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Dozens rally against agricultural company Monsanto in Santa Rosa

More than 150 demonstrators took to the streets of Santa Rosa on Saturday in a “March Against Monsanto,” part of an international event intended to draw attention to genetically engineered foods that they said pose health and environmental risks.

The demonstration was part of a campaign of similar peaceful protests planned in more than 400 cities in 38 countries against the agricultural biotechnology company, which specializes in genetically engineered seeds and herbicides.

Organizers said they focused on Monsanto because they view its products as a threat to organic farming, native plants and even bee colonies.

Led by the Hubbub Club marching band, the marchers went on about a 2-mile route from Old Courthouse Square to the South A and Brown Street neighborhoods, carrying signs with such slogans as “Save our seeds, Save our bees, No Monsanto,” and chanting “Listen up corporate dudes, we don’t want your frankenfoods.”

Back at Old Courthouse Square, the crowd was exhorted by speakers including Frank Egger, a former seven-time Fairfax mayor, to help pass a Sonoma County ban on genetically modified organisms, similar to ones in neighboring Marin and Mendocino, as well as Trinity and Santa Cruz counties.

“We want a North Coast GMO-free zone. We’re missing Sonoma,” he said.

Marin County, he said, has more than 40,000 acres in organic cultivation. “The same thing can happen here in Sonoma County,” he said, adding that if the Board of Supervisors doesn’t place it on the ballot, proponents should.

In 2005, Sonoma County voters rejected a ballot measure that would have banned certain GMO products for 10 years, ostensibly to allow more time for testing.

The Food and Drug Administration does not require genetically modified foods to carry a label, and attempts to change that at the federal level have failed. A California ballot proposition to require labeling of GMO foods went down to a narrow defeat in 2012.

Most corn, soybean and cotton crops grown in the United States today have been genetically modified.

Critics of GMOs say they have been linked to health problems ranging from allergies to cancer, and that babies, in particular, are at risk of getting sick.

Groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association counter that every credible U.S. and international food safety authority that has studied GMO crops has found that they are safe and that there are no health effects associated with their use.

Monsanto Co., based in St. Louis, said that it respects people’s right to express their opinions but maintains that its seeds improve agriculture by helping farmers produce more from their land while conserving resources such as water and energy.

Despite the friendly, feed-the-world image the company tries to convey, Monsanto detractors point to the company’s legacy as the manufacturer of the notorious Agent Orange toxic defoliant, as well as carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Demonstrators on Saturday said there is an insidious link between herbicides manufactured by Monsanto and its genetically engineered seeds, which are developed to allow the herbicides to kill the weeds without harming crops, as well as resist insects. They said it forces farmers to be dependent on the patented seeds and for Monsanto to monopolize the market.

Monsanto critics point out that scientists affiliated with a branch of the World Health Organization recently identified Roundup, one of the company’s most widely used products, as “probably carcinogenic to humans” because of the glyphosate it contains. The study specifically addressed farmworkers who are exposed to large volumes of the chemical, and not private users or consumers of agricultural products.

“It causes cancer in animals and humans and persists in the soil,” said Barton Stone, 77, an organic farmer who lives near Occidental.

“I think corporate, ?petroleum-based industrial agriculture is an even greater danger to the planet than burning fossil fuel,” he said. “It’s killing the soil, the microbes in the soil.”

The microbial communities, he said, “are the basis of all that grows. We are totally dependent on the soil.”

Marchers like Melinda Hempstead of Cotati said she has seen chemically treated soybean fields in North Dakota that looked like a desert after harvest.

“Monsanto makes products that kill all weeds. It looks like scorched earth,” she said.

“I just don’t trust food that’s been laced with this amount of chemicals,” said Lukas Walsh, 25, of Sebastopol, a self-described activist and artist who was dressed as Uncle Sam to highlight Monsanto’s ties with government.

Peter Ochs, an Occupy Sonoma County member who helped organize Saturday’s event, asserted that the cure for cancer is to eat healthy, local, organic food.

“Know who grew your food, as much as possible, to be safe,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@clarkmas.

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