Babies and Bathwater: Monsanto

Babies and Bathwater: Monsanto

In a world ridden with woo, it can be hard to discern between something that is of genuine concern and something harmless that people oppose due to a faulty understanding of the world. However, to disregard any criticisms of any given thing just because the woo-minded oppose it is to endorse a stubbornly contrary sort of dogma.

One example of something that is often criticized for unscientific (or, at least, not verified) reasons is Monsanto, the global agricultural corporation.

Most of the fuss that we tend to hear about Monsanto relates to their foods derived from GMO, or genetically modified organisms. In other words, people tend to be most upset by the idea of food whose genetic code has been altered in a lab as opposed to selective breeding, an older genetic modification technique.

While there seems to be quite a bit of fear surrounding genetically modified foods, most of the evidence does not indicate that is particularly unhealthy or toxic. As is the case with anything other technological advancement, there might be issues with it, but the most measured and methodical approach would be to take each issue on a case-by-case basis. In the case of genetically modified foods, there have been some early issues with allergic reactions, but those were pulled from the market when the issues were discovered.

Reactions over GMO aside, though, Monsanto is problematic in many, many ways. In fact, even in the case of groups who oppose Monsanto based on their perception of food safety issues, of their top ten list of “Things Monsanto Doesn’t Want You to Know“, four of the list items have little to do with food safety, and one is particularly disturbing: Monsanto’s litigiousness against small farmers. Between 1997 and 2010, 144 cases filed by Monsanto have made it to litigation, while 700 were settled out-of-court. Monsanto is opposed to the common farming practice of saving seeds, and while this could be argued to be their choice and right in business practice, the fact is that it is quite difficult to buy non-GMO seeds (i.e. non-Monsanto seeds). The inability to save seeds has made farming far more expensive both domestically and abroad.

Aside from the seed issue, Monsanto had targeted dairy producers who advertise their milk as rBGH free. Whether or not rGBH is controversial due to legitimate reasons, for them to target other companies for truthfully advertising their products is somewhat disingenuous given that they falsely advertised Roundup as “biodegradable.”

In addition to current issues, Monsanto has a history of creating toxic waste dumps, over 50 of which have been targeted by the United States government for clean up, not to mention the toxic waste issues it has created in other countries.

To reverse a proverb, the enemy of my enemy is not automatically my friend. Just because Monsanto is opposed by some people who are afraid of genetic modification does not mean that all people who dislike the company and its practices do so for the same reasons. To assume that any company that is targeted by pro-woo crowds must be just fine as a business is to engage in an odd reversal of the contrarian fallacy.

Main image via.

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

37 Comments

  1. Thank you! This is such an important point to make. We should never oppose the idea of investigation or furthuring understanding of a subject because of a knee-jerk bias. Likewise it’s vital to the cause of critical thinking to actually find legitimate common ground with people we may not always agree with, but who have it in them to learn and hopefully educate their friends down the line.

    • Ditto!

      I was just thinking about this issue the other day and up pops this article. Excellent timing. Or maybe Heina is stealing my brain waves.

  2. Great article! I’ve actually had alot of arguments with people who are anti-GMO and after listening to their points I usually discover they aren’t actually complaining about GMOs (though some are). Instead they are complaining about the business model of Monsanto. So I always point out that they are really against unregulated capitalism and rather than protesting GMOs they should be protesting for more government oversight of business.

    • I kind of wonder how much is business model, and how much is covering their ass though. What do I mean? Well, lets say you release a GMO food that *is* safe, but you didn’t realize that the gene you inserted would react in some nasty way when accidentally crossed with something else. Someone saves a bunch of seeds, and those end up in someone else’s hands, because the company allowed it, and from there the cross happens. Is it your fault, as a company, for a) not knowing the risk before hand, never mind that you could get similar things with hybreds, or b) the person misusing the seeds, or c) no one’s fault, since it wasn’t possibly to predict the outcome?

      That has got to be one of the questions being asked, when it comes to GMO foods, and while it may be based a lot on paranoia and uncertainty, its a real issue, and one that is easily fixed by simply saying, “You need new seed, don’t use anything you ‘saved’.” Yes, it goes against the common practice, but it covers the companies ass, in cases something *does* go wrong.

      And, sure, greed is also involved, but, frankly, the amount of stupid shit that happens in companies, purely out of fear of *possible* litigation, which also happens to either save them, or make them, more money than doing the sane thing, is significant. We get the same BS at my job, fixing a safety issue, not by retraining/censuring people that fail to do the common sense thing and clean up something that got spilled, but by wasting 15 minutes every hour having someone whose job is *not* that of a janitor, do the job of checking the store over, because a) its cheaper than hiring someone to do it specifically, b) its faster than making sure everyone is doing their job, and cleaning up problems, c) it avoids pissing off customers who not only walk through the damn thing as you are cleaning it up, but assume that you can drop everything to show them something on the other end of the store, d) it covers their legal ass, by either showing someone sort of tried to make sure things where safe, and making it there fault, if they didn’t do it, not the other three people that walked past it, and e) it costs less than a proper solution.

      So, keeping people from using seeds that **might** get you sued, is faster, less costly, less likely to inconvenience the company, and cheaper, than a real solution. That this means farmers have to pay more is also, almost certainly, seen as a huge bonus, in that they can placate the lawyers, and increase profit at the same time.

      And, that is a rather different issue that simply, “Pure greed”.

      As for the attacks on labeling and the like… I doubt they would be doing such a thing in a rational country. The problem is, if you *must* label it, your product becomes a target for every damn kook on the planet, and half of the magazines people “trust” (why the hell they do just showed the ignorance involve) to tell them the truth about things, have run one or more articles on the imaginary dangers of GMO. If I was in their position, I would be scared that fear, paranoia and bloody ignorance, would hurt my profits, and/or bankrupt me too.

      And its sort of like the bloody, “corn sugar is just like other sugar”, commercials being run on TV to fight back against the trend to avoid it. It doesn’t matter that its the truth. Its also true that, a) I am one of those that *notices* a taste difference, b) artificial sweeteners have the same problem, and c) none of them produce anything like the amount of “dangerous” chemicals, when breaking down in the blood stream, than you would get from a glass of tomato juice. The “dangers” all all bullshit. The truth is we need less of all of the metabolizable ones. Its possible that some of the new “natural” ones, like Stevia might be better, but we don’t have all the data yet. But the one thing that *is* 100% certain is that its irrelevant which one you have in your food, they all metabolize more or less the same, if they are one that does in the first place, and they all, thus, *may* have short term toxic effects, in large amounts, and long term effects, resulting from the fact that our bodies are real good at adapting to “lower” amounts, by reducing energy use, but completely incapable of handling “increases”, save by reading any reduction as starvation, and, it seems, permanently reducing our energy needs to compensate (which is why once you get fat, you have to work twice as hard to get and keep it off as you would have to not get that way in the first place).

      The whole “anti-high fructose corn syrup” thing is total BS, but it hit the industry hard enough they had to run commercials to “counter the argument”. GMO would need to do the same thing, and might *completely* fail. And, if you are the major producer of such things, you would have to be mad to not resist people labeling “any” foods as “natural” vs. “GMO/enhanced”, even if its something you don’t even make.

      None of this makes their policies and actions reasonable, or right, but it *does* present a rational reason why they likely do much of it. Fear is prime motivator, even more then greed, especially if what you fear may undermine your ability to fulfill the very greed you are accused of.

      • First, it’s not to limit their liability. They could do that with a release of liability agreement. Especially since the scenario you provide has no reason to think that it couldn’t happen with the first crop and would with the second.

        Second, there’s a lot here about HFS and not about Monsanto or business practices. There are dietary reasons why HFS is bad that has nothing to do with business practices or woo or scare tactics. Dietary reasons that w’eve known about for a long time.

        Third, I don’t get the tomato juice thing. That makes no sense.

        Fourth, their reasoning is not limiting liability if it’s making them a lot of money every year to pursue these issues. And it doesn’t explain them suing farmers who accidentally grow Monsanto soy that drifts into their fields because of patent infringement

        • What is HFS? Are you referring to high fructose corn syrup? No, there aren’t any dietary issues with it, except in the sense that there are dietary issues with sugar itself. It’s sugar. Both HFCS and cane sugar contain equivalent amounts of fructose. Only one is physically capable of having less fructose and that’s HFCS. I think I’m going to start a petition to ban sugar with more than 49% fructose.

          • My wife has Fructose Malabsorbstion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fructose_malabsorption
            So your response that there is no difference in sugars is totally wrong. She can handle normal sugar, which is 50/50 glucose and fructose, but anything with more fructose then glucose causes her major issues (anything with HFCS, and certain fruits). Also, fructose is metabolized by the liver, which can cause fatty liver, diabetes and other issues. More research is needed, but for you to say that glucose and fructose are the same is just wrong.

  3. Thank you for this!

  4. Thanks for this, Heina. I’m planning to post on GMOs over on MAL at some point, and what you’ve written here summarizes my conclusions well. The biggest issue for me is that so much activism and so many policies that would try to deal with Monsanto’s business practices are tied into a paranoid nonsense about the health risks of GMOs, and it’s difficult to know how to get involved.

    My mother forwarded me a petition last month about getting rid of Obama’s food safety car who was previously a lobbyist for Monsanto. I agree that there is probably a conflict of interest for this person to be in that position, I disagree with the reactionary, health-based reasons the petition distributors gave:

    “Under Taylor, factory farm operators are getting away with serious food
    safety violations, while raw milk dairy farmers and distributors across
    the country have been subjected to armed raids and hauled away in
    handcuffs.

    Rather than allowing consumer to know what we are eating, FDA has approved
    new GMO crops and prevented labeling of GMO foods.

    This is no way to keep our food safe.”

    We need more activism in this area that doesn’t confuse these two separate issues.

  5. Bravo. Brilliant application of skepticism and logic. Very informative to me and incredibly well written and researched.

    This is similar to the argument used by some the alternative medicine crowd. They say they hate the medicines, but they use arguments that describe the business model as a problem, not the medicine themselves. I’m personally for well researched well regulated medicine, I’m against tactics by companies that try to get doctors to prescribe medicines to people that don’t need them just to drive up sales and against practices that attack generic alternatives that allow companies to drive up rates on drugs that save lives.

    If you don’t already have one there needs to be another article on drug companies just like this one on this site.

    • I’m planning on writing something about drug companies, actually. I am not a fan of some of the shenanigans they pull, but anytime I say something critical about them in skeptical circles, the conversation degenerates into “so you want to use homeopathy instead LOL?!” which is never what I meant.

      • This exact situation drives me nuts. There are legitimate critiques of both medicine and agriculture that have nothing to do with believing in woo. It’s like there is no middle ground. Either you believe that everything to ever be produced by a pharmaceutical company or Monsanto is perfect or you think we need to revert to an agrarian society with no access to modern medicine. In reality, corporations are out to make money. They will do plenty of questionable things to accomplish that goal, and that leads to problems for consumers. Being a good skeptic means more than blindly trusting anything that sniffs of modern technology.

  6. Nice one. I ran into an article about GMO foods the other day that seems to casually use fair criticism of corporate policy to make unfounded criticism of food safety. I don’t know enough about the issue to make a strong stance either way, but I know a bad argument when I see one.

  7. “Most of the fuss that we tend to hear about Monsanto relates to their foods derived from GMO, or genetically modified organisms. In other words, people tend to be most upset by the idea of food whose genetic code has been altered in a lab as opposed to selective breeding, an older genetic modification technique.”

    True, but not everyone is opposed to GMO for the same reason. I for instance hate the idea of foods genetically modified to resist Roundup. Not for any wooey reason, but the next step after moving to such crops is inevitably to dump a metric fuckton of Roundup into the environment. There is a healthy debate to be hate whether this is better than the alternative herbicides, whether herbicides are necessary at all, how long before the Roundup gene becomes ubiquitous, and so forth. I just want this debate to be had before we design and deploy these crops on an industrial scale.

  8. There are many good, sound reasons to hate that company. Beyond the saving seeds issue, I know they also took farmers to court for “stealing their IP” because when the farmers’ fields were tested they contained certain Monsanto owned GMO identifiers even though the farmer didn’t buy their seed from Monsanto. It came out that the GMO seed spread through to the non-GMO crops in the same way plants have been spreading DNA for years, pollination.

    I’m not sure if they won the law suit but I know that the same line of thought goes into saving seeds. These non-GMO farmers ended up with Monsanto IP because they harvested and saved seeds from one years crop to another, not aware that there had been a cross pollination with GMO based plants. It sucks.

    My other problem is their political push to use their crops and technologies to limit the change of political and agricultural changes in developing countries. Instead of encouraging examination of what causes drought and famine in areas they instead push to further potentially harmful practices using new food tech because it makes them money. Or they refuse to pass on useful food tech to these areas because they can’t afford to support the exorbitant prices the company charges for its products, despite the fact that it would save many lives to have that food there.

  9. Ouch, I needed that. At a social gathering last weekend, one individual was going on and on about the evil Monsanto. I don’t really know much about the company, but she lost me with her complete dismissal of genetically modified foods. After that, the rest of her complaints (the farmers, the Roundup) fell on deaf ears. Your post is incredibly timely in that it educated me about the issues and also helped me see my own lapse in critical thinking. Doh!

  10. The lawsuit against folks who advertise rGBH-free milk also reminds me of how, during the mad cow scare, American beef producers who were meeting the strict Japanese standards for testing (pretty much every animal got tested before slaughter) were not allowed by the FDA to advertise that fact in their labeling in the U.S. market, because that was somehow ‘misleading’ customers by implying that cattle farmers who only tested the FDA-mandated minimum were somehow more risky.

    Sure, one can make the claim that the FDA standard was sufficient, but if a company wants to spend more for higher standards, then they should be able to advertise that fact and let consumers decide.

    • I hate the fact that a lot of FDA rules are, essentially, “Please don’t make us look bad or we’ll fine you.” >.<

  11. Kind of an interesting aside–the litigious nature of Montsanto is not specific to Montsanto. Plants and seeds you buy from bigbox garden centers are generally patented or trademarked. If you read the labels of many plants, you will see a warning that dividing the plant or saving the seeds to grow them again is strictly prohibited. I imagine agents from Burpee don’t come around to your backyard to double-check. I just wonder what they think they can do about plants that not only spread their own seeds, but divide themselves.

  12. Monsanto’s business practices aside, there IS one reason that GM food concerns me:

    http://www.nature.com/cr/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/cr2011158a.html

    This study was published this past September, and indicates that not only do microRNAs survive the digestive process and make it into the bloodstream, they also interact with our own cellular function.

    It’s possible my unease comes from an incomplete understanding of the issue, and I’m open to being educated, but it seems like changing the kinds of RNA that are produced in our food could have unforeseen consequences down the line.

    I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on this.

  13. Thank you for this. I have a friend who’s recently been posting a bunch of Monsanto stuff; I may send her here.

  14. The RoundUp link was based on 1995 data according to the footnotes. Are the conclusions of that site still true for what is sold today?

    Pardon my letharginess for not searching myself.

  15. I’ve been thinking about this for awhile – glad you wrote it

  16. Glyphosate begins mineralizing on contact with the soil (no measurable time lag), which is advertised with phrases like “breaks down on contact with the soil”. What isn’t included is that the reactions do not go to completion. There will be small but measurable quantities of glyphosate in the soil solution even after two years.

    After normal (label recommended rates) use, leaching down to the water table is low, with amounts measured in fractions of a gram/ha. It tends to stay in the topsoil.

    There is no significant change in soil microbial activity with label recommended rates, even after a decade of use. Significant changes to microbial activity do start to appear at around double the recommended rates, and are pronounced by 3X.

    I doubt that application rates double and triple the label recommendations are all that uncommon. A lot of people think it breaks down completely as soon as it kills the weed.

  17. Thanks so much for this post. There are several high-profile skeptics who solely address the issue of food safety, and shrug off other concerns as “not being their area of expertise.” But the issues of control of the world’s seed supply, genetic contamination, monoculture, encouragement of topsoil-devastating practices, and litigious exploitation all weigh heavily against Monsanto. Those are issues that could potentially cripple the world’s food supply.

  18. I remember years ago working for a company that did phone surveys and we talked to rural farmers. I heard a lot directly from the farmers about how difficult and expensive it was for them not to be able to save seeds. Often they ended up just barely breaking even, and were having a hard time keeping their farms afloat.

  19. OK, this has been bothering me all day.

    I laud Heina for possessing that precious and rare commodity _Skepticism_, but nobody is perfect. The link provided (http://www.ecologycenter.org/factsheets/roundup.html ) and other parts of the post present some unsupported claims that I have seen repeatedly demolished, and that I know professionally to be false. Many of them are “Gish Gallop” in style, and some are simple “manufacturoversy.” I don’t have time or expertise to address all of them, but I will make my own unsupported claims against a few:
    Glyphosate is, indeed, biodegradable. That is not to say that the atoms of which it is composed (C, H, N, P) transmute-away, but that the constituents are pretty rapidly incorporated into unexceptional chemical pathways. That it can be detected for some considerable time by sensitive tests is not synonymous with it remaining in high/significant concentrations nor that it continues to have any significant ecological effect. That is similar to the claim I once heard that HIV was such a “special” virus that it could be detected after autoclaving. Well a cat subjected to a full autoclave cycle would still be “detectable” but surely wouldn’t chase mice any more. Or it is like the hysteria that new super-sensitive chemical-detection technology evoked: DRUGS in our WATER at levels as high as 1000 TIMES the detection limit (of 1:1,000,000,000).
    “Glyphosate is suspected of causing genetic damage” and the other claims…. BY WHOM? There have been numerous studies that find that glyphosate and its common salts/esters are pretty damn safe to non-target organisms. Is it someone unaware of the research who is making this claim? Likewise with the claims of “drenching the land with glyphosate.” Why would anyone waste money so? It is documented that being able to use glyphosate (or being able to rely on Bt GMOs) results in both a reduction of the quantities of agricultural chemicals used, a reduction in the toxicity of the chemicals used, and additionally, a reduction of environmental damage (no-till being the big reason), and increases in economic viability of farming. None of these seems BAD to me….

    “The surfactant ingredient in Roundup is more acutely toxic than glyphosate itself and the combination of the two is yet more toxic” Look on your shampoo bottle. Does (wait, let me get my glasses) “Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Cocamidopropylbetaine, Dimethiconol, Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Amodimethicone, DMDM Hydantoin, TEA-Dodecylbenzenesulfonate, C11-17 Pareth-7, Laureth-9. Trideceth-12, PPG-9, Methylchloroisothiazolinone” SCARE you? The surfactants mixed with the active ingredient glyphosate in preparations by both Monsanto and other companies vary: there are many that will do. Many are used in other products, for example Physan™ (Mixture of alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride and alkyl dimethyl ethyl benzyl ammonium chloride), Safer™ Weed Killer (MSDS: http://c.kmart.com/assets/misc/spin_prod_194521101.pdf). “Dish soap” is often used as a surfactant (“spreader-sticker”) for Bt and other “organic” chemicals, but I’m too lazy to do anything but type from memory: “lauramidopropylamine oxide.”
    I just want people to take hysterical allegations skeptically.
    I’m no shill for Monsanto or any other company, but in a Capitalist system, corporations are SUPPOSED to try to make a profit: that is not evil. I have researched Monsanto’s litigation a and the most prominent case usually cited was a fellow who deliberately tried to circumvent M’s licensing contract by using glyphosate to select for plants that had become resistant to that herbicide via cross-pollination. Whether you are as skeevy as I about patenting life or any manifestation thereof, this guy was not “_O_rganic” nor innocent, nor a hero, nor “prevented by Monsanto from saving his seeds.” He was trying to get the legally patented Monsanto trait without paying for it. The larger allegation that “farmers can’t save their seeds anymore” is mostly based on the fact that plant breeders now (since the 1920s, I believe) have been able to offer hybrids that out-perform saved seeds, so it is economically infeasible for farmers to save seeds for many crops. No Grand Conspiracy, just the reality that specialized breeding works. Look-up “heterosis.”
    Don’t get me started on the silly “terminator seeds” manufacturoversy: What else are seedless watermelons and navel oranges than an almost indistinguishable technology? The fact that “terminator” itself has never been developed nor marketed does not seem to calm the claims that it is everywhere, nor that it would actually address many of the GMO critics’ fears of GMO traits spreading. There is a distinct lack of rationality here.
    Now, I am not an expert in these topics, just a concerned citizen with a bit of expertise that helps me understand, but The folks over at http://www.Biofortified.org _are_ experts, and though some of them admit to working for The Devil Himself (Monsanto), (or, worse, academia), the citations of scientific literature, and the explanations, are worth looking-at.

    • I highly recommend the Biofortified website too.

      There are a lot of “facts” in the VF article that are deliberate lies. The famous roundup ready legal case that Monsanto won in Canada was not a case of wind-blown pollen. The plants were homozygous for roundup resistance. The most you can get from pollen is 50% in the F1 generation and even if you spray with roundup to select only resistant phenotype, the F2 generation will be 25% homozygous, 50% heterozygous and 25% null. The plants in his field tested out 95%+ homozygous for roundup ready resistance. You can’t get that from windblown pollen and selection. The defendant lied about what he had done, the judge recognized that and found for Monsanto.

      The issue about saving seeds is nonsense. Most farmers do not save seeds and cannot save seeds because they are planting hybrid seed. Hybrid seed has tremendous yield advantages. There is a nice chart in this table that illustrates that.

      http://www.genetics.org/content/148/3/923.full

      The yield advantages in using hybrid seed are so large that it makes zero economic sense to not use hybrid seed. Essentially all the GM varieties are also hybrids so saving seed is simply not an option for farmers who want to get the best yields.

  20. Aargh! HTML fail! The gist is clear, but emphases borked: I’m really not that much an angry curmudgeon!

    Seriously though, the archives at Biofortified are full of discussions and links that people interested in any of these topics might find illuminating: GMOs, Plant Genetics, Glyphosate (and other Ag Chems), Agricultural Economics and Nutrition.

    I also recommend http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/ especially this relevant recent post: http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2012/02/on_anti-science_again.php#more

    Then there’s a whole blogroll with the likes of http://www.badscience.net/, but you can find them….

  21. These two web pages are worth reading (though neither source is normally one I like, the science / evidence presented is fairly solid):
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/24/roundup-scientists-birth-defects_n_883578.html
    and
    http://gmwatch.org/latest-listing/1-news-items/13266-monsanto-responds-to-glyphosatebirth-defects-report–earth-open-source-replies

    For me, Monsanto’s biggest fault is their penchant for suppressing, dismissing or attacking scientific evidence that undermines their message, and their attempts to undermine international negotiations to protect the rights of access to – and sharing of the benefits of – genetic resources.

    • MP,
      Interesting, sadly: I HATE reading science stuff that’s been “Huffified” because the language is so scrubbed of factual content (why?) that all it does is force me to go find the primary literature, and I am usually disappointed, just as I am disappointed every time i try to find-out what “Bat Boy” is REALLY up to..

      While I reserve judgement on the meta-study being discussed until (and unless) I have a chance to read it, it does not come-across in these links as credible, but, rather, cherry-picking. Statistically, we can expect many studies, especially ones where a lot of parameters are being measured (aortic diameter?), to have a sort of “false positive” effect, even if well-executed. This explains it pretty well:
      http://xkcd.com/882/

      I also recommend this: http://www.biofortified.org/2012/02/cells-in-a-petri-dish-are-not-people-and-experiments-with-cells-can-easily-give-the-wrong-answers/

  22. Hi OGM, you’re right about Huffification (sorry, but you started!), but in this case I’ve reviewed a number of the related papers on the Roundup-birth defect links pretty thoroughly and they unfortunately hold water. Tests in vivo show positive, statistically significant links to birth defects, endocrine disruption and immulogical supression at low sub-lethal concentrations in lab animals, wildlife and people.

    Even so, on your link to the in vitro vs in vivo connections, Monsanto did not make much of that same point – they instead denied or sidelined the existing science that raised concerns of disease risks.

Add Comment Register



Leave a Reply