Thursday, May 30, 2013

Skeptical Inquirer

For some reason my Facebook page has been overrun lately with people posting me things about how eeeeevil Monsanto is.

Now let me say for the record; I'll be the first to suspect Monsanto of any and all of the sorts of corporate malfeasance that corporations have got up to since the first couple of Sumerians got together to lowball the other guys in the Tigris Co-op.

But a lot of this stuff just seems...insensate.

For example, one person posted a link to some beekeeper who had his colonies confiscated by the Illinois Agriculture people. The article stated that this was connected in some nefarious way with corporate Big Ag; Monsanto was mentioned because of a connection between the Roundup pesticide and colony collapse.
"The Illinois Ag Dept. illegally seized privately owned bees from renowned naturalist, Terrence Ingram, without providing him with a search warrant and before the court hearing on the matter, reports Prairie Advocate News. Behind the obvious violations of his Constitutional rights is Monsanto. Ingram was researching Roundup’s effects on bees, which he’s raised for 58 years. “They ruined 15 years of my research,” he told Prairie Advocate, by stealing most of his stock."
Which makes absofuckinglutely no sense at all.

Look, I'll happily convict Monsanto of poisoning wells and sacrificing babies to Moloch. But pollinator and especially honeybee deaths are terrible publicity for the company; every time someone brings up honeybee problems pesticides are one of the major villains.

Why the hell would a company making pesticides want to stop someone from researching how to develop pesticide-resistance in honeybees?

I'm not saying that they didn't. I'm not saying that couldn't.

I'm saying that on its face the charge makes no sense. The saying in geology is "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". If you were trying to prove that Monsanto's Roundup was killing honeybees then it'd make sense for Monsanto to want to shut you down. But the article is quite specific; "...they (the bees) could have been turned over to Monsanto to ascertain why some of his bees are resistant to Roundup." Roundup resistant bees? Whoa! Monsanto for the win!

Why the hell would Monsanto want to stop that kind of research?

I'll buy that they could - but you're going to have to produce a hell of a lot of proof before I do.

Along with this anti-Monsanto agitation there was a general irruption of anti-GMO posts, almost all of them talking about the horror of GM organisms. There was little if any actual biology involved. Here's a typical one: GMO Wheat Found In Oregon Field..How Did It Get There?

Well, duh.

A sensible person would answer "It got there the way any other volunteer plant gets anywhere, probably; bird or animal ate a seed, pooped it out in a corner of the field. Somebody dumped a pocketful of GM seed out on the ground. Wind. Act of God..."

The "why" - which is the breathless center of the whole fevered article - doesn't seem to be the real big issue here.

The bigger question that this article doesn't address is "Is there any evidence - hard, scientific evidence - that this GM wheat is a "problem"; that it endangers the mainstream wheat genome, that it produces harmful effects when ingested, that it has problematic genotypic characteristics that, if allowed to diffuse into the wheat genome, might cause trouble down the road"?

And why?

Well, because that's a goddamn hard question. And it probably doesn't have a quick or easy answer. Or one that lends itself to scary headlines about spooky GM wheat suddenly appearing like Freddy Kruger in a slasher movie.

There's a much, much better article tucked away in Scientific American that asks "What DO we know about GM organisms, what don't we know, and why don't we know it?"
"For a decade their user agreements have explicitly forbidden the use of the seeds for any independent research. Under the threat of litigation, scientists cannot test a seed to explore the different conditions under which it thrives or fails. They cannot compare seeds from one company against those from another company. And perhaps most important, they cannot examine whether the genetically modified crops lead to unintended environmental side effects."
Humans have been modifying organisms for millennia. We can now do it in a single generation unlike the previous breeders that had to work in lifetimes. And those changes are and should be daunting; who knows what genetic twist will torque a simple organism into the next Spanish Influenza, a new Potato Blight?

But how is the best way to deal with this to simply fear and forbid them? To demonize and scare-tactic about them, to set up a counter-anti-science in opposition to the GM organizations' anti-science? Is a blanket condemnation any better than the GM companies blanket denial of independent research?


About the same time there was also a flurry of "March Against Monsanto" posts in my in-box, and apparently this past Sunday about one-fourth as many people wandered around downtown Portland marching against Monsanto as turned out to see the Portland Thorns FC play the Washington Spirit a couple of weeks ago.

I didn't go. Neither did this guy, and he has a terrific post explaining why:
"Monsanto isn’t out to poison us or the environment. They are just one part of a system that is meeting demand for plentiful, cheap food. If Monsanto went away tomorrow, our food system would look almost the same, including all the problems. I believe that most people who went to marches today are actually concerned about the same thing I am: how do we produce enough food, fairly, for all with minimal impact on the environment? How do we achieve that? Setting up cartoon villains isn’t the way to do it."
That's kind of the crux of the biscuit, isn't it?

My Facebook friend(s) that post this stuff, and my bride's dear friend who shared her "MILFs Gone Wild" weekend, seem to have the same sort of thing going on. They are concerned. They protest, they agitate about certain causes, they march, the write letters. They do change their own lives; Geochick is a strict vegan and her family is, too.

But for all that they don't seem to be able to go further than "setting up cartoon villains". Wall Street. Monsanto. Obama. FOX News. GM wheat.

But they never seem to be able to actually change the things that power up those villains and their villainy.

A lot of these "villains" are villainous because the world and our society makes their villainy profitable. If it wasn't them it would be someone like them. To change the villain isn't enough. There must be a change in the world that profits the villainy.

But that sort of change?

It won't happen because three thousand of you march around Lloyd Center.

It can happen when tens of thousands of you storm prisons, and palaces. It can happen when you destroy those prisons, those palaces, your life and the lives of those around you. But that sort of change is fearful; it often replaces the bad with the worse, and the Tsar is overthrown only to set Stalin in his place.

The great promise of the U.S. is that it offers the public some of that change without the need to destroy. You can vote. You can woo and threaten and try and influence legislators. Hell, you can even buy one or two; ain't tradition wonderful?

I don't know what the hell to do about GM crops. But I do know that running and hiding in pure fear of them isn't a good option.

And using laws and patents to stifle research on them and prevent skeptical inquiry about them isn't one, either.

And most of all I wish to hell I thought that the U.S. circa 2013 was in any condition to make an intelligent and reasoned decision one way or the other.


Barry said...

Actually, there could be a quite good reason - this guy is investigating the interactions between one of Monsanto's major products and bees. If he was proving that bees are *more* vulnerable than had been thought, Monsanto would not like that.

Syrbal/Labrys said...

I don't know what the bee guy was really doing; his bees were seized because they were said to be infected with something transmittable...leaving them could have endangered OTHER bee stocks. Of course, whether that was TRUE, is anyone's guess. In Europe, the testing of bees for sensitivity is done over GENERATIONS and they DO find bees more vulnerable. Here? If the bee doesn't crawl thru the test-shit and die on the spot, it's all good. Obviously, a bit simplistic.....and our bees are dying while Europe's bees are beginning to recover; they BANNED some of the insecticides our EPA says are "safe". All I know is, my bees died, hauling out dead larvae first and succumbing to colony collapse.

Selective breeding of crops and stock IS old as the hills, genetic modification is not and we really do not know what it does to us. I avoid more and more wheat because it makes me sick, for instance; because it is NOT the wheat I ate growing up.

Monsanto is not trying to poison us; they are trying to make money and IF it poisons us slowly along the way, they don't give a damn. They can kiss my round pagan nature-loving ass.

Leon said...

I've read a comment on Reddit (that I now can't find damnit) that suggests the European protests against Monsanto was due to the American company's products work best for the US factory farms as opposed to Europe's more prevalent family run farms. Or something like that.

I stumbled onto the march in Toronto on my way to the market and was surprised by the number of people with biblical interpretations on why GMO is eeeeeevyl.

My issue with GMO's (and my information is probably dated) is that they can't reproduce - that is you can't take part of your harvest and sow it for the next season, you must buy more from Monsanto. I consider this a disaster waiting to happen. If for any reason Monsanto isn't able to supply farmers with new seeds, our food supply of wheat is interrupted, cue soylent green jokes.

Anonymous said...

Much of the friction is due to the conflict between corporate v. traditional family farm food production values and processes.

F'rinstance, many farmers will siphon off their best field production and sock it away in a storage bin for the next planting, like wheat, corn. Good for the farmers but not so good for the corporate seed producers, who are interested in maximum profit and minimum costs. Farmers have always enjoyed some degree of freedom in their life, planting as they like and working at their own schedule, as the banking and insurance interests and federal/state governments allow them to be. That activity is risky, but it is our food we're discussing here, very essential stuff.

The problem as I see it, is the same with any human endeavor, so easy to be short-sighted.

Unintended consequences. So the valuable crop Monsanto develops geneticly to be resistant to herbicide becomes next year's incurable weed. Or the crop that produces its own pesticide kills off all insects, including the bee.

Humans may be able to do it, but I think it will be very difficult to make our natural environment conform to the corporate model.

So yeah, Fuck Monsanto 8 ways to Sunday come ta meetin'.


FDChief said...

Barry: Very possible - again, I'm not saying that the Illinois Ag. folks WEREN'T acting on behalf of Monsanto. Just that there's no direct proof one way or the other without knowing what the guy WAS doing and the article doesn't provide that.

Labrys: Thing is, I'm not sure we KNOW one way or another the actual effects of GM organisms in human consumption, on the larger wheat genome, or in the larger biosphere as a whole. I'm not arguing "let's just GM the hell out of things". I'm saying "Humans have done GM in the past through selective breeding, we now know it's possible in the lab - that genie's out of the bottle and won't be going back in, so the best option at this point IMO is NOT to get all panicky and fearful but to encourage MORE independent inquiry into these things and find out exactly what the implications and potential consequences are..."

Leon: Agree - the nongenerative aspect is very troubling. There are a number of "troubling" aspects of the GM issue, among them we know so little about the interactions between GM and non-GM organisms...

bb: But, again, that conflict isn't a "Monsanto" issue, it's a "Western economy" issue. So long as Western societies depend on mass-produced, cheap food products then there will be Monsantos or companies like Monsantos producing this stuff. The degree to which they are capable of short-sighted behavior in pursuit of short-term profits will only be limited by the degree to which "we the people" or our governments choose to limit them. As you and Leon point out, the Europeans are taking a much more cautious approach this this problem. I tend to favor that approach, but the issue in this country is wrapped up in Left vs Right politics and so is as toxic as most Left vs Right politics at the moment...

Lisa said...

Chief says, "it's a 'Western economy' issue" -- precisely. We are so limited by our perspective, and our religious legacy; we love the scapegoat. We love going bonkers over something ... it just feels so good to tribe-up and discharge our energy.

And, when we "meet-up" at Starbucks (another corporate wizard) afterwards, we just feel so righteous (another h/t to religion). I think even the most pagan among us miss the origins of this urge to burn, and to remain basically impotent (the meek ...)