protecting these sacred things, we protect our future… by choosing heritage seeds and heritage breeds you are on your way to food freedom” Montana Jones reminds us. 

Seed is Sacred. And that is a Dangerous Idea.


 Organic is not elitist. It is honest.

Jodi Koberinski 2015 Oak Fellow                                    January 27, 2016 

Organic food costs more. Period. In our current economic system, organic foods are out of reach for so many people, it’s pretty tempting to write them off as elitist. Ads featuring attractive white folk blissing out in Whole Foods with an $18 bag of nuts do nothing but reinforce this misconception. 

But to know why organics are so expensive, we must first know why chemically grown food is so cheap. It’s all about how the food system works:

In our current capitalist economy, corporations pass the true costs of production off to other parts of society as well as to the biosphere on which we depend. For example, the climate, the forests and many displaced forest dwellers bear the “externalized” costs for the logging industry. As our waterways choke on disposable shopping bags and other plastic waste, marine creatures and fishermen bear the externalized costs of the plastics producers.

In the food system, these externalities include soil loss and degradation, antibiotic resistance, negative health impacts from exposure to pesticides and herbicides, the rise of super pests and super weeds, greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity and scarce water resources, human rights abuses and many more.

A “privatize the profits, socialize the costs” approach distorts the market and gives a free ride to the polluters. Worse, most Western governments subsidize chemically dependent industrial agriculture while organic farmers cover the full cost of production without supports from the State.

So organic agriculture is not subsidized, nor are the true costs of production externalized. However, by building healthy soil that sequesters carbon and mitigates climate change, by providing a toxin free livelihood to small farmers and clean, healthy food to consumers, organics actually add value to society and the environment. 

North Americans typically spend between 7 - 12% of their income on food, and 30 - 60% on their housing. Add in transportation, some heat, and a few personal needs items, and it’s no surprise that for the millions living in or close to poverty, there’s little left at month’s end for much organic food.

The thing is, affordability of food is not the issue: By international standards, North Americans actually pay the least for food as a measure of income. But they pay a disproportionate amount for accommodation and other basics such as transportation and healthcare. To address the lack of access to healthful food, we must address why people are strapped in the first placed.

The good news is that as more farmers switch to organic practices, alternative distribution systems are being created in ways that will drive prices down. Organic farmers are also learning to be more efficient. For example, they are designing their farms to use water and land more wisely and generally produce higher “nutrition per acre” than conventional commodity-oriented farms. Organic farmers reduce the amount of money spent on off farm inputs like fertilizers and pesticides.

There are also several ways for consumers to reduce sticker shock:

  • Shop Seasonally: When you buy seasonal fruits and veg, you not only positively impact your health and the environment, but your pocketbook too.
  • Eat Less Meat: Replacing meat with pulses such as beans (buy dried and in bulk for a really good deal) also best serves your health, the environment and your budget.
  • Source Locally Produced Foods: The closer your food is grown and produced, the lower the production costs for the producer (which are invariably passed on to you).
  • Forgo the Middleman: Instead of buying food from the grocery store, look into direct purchasing or food buying clubs.
  • Join a CSA: Community Supported Agriculture is a great choice for reasonably priced organic food.
  • Learn to Love Ugly Veg: Many grocery stores throw out perfectly good food when it is slightly damaged or has reached its sell-by date. Sell-by dates are not eat by dates! Instead of sending these foods to the dumpster, ask your grocer to sell them them to you at a discount.
  • So every single organic purchase creates system change and helps us move us forward into a more ecological and healthier world. 

Thanks to growing consumer demand, the organic sector has grown by 15-20% percent per year for nearly two decades, proving that every organic purchase you make supports system change and helps move us towards a healthier, more democratic and sustainable world. That’s honest and activist, not elitist.


Social License, Agribusiness and the new “Agvocacy”

Jodi Koberinski 2015 Oak Fellow                                                                                December 26, 2015 

The explosion of social media has drawn people into the food and agriculture conversation who’d trusted that someone somewhere was keeping food safe and farming sustainable. Based on this trust, corporations have enjoyed a period of unquestioning “social license” to operate. Social license is the notion that business has society’s tacit approval to operate with little oversight, because society trusts the costs won’t outweigh the benefits. As more people wake up to the abuses of the cheap food system, that social license is being revoked. 

Over recent decades, the call to fundamentally alter the food system has been gaining ground.  Heeding this call, the organic sector was created as a market solution to meet civil society’s demands for greater accountability, and in the process raising questions within broader society about social license for agribusiness. 

Deepening scientific evidence calls into question our foray into “Green Revolution” ideology, and a picture is emerging that cannot be ignored: chemical agriculture and the globalized commodity system is broken. 

Given the democratizing effects of social media, many voices are sharing information that is presented in factually questionable fashion - on all sides of the food systems debate. Some practices on the ground tend not to fall so neatly into organic/ non-organic. Farmers who are doing their best to bring food to market and stay afloat within a system designed for yield, not nutrients or sustainability, are rightly frustrated with some misperceptions of what is happening on “conventional” farms. 

Farmers are left feeling vulnerable. Never one to miss such an opportunity, the agribusiness sector is seizing on this moment and has rolled out the agvocacy program, which is popping up at trade shows, seminars and commodity group conferences. Who better than farmers to talk about food production? 

A product of industry front groups, trade organizations and government, the agvocacy program presents a clever branding opportunity: enlist social media savvy farmers to do your damage control work for you. Rather than offering a moment for self reflection, valid criticism of agribusiness practices has created an industry-led backlash in which any critique regardless of supporting evidence equals fear-mongering. 

How does agvocacy work?

Step one: make sure farmers know they are under attack. 

Even if they aren’t. Because nothing riles a country person faster than being told by a city person how to live in the country. It doesn’t matter this is a mischaracterization of movements calling for food systems transformation. “Foodies” are fear mongering elites who profit from scaring people into eating more fruits and vegetables and avoiding pesticides, and they must be stopped! 

Step two: Coin a catchy term so participants feel like they are part of something. 

Use industry’s almost complete control over farmer information through trade associations, farmer newspapers industry agronomists, and government funded farmer meetings to teach agvocates to silence critics using Bernaysian marketing techniques. 

Step three: Roll out the campaign claiming to represent “all of agriculture” then attack alternatives

When questionable voices make outlandish, character harming, or untrue statements while defending the status quo, let them stand unchallenged. Once the new talking points are learned, roll out a smear campaign or two, along with misinformation about agribusiness alternatives. 

Perhaps most disconcerting is the effort to paint organic as the “enemy” rather than focus on the substance of chemical farming and globalized commodity agriculture critique. The big lie? Our critique is an attack on farmers. 

When disconnection with food becomes obvious, people want to choose a different approach given the economic choice. The critique is systemic, and requires all of society to participate in recreating our food future.

People are drawn to organic because they understand that organic is about a different story. A different story for the farmers but also for the ecosystem inhabitants we share our spaces with, a different story for future generations, and for the millions who are hungry as well as the millions who are over fed and nutrient deprived.  The agvocate narrative attempts to dismiss this growing market’s concerns rather than address the current system full of the externalities and abuses of business as usual. And it does so at the expense of the farmers tapped as “agvocates”, and that is a dangerous idea.

Steve Savage's presentation on "Social Licence" at an Alberta commodity group meeting March 2015 dismisses the organic market and presents incorrect information about the nature of organic farming  and marketing today, including the notion the organic brand is driven by advocacy groups demonizing the dominant food system:

Rather than seize opportunity to talk about grower and corporate responsibility to minimize contamination, Savage tells farmers it is importers acting badly at the root of the problem:

Savage attempts to dismiss the validity of analyses by some of North America's most respected journalists on the topic and lumps entertainment personalities in with investigative journalists as if all voices are of equal weight:

While we agree the "Old MacDonald" video campaign plays into Savage's narrative and was in our opinion in poor taste, industry has jumped on the opportunity to use one video to dismiss all critique of chemical agriculture as an attack on farmers themselves, and re-characterize a very respectful 30+ year history of organic "sell the upside" marketing effort:

Questioning Regulatory Systems and "Science-Based" Regulation

Jodi Koberinski 2015 Oak Fellow                                                                                December 12, 2015 

Dangerous Ideas challenge the status quo. They can begin a transformation of collective actions that threaten current power structures. What makes an idea dangerous in this sense, then, is that it speaks truth to power.

Questioning government regulatory systems that claim to be science-based is a dangerous idea. Science has become the “enforcer” of corporate capitalism, with “evidence-based decision making” being replaced by, as BC scientist Andrew Weaver says, “decision-based evidence-making”. 

Science done well describes what we observe and what we predict is occurring in the world. Scientist Jonathan Latham said recently during the Cotter Debate on Biotechnology that “the longer I am in science, the more I am aware how little science really understands things”. Science is rightly a discipline of inquiry, of curiosity, of ever-deepening understanding.  

Amongst proponents of our current approach, any critique of the policy landscape, legislators, or industry-backed science upon which our approvals systems are based is dismissed as conspiracy theory. Yet the Canadian Biotech Action Network recently released a series of papers investigating claims of the biotech sector on the benefits of GE, introduced commercially 20 years ago. What they found was the lack of transparency many of us have called out over the years is actually worse than even we had thought, making a mockery of any claim we have “rigorous” processes to assess safety.

The disappearing tolerance for scientific inquiry that threatens corporate income streams, patent maximization or market share has become evident not only in biotechnology, but in energy as well. Columbia’s investigative reporting reveals Exxon scientists had evidence during fossil energy contributes to climate change in the 1980s. Their response? Funding science that cast doubt on what their own scientists uncovered to protect profit and manipulate public policy.

Academics, public scientists and corporations eagerly muddy the waters. By allowing the current level of industry self-regulation we’ve created an epidemic of Conflict of Interest so widespread that public academics don’t see private sector relationships as problematic. Kevin Folta and his peers investigated through FOIA by Right to Know USA to this day can’t understand what’s inherently wrong with public scientists cheerleading for the Biotech sector.

Even medical research is of questionable quality under the increasingly cozy relationship between public science and for profit enterprise. 

Dr. Marcia Angell, a physician and longtime editor-in-chief of the New England Medical Journal says “It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of the New England Journal of Medicine.”

Dr. Richard Horton, the current editor-in-chief of the Lancet, considered to be one of the most well respected peer-reviewed medical journals in the world, says “The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness.”  

Science itself is a product of political and social constructs. The lack of awareness within the scientific community about important Technology, Science and Society scholarship means we have a group of very powerful people with no sense of history or context making decisions that will affect us now and for generations to come “because… Science!” 

There is a lot to be lost in faith-base science. The sweeping statement of 100% GMO safety expressed by Dr. Folta for example betrays the nature of scientific understanding and veers into science-ism as an Absolute Truth. Science-ism has its Inquisition as well. Anyone who dares publish against the Orthodoxy, from Tyrone Hayes to Gilles-Eric Seralini, will have reputations tarnished, integrity and skill questioned, and the full weight of the corporatocracy pressed against them.

As people recognize how far what passes for science today is from its idealized pursuit of truth facade, we run the risk of outright rejection of science, and that would serve no one. If we are to solve the enormous issues facing our world in terms of climate, food, water, and energy, we must develop a truly independent regulatory science arena and re-contextualize science as but one of the ways of knowing that informs our decision-making- and that is a dangerous idea.