Monthly Archives: May 2013

Sometimes We Win, Sometimes We Lose

Sometimes, as activists and humans in general, we win and sometimes we lose. I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t prefer the former. Over the past year or so I’ve learned some valuable lessons about experiencing both.

Here in CT we’ve been fighting like mad to get a bill passed that would require labeling on all food sold here that contains GMOs, those nasty little DNA bits of viruses and bacteria that are introduced to our seed supplies by Monsanto and other biotech companies. I was so fortunate to find and join up with the dedicated people of GMO Free CT. I’ve learned about the legislative process in our state, diplomacy in the face of anger and frustration and the great work that can be done by collaboration between people of diverse experience and backgrounds.

I’ve grown comfortable in my role as a community educator through showing movies, participating on panel discussions and just plain talking to anyone who will listen, anytime and anywhere, to information about why we all have the right to know what is in the food we eat and that labeling of genetically modified foods is a must in our ability to access information. I’ve (hopefully) gotten better at putting my thoughts on paper in ways that will get others to think about this issue. I’ve learned that all of us can call our legislators on the phone, send them emails demanding a response and even speak out at public meetings and even at the FDA itself in Maryland.

What follows is my testimony at CT’s Legislative Office Building several months ago when the labeling bill was still in committee and there wasn’t any guarantee it would even come up for a vote in the Senate and/or House. I waited until almost 11:00 that night for my turn, after arriving at the LOB at 9:30 am. It was well worth the wait as I realized another facet of activism I wouldn’t have dreamed of just a few years ago – speaking directly to policy makers.

Testimony of Debra Cohen
in support of
HB 6519, An Act Concerning the Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food

Friday, March 15, 2013

Good afternoon, members of the Public Health Committee.

My name is Debra Cohen. I live in Wethersfield, CT. I am here today to urge you to support HB6519. I’ll keep my comments short as I am joined by so many other people today who are concerned, as I am, that we have the right to know what is in all of the food we buy and share with our families, old and young alike. I speak to you today as a member of the Early Childhood Education profession for over 35 years and as a citizen very concerned about the health not only of myself and my family but the health of human, animal and plant generations to come and, ultimately, the health of the very earth we depend upon to provide our food.

As I came to learn more and more about GMOs that are present in our food with neither adequate testing nor identification on food labels, I became convinced that keeping this information from consumers is wrong and irresponsible.

From a health perspective, I am worried about the lack of definitive evidence that GMOs are safe. Quite the contrary. I have paid close attention to evidence that just the opposite is true. No long term studies have been carried out by either GMO manufacturers or the FDA, each of whom says the other is responsible for proving GMO safety. The only studies sanctioned by the FDA are no longer than 3 months in duration and studies are needed on a longer time line to be definitive. From a consumer perspective, I am outraged that I am being told not to worry, everything is fine and that all I have to do is trust the people who supply the food on the store shelves to keep my family’s best interests at heart. The mattress on my bed has a label naming the contents, my clothing all has a tag naming material details, the gasoline I purchase at the gas station is all labeled regarding octane levels so I can make an informed choice about the best outcomes in my car. It is interesting that when it comes to labels about what I am putting in my body, I am most often denied the same level of information. When I first learned about GMOs, I called the companies of nearly every food item in my kitchen cabinets to ask about whether or not their products contained GMOs. Some companies responded by saying they didn’t know for sure but the majority of companies responded with the familiar company line that they could assure me their products were completely safe even though they contained GMOs because the FDA has identified them to be safe. I find that response to be laughable, infuriating and insulting at the same time. The connections between Monsanto and the FDA are so interwoven that to consider the FDA as being capable of making independent decisions on this matter is folly.

Long term studies not done by GMO manufacturers or the FDA point to health risks for our bodies and health risks for our environment due the ever rising need for stronger and stronger pesticides. In many cases, the scientists involved in these studies have lost their positions at universities as well as funding to continue their research. As a teacher of young children, I can testify to the growing incidences of allergies, asthma and autism in our very youngest populations. If there is the slightest chance that the unlabeled ingredients in the food being fed to our children may be making them sick, is it not our responsibility to make informed choices about what we feed them? And if the answer to that question is yes, is it not your responsibility to see to it that we are given the tools we need to make informed choices? It is possible that some of you will never be swayed by the results of scientific studies that show the horrendous health and planetary damage caused by GMOs. I am not asking you to accept those studies but I am asking that you honor my right to know as much as possible about foods that contain them, regardless of their possible impact.

I realize the purpose of our testimonies today is to tell you why we demand the labeling of all GMOs in the food on our grocery shelves so that we can decide what we will and will not put in our bodies. However, I am taking this opportunity to turn things around just a bit and put my final thoughts to you in the form of the following question: On what grounds do you think I am not entitled and do not deserve to know what is in my food? The inconvenience to food companies to make changes to their labels surely isn’t as important as the health and well being of the citizens of Connecticut. Please do the right thing and put CT in the forefront of states that demand transparency, clarity and honesty on all food sold within its borders. Please show other states around the country that are fighting for this very thing that CT is a pro-active leader by supporting HB 6519.

Thank you for your time and for doing everything in your legislative power to stand up for the rights of your constituents to make informed choices.

Since that night of sharing testimony, we’ve experienced the highs and lows of waiting to hear what our legislators thought and planned to do about this bill. As recently as May 21, at a rally at our state capitol, we got news that the Senate was going to vote on the bill that very day. We later learned they passed the bill by a margin of 35-1! Sometimes we win! But in the early hours of May 24, the House amended the bill in ways which make the prospect of our seeing a reasonable and successful bill come to fruition a mere dream. Sometimes we lose.

Citizens from around the state have rallied, voicing outrage, sadness, disappointment and a multitude of emotions over this turn of events. Today has been one of deep despair for many. But today was also a reminder that while sometimes we win and sometimes we lose, sometimes we also choose to return to fight another day and refuse to take a defeat as a final answer. I can already feel my own energy and that of so many here in our state surging toward renewal, already planning new tactics and avenues of influence. Whenever I think of what to write on this page and how to speak to its title, Pagan Activist, I look to how my Pagan thinking influences other spheres of my life. In this case it’s simple. Light, dark and light again; warm, cold and warm again; merry meet, merry part and merry meet again. These truths give me the energy to believe in win, lose, go on to win again; one step forward, one step back and another step forward again; act, recoup and rise to act again.

So, dear legislators in CT and elsewhere, those of us who are fighting for the right of every consumer to know what they are buying and to have the information necessary to make an informed decision about whether or not to indeed buy or leave something behind, we aren’t going away. The wheel keeps turning and we’ll return. And return. And return. And return… until things are right.

Greening your magics: an introduction

If you don’t respect the earth, you starve.Eli Sheva.

Since Michelle first asked me last year if I would contribute to Pagan Activist, I’ve been struggling with the very idea that I might be an activist. I’m not someone who participates in protests, or writes letters, or anything overt. If I am one, I am an activist in my day to day living. When airlines first started offering carbon offsets, and the discussions came up as to their effectiveness, I decided that I would make a donation of a tree through Heifer International every time I flew. I stopped eating Nestle brand anything 20 years ago when I learned of their atrocious policies around baby formula. I share what I learn. And over the years I have discovered that other people have taken my mentions of doing these things as inspiration. It feels like an Emerald Tablet approach to activism.

In April, an idea started to brew in my head. There was Shauna’s excellent post here about not accepting offerings distributed in nonrenewable materials., and a post I now cannot locate on Tumblr about alternatives to sage for smudging. My overt magical practices are being revived and I have noticed that my ethos has reshaped how I handle my spiritual life. Some of what I am doing is coming a lot closer to my physical home. Alchemy happened in my brain and the idea came forth.

I am a pagan, a polytheist, a practitioner of magic. Surely I am not the only person looking at this blog who does some form of spellcraft or puts out offerings for the spirits.

Perhaps instead of talking about current events or activism in the theoretical I can start to go into the practical applications. A series of posts covering ways in which our actions, our supplies, our ritual work, our outlook, can reshape and be a form of activism. Let us consider the ways in which our desire for certain plants and stones can damage the environment. The pollution from all those candles. Let us consider that our actions have reprocussions.

Let us also consider bioregionalism. Lupa’s documentation of Therioshamanism over the years has shown a path morphing from animal spirit work to one tied heavily to where she lives. My friends Beth and Jo have made great strides in tying Heathen festivals to the weather patterns of their new(-ish) home of Eugene, Oregon, as well as development of festivals based on local celebrations. On my own front, I have been learning over the last few years of how the three Kemetic seasons of Innundation, Harvest, and Fallow Time can be felt even as I cycle through New England spirngs, summers, autumns, and winters.

If Lykeia can find the rhythm of the Olympians while living in Alaska, they can be found anywhere.

Perhaps I am preaching to the converted here. Perhaps not. I feel the need to discus these matters and hope that you will accompany me along this ride.

As of right now, here are my planned topics of discussion:
bioregional spirituality
(possibly) earth healing rituals

If there are any topics you would like to see me cover, feel free to leave a comment.

In the meantime, perhaps you will consider perusing some reading material to spark your mind on these matters.

James Endredy. Ecoshamanism.
Yasmine Galenorn. Embracing the Moon. (includes land and species protection rituals)
Marian Green. A witch alone.
Lupa. New paths to animal totems. (One section is about working with bioregional totems)
Rosa Romani. Green spirituality.
Starhawk. The earth path.
Peter Lamborn Wilson, et. al. Green Hermeticism. (because even “high magic” workers can find something in this discussion.)

Sarah Anne Lawless (formerly Witch of Forest Grove)
Wytch of the North (my friend Beth, mentioned above.)
Strip me back to the bone (my friend Jo, again above.)
Beloved in Light
A Forest Door

Pagan Leadership, Dissension, Transgender Activism, Ethics, and Community

6862835_xxl–by Shauna Aura Knight

Pagan communities are fraught with internal conflicts. There’s that saying, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?” We don’t need Fox News, or a judge ruling on a case, or a religious leader to tear us down. We do it pretty well ourselves. And there’s a thousand reasons for it, most of them done in innocence.

Where is that path paved in good intentions going? The Underworld, I think…

Continue reading

The Secret Lives of Honey Bees

A carpenter bee landed on a woman's hand

My wife, the bee whisperer…

I freaking love bees.

I didn’t always do so.  As a child, I seemed to get stung more regularly than most.  On time, at the local public pool I was hit a few times in a row including inside my mouth.  Granted, there’s a bunch of different types of stinging insects, but frankly as a child they were all “bees” to me.

Things changed sometime in late middle school.  At the time I was still in the Boy Scouts but I was never a very good scout and had no interest in merit badges.  For those of you familiar with scouting, this greatly limited my ability to advance in the scouts, but I digress.  The one badge I specifically sought out:  beekeeping.

One of the scout masters kept bees in his backyard.  He had maybe two or three hives if memory serves and he volunteered to work with us through the steps of the badge.  We learned about bee physiology and their life cycle, how they organized the hive, and all that jazz.  Learning about them helped me to become less frightened and while I’m not exactly lining up to volunteer to get stung, I no longer worry about it so much.

But in 2006, beekeepers began to report significant reductions in bee populations.  This wasn’t the first time that bee colonies died off; it happens due to abnormal weather patterns or other environmental situations.  And, often, these die-offs remain unexplained.  But, this more recent die-off continued and its similarities with earlier ones created enough of a pattern that they all gained a common name:  Colony Collapse Disorder.

Colony Collapse Disorder

So why should we care?  This is likely information that you already know, but just in case you only think of bees as hurtful pests that ruin summer afternoons, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report “estimates that out of some 100 crop species which provide 90% of food worldwide, 71 of these are bee-pollinated. In Europe alone, 84% of the 264 crop species are animal-pollinated and 4,000 vegetable varieties exist thanks to pollination by bees.”  That’s a lot of food supplies that rely on bees to reproduce

There’s a lot of information at the above liked wikipedia article but to summarize, colony collapse disorder (CCD) is the sudden and disappearance of worker bees from a beehive.  The European Union and the United States have tracked the situation quick carefully.  During a normal winter, you might see a quarter of your bee population die off from normal causes.  However, in a hive that suffers from CCD, the numbers can be closer to 50% or more.  In the US, it’s estimated that the bee population has declined from almost 6 million insects in the middle of the 20th century to around 2.4 million in 2008.


It’s causes are disputed, but the European Union has noticed that rise in CCD was correlating to an increase in the use of a certain type of pesticides called neonicotinoids.  If you dig into that word a bit you might notice something similar:  the word nicotine.  These are pesticides based on the same drug found in cigarettes which is not only dangerous for mammals but also for insects.  Neonicotinoids are nicotine-like chemicals that we’ve developed to be less harmful to mammals but remain lethal to bugs.  Most frightening to me is that these chemicals are water-soluble, meaning that the dissolve in water, and as a result they can be sprayed on the ground, dissolved into the water that falls on it, and then drawn up into the plants themselves so that insects that consume them die off there after.

The EU released a study this past January that indicated three specific neonicotinoids that may pose a greater risk to bee populations than some others.  Unfortunately, as is often the case, the variables in the situation make it incredibly difficult for scientists to definitively say that the use of them directly leads to CCD.  Worse, the causes of CCD are generally disputed and in addition to neonicotinoids other causes, including various fungi, have been theorized.

But, earlier this week, in what I feel is a major win for those of us who worry about these sorts of things, the EU ruled that starting no later than December 1, 2013, certain types of neonicotinoids would be banned for use as a pesticide for two years.  During this time, the EU would try to determine if this change alters the resulting health of beehives in the area.  The voting was not enough to ban the pesticides outright, but so it falls to the EU Commission to enforce the ban.  It is the Commission that reported on the December 1 start to the ban.

In the US, both the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Department of Agriculture are taking a bit more of a wait in see approach. I’ve previously found information about CCD on the USDA website here, even as recently as yesterday, but it doesn’t appear to be working this morning.  Similar to the dissenting votes in the EU, the US government feels that the exact causes of CCD are unknown and that more study is necessary.  Personally, I agree that the causes are unknown, but I applaud that the EU in actually trying to see if they can better determine those causes through experimentation.

Bee Activism

So what can we do about it?  This is an activist blog after all.  In many ways, if you care about bees like I do, the most obvious thing to do is keep some bees!  Apiculture (i.e. beekeeping) is fascinating but considering the danger of allergies and the general dislike for stinging insects, the comfort of your family and neighbors should be considered, as well as the local laws, before you go down that road.

Another, and perhaps more easily handled, way is to get your hands on the Queen of the Sun and share it with others.  Here’s the trailer:

The producers of the film have additional information on their site about how you can help even if you don’t want to keep bees.  Most accessible is their top-10 list of things to do to help bees.