Sitting Down with Syngenta in Switzerland

I intended to speak for 2 minutes at the Syngenta shareholder meeting in Switzerland on April 28, 2015. Instead I got nearly 2 hours with 3 Heads of Departments at Syngenta. Two Heads of R&D for GMOs and Pesticides and one Head of Social Policy and Performance. All women, all Moms, all listened. Here is  my story:

First of all, I learned to never assume we cannot do something. When I first learned that Syngenta's shareholder meeting was in Switzerland, I dismissed the idea of attending. It would be too costly, I thought, and too extravagant to spend whatever amount of money that it would be to attend and speak for a few minutes. But then a generous anonymous donor gave 2000 dollars and  after I purchased the tickets for the shareholder meetings to DOW and Dupont, and still had money left over, my husband encouraged me to check into the prices. I did and the budget would cover the expenses.  I realized that I said I would speak at this meeting. Syngenta was the largest pesticide manufacturer in the world (25-30% market share for glyphosate, atrazine, parquat and more). Supporters raised the money for me to go. A 12 hour flight to Switzerland should not stop me. We bought a share, checked the Swiss guidelines for shareholders, and I planned to leave in a few days.

Then my husband encouraged me to leave earlier instead of waiting. He wanted me to acclimate to the time zone and look around while I was there. What a husband. So on Saturday night I left on a 7:30 pm flight that night to Syngenta. 

Before I left a Mom supporter alerted me to the fact that a group of Hawaiians, Gary Hooser city councilman of Kauai, Fern Anuenue, scientist, and Malia Chun, educator and mother, were in Switzerland for a meeting with global activists Multi Watch and government officials about Syngenta and were going to speak at the shareholder meeting. I was thrilled to be able to connect with them.

When I arrived Sunday evening, the first thing I noticed in Switzerland, besides the gorgeous snow capped Swiss Alps and the fact that everyone looked smart and stylish, like a musical conductor or architect, was that there were no obese people. None. I saw a few buxom German Grandma types that were pleasantly plump, but not a single obese person.

I soon discovered my phone did not work, even though I got a sim card. I couldn't call the Hawaiians. I did have their address, so I asked for the help of a local, who walked me to the town home. I appeared unannounced at dinner time and they graciously invited me in. The hosts Regula and Deiter were splendid and warm. The Multi Watch organizer Ueli was a grandfather to us all. To hug Fern and Malia was like hugging Hawaii itself. And to meet Gary Hooser was an inspiration and rejuvenation of my faith that politicians can be amazing and have our best interest at heart. I was so inspired by all of their courage, tenacity and good humor too. We talked, laughed and bonded over smooth cheese melted over hot potatoes, dried meats and fresh vegetables.

Dinner with the Hawaiians and local Swiss activists.

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Walking around town, fresh, non GMO food is readily available. There are no labels because GMOs are not allowed.

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 I was able to eat wheat without difficulty, unlike the USA, where I get rashes, bloated and irritable from wheat.

Nothing was GMO. GMOs were not allowed in Switzerland. Neither was Atrazine and Paraquat, the two most lethal and frequently used pesticides in Hawaii, I learned from Gary. They have decades of studies showing brain cancer and endocrine disruption, he explained. They were being ignored.

They were also being sued. Kauai had passed a law to require buffer zones around their homes and schools, and disclosure of times when the chemicals would be sprayed, and amazingly, Syngenta was suing them to stop the law from being implemented. Astounding. Gary said that he explained why he was in Switzerland to a local official. He said "We simply want disclosure, to know when the chemicals are being sprayed so we can close our windows, and we are being sued. Could you imagine not being able to know when pesticides are being sprayed 400 feet from your house and not be able to close your window?" The official said "What? That would never be tolerated here."

He shared that when he spoke with the Syngenta lawyers back in Hawaii and just said " Come on guys. Just stop.  All we want is buffer zones and disclosure.Why are you doing this? So they said " Because we don't want other islands to do this." And I was like " Are you KIDDING ME? You don't want other islands to protect their children? It's too inconvenient for you?"

The lack of care, ethics and awareness is just staggering. It must be very challenging as a politician, I could imagine, to keep the faith and carry on. As a leader of a moms group, I could relate. There are times when we think we are losing all hope in people. Then we carry on because we must, because we live, because there is a future we want and no one else is going to make it happen for us. It's up to us.

The next day, Monday, the Hawaiians were on a tight schedule, being bustled around to meet with pre-determined government officials and press.  It took the day to acclimate and see the old town. I tried to sleep in but my B&B host woke me up with loud banging and irritated complaints, that she too, would like to sleep in. Then her dog began barking. I reminded myself to book a hotel next time.

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Later I did walk the old town of Basel and saw a 1000 year old church. I felt blessed to be there despite the circumstances.

 It was beautiful and I was reminded that historically we have been through many wars and ploys for power. Somehow we survive, as we will survive this struggle over our food system. Somehow we will prevail. 

A one point during the day I remembered to email the shareholder services at Syngenta to alert them of my intention to attend and speak during Q&Q, as I was advised to do, and to request an additional meeting. Later that evening, anxiety gripped my heart when I received an email saying that I would not be permitted because I did not purchase my share in time. I argued back and forth, sending them the text which shows that the policy about the deadline clearly shows it is only for the ability to VOTE, not to attend or speak. Furthermore, the Swiss guidelines say "Each shareholder is permitted to attend and ask questions at the shareholder meeting." There is no specification by certain date. All that was required was proof of ownership by my bank or trading company, and I.D. and I had that. I was fuming with frustration. After several emails, I vented to one of our MAA Team members, Anne,  and although it was 9 or 10 pm at night she rallied the troops, made a meme with a number to call and our supporters began calling, emailing and texting the Syngenta shareholder services to request that they meet with me.  I was touched by their support. I didn't feel alone anymore. I got an email from an investor ccing the Syngenta shareholder services contact, Brigitte, that pointed out that they were twisting the meaning of the policy, that the deadline was for voting, that the attendance policy was in a difference section and that clearly said that amendments to admission cards could be made up until the meeting. I had a glimmer of hope that perhaps I would be able to get in. But it was a night of turmoil and many tears of frustration. I was so upset that I might let down our supporters. I rested for two hours but never fell to sleep. 

The next day I needed to be at the Hawaiian's B&B at 7:30 am, and I was bleary eyed but on time.  It was cold and raining and the seven of us, the Hawaiian delegation, a Truth Out reporter, spouse and Ulei, took the tram to the Syngenta meeting place in solemnity.

 

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At 8:00 AM the local activist who gathered put on their hazmat suits (the Europeans do it in style) and set up a green mat with "Bio Engineered" plants and Syngenta spray bottles in front of the steps of the shareholder meeting. I waited in line at 8:15 to get in. I was surrounded by white haired people. I had been told that the meeting was attended by former Syngenta employees who held stock and were there to primarily have a free lunch.  Regardless of why they were there I was intent on being able to speak to them, to touch their hearts with the testimonials and requests of our moms. I went into the lobby as soon as the doors opened.  A staff member immediately came up to me and I said I am here to register, he nodded, as if he knew who I was and I was escorted to the table GV Buro. After being denied by the clerk to register, I was presented with the Head of Legal. We argued for at least 15 minutes and he was completely adamant that he was correct even though he clearly was not. Beside the table several staff members had gathered. At one point I was overwhelmed and teared up, impressing upon them the importance of what was at stake, millions of babies being harmed, even dying. I implored them to allow the board to hear me on behalf of the mothers. They all looked very distressed. Two women interjected, introduced themselves and offered to meet with me separately at the Syngenta headquarters at 10:15. Legal mentioned that they had decided before I arrived that they would meet with me. One woman mentioned all the emails from the supporters and looked stressed, but offer the meeting as a remedy. I was very grateful for the support from our moms. It was with a great weight in my heart that I finally decided that getting arrested for trying to enter the meeting forcibly would not be as advantageous as meeting with Syngenta staff, so I agreed and left the building in a controlled rage.

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photo by Fern Anuenue of action.           Malia and Fern from Hawaii, Zen and Truth Out Reporter from New Orleans

Outside, when one of the same ladies came up to Malia with a document addressing their concerns about the lawsuit, claiming they wanted open dialogue. Malai and I set into her. Malia told her how Syngenta was poisoning her friends and family, how they were sick and Syngenta was responsible. "SHAME ON SYNGENTA" I said loudly and firmly, "for suing Kauai for wanting disclosure and buffer zones to protect their children. This is simply SHAMEFUL and outrageous!" The woman left in a huff and tears were soon streaming down our faces. We activist simply could not comprehend how people could justify poisoning people and the planet. Our outrage and sadness just poured from our souls. I sobbed on the steps of Syngenta. But it did not make me weaker. It made us stronger. We are bonded in our efforts. We are determined to prevail.

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Gary and Fern went into the meeting and gave it all they had. I later learned that Fern recorded Gary's talk and got kicked out for it. The video can be seen here: 

As Fern got kicked out for filming, she turned her camera on again and filmed her exit.

 

I later learned that she waited out in the cold for the meeting to end. As the shareholders left, she sang clearly and loudly "Aloha, Hawaii, Aloha, Hawaii," over and over again as they walked past her. What love. What courage. 

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Inside the Syngenta shareholder meeting                 In the halls of Syngenta: GMO soya. Photos by Fern Anuenue

  

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The Syngenta building is to the right, next to the biggest McDonald's I have ever seen.

 After the demonstration and a cup of hot cocoa at a nearby cafe, it was time for me to meet with the Syngenta staff.  Yvla, a tall Swedish blond woman in her late twenties or early thirties, met me on time and escorted me by tram to the headquarters. She was cordial and pleasant, clearly trying to have the meeting be comfortable. I met the two heads of R&D, Jess and Christine, both American and they decided to hold the meeting in the cafeteria instead of a meeting room, which I do not understand, but agreed to. We all got a coffee or tea and sat down. We exchanged small talk for a few moments. I explained the beginnings of Moms Across America, our reach and mission.  They asked if they could record the conversation. I said yes. I said nothing about my phone which was already recording. I started by asking if the mother from Connecticut, my home state, had noticed a difference in the health of children when visited the states. She saw some, yes, but did not completely agree that she saw a big change. I knew I had a huge task before me. I discussed the increases of health issues, my children and their allergies and the devastating impact glyphosate, GMOs and chemical farming was having in the USA. As I looked these women in the eyes I was not me, I was "Mom" I was simply an entity delivering the information which could make a difference for the world. It was as if I was not me, I was just the information coming forth.

"Your company is the largest producer of pesticides in the world. That means that you have the longest and hardest fall before you. The world is learning of the harm that is happening due to your products and will not unlearn it. I would advise you to mitigate risks and get out now. Go in a new direction. We need someone to clean up the ocean. We need someone to make solar more accessible..wind power, anything which does not involve toxic chemicals which are hurting our children. " 
They listened. I think they got it. When I explained the impact of glyphosate (in their Touchdown product) on  gut bacteria and the gut brain connection; the link to autism allergies, auto immune, diabetes, mental illness etc, their eyes went heavy and sad.  I said "I cannot fathom what it must be like to work at this company and sit here and listen to someone saying this to you. You want to provide for your family. I get it. But you have an opportunity to steer this company in a  new direction."

I pointed out that I could understand that the poisoning of children may not seem real to them, as GMOs and these pesticides are not allowed in their country...but what if their children's future spouse was from America? Would they be able to reproduce? Have a healthy family? From a world standpoint, what will happen when 50% of our children in the USA have Autism if we continue at the current rate? What world power will then dominate? Because the USA will not be able to function as a world power with half of it's population compromised. The majority of Syngenta's shareholder's are American. What kind of future are they creating?

"Make no mistake", I said, "this is about world power. The thing is, women farm to nurture, most men farm for profit. They will continue to tell you it is safe to make money. But you must trust your instincts, we women must act from the long term precautionary standpoint. It is better to be safe than sorry. You know this.  It is going to take an extraordinary amount of courage to steer this company in a new direction."

I was so intently pouring my heart to them that I had only taken one sip of my tea. At one point I waved my hand and knocked the entire cup of tea all over the table and partially onto the lap of the women across from me. She yelped and I got a bit flustered with frustration. The recorder got partially wet and we had a concern it would no longer work. I wondered if they thought I did it on purpose. I assured them I would communicate anything needed. We sat back down, somewhat settled. I acknowledged that I had just dumped a whole bunch of information on them and I then dumped a whole cup of tea on them. I apologized and they were gracious. The disturbance had reminded us we are human, I think. One of them commented that I am passionate about the subject. She also said she was glad that what I was talking about was a "new direction for Syngenta, as they were always interested in sustainable solutions and new developments".

I said, "Yes, I am not dumb. I know you are not going to just stop what you are doing and fold up this company.You have 28,00 employees to be responsible for.  I didn't even come to the shareholder meeting to ask your shareholders to divest. I came to tell you of the harm your company is inflicting on the world and to implore you to change direction NOW. Be leaders. Dupont is already sloughing off severely toxic chemicals and developing softer ones. They bought Dianesco, a probiotic company to go in a new direction. Although that is highly unethical for all of you chemical companies to both make the toxic chemicals that make us sick and then to also  make the pharmaceuticals that make us "better". It's outrageous." 

"We don't do that" one of the women claimed. " Oh yes, you do, I insisted, " Your parent company Astra Seneca makes many pharmaceuticals that treat allergies, cancer, neurological disorders..your company profits massively from both inflicting harm and treating the harm! It's immensely immoral and unethical." She looked disturbed. I was shocked that this was news to her. I was also very grateful to be able to speak with them.

Soon it was time to go, I just sensed that everything had been said. It was noon and the room was getting busier for lunch. I thanked them again for taking the time. As angry as I was about the situation. I realized they are trying to do their jobs the best they can.  They assured me they had heard me, and would write up a report to give to leadership, and send it to me first for review. Some may see me as naive for thinking this will make a difference, and perhaps I am...but I feel we must do what we know there is to do. We must try. We must see other human beings as capable and able of making a difference.

They seemed truly impacted by our meeting and I was hopeful that perhaps we had made a difference by connecting. Perhaps instead of 1000 shareholders, all we need to make a difference is 3 moms.

Zen Honeycutt

I am eternally grateful to the supporters who donated to make this trip possible. I am also moved and touched by the Moms and supporters who called Syngenta to ask them to meet with me. You all made this possible. Thank you.

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 As I left Switzerland and saw this beautiful baby and mom and thought how lucky they are that they never have to worry about GMOs. Then I realized it wasn't luck. Someone took a stand. Someone said, "No, not in my country!" What about the USA? 

 


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  • followed this page 2016-10-20 10:48:20 -0700
  • commented 2015-05-06 19:20:27 -0700
    Thank you for sharing your amazing story. The meeting with 3 Syngenta employees was a huge break. You got to tell “our side” before leaving. I can’t believe they are so clueless about what is happening in Maui. The eyes see only what the mind knows.
  • commented 2015-05-05 12:51:11 -0700
    Moms are great, moms farm to nurture, men farm for profit. Those who profit no longer are concerned that their efforts may harm moms and children. We are aware of the damage done with toxins but come for those who are damaged. Not an excuse for more damage but to repair the damage already done. Those chemical companies whose stock fails could have listened a Mom from America. A fearsome lot. They spend the money. organicsulfur@sisna.com
  • commented 2015-05-05 12:51:11 -0700
    Moms are great, moms farm to nurture, men farm for profit. Those who profit no longer are concerned that their efforts may harm moms and children. We are aware of the damage done with toxins but come for those who are damaged. Not an excuse for more damage but to repair the damage already done. Those chemical companies whose stock fails could have listened a Mom from America. A fearsome lot. They spend the money. organicsulfur@sisna.com
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