Last week a friend sent an article to me asking for my comments. To be honest, had I stumbled upon this paper online, I would have dismissed it as “not worth my time”. It has numerous fallacies and jumps to many conclusions without substantial evidence. Two thing made me change my mind. First, a friend asked, and I rarely say no to friends. Second, this article was passed to her by one of HER friends. People are reading this and sharing it as a quality piece of research. Au contraire mon ami. I must respond!
Seedy Business: What Big Food is hiding with its slick PR campaign on GMOs is 65 pages of what might appear to be well researched facts. It is not. Friends often email me articles like this, and I love getting them as I always enjoy researching topics and getting down to the truth. This article is put out by U.S. Right to Know which has only one donor, the Organic Consumers Association. The OCA is directed by those that stand to make a significant profit from the advancement of organic farming such as Vandana Shiva (payed $40,000 plus expenses each time she speaks) and owners/managers of organic businesses. The purpose of OCA is to take away a farmer’s choice by placing a halt to all GE farming worldwide. They want to make 30% of all farms organic by the end of this year, and spend much of their funds lobbying for their interests – an activity they disparage when done by agriculture companies. OCA’s major contributors, though hard to track down, include the John Merck Foundation, the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, and the Tides Foundation. I always like to know exactly what financial interest an author has in writing something, and it seems pretty obvious that “Big Organic” stands to profit from the success of these organizations. I take this writing with about as much legitimacy as I might take a PR campaign put out by Monsanto. For the record, I don’t get paid to write this post. I do this in my spare time because I’m tired of the vilification of a company I’m excited about and respect.
In the report, the author, Gary Ruskin, lists 15 points that are meant to make us realize just how nasty agricultural companies are, and expose their big PR campaigns. I’ll admit to laughing a bit about this – of course they have a PR campaign. With groups like the Washington, D.C. based Center for Food Safety and OCA mounting attacks left and right, do we expect agriculture to keep rolling over? It’s about time Ag companies start telling their side. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t put much stock in what any company has to say about themselves, but I do put quite a bit of faith in what science and facts have to say. Science and facts NOT presented by someone with a stake in the game. I’ll go through and address each of the statements in this article in light of what I have learned over the years of digging into Monsanto. I can’t speak about any of the other companies listed here as I know very little about what Dow, BASF, Syngenta, DuPont, and Bayer are up to. Maybe someone more familiar with the other 5 companies can weigh in on the comments. I also can only speak to what I’ve seen in the last 15 years. Monsanto of today is a totally different company from the Monsanto of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.
It’s worth noting that most of the ‘evidence’ in this article is from retracted papers (Séralini) and from journals with low impact factors. Impact factor doesn’t mean everything, but it’s an indication of how it may be viewed by the scientific community. For instance the New England Journal of Medicine (not referenced in this article) has an impact factor of over 54 which is very good. The impact factor of Environment International (which IS referenced in this article) is just over 6. Not a stellar recommendation. As for the safety of GM crops, see independent analysis and endorsements here, here, and here.
#1:The agrochemical companies have a history of concealing health risks from the public. Ruskin doesn’t list much for evidence on this point. He refers to the events that took place in Anniston, Alabama as if this happened yesterday. What went on in this town was terrible, but occurred 40-60 years ago. We’re talking the age before the EPA (founded in 1970); the age before most people realized how pollution affects the world. Solutia (the chemical company involved), and by association Monsanto, appears to be paying for this past, through $600,000,000 given to residents and the building of medical clinics and a PCB research center. I’m glad that the Monsanto of today is taking responsibility and helping the people of this town.
Agent Orange was the only other item from Monsanto that was mentioned. The truth is, Agent Orange was discovered by a grad student and later developed by the US and British governments. The US chose to follow the Brit’s example and used it as a tool in combat. They contracted 9 companies to make the stuff, and Monsanto warned the government of the contamination and toxic effects. The government used it anyway. I don’t think there was any doubt of the dangers of this substance. It was meant to help us fight a war in which the lush green plants hid the enemy, and the enemy was killing our soldiers. Right or wrong, it was used by the military to kill off jungle plants.
Agent Orange was outlawed many years ago, and despite what activists say, is not being brought back in the form of 2,4-D by any of the companies mentioned in this article. 2,4-D is NOT Agent Orange. It was part of the chemical formulation of Agent Orange. Think of it like Oxygen is a portion of H²O² (Hydrogen Peroxide). By itself, Oxygen is fine, combined into H²O², it is toxic when consumed.
#2: The FDA does not test whether GMOs are safe. Oh, the silliness of this one. Technically true, because it should not fall to us as taxpayers to fund the testing of a new product. This is true for all products on the market. The FDA gives a company detailed requirements for how they want to see a product tested. The company then must comply. The FDA reviews the results, and a trained scientist can usually pick out a problem with the data if one exists. Millions in research and testing are spent on EACH seed that Monsanto brings to market. This is no small thing. Extensive testing occurs at all levels of production to ensure the safety of the public.
#3: Our nation’s lax policy on GMOs is the work of former Vice President Dan Quayle’s anti-regulatory crusade. I’m not sure how this is relevant to the discussion. I DO know that GM crops are one of the most heavily regulated items on the market. It takes 13 years and over 100 million dollars to bring a GM crop to market. Years of testing are involved and no food item on the shelves today has EVER been tested and reviewed as much as GM products. I’m thankful for this and I like knowing that I can have a reasonable assurance of safety when I buy a product in the store.
#4: What the agri-chemical and tobacco industries have in common: PR firms, operatives, tactics. This could just as well read: “What ORGANIC and tobacco industries have in common: PR firms, operatives, tactics.” This is a False Analogy, if you’re into critical thinking. Fleishman Hillard (a PR firm) may or may not have been used by the tobacco industry (I could find no reference for this), but it appears Monsanto has used them in the past. If we’re going to use this as the smoking gun, we should probably look into the National Mango Board, Hyatt Regency, Barnes & Noble and the Library of Congress as they also use this PR Firm. This is a ridiculous claim to say the least.
Activists often say that companies like Monsanto are trying to hide something, but then complain when the company tries to educate the public about their activities. Critics can’t have it both ways. If the public is to be informed, then there has to be information coming from the company. I personally have no problem with advertising – I just know to take it with the grain of salt and do a little extra digging into independent reviews from reputable sources.
For the record, this article claims that Monsanto pretends to care about farmers and sustainability. I suppose this is subjective, but I know every single person that I have ever met that works for Monsanto cares deeply about those two things. Many of them are farm kids that wanted to still farm, but also use more technical skills at the same time. You’ll often find employees farming on the side or they have at least one extended family member that farms.
#5: Russia’s PR firm runs the agrichemical industry’s big PR salvo on GMOs. Please see #4.
#6: The agrichemical industry’s key front groups and shills aren’t trustworthy. I think the only person I had even heard of on this list was Pamela Ronald, and she’s a pretty big fan of organic growing. You should check out her book, Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. I very much respect what she and her husband have to say. We need to be looking at how GM crops can be used in conjunction with organic practices to have the best of both systems married up and more productive and sustainable than ever!
The important point here should be – never take someone’s word on a topic without doing a little research. Look at the science. Look at the evidence. What is the scientific consensus? Check out where GMO food safety stands on this poll done recently by the Pew Research Center.
#7: The agrichemical companies have employed repugnant PR tactics. I’m not sure when educating our children on science became “brainwashing”, but if that’s the case, I offer up my own kids to be brainwashed by that pesky science stuff. If something is based in solid evidence, then I hope it is being taught in schools. On the subject of companies attacking and intimidating scientists, I’m mostly familiar with the cases of Tyrone Hayes and Séralini. Séralini produced a terribly flawed paper and was upset when the journal issued a retraction. You can’t use rats prone to tumors on a study measuring tumor growth, and you can’t bury the data that shows the male rats that consumed Round-Up actually looked good and lost some weight. The controls in the study also had tumors. This paper would make me laugh if it wasn’t so often cited by activists. You can read an article about the “other” side of Hayes here. I take no position on this one, but to say – there are always two sides to a story, and good science is repeatable. Let’s say that again, repeatable.
#8: The agrichemical companies have a potent, sleazy political machine. I have a hard time seeing what’s wrong with the claims in this section. There are some very smart people listed here (Vilsack, Clinton, Thomas), and they have stated their support for biotechnology. There are also claims that all these people have some tie to Monsanto. It’s my contention that everyone can be tied to everything if you dig deep enough. I would hope those in positions that have to do with food and agriculture have had some experience with growing food. I suppose if you subscribe to elaborate conspiracy theories, then nothing I can say about this will sway opinion.
The DARK act is actually HR 4432, an effort to have a common standard across the entire US when it comes to labeling of GM foods. I’ve seen many claims about large percentages of the US population wanting labels on foods containing GMO. I’m sure that’s true. It is also true that 80% of Americans support “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA”. What a conundrum.
The so called ‘Monsanto Protection Act’ was a portion of a bill that was designed to protect farmers from having to immediately pull up a crop if it was first approved and then approval was later challenged in court due to technicalities. Snopes has a fairly thorough explanation here. The provisions of the bill had a short expiration date. Interestingly, a quick search on the topic shows many environmental groups claiming “victory” after the natural expiration date occurred – as though they somehow brought about the end of the Farmer Protection Act through their lobbying. Perhaps they needed to convince their donors that funds are being well spent.
#9: Half of the Big Six agrichemical firms can’t even grow their GMOs in their own home countries. The Farmer’s Daughter USA has a good review of what’s actually happening in the EU where Syngenta, Bayer, and BASF are all located. The map provided here shows where each country in the world stands in regard to the adoption of GM crops. There is only one country in the world with an actual ban on GMOs: Kenya.
#10: Monsanto supported GMO labeling in the UK but opposes it in the USA. Not true. Monsanto completely supports labeling in the USA by federal agencies. What they are against is a patchwork of labeling laws that change from county to county or state to state. They are also against a label that claims there is something wrong with GM crops, which independent scientists have shown us is not the case. Furthermore, this issue baffles me greatly. Foods containing GM crops are already labeled by their LACK of a label. It’s called “organic”. If you wish to avoid genetically modified foods, you can buy organic. If it’s not organic, 9 times out of 10, it’s likely to contain GMOs. Any food that doesn’t contain GMOs is created with great intention, and no manufacturer would ever go through that trouble and then not label the product ‘organic’ to cash in on the insane price increase that results from that one meaningless word on the label.
#11: The pesticide treadmill breeds profits, so it will likely intensify. I don’t know about the other companies vilified in this article, but I don’t see Monsanto developing new pesticides. They are working on developing new seeds, data & weather tools, and microbials. Furthermore, the advent of biotech crops has significantly decreased the use of insecticides, and the use of herbicides has turned from more toxic choices to products with incredibly low toxicity ratings. Anastasia Bodnar wrote about this shift on the Biofortified Blog. You can also see the graphs from the USDA website below.
#12: GMO science is for sale. The “evidence” used for this is almost laughable. The only thing they come up with is that the pharmaceutical industry is corrupt, therefore the agriculture industry is corrupt. Another weak analogy. ‘A’ is a big industry that deals in science and ‘B’ is a big industry that deals in science. ‘A’ did something bad once, therefore ‘B’ will do something bad as well. Fallacies make me angry. Take the time to actually examine all the papers written by independent scientists (see links above), and then decide if science is still for sale. If science were actually for sale, I would think the oil companies (almost 25 times the size of Monsanto) would be doing a better job of buying them off.
Monsanto $15.85 Billion. Exxon $393.72 Billion
#13: There are nearly no consumer benefits of GMOs. 95% of the corn growers in Iowa would beg to differ. That’s the percentage of corn farmers that chose GM technology this past summer. Farmers are the consumers of Monsanto’s products. In speaking with my father-in-law about his reasons for choosing biotech crops, he cites his ability to use no-till and low-till practices, drastic decrease in pesticide use, and increased yield. These things together raise his bottom line, decrease his carbon footprint (less passes through the field with the tractor), and allow him to use soil conserving practices that would be impossible with conventional hybrids or organic methods. The research indicates his experience is the norm, as shown here. Personally, I view an abundant food supply produced in an environmentally-friendly way as a big consumer benefit.
#14: The FDA and food companies have been wrong before: they have assured us of the safety of products that were not safe. Did the author ever take a class in critical thinking let alone study what constitutes a fallacy? Yes, the FDA has likely made mistakes in the past. That doesn’t mean we throw everything out and decide absolutely nothing is safe that is FDA approved. Yes, I suppose they could be wrong about GMOs, except – science.
#15: A few other things the agrichemical industry doesn’t want you to know about them: crimes, scandals and other wrongdoing.
DDT: Best addressed by Martin Zucker here. “With regard to DDT, the former Monsanto Company did manufacture DDT from 1944 until 1957, when it ceased manufacture for economic reasons, well before environmental concerns led to EPA’s regulatory action. Interestingly, many health professionals still consider the use of DDT under proper conditions as an important part of the worldwide fight against malaria.”
France convicted Monsanto of false advertising. This appears to be true, but I could find little information detailing what happened. Wikipedia mentions the events on the Monsanto entry, but I hardly consider this a good source. The one case revolved around the safety of Round Up. You can read about Round Up and its safety here, here, and here. I especially like the last link that shows how vinegar is more toxic than Round Up.
I’m sure I missed a few fallacies in this article. Please feel free to ask about specific issues not addressed. I can’t think of a single question in relation to Monsanto that I think, “Gosh, I hope they don’t ask THAT one”. If it wasn’t addressed here, it was an oversight as ‘Seedy Business’ makes MANY claims. I spent some time addressing other claims made by activists in An Open Letter to our Friends on Maui. I look forward to reading your comments!