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Nature center grant from Monsanto still rankles despite policy change

Mystic — A controversy that swirled last year when the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center announced a grant from chemical giant Monsanto has led the nonprofit to revise its gifts policy and forgo a similar request this year, but the moves have failed to quell some activists' angst over the matter.

Bob Burns of Ledyard, an organic farmer and nature center member, said he has gathered about 150 signatures on a petition demanding the nonprofit explicitly reject any "alliance" with Monsanto, whose genetically modified seeds have caused controversy among natural-food activists.

He added that if Denison Pequotsepos does not promise publicly to forgo any future grants from the chemical firm - whose Dekalb Genetics Corp. plant sits next to nature center property - he will lead a protest in front of the nonprofit's property May 23 on World March Against Monsanto Day.

"This is a single issue," Burns, who heads the local GMO Free CT chapter, said in a phone interview. "I'm going to stay on it till the ... day I die."

But nature center spokeswoman Elissa Bass said Burns' insistence on conflating a donation as an alliance indicates the lengths he will go to hurt the organization.

"What Bob Burns is doing to the nature center is exactly what he says Monsanto does to the small American farmer," Bass said in a phone interview. "He tries to bully us, and he tries to intimidate us."

Burns and other activists opposed to genetically modified organisms in the nation's food chain brought the issue to the public's attention last fall after a Facebook posting and a check-passing photo in the Mystic River Press cited Monsanto's $5,000 gift to fund a school program called "Plant & Pollinators: Perfect Partners" that teaches first graders about bees, butterflies and bats.

Activists are not opposed to the program but were shocked that the nature center would accept a gift from Monsanto, whose name has become synonymous with pesticides and genetically modified seeds that some say could have long-term negative effects on the environment and human health. They worried that so-called "greenwashing" had gone local - that Monsanto was using the nature center grant to downplay the environmental effects of its products, which the company insists are safe to use.

"It seemed to me it's kind of a conflict," said Ken Carlson, a nature center member whose wife, Kim, once served as a board member of the nonprofit. "I was more surprised than anything."

Carlson said he and his wife have both signed Burns' petition. He added that he loves the nature center and its programs but wouldn't be comfortable seeing the nonprofit's name next to Monsanto's logo unless he thought that the chemical giant was truly looking out for the planet.

But Bass pointed out that the nature center already has changed its gifts policy in response to activists' concerns. The board of trustees passed the new measure at its December meeting to, in part, "encourage gift-making that promotes our mission, programs and reputation," according to a copy of the policy provided to The Day.

"Gifts must be preapproved by the executive director and advancement chair whenever a donor's activities or identity might jeopardize DPNC image or mission," states one section of the policy.

Bass pointed out that the new policy did not single out Monsanto and that the board's action would not necessarily prevent the nature center from accepting a gift from the chemical company in the future.

"The entire discussion that ensued after we applied for and received a grant from Monsanto in 2014 raised our level of awareness of how we go about funding our programs," Bass said.

Nevertheless, Bass defended the nature center's initial decision to accept the Monsanto gift, pointing out that there were no strings attached to it and that dozens of children learned about the natural world as a result of the grant. Any whispering about the program being used as propaganda for Monsanto "is completely not true," she said.

"We're not applying to Monsanto for that grant again because of the controversy that erupted," she added.

Burns admits there is a dispute even among anti-Monsanto activists over whether the nature center's new policy goes far enough. Some seem happy that the nature center appears to be rethinking its ties to Monsanto and want to let the issue lie, while others like Burns believe the nonprofit needs to come out with a statement that it will no longer accept money from the chemical company.

"We live in the United States of America - put it in writing," Burns said. "Stand behind it."

Burns also takes issue with Bass's denial that the nature center is in alliance with Monsanto. He noted a picture of Maggie Jones, the nature center's executive director, appeared in the Mystic River Press last year accepting a check from two Monsanto executives.

"They're allied in that photograph," Burns said. "Monsanto uses that to greenwash their organization."

Burns, who says Jones has refused to let him present his petition to the board, estimates about a third of the signers are nature center members. Bass said board meetings are not open to the public, but Burns could certainly mail the document to the trustees.

Bass pointed out that activists had promised to help fund the pollinators program in the future but said the money had not come through. Burns said his group will come up with the money, but only if the nature center renounces its ties to the chemical giant.

Meanwhile, a program that teaches kids about the importance of pollinators - even as honey bee populations worldwide have been decimated in recent years - will not be taught in the region's schools this year.

"Who wins in this situation?" Bass asked.

l.howard@theday.com

Twitter: @KingstonLeeHow

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