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The International Writers Magazine: Comment

A Monsanto Twister
• Paul Hunt
Falls City Municipal Court, Polk County, Oregon, is scheduled to hold a hearing on August 20, 2014, of a defense case using recently signed-into-law Senate Bill 863, otherwise known as the "Monsanto Bill". Mr. Matthew Duncan McDaniel has taken up this controversial, new legislation in an attempt to evade fines imposed upon him by Falls City for zoning and code violations with his commercial-farming activities in a residentially zoned neighborhood of the city.


On July 16, 2014, the local court found McDaniel guilty of some of the many infringements he was appealing against, while he was acquitted of others due to notification and photographic-evidence date mix-ups. The surprise move by the court to allow the "Monsanto Bill" to be used in defense of other violations sets up a bizarre test case of the reach of the new law.

McDaniel has family connections in Keizer, Oregon, but was born in Ypsilanti, Michigan, on April 3, 1958. He acquired a 3-acre, derelict property in a residential neighborhood of Falls City in October 2011, and has since then been aggressively expanding and clearing up to 12 acres for his commercial-farming operation. Ignoring neighbors' complaints, infuriating city residents and abusing officials in the process, McDaniel's blatant disruption of the residential neighborhood, without city permission, has inevitably entailed local code and zoning violations.

His attempt to bend the new legislation beyond its intended reach in a peripheral, incidental and confusing manner is solely aimed at protecting his own selfish interests and to justify his ongoing, disruptive, commercial-farming activities within a residential zone. Falls City rejected McDaniel's business license application for his Akha Farm on July 24, 2012, as retail agriculture within a residentially zoned neighborhood is not permitted under its zoning and development code. He's allowed, however, to grow produce for sale elsewhere, although certain crops previously grown on the property are strictly prohibited.

The original intent of the "Monsanto Bill" is to preempt local governments from ruling against the use and production of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), seed and products. Perversely, McDaniel's case doesn't explicitly involve GMOs at all, as he claims to be growing and selling "natural" and "organic" vegetables. If he does in fact use or produce GMO seed or products, his current advertising would be rendered deceitful and false, while the farmers' markets where he sells, and customers too, would need to be informed. At stake in this bizarre case are the unregulated spread of GMOs, local government controls over zoning and code, and McDaniel's right to run roughshod over all and sundry.

The Controversial Bill
*(The bill states that even if future research shows that GMOs or GE seeds cause significant health problems, cancer, etc, anything, that the federal courts no longer have any power to stop their spread, use, or sales.)

The "Monsanto Bill" was furtively signed into law at a special session of the Oregon Legislature on October 2, 2013, to the dismay of organic and environmental groups. It rules that regulation of agricultural, flower, nursery and vegetable seeds and their products be reserved to state. As a big agribusiness initiative, its intent is to preempt local laws or measures to regulate the production or use of seed or seed products, especially GMOs.

Agribusiness giants Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer, and other chemical and biotechnology companies stand to benefit from the new legislation as it prohibits local regulation of GMO products, and thus restricts city or county control over food and agriculture policy. However, any generally applied local law which treats the production or use of seed or seed products similarly to other economic activities, and having only an incidental effect on the production or use of seed or seed products, is unlikely to be ruled as against the new legislation's intent.

State law generally does not displace local government power to regulate local conditions within their jurisdictions, unless there is clear intent to do so. Although the scope of the ORS 633.738 provision of SB 863 has yet to be determined by the courts, McDaniel's local code violations, including unauthorised structures and storage of materials on his property, do not primarily involve seed or seed products. Thus the imposition of such local regulations appears to have only an incidental effect on seed and seed products in this case.

The State of Oregon legislative counsel comments as follows: "ORS 633.738 does not prevent the enactment or enforcement of local laws or measures of general applicability, notwithstanding that the local laws or measures may have an incidental minor effect on the production or use of seed or seed products."

It further states: "We do not believe that the prohibition in ORS 633.738 demonstrates a clear legislative intent to preempt local governments from enacting or enforcing laws or measures on matters of general local interest, such as pest control programs, tree ordinances, fire prevention measures, zoning restrictions, sign ordinances, traffic control and business license requirements."

On May 20, 2014, voters in Jackson and Josephine counties in Oregon overwhelmingly passed ballot initiatives to ban the growing of GMO crops, thus showing consumer and farmer concern about GMOs. The GMO planting ban in Jackson County was the only way small family farmers there could survive in the face of giant agribusiness.

On May 21, 2014, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) issued the following statement: “The passing of these two GMO bans in Jackson and Josephine Counties should send a clear signal to politicians that citizens not only reject unregulated and hazardous GMOs, but are willing to defy the indentured politicians who pass laws, like Oregon’s SB 863, that take away county rights to ban GMOs and obliterate a 100-year tradition of home rule and balance of powers between counties and the state."

The OCA supports citizens of Josephine County in defending their right to ban GMOs in another upcoming test case of the state’s new SB 863. It's also helping the Oregon Right to Know campaign to pass a strong GMO labeling law in November 2014. This grassroots campaign, along with a vast majority of Oregonians, calls for GMO food products to be labeled so that people can know what's in the food they buy.

The reasons for unnaturally manipulating genetic changes in GMO seeds include increased crop production, disease resistence and tolerance for heavy applications of harmful chemicals. However, farmers are not allowed to produce or use their own seed from GMO crops, and are tied in to using special GMO products. Such practices give GMO companies control over farmers, enabling them to exploit agricultural production for their own profit at farmers' expense. Despite fear-mongering propaganda by giant agribusiness about rising food prices if their GMO products are banned, Santa Cruz County in California, as well as other counties with GMO planting bans, have not suffered food-price inflation.

SB 863 takes away the right of local communities and farmers to exercise control and know what’s in their food, while transparency and effective oversight of GMO crops and foods at state and federal levels is abysmally lacking. That the bill does nothing to protect Oregon farmers from the increased risk of cross-contamination with GMO material is another major concern expressed by Ivan Maluski, director of Friends of Family Farmers (FOFF).

FOFF's aim is to provide a strong, united voice for Oregon's independent family farmers, food advocates and citizens concerned about agriculture, respect for the land, treating animals humanely, sustaining local communities and viable livelihoods for small farmers. It promptly took down material it had posted on its website about McDaniel's Akha Farm after being informed earlier this year about his "Monsanto Bill" defense case. As FOFF policy is critical of the bill, their continued support of McDaniel would have been hypocritical! McDaniel, however, doggedly maintains his Akha Farm website link to FOFF and other organisations, who need to realise that his views and activities are way out of line with their own stated policies.

The Twister's Path

The upcoming court case will be an interesting test of both the reach of the "Monsanto Bill" to trump local zoning and code regulations, and of McDaniel's perverse attempt to bend the bill to protect his own selfish interests. A win for Falls City would mean some respite for neighbors, local residents and officials suffering McDaniel's predations, but it would not necessarily mean a loss for big GMO agribusiness ambitions, as the case is peripheral to their main interest. McDaniel, however, is unlikely to accept anything short of success in his appeal against local fines. So he's expected to appeal to the Polk County Circuit Court in Dallas, where his case would then be tried anew.

If the court were to dismiss McDaniel's violations on the basis of SB 863 it would set a dangerous precedent. Such an application of the new legislation beyond its original intent would seriously disrupt local government power to oversee general zoning and code rules. Such a verdict could jeopardize the bill's future at the next legislative session, thus disturbing its supporters too. Perversely, McDaniel stands to antagonise those on both sides of the "Monsanto Bill" if he were to win his case!

Taking up the "Monsanto Bill" in his defense, McDaniel is saying that he approves of its legal provisions intended to promote the unregulated use of GMO seed and seed products by preempting local control and transparency. He's posing as a "Monsanto Bill" advocate, while claiming to produce and sell "natural" and "organic" produce! The implications of his case need to be carefully considered by customers and management at the three farmers' markets where Akha Farm produce is displayed and sold.

McDaniel's cynical attempt to exploit SB 863 is just the latest example in his long history of conflict-provoking behavior with nearly everyone he comes into contact with. His promotion of various projects and causes, including Akha human rights, is seen to have little or nothing to do with those causes he claims to be fighting for, but everything to do with his own personal idiosyncrasies, which he profusely projects on internet and elsewhere to attract attention and donation funds, mostly from people who don't personally know him well.

There's strong suspicion that McDaniel is using his Oregon-registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit Akha Heritage Foundation charity funds for his commercial Akha Farm activities and legal costs. More than two years ago he was warned to stop his website donation-call links between his nonprofit charity and commercial farm, as that was illegal. On top of his violation of Akha indigenous intellectual property rights, McDaniel provides no evidence whatsoever that any of the donations he receives go to Akha people in S.E. Asia. It's also likely that funds and proceeds from his call for donations to buy a tall ship for his "Sail For Freedom" and other "projects" are channelled through his same tax-free charity. McDaniel inadequately discloses his charity finances, due to Oregon's extremely minimal charity reporting requirements. Only Oregon's Attorney-General and the IRS can adequately investigate McDaniel's nonprofit finances over the last 20 years. By allowing McDaniel to register his charity, Oregon's Department of Justice provides him with superficial legitimacy, rendering the department wide open to accusations of complicity in aiding and abetting suspected fraudulent charity activities.

Accompanying McDaniel in court on July 16, 2014, was his neighbor, 50-year-old Terry Frank Hirbeck. Hirbeck works for McDaniel on Akha Farm, probably as part of a parole agreement that he stays employed. He can often be seen on a small tractor tearing up the land, sometimes into the night, and doing other odd jobs around the farm.

Another character associated with McDaniel's nefarious activities is Reid Matthew Elder, born on April 3, 1981 in San Bernadino, California. Elder apparently shares McDaniel's birthday, although 23 years younger and a lot taller. He formerly resided in Keizer, Oregon, where McDaniel's family also stayed. Elder, who was arrested for assault in Portland on September 18, 2012, is listed as one of the directors of McDaniel's nonprofit charity!

McDaniel's alleged uncompromising, belligerent and combative attitude, along with the vitriolic abuse he hurls at neighbors, local officials and people far and wide, provides evidence aplenty of his dust-storm-stirring, hypocritical-fence-hopping character, which follows him wherever he goes. His disturbing behavior, history and associations expose recent interviews and reporting about his Akha Farm, and other activities, as unbalanced, irresponsible and seriously lacking in journalistic investigative skills.

An article about Akha Farm entitled "Productive and Peaceful" was published on August 13, 2013, in the local Polk County Itemizer-Observer. It was a superficial, uncritical reproduction of McDaniel's own spin, gloss and delusional pipe-dreams about an idyllic farm. "Complaint Filed Against Farm" was a completely different report that appeared about the same Akha Farm in the same I-O newspaper and website on January 14, 2014.

Local journalism in Oregon was seen to break new ground at the 2014 Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association Better Newspaper Contest on July 17-18, 2014. The local I-O newspaper received a total of 18 awards, including one for second place in Best Lifestyle Coverage for their “Productive and Peaceful” piece about Akha Farm! Such abysmal lack of journalistic standards make it little wonder that people like McDaniel manage to hoodwink so many people for so long!

James Austin Farrell, an editor based in ChiangMai, Thailand, published a similarly limp, uncritical interview with McDaniel in December 2012, having never met him in person! JAF, as he's known, is also fond of publishing narcissistic interviews with himself, as well as books and pieces about dark, psychologically disturbed characters! Those who facilitate, support and feed unbalanced characters like McDaniel need to realize the kind of dysfunctional world they're promoting.

McDaniel apparently sees nothing at all wrong with his perverse behavior and ongoing disruption of a residential neighborhood, its local wildlife, vegetation, drainage, toxicity and other issues. He interprets investigations of, and fines for, his numerous zoning and code violations as discriminatory impositions by hateful local officials. The personally abusive language he uses, or rather twists and abuses on internet and elsewhere, is unquotable here. His self-generated dust-devil turbulence looks set to continue blowing around and sucking up like a twister on a crazy path across a social-media landscape. The latest damage just happens to involve the "Monsanto Bill" written into law just in time to be picked up and twisted around in an extremely hypocritical way.

© Paul Hunt August 1st 2014

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