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Don’t Be an Anti Science Elitist

May 21, 2013

How do you solve a problem like Monsanto? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down.

Let’s put aside the big questions for a moment of whether Monsanto is the cause or the symptom of our current state of scientific, legislative, agricultural and economic tensions surrounding the patenting of life and the increasing dominance of genetically engineered crops in corn, canola, soy, and cotton.

But for argument’s sake. Let’s just say they are simply bad. What do you do about it? I ask because there is a rally scheduled for this Saturday in Albany with similar rallies around the world, and some of you might be planning to attend.

I wrote a little bit about this recently. But I want to write a little bit more for a couple of reasons. One, last week there was a fascinating piece on Bloomberg.com. And this march also reminds me a bit of a Jewish folk story I wanted to share. Perhaps you’ve heard it.

The story goes something like this:

A group of students wanted to drive out the darkness of suffering and pain in the world. They went to their Rabbi for advice…

“Take a broom, “ he suggested, “and sweep the darkness from a basement.”
It did no good.

“Then take sticks,” advised the Rabbi, “ and beat out the darkness.”
That did no good either.

“Shout and yell at the darkness,” said the Rabbi, “and order it to leave at once.”
That, too, was unsuccessful.

“And now,” he said, “Light a candle.”
And the darkness was swept away.

Personally, I don’t believe in marching against Monsanto. If you wanted to call a march for mandatory labeling of Genetically Modified food, you can count me in. If you wanted to call a march for reforming the farm bill, I’ve got your back. But this fight isn’t going to won with angry words or shocking signs. 

GMOs will fall from grace when the average consumer finds the prospect of GE foods to be wholly unappealing. This worked with lean finely textured beef because it was given the moniker “pink slime” and the TV news was able to show some stomach turning pictures to a national audience.

So far there hasn’t been any such luck coming up with such a hook for GMOs. “Frankenfoods” was floated for a while, but never really caught on. I think the problem with that was that consumers had a hard time differentiating between seeds created through cross pollination and those that were transgenic. And that’s fair.

Much of the outrage about “pink slime” was that something which wasn’t quite ground beef had been hidden in the food supply while the consumers were kept in the dark.

This would seem to be the low hanging fruit. The government mandates standards of identity for many products. There’s ice cream, light ice cream, ice milk, and frozen dairy dessert. Not everything that contains juice qualifies as juice. And there are labeling requirements based on country of origin.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The reason I’m even talking about this is because of that Bloomberg story. Monsanto, as a business-to-business enterprise, has never had to worry itself about consumer opinion. And they haven’t. They’ve spent their money on lobbying the government to keep their GMO products off the labels of consumer goods so they don’t have to go through the long and arduous process of convincing the American people that transgenic foods are perfectly safe.

Because after all, the concern is that consumers won’t buy as many products made from Monsanto seed if on the grocery shelf there is a “Contains GMOs” label.

Well, Monsanto may finally be feeling some heat. Here is how the Bloomberg story begins:

Opponents who want to block genetically modified foods are guilty of “elitism” that’s fanned by social media and fail to consider the needs of the rest of the world, Chief Executive Officer Hugh Grant said.

I understand the sentiment of someone who thinks this technology is necessary to feed the world. The head of Monsanto suggests the issue is out of sight and out of mind for Americans who have cars and drive to the grocery store weekly. But do you remember the poor Haitian farmers who were even poorer after an earthquake ravaged their country?

They took Monsanto’s seeds and burned them.

These weren’t even GMO seeds. These were just seeds that were coated with such a strong poison that they are banned in the U.S. for home use, since home gardeners don’t have sufficient safety gear for handling the toxic seeds properly.

But seeds are small and hard to control. Monsanto made a shipment of non GMO seeds to Hungary, where GMO seeds are outlawed. The seeds were planted. But some of the bags turned out to contain GMO seeds. Oops. The resulting fields of crops were destroyed by the Hungarian government.

These stories aren’t good. But I think they are a couple of data points to show that resistance to GM crops is not about American elitism.

For those who attend the rally the trick will be to not appear anti-science. But this is where the rally may fail. Because calling for a ban on all GMOs is just that. Just because Monsanto hasn’t created a breakthrough plant that will save the Earth yet, doesn’t mean that they won’t do it down the road.

The Bloomberg story ended on an interesting note about Mark Lynas who was, “A 1990s British campaigner against genetically modified foods who publicly apologized in a January speech for starting what Lynas now calls an ‘anti-science movement.’”

And that may have been true back in the 90s. But I don’t think it’s true anymore.

The fear mongering of Frankenfoods has largely abated. But now we are seeing real issues with farmers whose crops are getting contaminated and having no recourse against multinational companies with limitless legal resources. We are growing a culture of eaters who are paying close attention to what they put in their bodies and want to know what’s in their food. We are awakening to the fact that regulatory agencies are underfunded, overburdened, and staffed with members of the industry they are supposed to be watching over.

So maybe this weekend’s rally might move the needle and cause Monsanto to divert their attention to an increasing public relations problem. Just please remember not to shout at the darkness.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jenn permalink
    May 21, 2013 10:02 am

    Great post! There are a lot of issues with GMOs but the principles and ideas behind creating heartier, resistant crops is not inherently bad. Monsanto has a lot of issues, and I’m fine with the idea of labeling (more knowledge is better), but a lot of these technologies were developed to help people, not hurt them. It’s just been terribly managed by industry (understatement) and needs much better regulation.

  2. docsconz permalink
    May 21, 2013 2:56 pm

    The arguments attacking Monsanto are not anti-science. It is the lack of transparent science that is the problem. The US government is doing everything it can to support a business that an American based company dominates without engaging in transparent science. The fact that former high ranking Monsanto employees have been put in significant government positions by both parties does nothing to assuage this concern. The government certainly gives the appearance of placing private profit over the public good.

    • Cihan permalink
      May 22, 2013 11:33 am

      Many if not most of the average people that attack Monsanto and GM foods as a whole are pretty anti-science, or at the very least science-ignorant. Many of the leading arguments that many anti-GMO folks use are deliberately anti-science. It’s a common thread among different movements on the left that have an anti-establishment theme to them (the natural medicine, anti pharm people [anti-vax included]; the homebirth anti OBGYN movement; the unschoolers; etc.). I say that as someone who is firmly on the left, but who rolls their eyes often at the previously stated groups.

      I see people asking all the time whether fruit or vegetable A is GMO, when just about every time the plant in question doesn’t have a GMO variety on the market. I know many people who think that any seed from a company owned by Monsanto is a GMO seed (not even remotely true). I see time and time again people claim that gluten sensitivities and allergies are coming from GMO wheat (what GMO wheat, where is GMO wheat being grown?). I see people confuse basic farm chemicals, yelling that Round Up is a pesticide, when it is most certainly an herbicide.

      I dislike Monsanto as a company because of their political and legal maneuvering. Monsanto is but one of many corporations that is far too friendly with our government. Also I think that the Round-Up Ready lines (and similar lines from other companies, like Liberty Link from Bayer) are a problematic GMO strategy, but that has more to do with the environment and occupational hazards for farm workers than it does with whether or not I think the foods are safe to eat. I do think they are safe to eat, I eat them. I try to cook much of my food, but ultimately when I’m eating things with various food additives, those additives are derived from GMO corn and soy, and I don’t particularly care.

      I wouldn’t attend a “March Against Monsanto,” because it’s pretty silly. The flier, linked on the Facebook page, was written by a moron. I like how they cited the one French study on GMOs with rat tumors. This study is widely promoted by opponents of GMO, but pretty rejected among scientists. In short, the study didn’t have enough rats (as a statistician I cringe , and the particular type of rat chosen was a type of rat that often gets spontaneous tumors (one study found that 80% of these rats would grow such tumors with no impetus). All of the work on GMO harm done by this scientist recently has been suspect.

      Even the French Academies of Science rejected the paper as poorly done science: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/19/six-french-science-academies-dismiss-study-finding-gm-corn-harmed-rats/

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