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Part 1: “Magic Soap” Maker David Bronner on Labeling Genetically Modified Food, Fair Trade, the War on Hemp

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Critics of genetically modified foods have won a victory in California by securing enough signatures to place a referendum on the November ballot that could force food manufacturers to label food products containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Numerous items are already sold in grocery stores containing genetically modified corn and soy, but companies do not currently have to inform consumers. We speak to David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, about GMOs, fair trade, the U.S. war on hemp, and the company’s support of Palestinian olive oil producers. [includes rush transcript] Click here to watch Part 2 of the interview.

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Web ExclusiveMay 16, 2012Part 2: “Magic Soap” Maker David Bronner on Organic Labeling, Fair Trade, Hemp and Not Selling Out
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Critics of genetically modified foods have won a victory in California by securing enough signatures to place a referendum on next November’s ballot that would force food manufacturers to label products containing GMOs. Nearly one million people signed petitions, nearly double the amount needed. If California voters pass the referendum, it could affect industry labeling practices across the country. Numerous items are already sold in grocery stores containing genetically modified corn and soy, but companies do not currently have to inform consumers.

We’re joined here in studio by a leading supporter of the “Right to Know” effort, David Bronner. He’s president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. His grandfather founded the legendary company in 1948. For decades, Bronner’s Magic Soaps has been a staple in health food stores across the country. The company has also been involved in numerous political campaigns pushing for fair trade, as well as the promotion of the hemp industry. In 2009, David Bronner was arrested for planting hemp outside the headquarters of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington.

David Bronner, welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Let us start with this legislation, the ballot that’s going on the November—the initiative that’s going on the ballot in November. Can you explain it?

DAVID BRONNER: Sure. So, unlike every citizen in Europe, Japan, even China, in 40 countries around the world, Americans don’t have the right to know if their food has been genetically engineered or not. Genetic engineering of crops is generally done by chemical companies who have bought the seed industry in this country to engineer resistance to their weed killers. And so, for instance, Roundup Ready soybean, Roundup Ready corn—it’s 80 percent of genetically engineered crops are doused with high levels of Roundup Ready. And we do not have the right to opt out, basically, of this experiment on the American public of eating these genetically engineered foods, which have not been tested.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, the opposition says that there’s no evidence that genetically modified organisms have any different effect on the human body.

DAVID BRONNER: Right. And, you know, they can say that, and—but it’s not really up to them to make the decision whether—you know, what kind of food we eat and what we feed our children. You know, we have the right to know if orange juice is from concentrate or not. You know, we have a fundamental right to know. I mean, regardless of the opinions on the merits, or lack thereof, of genetic engineering, we have the right to know.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, explain how you helped to organize this referendum.

DAVID BRONNER: I, along with the Organic Consumers Association, Nature’s Path, Aaron Stevens, you know, a prominent organic leader, Dr. Mercola, kind of came together, and it’s been a very difficult, harsh slog to try and get labeling in this country. I mean, FDA, EPA regulators—it’s a classic example of regulatory capture by industry. Monsanto’s handpicked henchmen, you know, are making the key decisions. Like you said, the decision that genetically engineered foods are substantially equivalent to non-genetically engineered food so they don’t merit any labeling, well, that was made by Monsanto’s own handpicked people. You know, so the parties, both of them, are bought and sold on this issue. And the initiative process is really the one way to bypass gridlock politicians, take it to the people. And, you know, just like the medical marijuana trajectory, where I cut my teeth, you know, you can make no progress at any level of government, but we took it to the people, and we won. So, we feel like if we can go to the, you know, people power versus money and hopefully prevail.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk to you about hemp products. You buy the hemp you use in soaps from Canadian farmers. In 2010, you were arrested along with other protesters for digging up the lawn at the headquarters of the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, to plant industrial hemp seeds. You were arrested outside the DEA Museum, which shares space with the headquarters. I want to ask about your thoughts on hemp legalization, to explain what it is. But first, to a clip of you being arrested.

DAVID BRONNER: Let U.S. farmers grow industrial hemp. I want to buy my hemp in the United States.

PROTESTER: I want to buy hemp as food. I want to buy hemp as clothes. I want people working. Let the farmers work. Legalize hemp. Legalize industrial hemp.

DAVID BRONNER: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: There you are being arrested in your suit outside the Drug Enforcement Administration. Explain what hemp is and how you use it in Dr. Bronner’s soap, why you think it’s so important.

DAVID BRONNER: Sure. So, in our soap, hemp oil is a super fatty ingredient. It contains an unparalleled content of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are—omega-3 is really good to eat internally. The American diet is chronically deficient in. Doctors recommend fish, certain kinds of fish; however, there’s also mercury concerns. So hemp oil is a really good source of omega-3. And then, in a soap product, it makes the lather smoother and less drying.

I mean, for us, we’re also very interested in it because it’s at the nexus and intersection of environmental policy and drug policy. You know, we feel like cannabis prohibition is just a disaster around the world—well, and psychedelics prohibition, in general. It has such promise and hope for helping us lead more conscious and compassionate lives. You know, in the industrial hemp—these are the fiber and seed varieties of cannabis—they have no drug value whatsoever. And it just kind of highlights the absurdity and bankrupt nature of the drug war.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you’ve won around hemp, being able to use it. In fact, in your soap, which is rather legendary, to say the least, people may know your product, Dr. Bronner’s Soap, as the almost unreadable thousands of words on every soap bottle that aren’t the ingredients, but the philosophy of your grandfather, the founder?


AMY GOODMAN: And it says right there, “hemp soap.”

DAVID BRONNER: Right. Yeah, so, I mean, well, the—you know, what my granddad’s saying is basically that all faith traditions, at their heart, are saying the same thing, like we need to get over our trivial differences, or we’re going to destroy ourselves in a world of nuclear weapons. And, you know, we need to realize our transcendent unity across faith traditions and ethnic divides. And then, yeah, so hemp, we’re calling out hemp. I mean, my granddad used the soap as a vehicle for his message. And in a similar way, we are taking this amazing inheritance we have and being activists, whether it’s fair trade or organic or industrial hemp and cannabis policy.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about fair trade, because you are really pushing this issue and challenging other cosmetics companies who claim that they are fair trade.

DAVID BRONNER: Sure. Well, fair trade, I think—I mean, it’s hugely important. You know, whatever we buy, whatever stuff we buy, there’s the human labor component. There’s the human being that made that product. And for the most part, as consumers, we’re complicit in denial with the producers, the capital producers making it, not to think too much about it. We just want it cheap and fabulous, somewhat like a mutual fund: you know, just maximize returns, I don’t want to know what’s going on.

Fair trade is about transparency. It’s about breaking through those brokers and intermediaries, knowing who your farmers are that are making your product, making sure they receive fair prices, that the farm workers are being paid, compensated well, and their working conditions are fair. So, it’s just very important. So, for example, we have fair trade olive oil from Palestine. You know, you’re working with marginalized producers who are facing enormous challenges bringing their products to market under occupation. So, you know, fair trade is just a way of like, you know, working directly.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to that issue of the Occupied Territories.


AMY GOODMAN: In early 2007, Dr. Bronner’s began sourcing 90 percent of your olive oil needs from Palestinian producers in the West Bank town of Jenin. This is Gero Leson of Dr. Bronner’s.

DR. GERO LESON: Behind me, you see some of the olive trees that will produce the olive oil that goes ultimately into Dr. Bronner’s organic and fair trade soaps. In 2005, we embarked on a program that has as a goal to convert by 2007 more than 95 percent of our raw materials to sources that are both organic and fair trade certified.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Gero Leson or Dr. Bronner’s.


AMY GOODMAN: Outside of Jenin?


AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you’re doing.

DAVID BRONNER: So, in 2006, we decided that we wanted to go fair trade in all our major supply chains, that while we were organic, that that did not give us knowledge about the actual conditions under which our major materials were being produced, that our supply chains were opaque to us. And organic certification, in and of itself, doesn’t mean that there isn’t exploited labor or otherwise unfair pricing involved.

So, we initially did an internet search of are there any existing fair trade projects in our major materials, which is coconut, olive, palm, hemp and mint oils, and the only one was Canaan Fair Trade out of the Jenin area of the West Bank in Palestine. So, you know, I was like, “Whoah! OK, this is going to be intense,” but I was, you know, super excited, too. Dr. Bronner’s younger sister went to Ein Gev kibbutz in '36 when she was 16, so I had family through Israel. And, you know, my granddad, just his whole mission and everything was just, you know, poetry right away. You know, I got to know Nasser. He had a fair trade coffee shop. He's a professor of anthropology. And he’s taken that fair trade concept that originated around coffee and the volatile pricing and predatory practices in the coffee commodity to—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue this discussion, David, after the show, and we’ll post it at David Bronner, the grandson of Dr. Bronner, who founded Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. David Bronner has been president of the company since 1998.

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Part 2: “Magic Soap” Maker David Bronner on Organic Labeling, Fair Trade, Hemp and Not Selling Out

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