Why One Zombie GMO Myth Can’t Be Killed

By Keith Kloor | October 31, 2013 4:06 pm
An anti-GMO protest in Los Angeles on May 25, 2013. (Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

An anti-GMO protest in Los Angeles on May 25, 2013. (Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

An opinion piece in Al Jazeera repeats many of the tropes one frequently hears about GMOs. The accompanying photo (also displayed in this post) is an apt illustration.

At the center is a person holding a sign that connects Monsanto and Agenda 21, which is an innocuous U.N. sustainability initiative that has been turned into a feverish conspiracy theory by the likes of Glenn Beck and embraced by Tea Party conservatives. They think Agenda 21 is part of a larger plot to install one-world government and take away individual gun and private property rights. This loony idea, which has spread to local municipalities, is evidently now part of the anti-GMO landscape. Judging by the sign in the picture, it it has been grafted onto Monsanto Derangement Syndrome. This disorder has sufferers convinced that Monsanto is out to control/poison the world’s food supply.

Speaking of which, to the left in the photo is a sign that equates GMOs with Agent Orange, the name given to the herbicide sprayed indiscriminately by the U.S. military over Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s. During this time, Monsanto was one of several companies that manufactured the herbicide.  The notorious legacy of Agent Orange is now commonly invoked by anti-GMO activists, who want to link the misused government spraying campaign from decades ago to Monsanto and it’s biotechnology products, which actually have considerable benefits to the environment and farmers.

The message at the right of the photograph has an apparent double meaning. It suggests that the sign-holder is personally disgusted by GMOs and that they are also perhaps responsible for sickening him. (Notice the familar skull and crossbone image.) There is, of course, no evidence whatsoever that genetically modified foods are harmful, but anti-GMO activists continue to willfully deny this scientific consensus, which top scientific bodies and organizations from around the world have confirmed.

Lastly, note the sign at the top that reads, “Farmer suicides in India.” This is another zombie myth in the anti-GMO movement–that the introduction of Monsanto’s GMO cotton in India has led to the suicides of hundreds of thousands of farmers in India. It’s false. I’ve devoted numerous posts (see here and here) to this urban legend, and am currently working on a longer article on it.

Now you might say that the people who believe such things, that Monsanto is the embodiment of corporate evil and that GMOs have caused a genocide, are just a bunch of naive conspiracists. But there is a reason why these myths have gained traction and continue to build on themselves. And that is because influential voices, such as green leaders like Vandana Shiva, repeat these whoppers, often to credulous audiences.

The latest instance occurred several weeks ago at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas in Australia, when Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich said that “the Green Revolution led to tens of thousands of suicides  in India.” This is an astonishing statement, especially if you know anything about how India was truly impacted by the Green Revolution. I wasn’t even sure what Ehrlich was referring to until later in the panel discussion, when he added that

Monsanto, which killed those farmers in India, has done nothing at all to feed the world. It is a center of evil.

Boom! In one swoop, Ehrlich reinforced two ridiculous yet popular tropes: That Monsanto had caused Indian farmers to kill themselves and that the company was evil.

Ehrlich, like Vandana Shiva, is a respected thought leader (at least in the environmental sphere). The next time you see people holding signs at anti-GMO protests that allude to Indian farmer suicides, the next time you hear this falsehood trotted out like a war crimes indictment, you can thank the Paul Ehrlichs and Vandana Shivas of the world.

UPDATE:  Ehrlich on twitter, presumably after seeing my post:

That he is doubling down on an urban legend is both fascinating and depressing.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: biotechnology, GMOs, select
  • http://www.waynejohn.com/ Wayne John

    But is bioengineering seeds good for us? I’m not an activist, but I believe we can’t do better than mother nature. Therefore whomever consumes also assumes a risk that may not show now, nor tommorow, but maybe 20 to 30 years from now. There may not be any risk at all. But man (read corporations) have proven to concern themselves more with short-term financial gain than with long-term health effects.

    • theLaplaceDemon

      “but I believe we can’t do better than mother nature.”

      Why do you believe this?

      • http://www.waynejohn.com/ Wayne John

        I consider the millions of years it took for the processes to form the reality we know today outweighs the knowledge we’ve acquired in the past few decades. I also don’t think we are responsible enough to tinker with those gears.

        I should say “we can’t do better yet”.

        • theLaplaceDemon

          But nature isn’t some sort of organized force that tidies up the universe and promotes human wellness. What you seem to be referring to is evolution, and while we tend to think about that in the framework of its “winners” (that is, we love to talk about adaptations and niches) evolution also involves, on a regular basis, things dying. If a species outgrows its resources then the population shrinks to a manageable level. If it loses an evolutionary arms race of some kind, a predator could kill it off, or a parasite could drastically alter its way of life. The fact that “mother nature” did something does not mean it is beneficial or safe for humans.

          If a GMO food passes the same safety test as a non-GMO food, why should we be more worried about it? Yes, it’s true there could be some sort of chronic risk that takes too long to show up and has too small of an effect size to show up on a reasonable-sized study. But the same thing is true about pineapple or guava.

          • http://www.waynejohn.com/ Wayne John

            I agree with you, nature isn’t neat…but it is evolved, and I do believe there might be a balance to things.

            If our need to GM seeds is caused by natures need to create balance, do you think we can beat what comes next? Or after that? Do you believe we would even recognize a cycle of that magnitude?

            Does it even matter?

          • theLaplaceDemon

            “I agree with you, nature isn’t neat…but it is evolved, and I do believe there might be a balance to things.”

            Why, though? Is there balance between humans and smallpox? Or polio? Because if we hadn’t created vaccines, the “balance” would probably have humans at much smaller numbers and variola at much larger numbers.

            “If our need to GM seeds is caused by natures need to create balance, do
            you think we can beat what comes next? Or after that? Do you believe we
            would even recognize a cycle of that magnitude?”

            That ship has already sailed when we started making vaccines, when we started using agriculture, we when started driving cars and building megacities. Compared to the other ways in which humans having modified our environment, sticking a Bt gene in some cotton is TINY. We are constantly making huge changes to our environment, because the benefit is high and the costs are perceived as at least low enough.

            Are we missing some costs, some long term consequences to these changes? Of course (hi, global warming!) But compared to the rest of agriculture, genetically tweaking organisms is pretty safe (mostly, if we screw up, it will cause the plant to die). And if you are worried about upsetting nature’s balance, you’ve got way bigger things to worry about than GMOs.

          • TheNuszAbides

            i’m guessing it at least matters to people who could have taken a giant step closer to being physiologically stable entities if golden rice cropland hadn’t been sabotaged by extremists.

          • Mark Jones

            Greenpeace lies. Children die.

          • TheNuszAbides

            but if your big-picture, ‘leave well enough alone’ premise is really the angle you want to take, what was the excuse for daring to till soil in the first place? all agriculture is GM.

          • Wayne John

            That’s apples and oranges IMO. Yes, tilling soil allowed for the grocery markets to blossom, and populations to surge. And here we are again, needing another push for more food…so we are now looking deep within the inner mechanics of food itself and tinkering there.

            The next step is bio-printing food, which has already taken it’s first baby steps to realization. We won’t need the soil. We’ll hit the grocers to buy our bio variety packs and head home to print up a nice steak with a side of green beans.

            Can I assume we are all for printing our meals?

            I’d eat it all, don’t get me wrong. I still believe mother nature will always be better than anything we can do…

          • TheNuszAbides

            well she’ll certainly always be bigger.

          • theLaplaceDemon

            “Yes, tilling soil allowed for the grocery markets to blossom,”

            It’s not just tilling the soiling. Selective plant breeding has altered plants in a way “mother nature” never would herself.

            We’ve been tinkering deep within the inner mechanisms of food for a long time.

            If “printing” our meals was safe, had a comparable nutritional profile, and tasted the same as non-printed food, I don’t see what the problem would be.

            As I and others have said before, “mother nature” isn’t just looking out for your well-being. She cares about the bed bugs and brown recluses and influenza just as much.

          • Mark Jones

            There is no “nature”. “Nature” doesn’t care about anything or anybody. “Nature” just is. Why the fetish for famine?

        • TheNuszAbides

          i agree that, collectively and individually, we have responsibility problems. i’m content with supporting research and development while calling ‘leadership’ and monopoly into question at every opportunity.

    • Benjamin Edge

      So we should go back to living in caves and only using fire when we can find a lightning strike? And eating only the food we can forage for or catch and kill with our own hands and teeth? I guess using our brains (that Mother Nature gave us) is off limits? SMH

  • William Kay

    Wayne… “We can’t do better than Mother Nature” is really one of the reasons gm crops are so helpful… we need to grow food, Mother Nature also wants these plants to grow, however, she doesn’t prioritise them, so at the same time she produces very clever bugs and fungal and bacterial pathogens to eat that food before we get a chance to. Therefore yes, Mother Nature is great, but she doesn’t act for our benefit in terms of making the perfect seeds to feed the world. That’s what humans do and have done for centuries. What gm crops aim to do is tip the balance back in favour of the crops (read us), thus allowing food to be produced at a high enough yield so that we don’t need to use every bit of land on earth to produce it. Less land for crops is more land for mother nature to have her fun.

    • mem_somerville

      “We can’t do better than Mother Nature”

      said while typing on a computer, rather than merely speaking and gesticulating. I mean really, speaking was good enough for Mother Nature, right? And do you think these hands were invented for typing?? ;-)

      • http://www.waynejohn.com/ Wayne John

        Do I have any other option? I live in a world that is of anothers design, so yeah, we all type.

        These opposable thumbs seem to strike the spacebar perfectly…I think you’re right. Haha

    • http://www.waynejohn.com/ Wayne John

      Maybe you’re right, but I don’t have enough faith in humanity to do a truly good job accounting for every possible outcome. As a programmer I know that writing a bug-free app is impossible no matter how hard I might try (of substance)…I assume tinkering with genetics is more difficult…

      Ya know, I hope I’m wrong. I think ultimately we won’t have a choice in the matter.

      For better or worse, its what humans do.

      • TheNuszAbides

        then it seems perfectly reasonable to err on the side of those who pay the most attention to detail (i.e. incorporate the scientific method into their endeavors). is the concept of ‘over’population due to “another’s design”? or just a coincidence of millions of quasi-discrete designs? a bit of both? until some unimaginably charismatic thinker comes up with a globally compelling counterpoint to “be fruitful and multiply”, it’s looking increasingly wise to seek efficiency in land use. the more people there are, the cheaper life is to those who get away with holding sway over more than their share of it…

      • Mark Jones

        I do have faith in scientists. How about you leave the rest of us alone, and just buy certified organic? There are people in the US, that need that $1 loaf of bread, and that $2 box of cereal, for whom that additional, $400 a year in higher food prices is, 400 loaves of $1 bread.

        • Wayne John

          “How about you leave the rest of us alone” – Good Sir, this is simply a discussion, no reason to get pushy.

        • Sabbie

          This food is only cheaper because it’s subsidized and others are not.

  • carolannie

    The article you cite about the benefits of GMO crops also is very cautious and less than fully endorsing them. In fact, it suggests several farming techniques to use while using GMO crops which would be of great benefit regardless of the GMO status of the crops. Some resistance to GMO crops comes form people like me who know that weeds and other pests acquire resistance to the pesticides, the GMO trait that is supposed to protect the crops loses its effectiveness, and the race is on for more GMO, more resistant genes, blah blah blah. The biggest culprit, in my eyes, is monocultures, and GMOs are supposed to enhance the ability to have huge monocultures, when other practices would probably be better.

    That you have conspiracy theorists in all groups is not worthy of debate. That Monsanto is narrowly focused on making a profit regardless of the effects of its products is also not worthy of debate. Some people might describe this focus on profits as evil; however it can certainly be harmful to society when companies push out externalities the community and don’t review the true social costs of their products. Some of the reaction to Monsanto is probably an emotional reaction to the knowledge that big companies, and quasi-monopolies, make the people pay too much of the price, and themselves hoard too much of the profits.

    That leaves the long-term efficacy and usefulness of GMOs left open to debate.

    • Mark Jones

      Not among scientists

      • carolannie

        I am a scientist, in ecology and systems modelling. Never make assumptions. Not all people think alike, and not all scientists sing exactly from the same songbook.

    • jh

      There is so much to dispute in your comment I don’t know where to start.

      “and the race is on for more GMO, more resistant genes, blah blah blah.”

      Huh? This is something new with GMO? :) Farmers and agricultural scientists have always sought to breed plants that produce greater yields and are more resistant to pests. This “race” is nothing new. The “race” is about as old as farming itself.

      “it can certainly be harmful to society when companies push out externalities to the community and don’t review the true social costs of their products.”

      Are there some new externalities associated with GMO? None that I can think of. The set of externalities is the same, whether one is genetically engineering or “naturally” breeding new crop varieties.

      “big companies…hoard too much of the profits.”

      Who really gets those profits do you think?

      In FY 2013, Monsanto returned 65% of its profits to shareholders as dividends or stock buybacks. Those payments are direct social benefits. Anyone can obtain those benefits by buying the stock, and many people, whether they know it or not, already do. 86% of the stock is held by institutions. Fidelity holds 6.4% of the stock; Vanguard holds 5.5%. The stock is held by individuals, pension plans, foundations and endowments.

      “make the people pay too much of the price”

      How much is “too much”? In the last four years, Monsanto earned $7B in profit on $51B in sales (14% profit). Apple earned $119B on $501B in sales (24% profit) and Google hauled down $35B on $141B in sales (25% profit). Who’s earning “too much”?

      • carolannie

        OK, one externality is the creation of pesticide resistant super weeds. Another externality is the creation of pesticide resistant super pests. This is partly due to the overuse of pesticides by GMO farmers who plant their GMO plants with built in pesticide resistance, then use large amounts of pesticides to obliterate the pests, which of course only works for a generation or two.

        The race is on: you can create GMO crops much faster than you can create similar plants by cross breeding. In the case of GMO pesticide resistance, you are in a race to keep ahead of the pests you are in effect creating.

        Too much profit is a moral question, but it resonates with people who don’t like big companies. That is what I meant. Shareholders are often pension plans, other big companies, etc, who really don’t much care about the little guys, and this perception colors the anti-GMO people’s attitudes.

        My point in all of this is that the arrogant attitude displayed by many comments in here do not serve the purpose that Kloor seems to want to serve, which is to make people understand the good GMO does. You can’t ignore the externalities, the attitudes, the fears etc. You have to address them. To ignore them or to belittle them is to lose your audience immediately. And you won’t ever convert the fringe elements, so forget them. I think Kloor moves too much in the direction of mockery, which doesn’t help.

        In general, the vast majority of people don’t care about GMOs and don’t even understand what it means. The vocal minority moves the direction of the debate, but it doesn’t help if the science community is translated to the public by journalists who insult the intelligence of this vocal minority. This group is arguing from fear and emotion, which I attempted to point out. To mock their fear and emotion is to lose the argument immediately.

        Would you care for me to reiterate that a zillionth time? I have repeatedly objected to Kloor’s articles because of the mocking tone he adopts, which of course his commenters are more than happy to propagate, but my point always has been that you lose the argument if you resort to mockery and insults.

        Of course, the fact that this is a blog with a limited audience means that most of this is “… is a tale. full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing” (Shakespeare)

        • theLaplaceDemon

          “which of course only works for a generation or two”

          I assume you mean a human generation? It certainly works for more than one insect generation.

          Also “GMO” is a much broader category than just Round-Up Ready and Bt-producing crops. If pest resistance is something you are really worried about, why not call it what it is? Why lump them into the same category as say, drought-resistant crops and golden rice?

          I am really, really exhausted from all of these arguments where people are supposedly criticizing GMOs as a category, but what they are actually upset about is not the genetic modification process, but rather one specific use of genetic modification.

          You don’t like overuse of pesticides? OK. I don’t know enough to have an opinion in that debate. I understand the evolutionary arms race side of it, but I don’t understand the practicalities of pest control and week control in modern agriculture to know what the better options for farmers have. Maybe you do. That is fine. But rather than criticizing the very broad category of GMOs, why not advocate for legislation further limiting pesticide use? Why not lobby the FDA or EPA to put in more stringent regulations on how much you can spray a field, or how much Bt crops you can plant relative to non-Bt crops in your field*? This will both more fully achieve your goals (because herbicide resistant crops exist in non-GMO varieties too) and avoid demonizing a an entire methodology of plant creation.

          *I know there are guidelines about this, I have no idea if they are actual enforceable rules or not.

          • carolannie

            Thanks for your reply. We can separate argument about GMOs, pro and con, into specious and non-specious. Just because it is exhausting doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done. I suppose we all suffer from compassion fatigue at some point, but this really is about compassion, not GMOs. GMO supporters and detractors are not listening to each other, and trot out their tired tropes, but the real discussion is never being held.

            But then, I repeat myself.

        • Joshua

          Carolannie –

          I very much agree with your thoughts about the counterproductivity of Keith’s mocking tone.

          He’s tuned me out. Perhaps what you say might get through.

          • Bill C

            Joshua,
            See, this is what. You complain about Keith having a mocking tone, which he does sometimes. But your whole approach seems to be to post mocking comments on people’s blogs and then wonder innocently why the hosts don’t respond positively to you.

          • Joshua

            Hey Billc –

            A couple of thoughts. Sure, I mock folks in the blog comments sections, but I’m just a dude. No, I don’t think that it is productive. What I do in comments sections has no influence.

            Keith has some influence, and as such his mocking has the power to be counterproductive.

            I don’t think I’m “wonder[ing] innocently” why Keith stopped responding positively to my comments.

            Originally, he was quite positive about my comments – even going so far as to pull one of my comments from another blog and using it as the main component of a post – including a description of the comment as “brilliant,” if I recall correctly.

            But at a certain point, I became in his eyes a “troll” who was engaging in “bad faith.”

            Now I don’t think that anything about my attitude changed, and I don’t think I did anything in “bad faith” as far as Keith is concerned. I never questioned his motivations or went after him personally in any way. I did start disagreeing with him on some points, however – and as far as I am concerned, it is because he was intolerant of my disagreement that he changed in his perspective on the value of my comments.

            So no, I’m not “wonder[ing] innocently.” I think I know the reason why he tuned me out. Obviously, he has a different opinion – probably one along the same lines as you expressed over at Judith’s – which, BTW, I still don’t understand, as I certainly don’t see what changed your perspective.

          • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

            Unsurprisingly, Joshua misrepresents my issue with him, which I’ve explained to him various times, to no avail, apparently.

            And the comment he approves of that drew him into this thread is a good example, in that is has little to say about my actual post, and then constructs a strawman.

            That is what Joshua has done time and again with posts that he disagrees with, when I call out the batty views of the anti-GMO movement that have been mainstreamed.

            For some reason, he doesn’t like when I mock people people like Bittman or Ehrlich for helping to reinforce myths and misinformation about GMOs.

            They are the influential ones, not me.

            And just just because I liked and highlighted some of Joshua’s climate commentary doesn’t mean I should automatically approve of everything he says. In fact, as I’ve been saying for a while now, people are incredibly inconsistent about the science they choose to believe. Lots of people who trust consensus on climate change don’t trust it on biotechnology and when you point out this inconsistency to them, they don’t like it.

            If Joshua, like Carolannie, choose to misrepresent what I say by raising strawmen, that is their choice, but don’t expect me to play along.

        • jh

          “The race is on: you can create GMO crops much faster than you can create similar plants”

          Nothing new here. Can you say “antibiotics”? Would you advocate against the use of antibiotics as well?

          “his is partly due to the overuse of pesticides by GMO farmers”

          “Partly”? :) We chuck the product because people are using it improperly? Most of your concerns are with the way the products are used, not with the products themselves.

  • Buddy199

    The one glaring crime against humanity that I see here is being committed by those doing their best to deny Golden Rice to millions of children, dooming them to blindness and misery in the service of their hare-brained ideological crusade.

    • mem_somerville

      I just saw someone the other day, with a platform, totally misrepresenting the legal issues with Golden Rice. It’s incredibly hard to combat the lies when they come from people who have been given the stage and the microphone (deservedly or not). They don’t get called out by their interviewers/moderators/fellow panelists at all.

      I wish there was a mechanism for this, but I have yet to see it in action:

      http://www.thetasteoftomorrow.com/ongmolabeling

      1. Excommunicate Jeffrey Smith — i.e.: the Anti-Science Conspiracy Theorists

      Unfortunately, what he wants though is this….

      But what I want is for the leaders of the food movement — the Pollans, the Francis Moore Lappes, the Mark Bittmans—to CONDEMN the conspiracy-paranoid junk science fringe.

      But they are precisely part of the problem. What can you do?

      • Buddy199

        “I wish there was a mechanism for this, but I have yet to see it in action.”

        It’s called a responsible press.

        • TheNuszAbides

          almost sounds… monolithic!
          have you seen this ‘responsible press’ in action?

          • Matthew Slyfield

            The sister of a friend of a friend of a third cousin claims to have seen it once, but she was drunk at the time and doesn’t remember that night very well.

          • TheNuszAbides

            the responsible presses only come out at night…

  • Derek Wolf

    Lots of misinformation in this article.

    If you think GM foods bring higher yields than sustainable methods, you’re wrong, they don’t:

    http://www.gmeducation.org/faqs/p149408-gm-crops-do-not-increase-yield-potential.html

    If you think there is a scientific consensus endorsing the safety of GM foods, you’re wrong, there isn’t:

    http://www.earthopensource.org/index.php/news/150

    The research confirms those scientists/researchers who stand to receive benefits or dividends from biotech profits advocate GM safety. Independents advocate warnings, dangers and strong need for more research. (Monsanto guards against investigative research into their seed tech on the grounds that it violates their patent rights)

    If you think they’re outright safe to eat, with no associated risks to us or the environment… Look into the documented hazards of Glyphosate, which is a main star of their RoundUp pesticides. Since the GM crops are made to be soaked with RoundUp, glyphosate is then carried into our body. Hazardous effects include DNA and cell damage and cancer-causing carcinogens:

    http://www.gmwatch.org/reports/12479-gm_soy_sustainable_responsible_report

    You’d be well served to read the GMO Truths and Myths Report. A lot of the misinformation in this article (and many like it) have been debunked for obvious, inherent and ethical reasons.

    http://earthopensource.org/files/pdfs/GMO_Myths_and_Truths/GMO_Myths_and_Truths_1.3b.pdf

    I write for my own blog and sometimes am very opinionated. But if you masquerade opinion for scientific fact you are being dishonest. Either you haven’t seen the facts or you are willfully disregarding them.

    Regards,
    Derek

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      Those are all advocacy groups/sources you link to, who have a demonstrable anti-GMO bias. They are not honest brokers for factually-based information.

      Step out of your bubble and see what independent science organizations and bodies say–which are linked to in this post.

    • Mark Jones

      Your confirmation bias is apparent Derek.

      • carolannie

        So is yours, Mark. And snark seems to be the way you communicate, which is very alienating.

  • JWrenn

    At one point in the article you state that ” There is, of course, no evidence whatsoever that genetically modified foods are harmful”

    While I understand that there are several studies saying it is safe…I don’t think that is the same as saying there is no evidence whatsoever. There are studies that say it is bad and they are usually the studies of long term ie over 90 day usage. Here is one for you:
    http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2012/09/gmo-corn-rat-tumor

    I think this is akin to the issues with debate of climate change. Both sides push so hard to make their point that they don’t admit there is at least some dissent. By saying there is no evidence at all you leave your argument open for attack. It would be better to state that while there are some studies that show damage there are far more that show none.

    I for one will go organic because I think Monsanto and the idea of patenting seeds and their general business practices are horrible.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      You are referring to a notorious study that was widely discredited by many scientists and treated skeptically by science journalists almost as soon as it came to light–except of course, by the likes of Tom Philpot and others, for whom it reinforced cognitive biases. Google the author and read what most journalists and scientists had to say about the study.

      • JWrenn

        Huh, gotta say you are right on this one. I quoted that as it was something I had read when it first came out and apparently never ran into the rebuttals. Gotta admit it, looks like you are right on that one. I gotta spend some time rereading.

        Still I never did buy non gmo for that reason as I originally stated. I am generally against the patenting of genes/seeds and really don’t like the giant corp practices of Monsanto. I know much of it is overblown and as usual think the answer is in the middle. Not as bad as anti gmo folks say and not as good as pro gmo folks say.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

          I’m glad you looked into that study for yourself. And kudos to you and your acknowledgement.

          I would love it if we could have a constructive debate on the patenting/business practice angle of this, since I think that’s also largely a non-starter. (And trust me when I tell you I’m no corporate apologist.)

          At any rate, that’s on me to write some posts on these angles. It seems I spend way more time batting down misinformation and myths, which is tiresome and frustrating.

          • JWrenn

            Yeah it is hard. It gets tricky also when you read something, check it out, and it is good info then and then crap shortly after. So much bad science that it is hard to find out what really is and isn’t true. Even in cases where there is an abundance you have to sort through how it was paid and all that. We need a science version of snopes to sort out all the bs. Get on it Keith:)

          • intrepid wanders
          • JWrenn

            I mean it would be nice if there was a simple way to lookup and categorize all of the “scientific” papers/studies out there the way Snopes does for random claims on facebook and the internet.

        • Kevin Folta

          Very cool JWrenn. Thinking critically. Just a thought– plant patents are very important and every plant you buy at Home Depot or your local garden center is likely protected by some patent. It is how plant breeders collect royalties to keep in business. Plant breeding is very expensive!

          • JWrenn

            I can see that Kevin, but in my opinion it shouldn’t be a business. I think that if there is a good breed out there that anyone can breed then so be it. I don’t like the idea of owning a lineage. That just sounds…wrong. I don’t think it should be owned so I won’t support it. I get that it is out there and that it is legal so I will just vote with my dollar on that one.

            To be clear though I don’t think anyone that does support it is bad or anything, just not for me. I do hope that people look at it as a support process to purchase these items or not purchase them rather than just going for the cheapest thing and not caring. I also suspect..most of them will just get the cheapest and not care:(

          • Kevin Folta

            Thanks JWrenn. That’s fine. Stay with unpatented stuff. Nobody cares one way or the other really.

            In the plant patent world we agree that there is a premium to pay for improved genetics. Good genetics make more money for farmers and they are glad to pay the extra fee.

            Here in my state they LOVE our products and can’t get them fast enough. They are thrilled that there is a way to improve farming with less fungicide and better performance.

            For that they pay a penny or two per plant. Whatta deal! It is all about making something that helps someone else, then getting a little something in return to ensure there will be more improved plants going forward. That’s pretty good.

            Farmers love it, no Big Ag involved, and patents sustain productivity. Ask any farmer down here. Protecting the rights and programs of plant breeders is a great way to go.

          • mem_somerville

            I think breeders should have rights to their plants. In South America farmers want to hold the rights to their quinoa, and I think they are entitled to that. Or would you want to strip that away from them?

            http://www.goodfoodworld.com/2013/08/quinoa-the-passion-and-the-politics/

  • Tobey

    You need to be more careful when calling “myth”. According to your own source (Wiki), Monsanto is not as innocent as you make them out to be. To be clear, the idea that Monsanto has CAUSED the phenomenon of farmer suicides is obviously wrong, as such suicides have been part of rural Indian suffering before Monsanto. However, Farmers do kill themselves as a response to being burdened with debt owed to Monsanto and/or to failure of their miracle crops to live up to their promises. To say that’s not Monsanto’s problem because farmers have always killed themselves in dire circumstances is to clear a huge corporate player of any ethical responsibility, and of any requirement to consider repercussions of their business decisions.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      Tobey,

      Look into why some Indian farmers have become burdened with that debt. I mean, really look into it. Read the work of political scientists and other scholars, not the rhetoric of the activists.

      By all means, don’t take my word for anything. Look into it for yourself. Several years ago, I challenged my journalism class at NYU to look into this issue. I made them research it in class, so we could discuss the different sources they used.

      I encourage you to do the same thing.

      • Tobey

        I might if I find the time. But I doubt I would learn anything new. Again, I am well aware that Monsanto didn’t “cause” farmer’s suicides, and that debt is part of a system that has been in place before Monsanto. I still reserve the right to call unethical any business that profits from such a system, and accepts suicide as a by-product of company operations. The activist anger you described is based on specious information, but at least it keeps our collective conscience alive.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

          You are making an interesting ethical argument that deserves consideration.

          • mem_somerville

            It is just as misplaced as Shiva’s claim. Farmers produce food for millions of people using the “system” appropriately, whatever that means. This is completely mis-weighting the proportions of good and necessary food and fiber production.

            Some people use the internet and computers poorly–that does not call the computer, coding, and internet industry profits into ethical breech because some people abuse children with it.

          • Tobey

            Right. Let’s close our eyes to those consequences of our actions that we don’t like.

          • Tobey

            Of course, you could call me out for hypocrisy, as we’re ultimately all part of the same system. And you’d be right about that. Sense of responsibility comes with some uncomfortable truths.

    • mem_somerville

      Farming is hard everywhere–with huge risks that a lot of people don’t have to take. It also offers access to terrible ways to end a life. But in places where you can’t blame GMOs, it still happens:

      In Rural Asia, Locking Up Poisons to Prevent Suicides

      And guess where this is? Rural suicide campaign aims to quell ‘invisible despair’ suffered by farmers.

      But like so many other issues, putting the blame on the wrong thing means that you don’t treat the actual issue. Just like blaming vaccines for autism–gets you no closer to a solution while diverting everyone from the reality.

      • Tobey

        See below. Also, you didn’t read my post properly. I explicitly said that I DON’T subscribe to the idea that Monsanto has caused the phenomenon. That doesn’t make it less unethical to be part of a system that drives people to suicide. In other words, our disagreement is not on facts but on values. And please, don’t carelessly throw out assumptions. I work in the field of developmental disorders and I know very well that vaccines have nothing to do with autism.

        • mem_somerville

          So I’ve also heard that microlending has resulted in suicides. Do you hold the microlending system responsible for that? Should all microlending cease?

          India’s micro-finance suicide epidemic.

          Should we stop giving to Kiva? Revoke the Nobel Prize for microlending?

          And I didn’t say that you thought vaccines caused autism–it’s an example of misplacing the blame. You should be specifically aware of that mistake then.

  • Νικόλας

    jee man you are ridiculous – using wikipedia to back up your arguments? you are judging activists to be naive but to my understanding you ‘re also naive if you think that scientific research when funded by big corporations can yield the desired outcomes, it is partisan in other words. so long for scientific objectivity and what not. there haven’t been substantially long experiments conducted on the outcomes of a nutrition based on gmo. Identifying problems with a person’s diet can take years especially when it comes to a new product. how much does the agroindustry pay you??

  • disqus_6T5EKmNdYe

    I just want GMOs to be labeled as such in the store. Then I can decide what I want to eat. I see that as a basic right and that the FDA labeling rules should require it.

    I will vote for any propositions in California that come my way. I don’t eat dairy so I don’t care about BST but will demand that products containing it be so labeled. We had dairy surpluses even without it.

  • duc

    There is no “nature”. “Nature” doesn’t care about anything or anybody. “Nature” just is. Why the fetish for famine
    http://nhathuocvietphap.vn/

  • Sabbie

    All those who are pro-GMO: put your money where your mouth is, and vote with your wallet! Support GMO labeling so that you can identify GMO products and consume them in favor of others. Come on, don’t be scared.

  • Headbangerguy

    Glenn Beck and the Tea Party? Beck must be an exception. I don’t know one conservative who’s bothered by GMOs — but just about every liberal and Whole Foodie I know is obsessed with them.

    Do the people in the photo look like Tea Party members?

    The left is perpetuating the GMO myth. Ehrlich is a good example. He published the debunked book “Population Bomb”, founded the group Zero Population Growth, and now he’s pushing for immigration reform. Progressives think he’s a saint. Conservatives think he’s a fool.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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