This post is not to claim that Monsanto is a force of good. I recognize the worry, the fear, the consternation of the many who profess antipathy for the actions of this corporation. I am not a supporter of Monsanto’s business practices nor am I on one side or the other on GMO. I remain agnostic. It does concern me however that so many are online today willing to help perpetuate ignorance and irrationality. A healthy debate and discussion in my opinion takes into account multiple perspectives and is not merely an opportunity to spread dogma. Monsanto, as with most human endeavour, possesses both positive as well as negative attributes. In the paranoid hysteria of the Internet today, it is portrayed as though Monsanto and GMO food technology is merely in existence to inflict pain and wreak havoc. For these reasons, I sought to extract some unbiased, neutral, perhaps surprising facts about this emotional issue.
All Things Considered
First Broadcast: January 20, 2013
“For years, British environmental activist Mark Lynas destroyed genetically modified food (GMO) crops in what he calls a successful campaign to force the business of agriculture to be more holistic and ecological in its practices.
His targets were companies like Monsanto and Syngenta — leaders in developing genetically modified crops.
Earlier this month he went in front of the world to reverse his position on GMOs.
At the Oxford Farming Conference in Britain, Lynas apologized for helping “to start the anti-GMO movement” and told his former allies to “get out of the way, and let the rest of us get on with feeding the world sustainably.”
He spoke to Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered, about his change of heart.”
Written By HUDSON LOFCHIE
Published On January 16, 2013
I want to talk about something today, and I hope that it does not result in my office getting burned down. But I work in a basement, so I guess its not that much of an issue. Genetically modified crops — devil incarnate or world savior? Solution to the hunger problem, or a capitalist venture? Each of these holds a little bit of truth, and I want to explore a side of the debate that isn’t normally discussed in the press — GM crops as the good guys.
When talking about genetically modified crops, Monsanto is, for the most part, the centerpiece of conversation. Debates, if they can even be called that, are riddled with hearsay, rumors, myths, “I read this” or “I heard that.” It seems to me that most people simply have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. And those who do have some knowledge on the subject are focusing on all the wrong things.
As bad press and political heat goes, Monsanto is on the sharp end of it more often than not. The “liberal” media paints Monsanto as a mean, heartless company, set on destroying any and all competition.
So Monsanto has some rather shrewd business practices … all successful companies do. They have some of the most consistently stable stock prices on Wall Street, and have earned massive investments from both Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. So what is it about Monsanto that the public finds so appalling? Most of the arguments I have heard against this company are that Monsanto destroys the small farmer. While many small farmers are bankrupt by lawsuits with Monsanto, it is merely the result of Monsanto defending its intellectual property … to the death.
Monsanto makes a large percentage of its money from licensing patented genes to other companies. They have contracts with Dow Chemical, Syngenta, Novartis and many others. Monsanto is truly ruthless in its negotiations when licensing out its patents, and it should be.
No one is forcing these companies to license with Monsanto, no one is forcing farmers to buy Monsanto seeds. But good products cost more, and consumers (farmers and other corporations in this case) are willing to pay the premium that Monsanto charges for good products. Good products cost more. That’s business. That’s how the world works.
There is some humor I find in this situation, and that is the complete hypocrisy of the hoards of internet users who rush to vilify Monsanto. How many of the people writing about this company are typing on a computer made by Apple and manufactured by Foxconn? A computer made in factories with such terrible working conditions that Foxconn had to install bars on the windows to prevent suicides due to low pay and illegal overtime. Employees even need to sign away the right for their family or any of their descendants to sue the company in the case of death. I myself am guilty of owning multiple Apple products. I am willing to pay that premium because Apple products are beautiful and functional.
How many of these writers are wearing Nike shoes, manufactured by children paid pennies per day? I find it completely asinine that these individuals who claim to hold themselves to such a high moral standard are so selective in their moral battles. They buy a $2,000 computer and then blog about the unfairness of big corporations.
Now don’t get me wrong — I do understand that there is a fundamental difference between bad labor practices for something you wear or use, like a computer, and a genetically modified food product that you assimilate into your body. There is an intimacy related to food that does not exist with shoes or computers; the food that you eat is broken down on a molecular level and literally becomes part of you.
After doing my homework for this column, I came to the realization that there are in fact many reasons to hate, or at least avoid, Monsanto.
First, the excessive enforcement of patents. Monsanto has customers sign end-user license agreements (EULAs) that prevent the replication and even the study of their seeds. These EULAs forbid independent research and can block unflattering findings from being published.
Another frowned upon practice is the implementation of the Terminator and the Zombie. The infamous Monsanto patent #5,723,765, a.k.a., the Terminator gene, is for a gene that makes all seeds of Monsanto crops completely sterile. The Zombie gene is similar to the Terminator gene except that sterility can be reversed by spraying a chemical, made by Monsanto, that triggers fertility.
One of the last points I want to make is that the general public has an uncanny knack for remembering every mistake in history and forgetting the good parts. Monsanto is often condemned as as the manufacturer of Agent Orange and the other “Rainbow Herbicides” during the Vietnam War. What surprises me yet again about the public is that they cry murder for a chemical that was meant to kill crops, and had the unfortunate side effect of stillbirths and infant deformations, but that same public seems to develop complete amnesia regarding companies who design products with the sole purpose of taking life. There are easily close to a hundred weapons manufacturers just in the United States.
And finally, I want to talk about consumer stupidity. Hate me, don’t hate me; I really don’t care, but it is my honest opinion that the average consumer is not educated enough to know what a GMO is, or educated enough to make decisions about GMO legislation. I read dozens of bloggers’ posts about GMOs and many of them are under the idiotic impression that GMO is a chemical that is added to plants.
Monsanto may have questionable-at-best legal practices, but they have achieved the ultimate corporate success — government support the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the times of John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil. Our government turns a relatively blind eye toward Monsanto’s activities because Monsanto has branded itself as “agents of a future prosperity that will trickle down to all.”
Let’s for one moment imagine a world without Monsanto. Without the Golden Rice engineered by Monsanto, millions of malnourished individuals would die every year of Vitamin A deficiency, and nearly half a million more from blindness caused by Vitamin A deficiency.
I am by no means suggesting that Monsanto is a good company. Their level of social standards leave much to be desired. What I am saying is that if you want to launch a campaign of hate and protest against a multinational, multi-billion dollar company, at least educate yourself enough to know what you are talking about.
And ask yourself this: Is it worth sacrificing the hundreds of thousands of lives saved every year by Monsanto’s products just to destroy the company that bankrupt the small farmer down the street?
HUDSON LOFCHIE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We Do Get Fooled Again: Progressives and the ‘Monsanto Protection Act’
March 29, 2013 | Written by: David Harada-Stone
As a lifelong progressive, it pains me to admit it, but progressives can be such chumps sometimes.
If you’ve visited progressive web sites or Facebook pages in the last few days, you’ve probably seen the headlines declaring that President Obama had signed the “Monsanto Protection Act.” The headlines are usually accompanied by words like “disappointing,” “betrayal” and “sellout.”
Progressives are outraged. Conservatives are amused. Conspiracy sites such as Alex Jones’ Infowarsand the dailypaul.com are gleeful. (I must admit I’m a little confused about the Paul Bots. I thought they opposed all federal regulations. Shouldn’t they be praising the “Monsanto Protection Act”?)
Here’s the thing, progressives. You’ve been had.
First, there’s no such thing as the “Monsanto Protection Act.” It’s a label that opponents of genetically modified crops (or GMOs, short for “genetically modified organisms”) have hung on section 735 ofHouse Resolution 933, also known as the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act or the “Continuing Resolution” for short. More about Section 735 later.
The Continuing Resolution is intended to keep the government funded through the end of the current fiscal year, or September 30, 2013. If Obama had vetoed the Continuing Resolution, the government would have shut down on Wednesday, March 27. Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution provides: “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” Without a budget or stopgap appropriations bill in place, all nonessential federal government operations would have had to stop.
Anti-GMO writers show profound ignorance of basic biology and now Jane Goodall has joined their ranks
Written by Mark Hoofnagle
March 29, 2013
It’s a sad day for the reality-based community, within the critiques of Jane Goodall’s new book ‘Seeds of Hope’ we find that in addition to plagiarism and sloppiness with facts, she’s fallen for anti-GMO crank Jeffrey Smith’s nonsense.
When asked by The Guardian whom she most despised, Goodall responded, “The agricultural company Monsanto, because I know too much about GM organisms and crops.” She might know too much, but what if what she knows is completely wrong?
Many of the claims in Seeds of Hope can also be found in Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, a book by “consumer advocate” Jeffrey Smith. Goodall generously blurbed the book (“If you care about your health and that of your children, buy this book, become aware of the potential problems, and take action”) and in Seeds of Hope cites a “study” on GMO conducted by Smith’s “think tank,” the Institute for Responsible Technology.
Like Goodall, Smith isn’t a genetic scientist. According to New Yorker writer Michael Specter, he “has no experience in genetics or agriculture, and has no scientific degree from any institution” but did study “business at the Maharishi International University, founded by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.” (In Seeds of Hope, Goodall also recommends a book on GM by Maharishi Institute executive vice president Steven M. Druker, who also has no scientific training). As Professor Bruce Chassy, an emeritus food scientist at the University of Illinois, told Specter, “His only professional experience prior to taking up his crusade against biotechnology is as a ballroom-dance teacher, yogic flying instructor, and political candidate for the Maharishi cult’s natural-law party.” Along with fellow food scientist Dr. David Tribe, Chassy runs an entire website devoted to debunking Smith’s pseudoscience.
And it apparently escaped Goodall’s notice that Smith’s most recent book—the one that she fulsomely endorsed—features a foreword by British politician Michael Meacher, who, after being kicked out of the Tony Blair’s government in 2003, has devoted a significant amount of time to furthering 9/11 conspiracy theories.
Goodall is, of course, not the first scientist of fame and repute to fall in for crankery and pseudoscience. From Linus Pauling to Luc Montagnier, even Nobel Prize winning scientists have fallen for psuedoscientific theories. However, we should always be saddened when yet another famous scientist decides to go emeritus and abandon the reality-based community.
There always seem to be a couple of different factors at play when this happens. For one, such scientists appear to have reached a such a status that it becomes very difficult for others to criticize them. It’s like a state of ultra-tenure, in which you practically have to insult the intelligence of an entire continent before people will object to your misbehavior. The second common factor seems to be that they start operating in a field in which they lack expertise, but seem to assume their expertise in other unrelated fields should allow them to waive in. This appears to be the case with Goodall, as even someone with rudimentary knowledge of molecular biology should be able to see the gaping holes in the anti-GMO movement’s logic.
For example, let’s start with the easy-pickings at Natural News. A recent article by Jon Rapaport entitled “Brand new GMO food can rewire your body: more evil coming” is a perfect example of how the arguments made against GMO foods are based on fundamentally-unsound understanding of biology. The author writes:
It’s already bad. Very bad. For the past 25 years, the biotech Dr. Frankensteins have been inserting DNA into food crops.
The widespread dangers of this technique have been exposed. People all over the world, including many scientists and farmers, are up in arms about it.
Countries have banned GMO crops or insisted on labeling.
Now, though, the game is changing, and it’ll make things even more unpredictable. The threat is ominous and drastic, to say the least.
GM Watch reports the latest GMO innovation: designed food plants that make new double-stranded (ds) RNA. What does the RNA do? It can silence a gene. It can activate a gene that was silent.
If you imagine the gene structure as a board covered with light bulbs, in the course of living some genes light up (activation) and some genes go dark (silent) at different times. This new designed RNA can change that process. No one knows how.
No one knows because no safety studies have been done. If you have genes lighting up and going dark in unpredictable ways, the functions of a plant or a body can change randomly.
Pinball, roulette, use any metaphor you want to; this is playing with the fate of the human race. Walk around with designer-RNA in your body, and who knows what effects will follow.
At this point, I think anyone familiar with the science of RNA interference (RNAi) has slapped themselves in the forehead, for anyone who wants a decent introduction the Wiki does a pretty good job. It’s clear that the author is projecting his own ignorance of RNAi onto the rest of us. Briefly, until about 20 years ago, the so-called “central dogma of molecular biology” was a one way road from DNA being transcribed into RNA which was then translated into a functional protein. Even this is a pretty gross simplification, but it’s fair to say, that prior to the discovery of RNAi, RNA was thought to be little more than a messenger in the cell, serving as an intermediary between the DNA code, and the protein function. Yes, we knew that some RNA had enzymatic function, was incorporated into some proteins, etc., but it wasn’t seen so much as a regulatory molecule.
Then, after a few intriguing findings in plants, Fire and Mello discovered that RNA itself could control the translation of other genes in c. elegans. Almost by accident, they found that if you inserted a double-stranded RNA molecule corresponding to a RNA transcript, that transcript would be degraded and the protein it encoded for wouldn’t be expressed. It was a surprising finding. One would think that what would work would be the anti-sense strand of RNA that would bind the sense strand and somehow inhibit it’s entry into the ribosomal machinery and ultimately interfere with translation. Instead, what they found was double-stranded RNA had a function all of it’s own, with a previously unknown cellular machinery specifically-purposed with processing dsRNA and inhibiting gene function through an entirely different mechansim. Subsequently we’ve also found the RNAi not only can directly regulate the levels of RNA transcripts, but can also regulate gene suppression, and activation directly on promoter sequences on DNA itself.
It’s amazing, decades after the discovery of RNA and understanding of its primary function, we discovered this new and incredibly complex layer of regulation of genetics by RNA molecules involved in everything from development to disease. But what does that mean for us? Should we be worried about gene-regulating RNA molecules in our food?
Of course not! RNAi is an intrinsic function of most eukaryotes. Just about every food you’ve ever eaten in your entire life is chock-full of RNA molecules, including double-stranded inhibitory RNAs involved in the normal biological processes occurring within the cell. If other organisms could affect us by poisoning us with RNA, we wouldn’t last a minute. Weirdly, in GMO paranoia world, however, whatever we consume has the potential to take over our bodies. The basic molecules of all life, that exist in everything we eat, take on new powers once handled by human scientists. The article hinted at as evidence of this risk (but of course not actually cited by the author) that suggests miRNA may have “cross-kingdom” effects, is a great example of crank cherry-picking, as the evidence demonstrating it may be artifact is of course not mentioned. And we shouldn’t be surprised, as it would be a pretty extraordinary hole in our defenses if other organisms could so easily modify our gene expression.
One of the great limitations of gene therapy as a potential therapy has been that it’s extremelydifficult to introduce genes, or specifically regulate them with external vectors. If it were as simple as just feeding us RNA that would be something. For better or worse (likely better), your body is extremely resistant to other organisms tinkering with its DNA or cellular machinery.
Ok, but then you say, “Hey, that’s Natural News, we know they’re morons.” Ok, how about Clair Cummings in Common Dreams panic-posting about the GMO threat to our water supply from this week? Great evidence that “progressive” is no insulation from “anti-science”:
Today is World Water Day. The United Nations has set aside one day a year to focus the world’s attention on the importance of fresh water. And rightly so, as we are way behind in our efforts to protect both the quantity and quality of the water our growing world needs today.(Image: EarthTimes.org)
And now, there is a new form of water pollution: recombinant genes that are conferring antibiotic resistance on the bacteria in the water.
Researchers in China have found recombinant drug resistant DNA, molecules that are part of the manufacturing of genetically modified organisms, in every river they tested.
Genetically engineered organisms are manufactured using antibiotic resistant genes. And these bacteria are now exchanging their genetic information with the wild bacteria in rivers. As the study points out, bacteria already present in urban water systems provides “advantageous breeding conditions for the(se) microbes.”
Antibiotic resistance is perhaps the number one threat to public health today.
Transgenic pollution is already common in agriculture. U.C. Berkeley Professor Ignacio Chapela was the first scientist to identify the presence of genetically engineered maize in local maize varieties in Mexico. He is an authority on transgenic gene flow. He says it is alarming that “DNA from transgenic organisms have escaped to become an integral component of the genome of free-living bacteria in rivers.” He adds that “the transgenic DNA studied so far in these bacteria will confer antibiotic resistance on other organisms, making many different species resistant to the antibiotics we use to protect ourselves from infections.”
Our expensive attempts to filter and fight chemicals with other chemicals are only partially effective. Our attempts to regulate recombinant DNA technology has failed to prevent gene pollution. The only way to assure a sustainable source of clean water is to understand water for what it is: a living system of biotic communities, not a commodity. It is a living thing and as such it deserves our respect, as does the human right to have abundant fresh clean water for life.
You heard it, now they’re making up a new category of pollution “gene pollution”.
Let’s go back to some of the basic science here, so again, we can display just how silly and uninformed these Chicken Littles are. When molecular biologists wish to produce large quantities of a DNA or protein, what they usually do is insert the sequence into an easy-to-grow organism like E. Coli, or yeast, or some other cell, and then have the biologic machinery of those cells produce it for us. This is one of the most simple forms of genetic modification, and we use it from everything to making plasmid DNA in the lab, to the production of recombinant human insulin for diabetics. In order to make sure your organism is making your product of interest you include a gene that encodes for resistance to an antibiotic (in bacteria most commonly to ampicillin) so that when you grow your bug you can make sure the only cells growing are the ones that are working for you by including that antibiotic in the mix. Other resistance genes we use are often for antibiotics we don’t use in humans, like hygromycin or neomycin, which is nephrotoxic if injected (but also poorly absorbed).
“That’s terrible!”, you say, “how could we teach so many bacteria to be resistant to antibiotics! Surely this will kill us all!”
Um, no. For one, the resistance genes we use aren’t novel or made de novo by humans, they already existed before a single human was ever treated with an antibiotic. The first antibiotic discovered, penicillin, is a natural product. It’s an ancient agent in an ongoing war between microorganisms. The antidote for penicillin and related molecules was actually discovered at about the same time as we discovered penicillin. Beta-lactamase, which breaks open the structure of the penicillins and inhibits their antibiotic effects was around long before humans figured out how to harness antibiotics for our own purposes. The gene, which we clone into plasmids to make our GMO bacteria work for us, came from nature too. Now if we were growing bacteria in vancomycin or linezolid, yeah, I’d be pissed, but that’s not what’s happening. And even though we still use older penicillins clinically, it’s with full knowledge that resistance has been around for decades, and they are used for infections that we know never become resistant to the drugs, like group b strep (or syphilis). The war for penicillin is over. We lost. Any bug that’s going to become resistant to penicillin already is.
The antibiotic resistance that plagues our ICUs and hospitals doesn’t come from GMOs being taught to fight ampicillin, it comes from overuse of more powerful antibiotics in humans. The genes that are providing resistance to even beta-lactam resistant antibiotics like the carbapenems or methicillin are the result of a more classic form of genetic modification – natural selection.
So what is the risk to humans from the DNA encoding a wimpy beta-lactamase or whatever being detected in water? Zilch. Nada. Zip.
The paranoia over recombinant DNA has persisted for decades despite no rational basis for a threat to humans or other living things. The continued paranoia over rDNA is a sign that the GMO paranoids get their science from bad movies, not textbooks or serious knowledge of the risks and benefits of this technology. rDNA is why we have an unlimited supply of insulin, it’s how we have virtually all of our knowledge of molecular biology, it’s how we even have an understanding of how things like antibiotic resistance work. It’s been around since the 70s and how many times have you heard of it actually hurting a person?
This is the state of the argument over genetically-modified organisms. To the uninitiated this stuff sounds like it might be kind of scary. But with any real understanding of the molecular mechanisms of these technologies, the plausibility of their risk drops to zero. Sadly, Goodall has not only shown a pretty poor level of scholarship with this new book, but also, has fallen in with cranks promoting implausible risks of this biotechnology. It’s unfortunate because she should be respected for her previous work as an environmentalist and a conservationist. This is what is so annoying about anti-GMO paranoia. It makes environmentalists look like idiots, as it distracts from actual threats to the environment with invented threats and irrational fears of biotech. I’m sure I’ll now be accused of being in the pocket of big ag, as I am in every thread on GMO, but I assure you, I have no financial interests, or any dealings with these companies ever. I’m irritated with the anti-GMO movement because it’s an embarrassment. It’s Luddism, and ignorance masquerading as environmentalism. It’s bad biology. It’s the progressive equivalent of creationism or global warming denial. It’s classic anti-science, and we shouldn’t tolerate it.
The introduction of the first transgenic plant 30 years ago heralded the start of a second green revolution, providing food to the starving, profits to farmers and environmental benefits to boot. Many GM crops fulfilled the promise. But their success has been mired in controversy with many questioning their safety, their profitability and their green credentials. A polarized debate has left little room for consensus. In this special issue, Nature explores the hopes, the fears, the reality and the future.