monthly report 2009

Zach chillin' - thinking about his monthly reports

December 1, 2009

La poste des Natchitoches, what is today the town of Natchitoches, Louisiana, was founded by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, in 1714, the first permanent European settlement in the Mississippi Valley.  (New Orleans is founded four years later).  Louis Juchereau had quite a tumultuous life.   Traveling west of Natchitoches, hoping to trade with the Indians, he is captured by the Spanish and sent to Mexico City.  While there he courted and won the hand of the daughter of the governor.  He was sent back north by the Spanish and given the mission of founding settlements in East Texas.  With the death of Louis XIV, Franco-Spanish cooperation came to an end and Juchereau was hauled back to Mexico.  He escaped and headed back into French territory.  The Spanish officials allowed his wife, Manuela to join him and they spent their remaining years at a French outpost on the Red River.

The Natchitoches post (pronounced Nah Kee Tosh) was quite cosmopolitan in spite of its isolation.  In addition to the French officers and the Canadian coureurs des bois (woodsmen) there were the Indians who gave their name to the settlement as well as the occasion Spaniard.  Another ethnic group had a profound influence on this community: African slaves.  None is more celebrated than Marie-Thérèse Coincoin.

Marie-Thérèse Coincoin was a Griffon, her parents being slaves born in the Congo.  In the Black Code which governed the relationship between the races in colonial Louisiana, people of color were classified according to the amount of African blood in their individual genealogy.   Each caste had its privileges and lack thereof.  Sacariffes were African slaves born in Africa.  Griffons were born in Louisiana of African parents.  Mulattes were mixed breed, having one African parent (usually the mother) and one European.  Quadroons had an African grandparent and Octoroons one African great grandparent (grandmother).  In this society where one’s worth was determined by one’s bloodline, the white Europeans were at the top and the African slaves were at the bottom.

The middle castes, Mulatte, Quadroon, Octoroon were made up of the children of the slave owners, born of slave mothers.  It is hard to comprehend the relationship that existed between these people.  Slave masters were often the owners of their own children.  In spite of this terribly convoluted situation, some masters apparently had genuine affection for their mixed-blood offspring and manumitted, or freed them.   This created a new class of persons: HLC “homme libre de couleur” or “free people of color”.   The HLC had ostensibly the same rights as the white Europeans, while being effectively relegated to a position of permanent inferiority.  They became artisans and tradesmen furnishing the colony with its carpenters, masons, blacksmiths and musicians.  Often well educated and worldly, the HLC were none-the-less well down the social ladder relative to whites.  This did not prevent them, however,  from owning slaves of their own. 

One of the first Frenchmen to settle at Natchitoches was Claude Thomas Metoyer.  He arrived in the colony with little means and was obliged to borrow a slave from his neighbor to have his housework done.  The slave that he borrowed was Marie-Thérèse Coincoin.  In short time, she became his concubine and the mother of ten of his children, eight of whom survived.   Born of a slave mother, the children were not the property of their father, but of their mother’s owner: Mr. Metoyer’s neighbor!

This domestic situation was upsetting to the local priest.   He finally convinced Mr. Metoyer to marry a young girl from a French family, whose name was........Marie-Thérèse.  In recognition of years of faithful service, Mr. Metoyer purchased the manumission (freedom) of his concubine.  However, his generosity or his purse had limits, and he was unable or unwilling to purchase the freedom of his children by Marie-Thérèse Coincoin.

Marie-Thérèse Coincoin was a hard worker.  Penny by penny she saved up and was able to purchase the freedom of her children, one at a time.  Once she was able to free her family, in what appears to be a great irony, she began to purchase slaves.  Her oldest son, Nicolas Augustin Metoyer purchased land at Ile Brevel, thus founding a community of free people of color.  The descendants of Marie-Thérèse Coincoin would become, in the space of a few generations, one of the most prosperous families of the Red River valley.  But what says prosperous in mid-19th century Louisiana says also slave-holding.

In his marvelous book “The Forgotten People: Cane River’s Creoles of Color”, Gary Mills explains that the American Civil War was the end of this mixed-race French-speaking antebellum society.  With the Emancipation Proclamation and the freeing of the slaves came the ruin of the slave holding aristocracy including the slave holding free people of color.  The loss was double for the black Creoles.  Not only did they lose their property (slaves, plantations), but also their special status.  Beginning in 1865, the black Creoles became part of the same social class as their former slaves.  These educated, sophisticated, worldly black people were now considered to be no different from the uneducated black field hands that they once had owned.  Today, amazingly, there are many blacks in Louisiana who identify themselves as Creole.  Like the mixed-blood Métis of the Canadian prairies, however, the identity of the Creoles of Louisiana is an enigma.

The word “Creole” has a multitude of definitions, depending on who is defining.  Originally taken from the Spanish “criollo”, the term meant simply “of the New World”.  Colonial Louisiana society was made up of people born in the Old World (Spanish and French) and those born in the New World, both of European and African heritage, the Creoles.  George Cable in his mid 19th century novels referred to the Creoles as simply the French speaking community of Louisiana.  This included the French speaking free people of color.

Today in Louisiana, Créole means French speaking black.  The term also refers to the language, a dialect which resembles Haitian Creole with an African derived syntax and a French vocabulary.  The Creole language, however, is hardly spoken in Louisiana.  In contrast to the Cadiens (Cajuns) who are making a deliberate effort to preserve their language, the black Créoles have other fish to fry.  They identify strongly with the Afro-American community and their social action is focused on racial equality and resistance to prejudice.  However, their notion of identity resembles strongly that of the Cadiens in that it is strictly subjective.  One is Creole or Cadien because one considers oneself to be. 

If this seems particularly complicated it is because it is.  Louisiana Creole culture is chock-full of surprises. It is rich and complex......and fascinating, just like the story of Marie-Thérèse Coincoin.

November 4, 2009

We have recently discovered that the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, is of mixed race.  Well, hello.

It seems to me that there are two Americas, or maybe two worlds:  one that strives toward the light and celebrates openness and understanding and another that retreats to the shadow.  There are those among us who strive to realize the promise that is at the heart of the American experience, the hope of a free, just and equal society and there are those who would bring us to mistrust and fear.

The principal of our country is “newness”.  We are in the New World.  We live in a new democracy whose founding doctrine is that every man (and woman) is created equal.  Our path to freedom and justice was and remains difficult and we are still very far from the promise of equality expressed by the founding fathers.  The creation of the American democracy was not without irony.  Four of the first five American presidents were slaveholders:  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe.  Only presidents #2 and 6, John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams were not members of the Virginia planter aristocracy.  All of these gentlemen were sons of the Enlightenment, but nonetheless, slave masters.  The case of Thomas Jefferson is particularly interesting because not only was he an owner of human chattel, but he was also the patriarch of a clan of mix-blood progeny fathered with his slave Sally Hemmings.  This great irony remains at the heart of the relations between the races in America.  More like a thorn in the foot.  ;

That the First Lady of the United States is of mixed race heritage was presented in the media as a profound discovery.  (See article in New York Times.) To the eternal chagrin of the racists among us, our country has always been a country of mixed origin.  Nonetheless, both whites and blacks have great difficulty in accepting this.

In his book on the Canadian Métis, John Ralston Saul (Mon pays métis,  Editions Boréal, 2008) explains that the challenge of Canadian society is in accepting the fact that it is a mixed-blood culture.  Europeans and aboriginals were procreating together from the very beginning.  For the USA, the question is profoundly the same: can we accept the fact that we are indeed a new “race” and can we accept the founding principal of our country: that all men and women are created equal?

We are all subject to prejudice, but we can choose whether or not to fight against our baser instincts.   In the Deep South, where I live, our prejudice is well known and well denounced.  I think, frankly, that we are in the vanguard of race relations in the US.  We are obliged to recognize the problem and we are obliged to compose with a history (our own) of intolerance and hatred while interacting with people of the “other race” on a daily basis.  The interaction between white and black in Louisiana runs the gamut of human emotion, but that is the important thing to understand: that it is human interaction with a full range of human emotion. 

I dare say that we are making progress.  In spite of the hangman’s noose floating from the oak tree in Jena Louisiana not too long ago, I have seen in my lifetime a considerable change.  When I was growing up, black people could not drink at the same water fountain as me.   Yesterday I ate in a restaurant with a black family eating at the next table.   No one even noticed.  I am not saying that racism does not exist.  On the contrary,  I am saying that the only way to eliminate it is to redefine ourselves, to see ourselves as we are: of mixed culture.  We are not all of “mixed blood” but we are all of mixed culture, our society formed from many diverse ethnic groups transforming many traditions into a unique hybrid of which we are all part.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a very white man who said that the only thing to fear is fear itself.  I am fearful, however, of those who would pull us into the shadows.  Michelle Obama’s family tree has a white man in its branches.  So what.  We are all Créoles in the classic sense of term:  born of the New World.  We are mixed Afro-Irish-Franco-Anglo-Russo-Italo-Hispano-Indiano-Germano-Cree-Innu-Senegalais-Cubano-Brazilo-Esquimo-Nippo-Acadiano-Who Kno mongrels.

Let us celebrate our diversity and the openness that it implies.  As long as we refuse to accept that we are all New World “Créoles” of mixed culture if not of mixed blood, then the ugly specter of racism will continue to raise its ugly head.  If however, we can see ourselves as we really are, so many threads in the tapestry of a unique and profoundly new society, then we will see others as part of ourselves no matter what they look like or what language they speak.  It is by understanding the fundamental nature of American culture composed as it is of different ethnic origins transforming numerous traditions to create a brand new blend, that we will be able to rid ourselves of the afflictive heritage of racism.

Next month: the story of Marie-Thérèse Coin Coin, slave woman born in the Congo, freed by her master.  She then went on to purchase all of her own children from slavery and create one of the richest and most powerful AND slave-holding families of pre-Civil War Louisiana.

October 1, 2009

In an outburst during President Obama’s recent speech in Congress, Representative Joe Wilson called out “You lie”.   In a glaring breech of protocol and simple courtesy, the honorable representative subsequently offered an apology to the president, declaring that he was overcome with emotion.  The entire sad episode is filled to the brim with irony.

First of all Representative Joe Wilson is from South Carolina, as was Representative Preston Brooks.  In May 1856, Charles Sumner, a fervent anti-slavery crusader, delivered a two-day speech in the Senate, railing against the evils of slavery.  At one point in the speech, he singled out Preston Brooks of South Carolina, describing him as loathsome and declaring that Brooks “kept a harlot named Slavery”.

Three days later, Andrew Butler, Brook’s cousin entered the Senate and attacked Sumner with a cane, beating the Senator senseless until his cane broke.  Sumner never fully recovered from the attack.  Butler, on the other hand, became a hero in South Carolina, receiving a quantity of walking canes from the people of the Palmetto State.

Butler’s vicious attack in 1856 was part of the sad prelude to the Civil War, which began when Pierre Gustave Toutaint Beauregard led the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor.  The American Civil War was fought to free the slaves.   153 years later, the first black president of the United States was insulted in the House of Representatives by a Republican.  In the wake of the incident, Joe Wilson is not receiving canes, but campaign contributions. 

Abraham Lincoln will always be remembered as one of the greatest if not the greatest of all American presidents.  He also was a Republican.  But times have changed for the Republican party since Uncle Abe freed the slaves.  The Grand Old Party of Lincoln is no longer the party of Representative Joe Wilson.   The Republican party has become the party of fear and hate, bankrupt of ideas, with no agenda other than the obstruction of anything that President Obama intends to propose, especially on health care.

I voted for Obama and am delighted that he is president.  The alternative would have been a catastrophe of immeasurable proportions.  That said, I have always believed that the problems facing the United States of America are so significant that no president, no matter how talented or visionary will be able to solve all or even a few of them.  What we do not need, however, is the shrill rhetoric which has become the trademark of the right wing of the Republican party. The GOP would do well to remember the warning of Maine Republican Margaret Chase Smith, who worried in 1950 that her party was trying to achieve victory on "the Four Horsemen of Calumny -- Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear."

Please return to my report of March 2003, written during the invasion of Iraq.  (What would have happened if anyone had called out to George Bush “You lie” in public when he flagrantly was doing just that: lying to the Congress and to the American people, i.e. “Weapons of mass destruction”?)  In the report you will find the story of a friend of mine, owner of music store, who with a serious health problems but without health insurance is obliged to return time and time again to the emergency room of the only hospital which will treat him, waiting for hours before he can receive any care.

I do not understand the details of the various health care proposals that are floating around Congress.  I am of the opinion that President Obama has not sufficiently prepared the American people for the debate that is swirling around the question of health care.  I do not fully understand the proposals and do not have a firm opinion about what should be done.  However, I do firmly believe that we must do something.  The Republicans seem intent only in preserving the status quo.  They are bankrupt of ideas and have chosen obstructionism over good governance.  Shame.

It is absolutely unacceptable that 47 million Americans are without health care.  As President Obama points out, this is a moral issue.  It is also unacceptable to me that my wife and I pay well into 5 figures for insurance.  Or that an aspirin costs $10 in a hospital.  The Republicans have made a great deal out of comparing the health care systems of the Good Ole USA and its neighbor to the North from whence I am writing these lines. 

Republicans have criticized the Canadian socialist system making Canada sound more like North Korea.  Let’s get past the rhetoric and compare a few statistics:

  1. Life expectancy (the most basic indication of Health):
    Canada: 80.4 years / USA: 77.8 years
  2. Infant mortality:
    Canada: 5.4 infant deaths of 1000 /  USA: 6.7 deaths of 1000
  3. Health care costs as % of GDP:
    Canada: 10% / USA 16%
  4. Number of citizens without insurance:
    Canada: 0 / USA: 40,000,000 +

Canadians live longer, have fewer infant deaths at a lower cost.  So much for free enterprise. 

Driving back from the St. Tite (Titus) Western Festival, the boys in the band and I got into a conversation about the US health care debate.  They  (all Canadians) were all incredulous, unable to imagine that 47 million Americans are without insurance.  The bass player, Fred Boudreault,  put an interesting perspective on things.  Right wing thinking, he said, was not just the way the Nazi’s thought about the Jews, but is simply individualistic, the priority of the individual over the collective. 

This definition flies in the face of the basic assumptions of American society.  We, as Americans, are convinced that nothing should impede our individual search for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  We have followed that logic to its absurd dead end.  In America, just about anybody can get an automatic weapon designed solely to kill human beings.  But 47 million people can’t get health insurance. 

I am not sure that we will be able collectively to understand that it is in all of our interests to feed, educate and care for every member of our society.   In the end, we will pay for it, one way or the other.

September 2, 2009

This is the eighth in a series of articles dealing with GMOs, genetically modified organisms.  The information contained herein is taken largely from “Le monde selon Monsanto (The world according to Monsanto) by Marie-Monique Robin (Editions Stanké, 2006).  This month’s report examines the influence of Monsanto upon the scientific community and the lengths to which the multinational corporation will go to protect its products.  To me, the most striking example of intimidation is the story of British scientist Arpad Pusztai.

Arpad Pusztai was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1930.  His father was a resistance fighter during the Nazi invasion.  In 1956 when the Russian tanks rolled in the streets of Budapest, crushing the independence movement, Arpad fled to Austria where he was given political asylum. It was there that he began his studies in chemistry.  Awarded a scholarship by the Ford Foundation, he was given the opportunity of choosing the country in which he would like to continue his studies.  He chose England because that country represented “liberty and tolerance”.   He obtained a doctorate in biochemistry at the University of London, and was recruited by the prestigious Rowett Institute, considered to be one of the best research laboratories in Europe.  Dr. Pusztai specialized in the study of lectins which are naturally occurring proteins that function as insecticides in certain plants.

Dr. Pusztai’s expertisewas so well recognized that in 1995, the Rowlett Institute offers to renew his contract in spite of the fact that he has already reached retirement age.  He was offered the direction of an important research project financed by the Scottish minister of Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries.  With a budget of 1.6 million pounds, the project included 30 research scientists whose mission was to evaluate the impact of GMOs on human health.

“We were very enthusiastic”, explains Dr. Pusztai.  “At that time the first genetically modified crops had been planted in the U.S.  In spite of which there had never been any scientific study published on the subject.   The Scottish minister believed that our research would be a considerable encouragement in the use of GMOs.  No one believed, including myself – at the time I was an ardent supporter of biotechnology – that we would discover problems.  I believed that we would be able to prove, with scientific research worthy of the name, that GMOs were inoffensive.  And that we would then be hailed as heroes.”  In spite of his optimism, Dr. Pusztai’s would soon be disillusioned. 

The object of Dr. Pusztai’s research was a genetically modified potato which had already been created by the Rowlett Institute.  A gene of the snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) which fabricates a protein (lectine) inoffensive to humans but abhorrent to insects had been inserted in the DNA of the potato.  The resulting potato could therefore be cultivated without insecticide with no negative effects on human health.  Or so the scientists believed. 

“My first surprise,” recalls Dr. Pusztai, “ was when we analyzed the chemical composition of the genetically modified potatoes.   First of all, the chemical composition was significantly different from that of unmodified potatoes.  More surprising, the chemical composition of the genetically modified potatoes differed from one to another.  There was a variation of as much as 20% in the level of lectine.  It was then that I realized that the process of insertion was so imprecise that it produced different results with each application.  This imprecision is caused by the nature of the gene canon.  It is impossible to direct the gene that is bombarded into the DNA.  And so it is impossible to determine exactly where the gene will attach itself in the double helix. This explains the variability in the amount of protein produced. (DNA - deoxyribonucleic acid, a self-replicating material present in nearly all living organisms as the main constituent of chromosomes. It is the carrier of genetic information.  Each molecule of DNA consists of two strands coiled around each other to form a double helix, a structure like a spiral ladder. Each rung of the ladder consists of a pair of chemical groups called bases (of which there are four types which combine in specific pairs so that the sequence on one strand of the double helix is complementary to that on the other. It is the specific sequence of bases that constitutes the genetic information.)

To his great consternation, Dr. Pusztai observed anomalies in the laboratory rats that were fed the genetically modified potatoes.  The rats that ingested the GMO potatoes had brains, testicles and livers that were significantly less developed than those of the control group.  The rats fed GMO potatoes also had atrophied tissue notably in the pancreas and the intestines.  In addition, there was a proliferation of stomach cells.  This was very alarming sinse this condition facilitates the creation of tumors.  The stomach linings of the GMO fed rats were overheated. The immune system of these rats regarded the GMO potatoes as a disease. 

Dr. Pusztai was convinced that it is the process of genetic manipulation itself that is at the source of these dysfunctions.  This discovery was stupefying.  Contrary to what the Food and Drug Administration would have us believe, genetic modification is NOT a neutral process.   According to Dr. Pusztai’s research, genetic manipulation itself poses a significant threat to human health, a finding which is in absolute contradiction of the policy of the FDA.

Profoundly troubled, Dr. Pusztai reported his findings to the director of the Rowett Institute, Phillip James.   Although Dr. Pusztai had no idea of what was to come, this was the beginning of the end of his career.   Initially Mr. James was sensitive to Dr. Pusztai’s concerns.   Pusztai was authorized to appear on a BBC television program that was devoted to questions concerning biotechnology in June 1998.  It was on this progra,  on August 9, 1998, that Pusztai would coin a phrase that was repeated in the British press constantly:  “It is not right to use British citizens as laboratory rats.”

Three days later on August 12, as a horde of journalists camped in front of his home, Dr. Pusztai was convened to a meeting with Phillip James.  Present at the meeting were Dr. Pusztai, Mr. James and a lawyer.  Mr. James informed Dr. Pusztai that his contract was suspended and that he had been retired.  The research team was disbanded.  The computers and research documents belonging to the study were confiscated and all of the telephone lines of the research laboratory were cut.  Dr. Pusztai was informed that he should have no communication with the press under threat of legal action.   Thus began a campaign of disinformation designed to sully Dr. Pusztai’s reputation. 

In several subsequent interviews, Philip James alleged that Dr. Pusztai had mixed up the lectine from the snowdrop with that of a lectin sample named “Concanavaline A” which is found in a bean native to South America, known for its toxicity.  According to the official line at the Rowlett Institute, the health problems noted in the experiment were not caused by genetic engineering but were the effect of the lectine “Con A” which is a natural poison and which, according to Rowett, had been mixed up by Dr. Pusztai with the lectine of the snowcap.  According to an article published at the time by the French newspaper, Le Monde, this allegation was all the more absurd since Dr. Pusztai was the leading authority on lectine in the world.  Dr. Pusztai could not defend himself under threat of legal action.

What caused this sudden dramatic shift on the part of Rowlett that led to the destruction of the career of one of its most imminent scientists?  Simple:  Monsanto was on the verge of commercializing its GMO seed in Europe.  The company could not afford actual science to stand in the way of capitalizing on its considerable investment in biotechnology.  The stakes were too high for the multinational company that has brought the world, PCBs, Agent Orange and the bovine growth hormone rGBH (see preceding reports).  Somebody at Monsanto called somebody at the White House who called somebody at 10 Downing Street who called Phillip James who in turn took the necessary steps to see that the commercialization of Monsanto’s GMO products would not be compromised by scientific research. 

It’s hard to say, but there is probably little or no un-genetically modified corn in North America today.  Through wind born pollination, genetically modified corn has corrupted just about every variety of corn on the continent.  Even in isolated sections of Mexico, the land where corn began, native stocks are contaminated.  Farmers are warned to be on the look out for Frankenstein anomalies in their fields, ears of corn resembling Siamese twins, kernels grotesquely malformed, etc. Even though the government of Mexico has attempted to prevent the use of GMO corn, it has not been able to prevent wind born pollen from intruding. 

Corn and corn-derived products are in a gigantic number of food products.  A huge number of food products contain soybeans as well.  There is probably no un-adulterated soy in North America either.  Some canola maybe and a stock of Canadian wheat that is held in a closed greenhouse and protected from the wind. 

Now that the biotech genie is out of the bottle, what can be done to get it back in?  Not much.  But at least consumers have the possibility of choosing healthy, non-adulterated food products, provided that they can find them.  You are what you eat.

August 5, 2009

Here is the seventh of a series of reports dealing with GMOs (genetically modified organisms).  The information comes primarily from “Le Monde selon Monsanto” (The World According to Monsanto) by Marie-Monique Robin (Stanke, 2006).  The most alarming element of this story is the complete absence of serious research relating to the effects of GMOs on human health.  Through the equivalent of a pseudo-scientific sleight of hand, the multinational biochemical companies, aided in large part by a very sympathetic US government, have been able to commercialize products containing genetically modified organisms with no knowledge of their long term effects, and offered to a buying public which is kept in the dark.   Due to the notion of “substantial equivalence”, genetically modified organisms have been able to avoid critical research.  It seems likely that we will ever know their effects until it is potentially too late to do anything about it.

Near the end of 1986, four high ranking officers of Monsanto visited then vice-president George Bush (#1).  The purpose of the visit was to enlist the support of the vice-president for the promotion of biotechnology.  Their request fell on very sympathetic ears.   The Reagan administration was obsessed at the time with the notion of “deregulation”.   In order to permit the US economy to grow, it was necessary to eliminate government regulations that hindered industry.   The White House had earlier published, on June 26, 1986, a directive dealing with the regulation of the biotechnical industry.  The purpose of the directive was to side step  Congress and avoid any public debate on the issue.  Unfortunately there has been very little public discourse. 

The directive of June 26, 1986 was addressed to the three US regulatory agencies:  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  It stipulated that the organic products resulting from biotechnology would be subject to  existing regulations.  It specified that the techniques of biotechnology represented simply “the extension of traditional methods of manipulation of plants and animals”.  In other words, genetically modified organisms did not require a special status and would be subjected to regulation applied to traditionally derived products.  For the US government, there was no difference between  genetic engineering practices such as the introduction of a foreign molecule into the DNA genetic chain by a “gene canon” and traditional agricultural practices such as cross-pollination and hybridization, which have been practicesdby farmers for millennia.

On May 26, 1992, George H.W. Bush, now president of the USA, officially announced the policy of his government in regards to GMOs.  He remarked that in 1991, biotechnology generated 4 billion dollars, and he expressed the hope that the figure would increase to 50 billion by the year 2000.   The only way to arrive at that goal, he continued, was not to hamper the biotechnology industry with ‘unnecessary regulation”.   Three days later, the FDA published its policy regarding GMOs: “Food products derived from vegetable varieties derived from new methods of genetic modification will be regulated in the same context and with the same critical approach as those derived from traditional methods....In most cases, the components of food products derived from a genetically engineered plant will be the same as or substantially similar to those that are found commonly in food products.”  

This is the doctrine of substantial equivalence.  These few lines became the foundation of the theoretical basis for the regulation of GMOs or more precisely the non-regulation.  In other words, genetically modified plants are essentially the same as their natural homologues.  This is the very heart of the debate which opposes proponents of GMOs (most importantly multinational biochemical companies and the scientists they employ) and those who are opposed (everybody else).  The FDA, in spite of the fact that there is no scientific basis for the assumption, has a priori determined GMOs to be “substantially equivalent” to naturally occurring plants, therefore avoiding the requirement to conduct toxicological tests.

According to Michael Hanson of the Consumers Union, the principal of “substantial equivalence” is a hoax based with no scientific basis created ex nihilo in order to avoid that GMOs be considered at the very least as food additives.  Thanks to this regulatory decision, biotechnical companies can avoid toxicological tests which are prescribed by the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1958.  This law regulates the use of food additives such as coloring and preservatives.  The law stipulates that “any substance of which the utilization directly or indirectly constitutes a component which affects the characteristics of any food product” is subject to testing.  Excluded from the category of “food additives” are products “generally recognized as safe”.   This exception applies to GMOs.  The FDA assumes that they are safe, an assumption which has unknown consequences for human health. 

The policy of the FDA is severely criticized by Michael Hanson: “Actually when a drop of a preservative or of a chemical product is added to a food product, it is considered to be an “additive”  and thus subjected to all sorts of tests to determine whether or not the additive is safe.  On the other hand, the genetic engineering of a plant that can cause innumerable alterations of the plants basic nature is subjected to no tests whatsoever.  The FDA has always refused not only to evaluate the final product of genetic engineering, but the technique of genetic manipulation itself.  It has always assumed that biotechnology was intrinsically neutral.”

Joseph Mendelson, director of legal affairs for the Center for Food Safety, explains: “The health of the American people is being subjected to the good will of biotech firms who are left to themselves to decide, with no governmental control, whether their products are safe.  The directive of the FDA was written by and for the biotech industry.  The notion that GMOs are regulated is completely false.   The country has been transformed into a giant laboratory in which potentially dangerous products have been marketed for 10 years during which the consumer has no choice.   In the name of “substantial equivalence” the labeling of products containing genetically modified organisms is banned in the US.”  In effect, the biotech companies want to prevent, at all costs, consumers from knowing whether food products contain GMOs.  The reasoning is that since the GMO derived products are “substantially equivalent”  to natural products, there is no need to label them.  The fear is that if consumers were made aware, they would avoid GMOs.  With the complicity of the FDA, multinational companies have been able to foist their products on American consumers without the consumers being made aware. 

It is evident that the motivation behind the policies of the multinational biotech companies is simply greed.  More money, no matter what the consequences for the health of the American people and people around the world.  And these companies are willing to go to great lengths to protect their access to market.  In her book, Ms. Robin illustrates several cases in which scientists have been subjected to harassment and worse when they made discoveries that were compromising for the multinationals.   Given the sordid history of Monsanto (PCBs, dioxin, agent orange, etc.) this is hardly a surprise.  The most striking example of intimidation is the story of British scientist Arpad Pusztai which will be related in a future report. 

You are what you eat.

July 1, 2009

This the sixth in a series of articles based on the book by Marie-Monqiue Robin, Le monde selon Monsanto (The world according to Monsanto, les Editions Stanké, 2006).  A new documentary, Food Inc., deals with much of the same material.  If you eat, this concerns you.  It can come as no surprise that the epidemic of obesity, diabetes, allergies etc. that are plaguing the developed countries and particularly their children is directly associated with the food that we are feeding them.   One of the great tragedies of modern human society is its inability to feed itself well.  Healthy nutritional unadulterated food has become a luxury, and most of us are content with a diet of processed foods many of which contain genetically modified organisms, whose long term impact on human health has never been properly evaluated, and whose very existence the manufacturers are attempting to hide. 

According to Pete Hardin, journalist who is quoted extensively in the book of Ms. Robin, the development of biotechnology was so important to the US government that it preferred to ignore questions of human and animal health in its rush to approve the bovine growth hormone (rGBH or RST – see report of October 2008).  The development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has been controlled by multinational companies whose goal is not the eradication of hunger or the creation of foodstuffs designed to improve the human situation.   The development of GMOs has been driven by one overriding consideration: to make money.

The story begins in 1953 when James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the basic structure of DNA.  The DNA molecule is found in each and every cell of each and every living organism.  The DNA molecule determines the genetic code of every living thing.  This discovery earned the two biologists the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1962 and promoted the creation of a new scientific discipline:  molecular biology.

This discovery was accompanied by a credo which stated that living organisms are machines whose biological behavior is determined by individual genes.  In other words, each biological reaction that characterizes the functioning of a living organism is controlled by ONE gene which produces a specific protein.  This exclusive genetic concept is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way things actually operate, but has been the foundation for the development of biotechnology.  In reality, according to Arnaud Apotheker, biologist at Greenpeace France, genetic phenomenon is much more complex.

Today, we understand that certain genes interact with others and that it is not sufficient to extract a specific gene and introduce it into another organism in order to provoke a desired effect through the production of a specific protein.  By introducing a molecule in this manner, there is a significant risk of provoking an unsuspected and undesirable effect.  However, in the 1960s, excited by the discovery of DNA, molecular biologists began to develop techniques for the manipulation of genetic material in hopes of creating new organisms which could not be found in nature and which would contain desirable properties.  This genetic manipulation was justified by a humanistic vision. 

In 1962, Caroll Hochwait, vice president of research at Monsanto, proclaimed:  “It is altogether conceivable that by the manipulation of genetic information, a plant such as rice can be “instructed” to fabricate a high level of protein, which would be a miracle to alleviate hunger and malnutrition.”  Pretty nice.  The problem, however, is that the technology of genetically modified organisms has never been utilized to alleviate hunger.  It has, in fact, contributed to world hunger.  To understand GMOs and their role in society, it is important to understand that the primary function of genetically modified organisms has been to make money for the multinational companies that control the patents. 

On February 25, 1975 in Asilomar California, was held the first international congress on the recombination of DNA molecules.  The molecular biologists in attendance were determined to preserve as much freedom as possible for their research projects and to keep government interference and public meddling to a minimum.  After the Asilomar congress, genetic experiments in the US proliferated.  There were more than 300 in 1977, according to the Institute for National Health.  This veritable race to develop new gene combinations led to a rapprochement between the scientific community and big business that would permanently alter research practices.  As the sociologist Susan Wright explains: “When genetic engineering was perceived as an investment opportunity, scientific norms were adapted to commercial practice.  The birth of genetic engineering coincided with the emergence of a new ethical vision, defined by commerce.”

In this capitalistic race to exploit genetic engineering, one company led the pack:  Monsanto.  As Richard Mahoney, president of the company, said in 1984:  “Our business is not to foster scientific knowledge, our business is to develop products.”  From that moment, the entire research effort of Monsanto was devoted to one goal:  finding a gene that would immunize vegetable cells to the herbicide Roundup.

From its commercialization in 1974, Roundup was a spectacular success.  Promoting its product as “environmentally safe” and “100% biodegradable” (claims which would prove spurious and would be withdrawn), Monsanto succeeded in making Roundup the most utilized herbicide on the planet.  From 1985, all of the research of the company was devoted to the creation of genetically modified plants that would be resistant to the herbicide.  The potential gain was enormous:  patents for genetically modified strains of the major food crops of the world.   The first plant to receive Monsanto’s attention was soy beans, the plant which dominates American agriculture and which represented 15 billion dollars per year in 1974.

The research was long and costly; 700,000 hours and 80 million dollars to find the gene, the CP4 EPSPS, or “promoter 35S”, capable of resisting the herbicide.  And this was only the first step.  The gene had to be introduced into the DNA of the soy bean.  The existing methods of genetic introduction did not work and the scientists at Monsanto were forced to break out the big guns, or more appropriately, the little guns.  It was time to roll out the gene cannon.

Today the gene cannon is the method of insertion most utilized in genetic engineering.  Genetic constructions are attached to microscopic “cannon balls” of gold or tungsten and are shot (bombarded) into a culture of embryonic cells.  The “bombarding” is just that, and is extremely imprecise. The DNA is inserted haphazard.  Tens of thousands of gene cannons were fired to produce a few plants that held promise. 

According to Arnaud Aroteheker: “in his attempt to control nature, man has utilized aggressive technologies to force cells to accept genes from another species.  For certain plants, the weapon was chemical or biological, in order to infect the cells with bacteria or a virus.  For other plants, the gene cannon was used.  In both cases, the loss of cells was considerable.  On average, one cell out of a thousand into which is integrated the trans-gene, will survive and generate a transgenetic plant.”

In the following report, I will examine the cozy relationship between the bio industrial companies and the US government that allowed the commercialization of genetically modified food crops without serious evaluation.  Via a questionable theory deemed “substantial equivalence”, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the marketing of genetically modified food.  Basically stated, if a carrot is not dangerous, then a carrot gene implanted into an eggplant can’t be dangerous either.  However, as Arpad Pusztai, an imminent British scientist discovered, GMOs can indeed cause serious health threats.  The discovery cost him his job and to a great extent his reputation.  But, as has been the case throughout their history, multinational biochemical companies will stop at very little to protect the market share of their products and the billions of dollars they generate. 

To be continued.

Please consult the reports of July, August, September & October 2008 & January 2009. 

June 3, 2009

Those of you who are familiar with these pages will not be surprised by the subject of this month’s report: the loss of Louisiana’s wetlands.  What distinguishes this article is that it is an eye witness report.  On Sunday May 31, I played in Houma for a benefit organized by America’s Wetlands.  Called Storm Warning, the concert was designed to create awareness of the problem of wetland loss that is dramatically altering the natural environment of the Louisiana coast. 

The event was well attended, as are most free festivals in Louisiana.  It was hard to tell the extent of the commitment to the environmental cause by the members of the audience, however.  It was a pretty diverse group, and with the temperature in the high 90s, not too many people were jumping around.  The local politicians were out in force, and Louisiana’s Democratic senator, Mary Landrieu, made an appearance. 

The event was organized by America’s Wetlands.  This organization, in spite of its positive sounding name is quite controversial.  Its major sponsor is Shell Oil Company, and it has been accused of being nothing less than a front for a major oil company.  Welcome to Louisiana, y’all.

As was so eloquently stated by Oliver Hauk in his October 2005 paper (published by Tulane University), in Louisiana politics, there is an elephant in the room, and its name is: Oil Bidness. (see my series on reports based on Dr. Hauk's paper, archives 2006).  Ever since Huey Long founded the “Win or Lose Oil Company”, Louisiana politicians and major oil companies have been sleeping in the same bed.  Huey Long and James Noe, an independent oilman and member of the Louisiana Senate formed the controversial Win or Lose Oil Company. The firm was established to obtain leases on state-owned lands so that the directors might collect bonuses and sublease the mineral rights to the major oil companies. Although ruled legal, these activities were done in secret and the stockholders were unknown to the public. Huey Long made a profit on the bonuses and the resale of those state leases, using the funds primarily for political purpose.  Welcome to Louisiana, y’all.  

Is America’s Wetlands just a public relations ploy of Shell Oil, or is it a genuine effort to save the natural environment of Louisiana and thereby its people and culture?  The answer, it seems to me, is as dark as the bottom of a muddy bayou.

After having played the benefit concert in Houma, my wife Claude and I drove down to Cocodrie. Past Montegut, past Dulac, all the way to the end of the road.  I was disheartened by the sight.  I had not been to Cocodrie for more than five years, and the changes were appalling.  The relationship between open water and everything else has changed dramatically.  In just a little over five years, the marsh had disappeared, ceding its place to the Gulf of Mexico.  All along Hiway 57, past Boudreaux and Dulac, the bare dead trunks of the trees stood as silent witnesses to salt intrusion and the death of the marsh.  Granted, there were no trees present before the construction of the road, and therefore, the trees which use to line Hiway 57 were invasive species.  None the less, they had been able to grow tall,  a testament to the biodiversity of the area, before the intrusion of salt water and the attendant strangulation of the trees.

Once we arrived at Cocodrie, I was amazed by the transformation.  In spite of the land loss and the arboreal loss, the extent of the residential development is astounding.  There has been a boom of construction in the recent years and brand new fish camps abound, including mega-camps perched high above the marsh, many several stories tall.  In spite of the imminent danger of another tropical storm, there are apparently plenty of people who are rich and foolhardy enough to defy Mother Nature.  Crazy.  But then, I’m not a fisherman.

We drove back up to Houma and headed East, arriving on Hiway 1 and taking the route South to Grande Isle.   The shock that I had felt at the mouth of Bayou Terrebonne was amplified by several degrees at the mouth of Bayou Lafourche.   I am very sensitive to the mythology of Bayou Lafourche.  This was the river that became home to many of the Acadian exiles in Louisiana.  The community that lines its banks, from Larose through Cutoff, Galliano and Golden Meadow, is the other side of Cajun culture.  In contrast to the crawfish / rice farming / cattle grazing prairies of Southwestern Louisiana, Bayou Lafourche is a shrimp fishing / fur trapping region.  It has its own particular dialect of French and the Cajuns of Lafourche are a distinct community. .  All along the bayou are the ubiquitous shrimp boats. Modest wood frame houses line the bayou road on the inland side with docks and boat yards perched along the water.  Nothing much seemed to have changed since the days when I played the local club, the Glow Room.  Once we left Golden Meadow, however, and entered the marsh, what I discovered was drastically different from the world I had known.   In the space of a few years, the amount of open water has grown dramatically.  Once we got to Port Fourchon, I was in for another surprise. 

According to the big blue sign, the government of Louisiana is investing $131,000,000 and the US government $60,000,000 for the  construction of an elevated highway to connect Port Fourchon to the world.  Two hundred million dollars to build a road that flies over the marsh, built on very instable ground and whose reliability in the case of major hurricane is questionable.  And what for?  To get the oil company personnel and EQUIPMENT the hell out in case of storm.  To evacuate.  We are building one of the most expensive construction projects inch for inch in the history of mankind to have a few miles road to insure the evacuation of an oil terminal.  Welcome to Louisiana, y’all.

On Grande Isle, the feeling I got was even more disturbing.  The last time I had been to Grande Isle was well before Katrina.  I cannot tell you whether it was Katrina or Ike or Gustav  that messed up the State Park, but I can tell you that once we got there, there was not much to see.  The Grande Isle state park had been a beautiful site.  The observation tower and the wharf were very special places, surrounded by a small chenier, usually abounding in bird life.  Today, the Grande Isle state park is a dismal ruin.  The ticket girl at the park entrance seemed surprised that we wanted to actually go in.  I could understand her surprise once we arrived at the beach:  the two major structures are in ruins and the wharf which used to push out from shore a few hundred yards is but a jumbled pile of sticks.  There were tourist in trailers in the parking lot, but their access to the beach is limited to the East by a big red sign reading: Beach closed beyond this point. 

The most astounding thing to me, however, was the development.  At the entrance to the park where I had observed a few fishing camps on my last visit, was now a strip of dozens of camps.  The entire island has exploded.  The number of fishing camps has quadrupled, quintupled, sextupled, gone out of control.  The first question I asked myself was why would anybody build a camp in Grande Isle, and then where did they get the money, and finally, what kind of insurance can they get?

As someone who is committed to the restoration of the coast of Louisiana and to the preservation of the culture to which it is attached, I am profoundly confused and dismayed.  Is the organization called America’s Wetlands just a publicity front for Shell Oil?  “Yes definitely” according to another organization called Save Our Wetlands.  My first thought is that anything that draws attention to the problem is a positive.  That said, would it be better if the oil companies filled in the 10,000 miles of exploration canals which contributed greatly to the problem by allowing salt water intrusion into the marsh?  Yes definitely.  Is this likely to happen?  No. 

And what about the proposed Morganza to the Gulf Mega-Levee project?  The US Corps of Engineers is chomping at the bit to build another big dike, but the scientific community is unanimous in its criticism of the project which could potentially create more problems that it solves.  I can only hope that the political leaders will make choices based on the long term interests of the community as opposed to the short term interests of the developers and the oil companies.  Welcome to Louisiana.

But in this House of Babel, there are voices of reason begging to be heard.  My support goes to the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.  As a practicing Buddhist, I am ever seeking the Middle Way.  The Coalition has been preaching restoration for over a decade.  Its point of view is free of political influence and is tempered by reality.  Is it too late to save the coast of Louisiana?  After visiting ground-zero in lower Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, I am not sure.  But as Mark Davis, of the Coalition, told me recently, we are on the front line of the war against radical climate change.  The lessons that we learn in Louisiana will be applied to coastal regions throughout the world.  It’s an exciting time. And scary too. But full of promise, if only we understand that we can no longer pretend to control Mother Nature.  We need to make her a partner if we hope to save southern Louisiana. 

May 5, 2009

I had never been to the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans since hurricane Katrina.  Heading back from the UNO campus where I had the pleasure of visiting with my old friend Jack Hopke on the airwaves of WWNO, I took the scenic route back to the French quarter passing through ground zero of the Flood of 2005.  The scene was confusing.  Three and a half years after Katrina, the neighborhood is still struggling.  There are signs of despair, amidst... signs of hope.   The houses are in four states of repair (or disrepair) very often side by side :  1. completely abandoned (overgrown with chicken trees and high grass obscuring the view), 2. in bad shape (windows boarded, littered with trash, but not overgrown), 3.  in reconstruction and  4. completely restored.

The scene was eerie.  A brand new brick home surrounded by a fully landscaped yard stands next to an overgrown jungle, home to raccoons and who knows what.  There were little signs of life and hardly anybody in the street.  The few people who were about, some black, some white, some walking in the street and others working in the yard, all stopped to stare at me as I passed.  Their expressions were vacant and I could not tell if they were happy to see me, or not.   They could have thought that I was just another tourist passing through, which indeed I was, another curious visitor coming to gawk at their misery.  Or they could have been comforted by the fact that I was not a drug gang hoodlum.  It was impossible to get any sense of how they felt, all of them with an expressionless stare that betrayed no feeling.  

I turned down Gardena Street and came upon the site of the Bienville Street elementary school.  The school itself has been removed, the building completely dismantled.  There was no sign of activity, just a large open lot with a few majestic oak trees. On the site of the “” the school is listed “Temporarily closed”, but the closing looked pretty permanent to me.  The school does not even appear on the site of the Orleans Parish school board, its fate in the administrative limbo that grips the city still. 

Coming up St. Bernard Avenue, we arrived under the “Big Stripe”, the I-10 loop, passing through the Tremé and finally arrived in the French Quarter.  It was another world.  Choc full of tourists and Jazz Fest revelers.  A startling contrast to the barren streets of what the locals call the “Outback”.  Nearly four years after Katrina and on the eve of another hurricane season, the city of New Orleans is a study in contrasts. 

It was a great pleasure to play at the Jazz Fest and the Parish at the House of Blues.  My old stomping grounds.  I had CD signings at the Fairgrounds and at the Louisiana Music Factory

I was deeply touched to meet with residents of Lakeview and Gentilly and St Bernard Parish, which along with the 9th ward was the area hardest hit by the flood.  My song “The Levee Broke” seems to be a lightning rod for the emotions that many of the survivors are still and probably will always feel.  It is always a pleasure to visit with fans and to learn a little about their lives, but there was another dimension that accompanied the visits with the people who had suffered from Katrina.  Every one of them had a story to tell.  They were all very moved by my song and let me know it.  I was close to tears a few times.  They all were survivors, and they all told me that their neighborhoods were coming back.  One lady told me that she was alone on her block, the only house inhabited for miles around.  A couple told me that they had lost all of their family, but were determined to stay.  Stories all too common. 

Everywhere I go, people ask my how New Orleans is faring.  There is no easy answer.  The city and its people are still suffering from government indifference and local incompetence and yet they are all determined to make this city a decent and even a joyous place to live.  Of all of the stories and the images that I have heard and seen, perhaps the most telling is that of Molly, the pony. 

Molly is a grey speckled pony who was abandoned by her owners during in the storm.  She was rescued several weeks after the hurricane and taken to a farm where animals were held.  There she was attacked by a pit bull and her right leg was badly mauled.  The leg became infected.  With so many animals to care for, the volunteer vets from LSU decided that Molly was beyond hope.  A three-legged pony didn’t seem to have much of a chance to survive.  But an angel of mercy appeared in the form of Dr.Rustin Moore.  Dr. Moore is a surgeon and he noticed that Molly was careful of her wound, constantly shifting her weight to protect her injured leg.  She was a smart pony with good instincts. And she was easy to handle, receptive to human care.  Instead of putting Molly down, Dr. Moore operated, removing her infected leg below the knee.  A special prosthesis was built and Molly was given an artificial leg.

Molly has a new lease on life and a new job.  The rescue farm owner began taking Molly around to shelters, hospitals, nursing homes and rehabilitation centers, places where people need hope.  She has inspired countless storm victims with her pluck and has become a symbol for the city of New Orleans itself:  limping badly, but walking upright none the less. 

On the bottom of Molly’s artificial hoof, the designer carved a “happy face”.  Wherever Molly goes, she leaves behind a smile.  She won’t win the Kentucky Derby but she has won the hearts of thousands of people, and has given hope and courage wherever she goes.  Giity up, Molly. 


March 30, 2009

Bonjour mes amis, It is with great delight that I present to you the following commentaries on the songs from the new album, LAST KISS, in hopes that they will enhance your pleasure. Happy listening.

1. Dansé (pronounced Don-Say, i.e. French for Dancing). The dance tradition of Cajun Louisiana is alive and well. Every Friday and Saturday evening across the Southern parishes, in a multitude of small clubs and dance halls, the locals get together to hear music and dance. This song is a tribute to this celebration of life and good times. According to the legend, the deported Acadians broke into a dance upon arriving in the port of New Orleans ending their exile in 1765. Until WWII, the dances were held in private homes, with entire families attending. This gave rise to the term “Fais do-do”. While the adults and older children danced and socialized in the adjoining rooms, the infants were cloistered in a bedroom. The old women kept the babies still by singing lullabies, ergo “Fais do-do” (Go to sleep). The 1950s saw the beginning of commercial dance halls of which there are legion today. The hot spot in Catahoula is Ray’s Levee Bar.

2. Fire in the Night A love song in the classic tradition, although in this case I imagined the protagonist to be Allen Ginsburg and the object of his passion Jack Kerouac. Denver was the hometown of Neal Cassady, the beatnik rebel who was the inspiration for the fictional character Dean Moriarty, hero of “On the Road”.

3. The Levee Broke On the morning of August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Southeastern Louisiana, changing my life and the lives of thousands of residents of the Gulf coast forever. This is a song that I would have preferred not to have written, and never intended to compose. It just popped up one day, coming through the fog of anger and distress associated with the hurricane and its aftermath.

4. Last Kiss In writing a song, I often attempt to create a dramatic situation in order to find the line of a story. I am, in that sense, a regional songwriter, following in the tradition of William Faulkner, or closer to home Ernest J. Gaines and James Lee Burke. The imagined setting for this song is the flight of two lovers who have violated the Southern taboo against mixed-race romance. The Bois d’arc (pronounced “bo dark”in Mississippi) is the osage orange tree (maclura pomifera) which the Indians used to make their bows, hence the term “wood of the bow” or “bois d’arc”.

5. Just Ain't Enough In my hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana, there was once a den of perdition, a bar called The Last Roundup, that stayed opened all night. Out in the country, and exempt from any strict surveillance, the doors stayed opened as long as there were bodies at the bar. It catered to off duty bartenders, night owls, and the flotsam of the dark. It was the “all night rodeo” of the song.

6. Give My Heart This is another song about a hurricane, but this one was written before Katrina. I saw my first hurricane (Audry) at 6 years old. The storms have punctuated my life ever since. Once again, I was inspired by the notion of forbidden love and by the loss of that love.

7. Some Day If I were marooned on a desert island with only one album, it would be a Blues album. Of all of the styles indigenous to South Louisiana, Cajun, Zydeco, Swamp Pop, New Orleans R&B, Country, Rock ‘n’ Roll, it is the Blues that has touched me the deepest.

8. Sweet Daniel  Several years ago, a young Innu girl (Montagnais nation, Northern Québec) spoke to me about the loss of her brother. The aboriginal societies of northern Canada are suffering terribly from the effects of global warming. With the permafrost no longer permanent, entire villages have slid into the sea. The traditional hunting patterns have been interrupted. The incidence of alcoholism and suicide is the highest in North America. In many of the villages, young children have taken to sniffing gasoline to get high, walking about with a plastic bag filled with gas. In this case, the young boy got too close to an open flame space heater and was burned to death. His name was Daniel. He was 9 years old.

9. Come to Me Love triangle from the point of view of the acute angle.

10. Au bord de Lac Bijou Purple martins have been accommodated by human society in North America for centuries. The American Indian would hang hollowed out gourds to attract the birds who not only provide a charming song, but also consume quantity of mosquitoes. I have hosted a colony of these beautiful swallows for many years and await their return migration every spring. This song speaks about a pair of purple martins, Pierre and Marie. One year, however, only one bird remained, waiting forlorn for his lover’s return

11. The Ballad of C.C. Boudreaux My mother had 5 brothers, the youngest of whom was Claude Cinquième Boudreaux. I loved all of my uncles, but C.C. was special. He moved to Port Arthur, Texas and worked as a cook in the merchant marine, heading out to sea for long periods. He never married. There were years when we didn’t see him very much. He would usually come for Christmas, and his return was always a joyous event, the return of the prodigal son. When he turned 60, he came home for good, suffering from the cancer that would take his life.

12. Acadian Driftwood In August of 2008, Céline Dion invited me to sing with her for the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Québec. Singing with her in front of over 250,000 people, I was touched by the emotion that flowed between us. I have always loved the Robbie Robertson song “Acadian Driftwood” and asked her right then, on the Plains of Abraham, if she would like to record the song with me. Céline and I are both of Acadian heritage. In my case it is more unambiguous since my ancestors were all Cajun/Acadian. Céline has, as many thousands of Québécois, an Acadian ancestor somewhere up her family tree. The song, however, does not represent for either of us the advocacy of ethnic identity but rather an ideal of tolerance and mercy. Inspired by the tragic story of my ancestors, the deported Acadians, the song is about forgiveness and strength. There are hundreds of thousands of people in North America and around the world who consider themselves Acadian. Victims of the greatest ethnic cleansing in North America (by Europeans on Europeans), our ancestors overcame tremendous adversity just to survive. This song is a great tribute to their tenacity and to the compassion that Céline and I both feel is at the heart of the Acadian experience.

March 11, 2009

I arrived in Manitoba on Louis Riel day. It seems very ironic that the province of Manitoba has declared an official holiday to celebrate the memory of he who is called the “Father of Manitoba”. Louis Riel is one of the most remarkable figures in the history of French America and one of the most controversial figures in the history of Canada. Métis, leader of the Red River rebellion of 1869 and of the Rebellion of the North West in 1885, he was accused of high treason by the government of Canada and executed by hanging on November 16, 1885. For the Métis, Riel is a hero. For English Canadians, however, up until recently, he was considered a traitor and an assassin. Today, amongst English Canadians, Riel is either unknown or misunderstood. In the same way that Samuel de Champlain is considered the “Founder of Canada”, Canadian historiography has absorbed Louis Riel into its own dynamic. In reality, during his life, Riel and the Métis were considered by English Canadians to be a problem to be eliminated.

The origin of the Métis or “mixed-blood” community in what is today Canada began with the arrival of the French in North America. In colonial Acadie, numerous were relations between the French and the Mic’maq. The notion of “Métis” today, however, is a phenomenon of Western Canada. With the exploration of the West that began at the beginning of the 18th century when Pierre de La Vérandrye and his sons pushed passed the Great Lakes, a French speaking mixed-blood community began to evolve. The French “voyageurs” founded families with aboriginal women. A few decades later, around the Hudson’s Bay Company posts an English speaking mixed-blood community began to evolve. Each of these two communities had its own language, its own culture and its own interests as Marcel Giraud explains in his definitive work “Le Métis dans l’Ouest Canadian” (The Métis of West Canada).

The commercial history of the Western Canada during the 18th century was defined by the fierce competition between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Company of the Northwest, based in Montreal, for the control of the lucrative fur trade. While the Hudson’s Bay Company established trading posts and invited the Indians to bring their furs, the Company of the Northwest relied on French “coureurs des bois”. These hardy adventurers were Frenchmen of the St. Laurence Valley who penetrated into the wilderness in search of riches and a good time. To the chagrin of the Catholic clergy and the government, these “voyageurs” preferred the life of adventure to that of sedentary farming. Soon they had created a French speaking mixed-blood community of which Louis Riel’s family was part.

Louis Riel was born in 1844. His father was Louis Riel and his mother Julie Lagimodière. His maternal grand parents were Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière and Marie-Anne Gadboury, who were amongst the first settlers from the Saint Laurence valley to come to the Red River. His paternal grandfather was Jean-Baptiste Riel and his grandmother Marguerite Boucher was a Franco-Déné Métis. The family was one of the most prosperous in the region. At 10 years old, Louis Riel began his education in the school founded at Saint Boniface by the Christian Brothers. Four years later, Louis departed for Montreal with 2 other young Métis boys to study at the Collège de Montréal. The hope of Bishop Taché, the first Catholic bishop of the colony, was that the three would ultimately be ordained priests.

In January 1864, Louis Riel, in Montreal, learned of his dear father’s death. This would affect him deeply. The next year, Louis left the seminary, but remained in Montreal, studying with Grey nuns. Finally, unable to concentrate on his studies, he left Montreal spending the next two years in Chicago and St. Paul, Minnesota. He returned home to the colony of Assiniboa in 1868 after 10 years of absence. He was a highly educated but unemployed young man.

Upon Riel’s return to the Red River, the region was in a political vacuum. Since 1670, the entire territory of what is today Western Canada was controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The charter granted by Charles II granted the company the right to declare and enforce laws, build forts and the exclusive right to trade with the Indians. By the time of Louis Riel, however, the Company’s days of glory were behind. Unable to enforce its monopoly of trade, the Company returned its concession to the British Crown by the Deed of Surrender of 1870. The Crown then ceded the territory to the newly formed Dominion of Canada. During the summer of 1869, John Stoughton Denis was given the mission of surveying the Red River valley by the government of Canada. His arrival caused considerable unrest amongst the Métis. Denis’ survey was based on the Ontario model, rectangular or square lots. The Métis settlement had been established on the French model, with strips of land all having river access. It was clear that Denis’ survey would contradict the settlement pattern of the Métis. In addition, property rights were to be based on the notions of “permanent settlement” and “improvement”. For years, the Métis had followed the buffalo, spending much of the year away from their homes. Furthermore, the notion of “improvement” was subjective and it was clear that the Canadian notion of “improvements” i.e. out buildings, fences, etc. did not correspond to the Métis style of settlement. The Métis were extremely wary of Denis and his mission.

On October 11, 1869, sixteen Métis led by Louis Riel stopped a surveying party and prevented their work. The territory had not yet been officially ceded to Canada and the Métis did not recognize the authority of the surveying party. In the meantime, William McDougall was named Lieutenant Governor of Rupert’s Land and departed Ontario with 300 soldiers. Louis Riel insisted that the Métis remain faithful to the British crown, but he did not recognize the authority of McDougall. His hope was that the Red River community would be able to negotiate its entry into the Canadian confederation. On November 2, Riel and his forces invested Fort Garry, the Hudson’s Bay post, effectively giving them control of the region.

There were those in the community who were violently opposed to Riel. Led by the trader John Schultz, an anglophone pro-Canada party hoped to wrest control from the Métis. Although outnumbered, the pro-Canada party was well entrenched. On December 27, Riel became head of the provisional government. On that day, Donald Smith, representing the Hudson’s Bay Company and the government of Canada, arrived in the colony. During meetings held on January 19 and 20, he affirmed the intentions of the Canadian government to recognize the rights of the Métis. Attempting to consolidate his control of the political situation and to ally himself with the English-speaking Métis as well as the less radical members of the anglophone community, Riel proposed the creation of a convention to be composed of 20 French-speaking and 20 English-speaking delegates with the mandate to draw up a list of rights to be submitted to the Canadian government. The convention finished its work on February 10 and a new provisional government was elected. The anti-Riel forces, however, continued their agitation.

Under orders from J.S. Denis, Charles Boulton organized an armed group which was intent upon overthrowing Riel. Several of this group were arrested by the Métis and detained at Fory Garry. On January 9, several of them escaped. About a month later, on February 18, Riel captured 48 of the insurgents. Most would be released, but one of them, Thomas Scott, would be executed on March 4, 1870. Thomas Scott was an Orangeist, a racist who hated Catholics, Frenchmen and Métis. His behavior was so outrageous that a tribunal was convened in the age old tradition of the buffalo hunt, presided by Ambroise Lépine. Scott was condemned to death and Riel approved. This decision would greatly affect the fate of the provisional government and of Louis Riel himself.

On May 12, 1870, the Canadian parliament passed the Manitoba Act. It recognized the claims of the Métis to the their lands, and insured the free practice of their religion as well as the use of the French language in the parliament of Manitoba and in its courts. Riel was to retain political control until the arrival of the Lieutenant Governor, Adams Archibald, who departed Ontario with Canadian troops under the command o Colonel Wolseley.

The troops arrived well before the Lieutenant Governor and disregarded their mission of preserving public order, intent upon exacting revenge on Riel for the execution of Thomas Scott. Louis Riel and Ambroise Lépine were warned and fled south to the United States, beginning a troubled period of exile. It would be years before Riel returned to Canada. In 1884, a Métis delegation visited him in exile to enlist his aid in organizing a Métis resistance. Riel accompanied them to Saskatchewan where he would lead the Northwest Rebellion of 1885. The rebellion ended and the Battle of Batoche in May, 1885. Riel was captured. He would be tried for high treason in Regina and convicted by an all English-speaking all-Protestant jury.

In 1970, a statue of Louis Riel was unveiled in the courtyard of the Manitoba parliament. It was a 20 foot tall sculpture of a nude and tormented Louis Riel. The image was controversial, especially among the Métis and it was finally removed in 1996 and replace by a more conventional image of Riel as statesman, wearing a suit. The original statue was placed at the rear of the College of Saint Boniface and veiled from view by a concave wall. This image of Riel is too troublesome, it seems. It is , however, represents a very appropriate symbol of the perception of Louis Riel: a tortured soul, a troubling and provocative man whose memory evokes fear and shame and pride all at once. The statue, like the memory of Riel, is hidden from view, but none the less remains part of the landscape and persists in its silent rage. This statue evokes the contradictions that swirl around Riel’s memory: “Father of Manitoba” or assassin, visionary or lunatic, prophet or madman.

Outside of the College of Saint Boniface on Louis Riel day, his statue was shivering in the winter chill of the –20 celcius Manitoba night. Inside the auditorium, I was singing his name. Rile is a powerful symbol for the French speaking community of Manitoba. For the Métis, Louis Riel is a hero. At the heart of his story there remains an unanswered question: What is the place of the French-speaking Métis community in Manitoba today and the place of the French speaking communities in North America? To be followed.

February 4, 2009

I always associate February with the return of the purple martins.  For over 20 years I have put up “cages” for the birds’ return from their wintering ground.  According to the Cajun tradition, the purple martins always arrive at Mardi Gras.  The exact date varies from year to year, but it is always in February that the first scout will arrive.  For a few days, he will flutter about the little birdhouses.  Eventually he will be joined by other birds and the colony will begin the work of nesting in earnest.

For two years now, things have not gone well with my purple martin colony.  A few years ago, the birds were decimated by the nocturnal visit of a Texas rat snake.  Of the dozen adults and several fledglings, 3 pairs remained.  I thought that this would be the end of the colony.  The remaining birds left the houses and spent the rest of the season in the field.  Normally they would have left after the young birds had fledged.  This sad year, however, all of the fledglings had fallen victim to the snake.

In spite of this catastrophe, the following year, the birds returned.  My heart leapt with joy to see them.  Their chirping made me happy.  The colony was on the rebound, and I felt sure that within a few years, it would be completely reestablished.  The snake event had been in 2003.  In 2004, 2005 and 2006, the birds returned and the colony flourished.  But in 2007, something went awry.

On February 20, 2007, walking on my back porch, I spied the first scout.  I was surprised to hear him, as I was every year, never knowing exactly when to expect the return.  I knew that he was one of my birds.  Many of the purple martins who were part of my colony shared a genetic anomaly, a white spot on the secondary feathers.  This bird had the spot.  The next day he returned, accompanied by two females.  For the next few days the little group fluttered about the birdhouses, plunging acrobatically from the sky to light delicately on the roof.  This went on for several days and then.....nothing.  I waited for several week before finally taking the cages down.

In February of 2008, the same thing happened.  Three birds, a male and two females flew over the birdhouses, posing on the roof before darting off again.  I had moved the houses away from the crêpe myrtles.  Purple martins prefer wide open spaces, which allow them full view of the surroundings and a head start on birds of prey.  The result this year was the same as the preceding.  After several days during which I entertained by the joyful swoop and constant chatter of the birds....nothing.

This year, for the first time, I am hesitant to put up the cages.  I would not like to be disappointed again.  Of the several hundred trees that I have planted on my 10 acres, many of them are now tall enough to attract nesting owls.  There is a pair of barn owls (tyro alba) that I have seen often flitting through the oaks.  The presence of the owls poses a significant threat to the purple martins and would be enough to dissuade them.  My local bird guru, Bill Fontenot, explained to me that the same thing happened to him and that he eventually had to abandon his purple martin colony because of the owls nesting in the sweet gum.  There is another possibility:  the decrease in the general swallow population due to the loss of winter habitat.

Purple martins spend their winters in the tropical forests of Brazil.  The statistics paint a dismal picture:  17% of the Amazon forest was destroyed in 5 years between 2000 and 2005.  This figure is confirmed by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) in a report soon to be published, which represents the most accurate study of the Amazon in more that a decade.

This statistic represents the destruction of a large part of the greatest forest on Earth shared by Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Equador, Guyana, Peru, Surinam and Venezuela.  During the 5 years in question, 857,000 square kilometers of the Amazon forest, an area the size of Venezuela, were clear cut or burned.

Most of the destruction happened in Brazil, but the forest in all of the countries, with the exception of Peru and Venezuela, suffered considerable loss of forest.   According to the UNEP report, the effects of progression of the pioneer frontier in the Amazon and the transformations in the eco-system are irreversible. 

The deforestation is followed by a mad race by powerful multinational companies to exploit the tremendous natural reserves of the region.  The economic dynamic spurred by the demand of foreign markets puts an unbelievable pressure on natural resources.  The dominant production model, which has no concern for durable development,  leaves in its wake the fragmentation of eco-systems and the degradation of biodiversity.  Illegal cutting, the clear cutting for the purpose of cattle raising or industrial farming of crops such as soy beans, mineral and petroleum extraction, road construction, all augment the magnitude of the problem.

The colonization of the Amazon has led to multiple conflicts with the indigenous populations in the context of the control of the rights of the resources which are being removed.  The UNEP report condemns not only the environmental disaster associated with the exploitation of the forest, but also the model of development which has no long range benefits for the local population.  According to the report: “The personal income of certain localities cannot mask a general situation of extreme poverty.  The great majority of the riches that are removed from the region are not reinvested.  The water courses are being polluted and nutritional deficiencies are contributing to the propagation of certain diseases like dengue and malaria.  The disappearance of certain species, which acted as natural predators on the agents of the transmission of these diseases, facilitates their propagation.

In the face of this bleak scenario, initiatives for the creation of more durable development do exist, but remain marginal.  The UNEP does not consider the development plans of the countries of the forest, nor the classification of approximately 15% of the Amazon as a protected zone, as sufficient.   The UNEP images four scenarios possible:  from the complete destruction of the forest on one end to the protection of the forest on the other.   There is, however, no provision for the designation of the entire Amazon as a giant nature preserve

The UNEP considers that the need to preserve biodiversity and to battle global warming should be at the heart of the political questions concerning the Amazon.  The question is not regional, but global.   The report concludes with a call to all of the nations around the world and particularly the developed nations to share in the financial support of the programs demanded of the countries which share the forest. 

I dare hope that the Amazon will be saved and that the wintering ground for my purple martins will be preserved.  And that they will return.  I’ll be putting up my birdhouses just in case.

January 7, 2009

This is the fifth in a series of six reports dealing with Genetically Modified Organisms and the role of Monsanto in their propagation.   The information herein contained is taken essentially from “Le Monde selon Monsanto” by Marie-Monique Robin (The world according to Monsanto, Éditions Stanke Montréal, 2008)  This report deals with the herbicide Roundup.

Roundup is the commercial name of the glyphosate based herbicide which has become the most utilized herbicide in the world.  Glyphosate was discovered in the 1960s.  It is a “non-selective” or “total” herbicide.   Roundup is absorbed by the plant through its leaves and transported rapidly by the sap to the roots and rhizomes.  Glyphosate affects an enzyme essential in the synthesis of aromatic amino acids which diminishes  the activity of chlorophyll as well as certain hormones.  Roundup blocks vegetal growth thus provoking the necrosis of plant tissue ending in the death of the plant.

From its commercialization in 1974, Roundup has known a spectacular success.   Promoting its product as “respectful of the environment” and “100% biodegradable” Monsanto has succeeded in cornering the market.   As with many things associated with Monsanto, the reality of Roundup is troubling.

According to Marie-Monique Robin, the approval process for a product such as Roundup is a sham.  In contradiction to what the governmental authorities such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency would like us to believe, the review process relies completely on studies furnished by the company applying for approval, which in the case of Roundup is Monsanto.  As seen in the previous month’s report on the treatment of dairy cattle with the controversial bovine growth hormone,  companies like Monsanto are prepared to suppress findings and even falsify evidence should they prove contentious.  In the early 1980s, agents of the EPA discovered dozens of falsified studies in the files of Industrial Bio-Test Labs.  The agents referred to “routine falsification of results”. Industrial Bio-Test Labs was one of the principal laboratories in charge of performing tests on pesticides for the chemical companies including Monsanto.  Amongst the incriminating studies were approximately 30 tests performed on glyphosate.

 The problem goes beyond the analysis of glyphosate since the studies upon which the approval of Roundup were based were not conducted on Roundup itself, which includes a host of additional substances, but on glyphosate alone.  A troubling distinction. 

Herbicides include an active ingredient, which in the case of Roundup is glyphosate, and a host of additives like solvents, dispersants, emulators, or surfactants whose purpose is to improve the physiochemical properties and thereby increase the efficacy of the active ingredient.  The exact formula of Roundup is protected.  We cannot, therefore, know the exact composition of the product. 

Amongst the suspected additives is polyoxyethylene, an agent whose severe toxicity has been confirmed by numerous studies.  The problem is that we cannot be sure just what is in Roundup because the formula is a trade secret.  In the face of the obvious dysfunctional nature of the approval process by the EPA, certain courageous scientists such as Mae-Wan Ho of Great Britain and professor Joe Cummins of Canada have called for an urgent revision of the regulation of Roundup.

In early 2000, Professor Robert Bellé of the Station Biologique in Roscoff France began a study of the effects of Roundup on the cells of sea urchins. Why sea urchins?  As Dr. Bellé explains, “The precocious development of sea urchins is a well recognized model for the study of cellular development.”

Initially the research was to be conducted on a range of herbicides using Roundup as the control since it was believed that Roundup was benign.  To his great surprise, Dr. Bellé discovered that Roundup produced effects much greater than the products being tested.  As a result, the object of the study became Roundup itself.

Dr. Bellé was able to harvest large quantities of urchin ovum, which were fertilized.  The fertilized eggs were placed in a solution of Roundup at concentrations far inferior to that suggested for use by Monsanto.   Dr. Bellé then proceeded to study the effects of the product on millions of cell divisions.   Immediately, Dr. Bellé noticed that Roundup had an effect on a central point in the division of the cells.  The effect was not on the division itself, but on the mechanism that controls the division.   Once cell has divided, two copies are formed each containing a genetic heritage in the form of DNA.  The process creates many errors, as many as 50,000 per cell.  Normally, a process of repair and/or destruction of the atypical cell is begun instantly.  This “check point” is what is damaged by Roundup.  According to Dr. Bellé, Roundup therefore provokes the first stages of cancer.   By escaping the natural process of cell repair and/or destruction of atypical cells, these cells can propagate themselves thus perpetuating forms which are genetically unstable.

Dr. Bellé performed the equivalent tests on pure glyphosate and did not find the same effects.  His conclusion was that it was the Roundup itself which was toxic and not its active ingredient.   As previously stated, the tests that were conducted and which led to the approval of Roundup by the EPA were performed solely on glyphosate. 

“Evidently we understood at once the importance that our research could have for those who use Roundup,” states Dr. Bellé. “the solution which was responsible for the initial dysfunction was 2,500 times less concentrated that the solution recommended for pulverization.  This means that in order to use this product without risk, it is necessary to use a fully protective suit and a breathing mask.  And there should be no-one within 500 yards.”

Roundup is the biggest selling product in Monsanto’s arsenal.  The companies genetically modified seed was created to resist and therefore to be used in combination with the herbicide.   The use of Roundup is found in agriculture worldwide.  Perhaps the most telling argument against its use is the notice found on the label:

“Roundup will kill all plants in growth stage.  Roundup should not be used near bodies of water such as lakes or rivers because Roundup can be toxic to aquatic animals.  Persons and domestic animals should stay out of the zone in which Roundup is applied as long as Roundup has not fully dried.  We recommend that animals such as horses, cows, sheep, goats, rabbits, turtles not be allowed to graze in the areas treated with Roundup for two weeks after the treatment.  If Roundup is used to control weeds near fruit, nut-bearing trees or grape vines, we recommend that no fruit or nuts be consumed until at least 21 days after application.”

Eloquent testimony.