It’s Not That Simple: GM crops

On June 11th, AAV posted a video about Monsanto and GM crops done by the people over at the Undercurrent.

It’s a bullshit video made up of bullshit assertions blended together into a general bullshit smoothie. His most ardent supporters smiled nervously and stood by him sharing the video, but mean-spirited pricks like me called him out on it, whereupon he proceeded to defend this bullshit smoothie on his facebook page in both comments and a post about criticising Monsanto not equaling criticising GMOs.

While I can get behind that position, the reason I’m still calling him out is because that’s not what he was doing.

Let me say this again to make it crystal clear: THAT WASN’T WHAT WAS HAPPENING.

And here’s why.

The Video
The video is titled “Why are we being fed by a poison expert?” and this section is going to be picking apart this whole video and it’s information on the agricultural behemoth of Monsanto.

Right off the bat we stumble into the first one: Monsanto made Agent Orange.

No.

This requires a little context because there isn’t one Monsanto – but two: For ease, we’ll call them Monsanto Chemical, and Monsanto Seed.

Monsanto Chemical, a company that manufactured things like food additives, industrial chemicals, plastics and so on was bought in 2002 by Pfizer. In 1996, Monsanto Chemical bought an agricultural company.

When Pfizer bought Monsanto Chemical, lack of interest in agribusiness led them to spin off the agricultural company as Monsanto Seed.

Monsanto Seed is distinct from Monsanto Chemical. It has a different board, management and bylaws. The reason it’s called Monsanto is that changing the name would cost in the region of $40 million and, in a decision they’d live to regret, decided changing the name wasn’t worth all that time and dolla dolla bill. 

In regards to the production of Agent Orange – it wasn’t invented by Monsanto. It was invented by the DoD.
Read:  The Invention of Ecocide: Agent Orange, Vietnam, and the Scientists Who Changed the Way We Think About the Vietnam War (2011) by David Zeirler

The primary manufacturer wasn’t Monsanto, either. It was Dow Chemical.

Dow Chemical wasn’t able to produce it at the speed the government wanted it during the Vietnam war, so the US turned to other  suppliers. Among this was Monsanto Chemical, but it also included Hercules,  Uniroyal (yeah the tyre people), and Thompson Chemical Company – who produce literal crap tons of things. Why Monsanto is singled out is, frankly, beyond me.

Another one of these is glyphosate. Monsanto Chemical developed the herbicide glyphosate in 1970.  The patent on glyphosate expired in 2000, two years before Pfizer bought Monsanto Chemical.

Pfizer wasn’t interested in making herbicides, so glyphosate production transferred to Monsanto Seed. It should be worth pointing out that since the patent expired, Monsanto isn’t that large of a producer of Roundup (the weed killer) – that badge goes to China.

The assertions of glyphosates being deadly to humans are also lacking in vital context.

Glyphosates being potential carcinogens? No.

Numerous studies (here, here and here) failed to find find associations between long-term low-level exposure to glyphosate and human illness/disease.

In 2013 the European commission reviewed a 2002 finding that found equivocal evidence existed of a relationship between glyphosate exposure during pregnancy and cardiovascular malformations and said the evidence didn’t support the conclusion for increased cardiovascular defects as a result of glyphosate exposure during pregnancy.

A 2013 review found that neither glyphosate nor typical glyphosate-based formulations (GBFs) pose a genotoxicity risk in humans under normal conditions of human or environmental exposures, and a systematic review in the same year by the German Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) examined epidemiological studies, animal studies, and in vitro studies that it found valid, and found that

no classification and labelling for carcinogenicity is warranted

and did not recommend a carcinogen classification. The EFSA found the same result

In March 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic in humans” based on epidemiological studies, animal studies, and in vitro studies BUT it noted that there was “limited evidence” of carcinogenicity in humans.

The IARC also states that

“a few positive findings can be enough to declare a hazard, even if there are negative studies as well”

Other studies (here and here) find no convincing evidence for glyphosate being linked to human cancers.

While the IARC studies are being considered in a fresh review of glyphosate, the video was being misrepresentative of the WHO report. Fun fact: Coffee and Pickled Vegetables are also “possibly carcinogens” according to the WHO report (I’m reminded of this xkcd comic –  also see this tragically underviewed Healthcare Triage video for the same application to red meat and the WHO cancer report)

Monsanto’s environmental track record isn’t as questionable, either. Glyphosate has been approved by regulatory bodies worldwide and is less toxic than herbicides it replaced.

Now, the production of PCBs up until 1977 is one of the more clear blunders (although this was Monsanto Chemical, not seed – and these are two different companies).

And not accepting responsibility for dumping waste into Brofiscin Quarry doesn’t help, either (although they did pay compensation for it – and again, the dumping was done by Monsanto chemical)

But their environmental record, shaky though it is, isn’t the lovechild of Hitler and Skeletor who’s piss is pure malevolence. Veolia did the same, and no one is boycotting them clearing bins around Sheffield.

Also I wanna raise something about seed saving, patenting, and farmer suing.

You can ask Monsanto why it sues farmers. This is their answer:

“Without the protection of patents there would be little incentive for privately-owned companies to pursue and re-invest in innovation. Monsanto invests more than $2.6 million per day in research and development that ultimately benefits farmers and consumers. Without the protection of patents, this would not be possible”

How true do you think that is? Because I’ll tell you the notion that if patented wind blown GM seeds end up on your farm the Multinational can sue you is greatly exaggerated.

This story comes from a case in 1999, where agribusiness giant Monsanto sued a Canadian organic canola farmer, Percy Schmeiser, for growing the company’s pesticide-tolerant canola without paying the required fees.

The farmer argued that he hadn’t planted any of the company’s GMO canola seeds, and that they must have blown onto his property.

What actually happened is still in dispute. But ultimately, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that although 95 percent of the canola plants on Schmeiser’s farm had grown from Monsanto seeds, he didn’t owe the Monsanto any royalties because he did not benefit from them. The company ended up paying him $660, the amount Schmeiser spent to remove the plants

These stories, by and large, are rare – an NPR journalist who investigated the issue of windblown seeds in 2012, reported that he didn’t find any cases where Monsanto had sued anyone over trace amounts of seeds introduced through cross-pollination.

Also the idea of farmers saving and re-using seeds before the rise of Monsanto is largely bunk too. Farmers in the EU and US already had to rely on seeds bought every year from older seed companies. This began with the rise of commercial seed companies, not genetic engineering, even IF GM crops accelerated that trend.

While control of seed patents is nothing new, it has risen in the age of GM crops. While you can easily justify the handover from farmers to companies undermines farmer autonomy to decide what crops to grow and has reduced seed diversity, there is a lot of misinformation around the legal frameworks of what companies can and can’t do.

Further, while it’s true seed companies do require farmers to sign agreements that prohibit replanting in order to ensure annual sales, large-scale commercial growers typically don’t save seeds anyway.

Corn is a hybrid of two lines from the same species, so its seeds won’t pass on the right traits to the next generation.

Cotton and soy seeds could be saved, but most farmers don’t bother. According to Kent Bradford of the University of California:

“The quality deteriorates—they get weeds and so on—and it’s not a profitable practice,”

Indian farmers and debt? No, that’s not right either.

Some context: most of the cotton grown in India comes from GM seeds, referred to as Bt cotton having had the addition of genes from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium, which provides resistance to cotton bollworm.

The balance of evidence favours the argument that adopting Bt cotton has increased yields in all cotton-growing states except Punjab, and has reduced pesticide costs so that the crop has become more profitable for farmers in developing nations.

Socio-economic surveys have also found that Bt-Cotton continues to deliver significant and multiple agronomic, economic, environmental and welfare benefits to Indian farmers and society including halved insecticide requirements and a doubling of yields, with India becoming the number one global exporter of cotton and the second largest cotton producer in the world

For sake of honesty, it should be noted that some will point out some of the savings come from the removal of subsidy distortions due to the US, and that the major growth has come from WTO trade action against US cotton subsidies. This has played a part, but the US subsidies still massively distort world cotton markets. It should be said that the WTO is more of a talk box than anything else, and nations are basically on their honour with subsidies, so it can’t fully account for India’s cotton success.

The patenting of genes did prompt the Indian Council of Agricultural Research to develop a cheaper Bt-Cotton variety with seeds that could be reused. The cotton incorporated the cry1Ac gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), making the cotton toxic to bollworms. This variety showed poor yields and was removed within a year.

The reason the ICAR was prompted to develop cheaper Bt-Cotton is simple: Monsanto seeds are expensive and lose vigour after a year.

But to say it leads to debt isn’t backed by the data.

Indian farmers and suicides? That’s not right, either.

That’s not to say people don’t blame GM crops on farmer suicides. India’s Vandana Shiva blames farmer suicides on the growing use of Bt Cotton.

India has also banned the use of GM food crops, notably aubergine, partly from the belief that the rate of suicide among farmers has increased in cotton-growing states since Bt cotton was introduced in 2002, partly spurred by hostility towards GMO, and ending with the Indian Supreme Court recommending a 10 year moratorium.

The only downside to this is that there is no data to support this action.

The evidence indicates that GM farming does not lead to higher suicide rates. In six out of the nine cotton-growing states, the suicide rate for males who did not work on farms was higher than for farmers. Also in 2001 (before Bt cotton was introduced) the suicide rate was 31.7 per 100,000 and in 2011 the corresponding estimate was 29.3 – only a minor difference.

So if none of the video assertions are actually supported by the evidence, then why did it end up on a page which claims to always back up their viewpoints with evidence and informed analysis?

To AAV’s credit, the caption accompyaning the video was “What do you guys make of this?”, but the video does have a strong undercurrent (no pun intended) of anti-GMO rhetoric, and if I was being diplomatic, I’d say to feel compelled enough to share in on your page suggests to me that AAV has sympathies with the anti-GM viewpoint.

To clarify, that IS an assertion. And I’m NOT saying that AAV is pro or anti-GM crops. I’m merely saying it looks like he has sympathies to the anti-GM side, and stop me if any of the reasons why I’m making that assertion sound baseless:

The Response
After the backlash, AAV posted the following responses, the full context of which you can see here, here and here.

The first one is a reasonable enough position:

That’s pretty much the size of it.

I’d also like to add that I’m not ideologically pro-GM either, and that I get rather pissed off when people ignorantly/deliberately misrepresent what I’ve said in order to try and paint me as some kind of raving extemist.

That’s a fair position to take. I’d hate someone to represent my viewpoints as I gently tap on the fourth wall. I mean, granted, GM support is not “ideological” (which AAV has a tendency to throw around) – it’s a scientifically backed position.

But taking a centrist stance on GMs is perfectly reasonable – it’s what the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, a science-based consumer-watchdog group in Washington, D.C., does.

And I accept the position of disliking Monsanto (although as argued above, the evidence on Monsanto hating seems a bit thin in places) not translating into pro/anti GM.

But then it was followed by this:

I posted a video the other day about the practices of giant multinational corporation Monsanto which prompted a whole stream of diatrabes from pro-GMO advocates, accusing me of being anti science among other things.

The problem for them is that I didn’t actually criticise the concept of GMOs in general, I just criticised Monsanto.

To simplify my problems with the pro-GMO attacks:

Criticising Monsanto =/= Complete opposition to genetic modification.

When these pro-GMO advocates howl at me for my supposed ideological opposition to genetic modification (that they have projected onto me because I posted something critical of Monsanto) is irrational and equivalent to climate change denial: what they’re doing is blatantly the same kind of irrational, over emotive, fact free tribalistic shrieking that they’re falsely accusing me of.

I mean, as I’ve discussed above, the video is based on factless assertions, and if you’re gonna criticise Monsanto, get some actual facts before you do so.

But, hey, the first part seems to be okay – he didn’t critique GM crops explicitly. And critiquing Monsanto =/= critiquing GM crops. This is true

But that defense breaks down somewhat in the face of this comment:

“The science is almost unquestionably safe” doesn’t sound like a very scientific assertion to me. It sounds more like a completely unsourced and absolutist assertion about a vast number of different products.

I prefer to think that some GM products are safe and others are not, and that lots of independent research should be done before GM crops are released. I also believe that GM products should be labelled, because if pro-GM advocates is so sure that they’re completely harmless, what’s the harm in allowing people to make informed decisions?

Still, it must give people a lot of moral certainty to pick one side of the debate and believe it with all their hearts.

Okay, if we put aside: him only attacking people who fell firmly pro-GM, and not the more wacky anti-GM comments being banded about (seriously, give the comment section a read sometime assuming it’s still there), the comments I’ve already stated above,  and the fact the video is also completely unsourced – this is the statement that makes my anti-GM sympathy siren start whirring.

“The science is almost unquestionably safe” doesn’t sound like a very scientific assertion to me. It sounds more like a completely unsourced and absolutist assertion about a vast number of different products.

If he’s complaining about fact free information, allow me to share some:

A systematic review of the literature over the 10 years between 2002-2012 published in the Journal Critical Reviews in Biotechnology couldn’t find evidence demonstrating that GM foods pose any harm to humans or animals.

2004 report from the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council (in the US) concluded GM crops pose no greater health risk than conventional crops following a review of the academic data.

The EU conducted its own research into GMOs (2010) with the following:

“The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se, more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies. Another very important conclusion is that today’s biotechnological research and applications are much more diverse than they were 25 years ago, which is also reflected by the current 7th EU Framework Programme.”

(You can find the quote on page 16 if you’re interested)

The World Health Organisation also says the same thing.

As does the Royal Society.

Regulations placed on GMs are also strict and scientifically based – Roundup Soy, for example, has 50 science based regulatory laws applied to it’s growth and selling. (You can find trade regulations here).

Actually, most of the research into GMOs can be accessed publicly through GENERA (Genetic Engineering Risk Atlas) – it has a database of over 1783 studies into GMOs. It’s free to access and read through and you can find what the science says about GMO. A systematic study conducted by GENERA  as of 2013 sums it up best:

“The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected to the use of GE crops”.

All of the data provided is from independent research, and over 1/3 of GENERA papers are independent, and they make the bulk of the systematic review conducted by GENERA into GM crops on human health.

Let me say that again. THIS RESEARCH IS NOT CONDUCTED BY BIG AGRICULTURE. IT IS INDEPENDENT RESEARCH!

Also (because someone always brings up this study), a 2012 French study found that rats fed a lifetime diet of genetically modified corn that made it resistant to the herbicide Roundup— or else given water containing Roundup — suffered tumors and organ damage. The researchers reported that 50 percent of male rats and 70 percent of females died prematurely, compared with only 30 percent of males and 20 percent of females in a control group (you can find that here)

Six French scientific academies quickly issued a rebuttal in which they found fault with the design of the experiment, the statistical analysis and the amount of data.

The European Food Safety Authority declared that the study was “of insufficient scientific quality to be considered as valid for risk assessment.”

Additionally, the strain of rat that the researchers picked tends to get breast tumors easily, and can get them from overeating or eating corn contaminated by a common fungus that causes a hormone imbalance. The study didn’t screen for those factors, so it’s unclear whether the rats’ tumors were caused by the GMO corn.

Let me say this again – the paper was retracted by the Journal.

Also, because someone always brings up the study of GMs on pigs, let me point you in the general direction of science based medicine. 

So yeah, fact free assertions about GM safety, aren’t.

I prefer to think that some GM products are safe and others are not, and that lots of independent research should be done before GM crops are released.

This sounds like a reasonable position.

It isn’t.

The bulk of the science on GM safety points in one direction, and claiming that more independent research need to be done is just changing the goal posts.

It’s not scientific, tests are designed to frame the debate in such a way that it results in testable hypotheses, which the “no smoke just means the fire is well hidden” argument doesn’t

As medical researchers know, nothing can really be “proved safe.” One can only fail to turn up significant risk after trying hard to find it—as is the case with GM crops.

This video explores the wider debate around GMOs, and why this position is defeatist.

Granted, the system isn’t perfect. There is evidence to suggest studies which question the safety of GM crops are more likely to be attacked.

In 2009, Nature detailed the backlash to a reasonably solid study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA by researchers from Loyola University Chicago and the University of Notre Dame. The paper showed that GM corn seemed to be finding its way from farms into nearby streams and that it might pose a risk to some insects there because, according to the researchers’ lab studies, caddis flies appeared to suffer on diets of pollen from GM corn. Many scientists immediately attacked the study, some of them suggesting the researchers were sloppy to the point of misconduct.

We know about publishing biases and rejecting science which doesn’t align with a persons view, and of undue GM company influence into scientific research – those are real issues in the scientific community.

But the large bulk of research into GMs is independent, and has already been conducted (see above). There is no conflict of interest in many of the systematic reviews (see above).

You can disparage U.S. research on the safety of genetically modified foods, which is often funded or conducted by GM companies, all you like.

But much research on the subject comes from the European Commission, which can’t just be be dismissed as an industry tool. The European Commission has funded 130 research projects, carried out by more than 500 independent teams, on the safety of GM crops. None of those studies found any special risks from GM crops.

Many independent reviews have also found the same thing, which is why the video can get itself to fuck when it says that supporting research is in the pocket of the industry (see above). Two literature reviews, one of 155 peer reviewed papers (here and here) found GM crops were safe for consumption and for growth in the environment.

It also implicitly states that large amounts of the agricultural science community is partaking in scientific misconduct. GM cases which are proven false (most notably the Golden Rice scandal) are brought to the forefront and dealt with.

That’s not GMs being unsafe. That’s bad science and bad regulation. Funnily enough, stronger regulations should be applied across all of agriculture – not just GMs.

The data is out there. There is no scientific misconduct. The consensus thus far is pretty clear: current GM crops are safe to eat, and can be grown safely in the environment.

I also believe that GM products should be labelled, because if pro-GM advocates is so sure that they’re completely harmless, what’s the harm in allowing people to make informed decisions?

For now, let’s ignore the implication that GMs aren’t safe in the phrase “…if pro-GM advocates is so sure that they’re completely harmless…” (which, as I’ve already detailed, they are – and, as a sidenote, this is why people accuse AAV of being an anti-GMmer)

Mandatory labels on GM foods is bad policy. Beyond the idea that you might as well put labels on the food saying “Stand back, there’s science in this shit!”, it actually limits people’s choices, cements the idea that GMs are dangerous, and in some cases harms poorer communities.

In 1997, a time of growing opposition to GMOs in Europe, the E.U. began to require them. By 1999, to avoid labels that might drive customers away, most major European retailers had removed genetically modified ingredients from products bearing their brand. Major food producers such as Nestlé followed suit.

Not only did this restrict consumer choice, because conventional crops often require more water and pesticides than GM crops, the former are usually more expensive.

Prop 37, an idea floated around California state where GM labeling for foods had to be mandatory which was only narrowly defeated, was predicted by Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants and the non-partisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office fiscal impact study to raise an average California family’s yearly food bill by as much as $400, and for little gain.

Mandatory label laws in Europe and Asia have hardly increased consumers’ knowledge. Instead, they have provided absolutists who are firmly anti-GM with much more leverage in pressuring retailers to stop carrying any GMO products, thus reducing consumer choice and, in some cases, hurting the poor by raising prices. And there is no evidence of an implied health impact on humans because of consuming GM crops (no matter what the above implies).

But you know what? Even if it is bad policy, I wouldn’t stop the labeling of GM foods.

This is partly born out of a belief, shared among many, that consumers do have a right to know. But it’s mostly because of this:

if pro-GM advocates is so sure that they’re completely harmless, what’s the harm in allowing people to make informed decisions?

Okay, even if it doesn’t result in people making informed decisions, and ignoring the implied “because the pro-GM crowd are against labeling, it means that they don’t think it is completely harmless”, Dan Fagin made the case in Scientific American for labeling because secrecy is a key driver of risk perception heuristics: When information is withheld from people, people immediately assume the worst. That’s especially true if the topic is complex and poorly understood.

Label laws would partially disarm the conspiracy theorists and nudge the mainstream debate in the right direction: toward a clear discussion of the costs and benefits of GM crops.

Politics and Science
Monsanto writing laws about preventing governments restricting the sale of GM crops = bad. I don’t think that’s a controversial statement. That’s a class case of undemocratic influence in legislation.

Implicitly implying that GM crops are unsafe = a baseless assertion. Saying that Monsanto know that there will be adverse health effects to their GM crops = a baseless assertion.

Which is why I think this part of the comment annoys me the most:

Still, it must give people a lot of moral certainty to pick one side of the debate and believe it with all their hearts.

I did pieces for the blog pH7 about politics and science – specifically that of the General Election. When I talked about the green party I was critical of their GM stance, which also has that moral high ground feel to it.

This isn’t a question of morality. This is a question of what works and what doesn’t. GM crops are safe and they can be planted in the environment safely. GMs have the potential to immensely benefit agricultural communities. The Green Party can easily block GM crops from a position of privilege, safety and general abundance from under-developed, suffering and poor nations, and have been justifiably criticised for that position. It has real world ramifications. 

About 2 minutes into the video we get to statements about Market forces and political controls, and as evidenced by the stuff AAV writes about, there’s a strong scepticism of the market place and “big business controls politics”. This is the crooks of it.

Now, the position of big corporate scepticism can be reconciled with GM science and safety – if it weren’t for the other stupid comments, I wouldn’t have even bothered to write this piece because that’s a reasonable position you can argue. Hell there’s a movement of using agroecology with GM technology. You don’t have to be anti-GM to be anti-Monsanto.

But Another Angry Voice swallowed the video whole without even bothering to fact check the video, which is annoying for someone who has repeatedly claimed, much to my annoyance frankly, to “have an informed analysis”.

Again, that’s an assertion – and stop me if it sounds unfair – but the video shared on the AAV page conflated all the evils of Monsanto (which have been pretty exaggerated) with the evils of GM technology that points away from the bulk of evidence the scientific community has produced.

AAV can try to hide behind “I didn’t actually criticise the concept of GM crops in general” all he wants, but by posting something that contained anti-GM crop rants and conflated GM crops with evil, it contributes to the rising tide of ignorance and misinformation surrounding GMs. It doesn’t then help that he proceeded to post comments that distinctly weren’t neutral in their outlook on GM crops, despite his claims to the counter.

If you’re gonna criticise Monsanto, do it with actual evidence.

That isn’t what AAV did. It’s evidenced in the posted comments. It’s evidenced in the video. You wouldn’t share it if you didn’t agree with it on some level, and AAV clearly has sympathies with this position. It’s baseless. And I’m calling him out on it.

For someone who says to always base their arguments on sources, evidence and logic, I’m calling him out on it.

For someone who says people are just misrepresenting his opinion on it, I’m calling him out on it. I mean in all honesty, what did he expect?

It’s not a bad thing to not fully know the ins and outs of the controversy surrounding GM crops. But a sizeable chunk of the debates involve anti-GM folk ranting and raving about the business practices of Monsanto then declaring that because Monsantos business practices are evil, then all GMOs are evil, and anyone that disagrees is clearly a shill.

When you share a video that does exactly that, you’re damn right people will jump down your throat.

For someone who wants us to question and challenge him on everything? It’s time we call him out on that.

You know, AAV’s work isn’t bad – I enjoy reading some of his articles, and he makes some good astute points at times. Granted, I don’t agree with everything. Granted, I think the analysis lacks depth. Granted, I think I want my evidence to be more even handed when even handedness can be applied, and AAV leans further left than a man with no left leg regardless of the whether or not nuance can be applied to a situation

And that’s fine. Political diversity is what makes debates about how we can best help our fellow man so worthwhile.

But  AAV made a mistake. He was wrong to share the video. And I’m calling him out on it.

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