Plant Chat: Shannon Post and Evan Mascagni

Sharon Palmer

It’s wonderful to have these special guests, Shannon Post and Evan Mascagni, directors of the Circle of Poison documentary, on Plant Chat this month. I’m always fascinated with anything related to environmental food and nutrition, so their new film has captured my interest.

According to Evan and Shannon, Circle of Poison aims to show how the global pesticide industry is politically powerful, shaping regulations, and the conditions of food and farming around the world. Yet for every victim of the industry there are even more people fighting for their rights to safety and health and creating alternatives to the agrochemical industrial complex. From organic farm co-ops in Mexico and Argentina to a growing farmers market in India to the entire country of Bhutan becoming 100 percent organic, people are finding ways to grow food that is healthier for their families, communities, and the environment. Check out my interview with Shannon and Evan about their new film and the issue of banned pesticides, and make sure to watch this movie in your location.

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What inspired you to make this movie documenting the impact of banned pesticides? When and how did this issue first draw your attention?

Evan:   I first learned about this issue as a law student doing a research project on the USDA’s National Organic Program. However, it wasn’t until I was in Guatemala after law school that I saw the health and environmental harm that the global pesticide industry is causing.

How did you discover that banned pesticides were being used in other countries, and entering the global food supply? 

Shannon:   David Weir and Mark Shapiro’s book, Circle of Poison, was the main exposé we discovered on the export of banned pesticides, and it clearly inspired the title of our documentary.

What was your most shocking discovery about the use of banned pesticides?

Evan:   The most shocking discovery was the policy itself. The fact that the United States allows companies to manufacture and export products that are not legal to sell or use domestically is simply morally and ethically shocking.

What forms of consumer protection exist to safeguard our food supply from these pesticides; how are these safeguards failing?

Shannon:   The FDA inspects about two percent of imported produce for pesticide residues. So there’s a minimal effort to safeguard our food supply to ensure pesticide residue levels aren’t exceeding the tolerance levels set by the EPA.

How does the use of these dangerous pesticides impact humans—consumers, farm communities, and farm workers?

Shannon: These toxic pesticides primarily harm the farm workers and communities on the receiving end of these pesticides. We’re talking about chemicals that were deemed too unsafe to use in the US, even following strict safety procedures and using personal protective equipment, so it’s not hard to imagine the impact on farm workers and farming communities around the world.

Evan:   I hope that viewers don’t walk away from our film only thinking about their own health and saying things like, “I’m only going to eat organic from now on.” Not that eating organic when possible is not important, but our goal was to show how toxic pesticides affect so much beyond the end consumer.

What are the major lessons we can gain from the issue of dangerous pesticide use? 

Shannon:   I think the biggest lesson is that there’s still very little we know about chemicals and their impacts. We have a lot to learn from Europe in their treatment of pesticides. Some countries use the precautionary principle, where the burden of proof falls on the producers of these chemicals to prove that they are safe for human health and the environment.

Does the use of Organic or Fair Trade labeling help ensure imported foods are made safely?

Shannon:   Organic and Fair Trade labeling do help ensure imported foods are ethically sourced and produced. On the other hand, I think any regulatory body can become influenced by powerful industries and the standards diluted as a result, so that might be something to watch out for in the future.

You also share examples of alternatives to global production—what are the lessons you learned on how this can be achieved in a realistic, cost effective method?

Shannon:   Bhutan provides an inspiring example for a way we can shift our thinking about GDP as a measure of a country’s well-being and instead look for alternatives. Yes, organic produce usually costs more money at the market, but we need to think about the externalized costs of industrial agriculture and processed foods that are heavily subsidized. Why aren’t we subsidizing the type of farming that replenishes the land, grows local economies, and improves peoples’ health?

What was your experience like making this film; what conclusions did you make in the end?

Evan:   Depressing, moving, inspirational…so many emotions. As for conclusions, real power comes from the people, and when they organize and work together, they can combat that toxic pesticide trade and fight back within their own communities.

What are your best tips for US consumers when it comes to ensuring the safety of our food supply for the planet? 

Evan:   Understand that sustainable agriculture isn’t just about you and your personal health – there is a whole system of humans, insects, animals, and plants that are affected by this system.

What do you say to agricultural companies that say you can’t farm foods without the use of pesticides, and to consumers who can’t afford the higher price of organic produce? 

Evan:   Watch our film 😉

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