Mackenzie Feldman graduated from UC Berkeley in Spring 2018 with a degree in Society and Environment and a minor in Food Systems. Mackenzie is the Founder and Executive Director of Herbicide-Free Campus, an organization working to eliminate herbicides from schools. Mackenzie is also a Food Research Fellow for Data For Progress, where she is helping to write food and agriculture policy for the Green New Deal.
How did you get started?
Whew, it’s been quite a journey! My activism was defined by several experiences that have brought my campaign to where it is today. Growing up in Hawaii and experiencing the Hawaiian concept of mālama ʻāina, or caring for the land, this value was ingrained in me from a young age.
In high school, I was greatly inspired by the activists in Hawaii that were standing up to the biotech corporations that were conducting pesticide testing on our fertile soil and poisoning Hawaiians. In my heart I knew I would join them one day…I just needed to find my fire and find my voice.
When the time came to leave the islands, I went on to study at UC Berkeley. In my sophomore year I enrolled in Environmental Biology, taught by Dr. Ignacio Chapela. Professor Chapela informed us that herbicides like the glyphosate-based Roundup were sprayed all over our campus. I thought this was shocking and unacceptable. I decide to write my final research paper for his class on this subject which was titled, “Can the Campus of UC Berkeley Be Turned Into an Herbicide Free Campus?” Little did I know where this would lead.
Not long after I turned in this paper, this very issue showed up in my day-to-day life. I was a student athlete on the beach volleyball team, and one morning upon arrival for practice, our coach cautioned us not to retrieve the balls if they rolled off the court. Why? Because the surrounding areas had just been sprayed with an herbicide that has since been linked to causing cancer.
After my teammate Bridget Gustafson and I spoke with the Athletics Grounds Manager, we learned that he sprayed the Monsanto product “Ranger” once a year all around our courts. Ranger contains 41 percent glyphosate, the same amount that is in Roundup.
We asked him if he could discontinue spraying and let us pick the weeds instead. When he agreed, we thought, “wow , he was so receptive when we offered to help. Maybe we could propose taking this same approach to the rest of campus and reduce our dependence on chemicals by working together.” I wrote an op-ed for The Daily Californian after the day at the courts, and it generated a lot of support from the greater Berkeley community. It was then that I realized that we were not alone, and that those beyond the campus wanted to see us succeed knowing it would have a ripple effect in more places.
Where did the path lead?
After the portentous day at the courts, Bridget and I partnered with the Associated Students of the University of California to create Herbicide-Free Cal, a campaign to ban herbicides at UC Berkeley. We partnered with the non-profit Beyond Pesticides to bring Professional Horticulturist, Chip Osborne, to our campus to create a pilot program to transition two sites to organic.
The two largest green spaces on campus were chosen, and Chip analyzed the spaces by conducting soil testing. He developed a curriculum for the Cal groundskeepers, which included aeration, overseeding, and compost tea applications.
We worked with the nonprofit Food and Water Watch to acquire campaign strategy skills. This training included leadership development, digital organizing tools, student recruitment, and how to align our vision with university-wide policy.
These tools taught us how to recruit more people into our movement which is a critically important component of the campaign because active public engagement decreases the burden on the groundskeeping staff. Typically, transitioning to non-herbicide use is a management style that requires more labor.
Today, over 12 sites on campus have had student and grounds staff working side-by-side to make this transition together.
One of the most powerful developments of this campaign was meeting Dewayne Lee Johnson in a San Francisco courtroom at the Dewayne Johnson v. Monsanto trial on August 7, 2018. I had just graduated from college and had no clue as to what I was going to pursue next. All I knew was that I had to be in that courtroom. For those of you who are not familiar with Lee’s story, he was the first plaintiff to successfully win a case against Monsanto, now a unit of Bayer AG. This company was found responsible for his Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma from his exposure to their glyphosate-based products. In a landmark hearing, Johnson was awarded $289 million, which was later reduced to $79 million and is currently in appeal.
While in the courtroom I wrote Lee a letter. I told him how inspiring he was and thanked him for having the courage to go up against Monsanto. I described our UC Berkeley campaign and how we were determined to prevent other people from having to experience what he was going through. I passed the letter to his lawyer who was sitting in front of me and the lawyer handed it to him. I watched Lee read the letter and after the trial he reached out to me and asked how he could help with the campaign.
It was time to expand to other schools. After the Johnson v. Monsanto trial, we expanded to other University of California campuses and became Herbicide-Free UC. Students from UC Riverside, UCLA, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, and UC Santa Barbara brought the training to their campuses. In the Fall of 2019, in response to interest from students around the country and with the support of partners like the StonyFIELDS Initiative, were were able to expand into Herbicide-Free Campus and initiated the campaign at ten other schools in Iowa, Georgia, Texas, New York, North Carolina, Arizona, and Maryland.
In the summer of 2019, I traveled back home to Hawaii with Lee and his family. He shared his story with community leaders, policy makers, and government officials. The Protect Our Keiki Coalition, an alliance of non-profits in Hawaii, supported this trip in a continued effort to educate the public, groundskeepers, and policy-makers about moving away from carcinogenic pesticides. Immediately following a Board of Education community meeting with Lee, the Hawaii Department of Education issued a memo prohibiting herbicide use on their school grounds. The counties of Maui, Hawai’i, and Kaua’i are actively working towards implementing pesticide and herbicide- free county parks and roadways.
Regarding the UC campuses, as a result of student efforts, in May of 2019, University of California President Janet Napolitano temporarily banned glyphosate at all 10 UC campuses. She established a UC Herbicide Task Force to provide recommendations moving forward. In January of 2020, Napolitano approved recommendations made by this task force to “restrict the use of some toxic pesticides and increase transparency across the university’s 10 campuses.” Napolitano has agreed to temporarily continue the suspension of glyphosate on UC campuses, but only until Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plans are established.
While this is a step in the right direction, there is still a lot of ground to cover. Herbicide-Free Campus student activists have been pushing the UC’s to commit to transitioning to all-organic land care maintenance by 2025.
Tell us about some of the response and support you’ve received.
This movement would not be possible without both the passion and commitment from student activists around the country, as well as the support we have received from multiple sources.
The support of Beyond Pesticides allowed us to develop our initial model. Establishing a successful pilot project at UC Berkeley to use as an example for other schools looking to transition to organic practices was crucial.
Food and Water Watch supported our mission by teaching us to be an efficient, fine tuned operation based on the above mentioned tools. Their support allowed us to empower others which made it possible for Herbicide-Free Campus to multiply across the country.
Stonyfield graciously donated $20,000 to our campaign. This support allowed us to nearly triple the number of campuses on which we are active. We are currently at 14 schools in eight states, and we are expanding every day.
It’s been such a genuine pleasure to work with fantastic teammates throughout my ongoing activism; from students to nonprofits, to companies like Stonyfield that believe systemic change is possible.
How did the StonyFIELDS Initiative grant impact you?
What I appreciate about Stonyfield’s mission is not only their concern for protecting health on multiple fronts, but their commitment to educating staff and communities about managing landscape organically. Stonyfield offers a donation to each town that commits to transition to organic maintenance and also offers in kind technical assistance to help their team move forward.
Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield, said it best himself. “Over 26 million kids play sports on fields*, and 65% of fields are sprayed with harmful pesticides**.” The StonyFIELDS Initiative’s goal is to help communities across America take the necessary steps to convert to organic field maintenance and empower families everywhere by providing tools and resources to make change locally and in your own backyard.”
I am very grateful to Stonyfield for being a leader in not only the organic agriculture space, but also the organic landscaping space. If we can get people to understand and take ownership of the fact that we all have a stake in the way landscapes are managed, we can shift the entire country’s dependence on pesticides which would lessen the power of corporate chemical companies like Monsanto/Bayer.
I support empowering communities as we work to shift to an organic and ultimately sustainable way of farming and natural preservation. Moreover, I support the protection of farmworkers, groundskeepers, children, and families exposed to these harmful chemicals. Thus, the StonyFIELDS Initiative’s all-encompassing mission ties deeply into my beliefs as an activist. Along with their community donation, they also offer Grassroots donations to groups who are trying to educate and make a change in their surrounding areas. Herbicide-Free Campus was a recipient of one of these Grassroots Grants and as I lead my Herbicide-Free Campus campaign and push toward banning herbicides on college campuses around the nation, I am deeply grateful for their support.
*2015 SIFA Trends
**Potential Health Effects Related To Pesticide Use on Athletic Fields. R Gilden-E Friedmann-B Sattler-K Squibb-K McPhaul – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22512421
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