MARIANNE SCHNALL: WHAT DO PEOPLE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE DANGERS OF PESTICIDE USE, ESPECIALLY HOW IT EFFECTS CHILDREN IN PARTICULAR?
MERYL STREEP: Well, I think that in 1996 when both houses of Congress voted unanimously to re-regulate pesticides according to a model based on what the tolerances are for children and babies - the weakest in the group consumer's group - that really vindicated everything that Mothers and Others has been working for. And now we know that we have to get off the pesticide treadmill and the government has sanctioned that effort and is trying to help us. Now it seems to me we have to support farmers in this country who are growing according to the law. And we have to really make sure we're not buying fruits and vegetables that come from overseas where the companies who now can't sell pesticides in this country. They unload them overseas and we buy them back on our our fruits and vegetables. So we have to reward our own growers who are really making an effort in this direction.
WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO FOUND MOTHERS AND OTHERS?
What prompted me to begin the organization was that I had become aware of this report that the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) had commissioned on a wide range of pesticides that were on fruits and vegetables and the fact that it was particularly dangerous to children because they consume more for their body weight and also that their systems were more vulnerable as developing systems, as are expectant mothers, obviously.
So, I had very small kids then who were mainlining apple juice, among other things, and there was one particular substance that was on apples called Alar that was something you couldn't wash off the fruit. It was not a pesticide - it was something that kept apples from dropping early. And people said you couldn't grow apples without it, that the industry would collapse in Washington State without it, it was impossible - if we did this that there would be such economic wreckage and that had to be measured against these human health issues. And I agreed with that idea because I'm very much in favor of family farms which are under siege anyway. But if we skip ahead to now, we find out that if anything in the past three years there's been a bumper crop of apples - their price has fallen because there's a lot of them. The growers that were unprepared for this news - we were the messengers and we were sort of shot for it, and I take the responsibility for the pain that a lot of people went through.
At the same time now, with the passage of the new legislation, we also, Mothers and Others, can claim a good part of the credit for this new consideration of tolerances on children and for the new re-regulation on pesticides which is absolutely great. It benefits everyone. So we'll just continue on this track, and my main interest has been, through our organization, to support growers so they don't get caught short. So they understand that this is a consumer concern that's not going to go away. People are demanding, and are suspicious of their government regulations and of their food sources and that will only increase in the next century I think. So, this is an effort to get off the pesticide treadmill which is a worldwide effort really.
SO ARE YOU HOPEFUL THAT THINGS ARE CHANGING AND THAT THERE'S MORE AWARENESS?
Iım very hopeful and very optimistic about it because - I mean, there were times when I wasn't because at that time people misinterpreted the Alar scare - they saw only the red flag waving and they didn't hear what we were saying - which was not to stop eating fruits and vegetables, but to demand that your supermarket tell you where they're from and hopefully how they're grown. Because that's the way that you create a market that will enable responsible farmers to sell their stuff. Because otherwise they're out-spent by the big agribusinesses.
HOW WOULD DESCRIBE THE WORK OF MOTHERS AND OTHERS - THE PREMISE THAT IT WAS FOUNDED UPON?
It was not a big thing - it was a local group of my friends and neighbors in upstate Connecticut. So we joined together so we could get access to responsibly grown products in our supermarkets and we've really achieved that. So it started out as a small local organization but because I'm famous [laughs], the news spread. You know, I spoke with a lot of people about it and got involved with NRDC and with Wendy [co-founder Wendy Gordon] and at that time we were just a little newsletter. We thought, well we'll send this out to follow up on news of what's happening. And since that time it's grown - much more than I ever anticipated or frankly have the resources or time to put into the organization - the size that it has now become.
YOU MUST BE VERY PROUD OF ALL THAT MOTHERS AND OTHERS HAS ACHIEVED.
I'm very proud. I'm very proud of Wendy and what's she's achieved, Betsy Lymon, the others. And I feel really grateful that such passionate people have taken over and really sort of designed a therapeutic future for the organization because I felt it was such bad blood back then. So this is a way of coming round and happily. We can use our connections, our consumer education organization, to inform people, educate them, to the fact that they really do have a great deal of say in what's available to them in this country. And through that we empower the growers because if people demand local, responsibly grown agriculture - they'll get it. But it takes just making a little bit of a pain of yourself at your grocery store [laughs].
Mothers & Others
First organized in 1989 by Meryl Streep and her Connecticut neighbors as a project of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Mothers & Others was born out of the concern that children were being exposed to unsafe pesticide levels in the food supply and that individuals had a right and a role to play in securing safer, ecologically sustainable food sources. Together, they brought essential public attention to this important food safety issue, stimulating the passage in 1996 of the Food Quality Protection Act to protect children from unsafe pesticide levels in food. Their efforts on behalf of children's environmental health, more broadly, also stimulated the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to announce in 1997 its National Agenda to Protect Children from Environmental Threats. Most important, Mothers and Others led the effort to open supermarket shelves to foods and other products that are safe and sustainably produced, demonstrating the effective power of focused consumer demand.
Please note that mothers.org is no longer online. You can, however, search an archived version of their former website for information by way of the Internet Wayback Machine: log on to www.archive.org and type in www.mothers.org as your search criteria.
İMarianne Schnall. No portion of this interview may be reprinted without permission of Marianne Schnall . Segments of this interview originally appeared in an article in In Style Magazine.
Marianne Schnall is a a free-lance writer and co-founder of the web sites EcoMall.com and Feminist.com.
More interviews by Marianne Schnall