Eleventh Hour: Advanced pest control and the trouble with GMOs

By Eric Wolff | October 24, 2008 5:30 pm

Screenshot from Eleventh Hour, Episode 1×03Network shows aren’t exactly known for their subtlety, but the Eleventh Hour last night managed to navigate the complicated issues surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), taking potshots at biotech firms, big agribusiness, and folks who fetishize food labeled “natural” in equal measure.

The episode focuses on a mysterious case of paralysis in a family, and naturally no one can solve it but FBI scientific consultant Jacob Hood. He eventually figures out that the family’s produce was coated in high concentrations of a common fungus, Botrytis cinerea. The fungus likes to attack soft, seedy fruits, like grapes and strawberries, but the species in the show has been genetically modified. The trail leads the Hood and his partner, Rachel Young, to a biotech firm called Aeonium, where the duo confront CEO Jonathan Cooper about the fungus. Along the way, Hood and Cooper lay out the arguments for and against the genetic manipulation of the products in our food supply, mostly revolving around the question of whether creating easier-to-produce crops is beneficial to developing countries, or sinks those countries into a spiral of debt thanks to patent royalties.

We learn that Aeonium developed a pesticide in which a genetically modified Botrytis produces scorpion toxin. Scorpions use their sting to paralyze bugs, so it makes some sense that it might be useful as an “all natural pesticide.” but it later turns out that the pesticide, when combined with a “natural” red food dye made from beetles, causes paralysis in humans. When Hood and Young point this out to Cooper, he says the company disposed of the chemical legally when they discovered the problem. As it turns out, a disposal site employee stole four barrels of the stuff to use as pesticide in a bid to save his parents’ farm from getting swallowed up by a big agribusiness combine like Monsanto or Dole.

The specifics of this episode are a little sketchy. While Batrytis is the fungus that helps vintner’s produce late-harvest dessert wines, usually they’re trying to get rid of the stuff rather than spray it on. The fungus hasn’t been fully genetically sequenced, and I couldn’t find any evidence that anyone tries to modify its genes (as Hood says is commonplace). In fact, most of the GMO work related to Batrytis is in developing grapes that resist it, since it can ruin a crop, and it encourages the presence of berry moths.

But observe the interplay of forces here:  Biotech firm develops a dangerous chemical, but disposes of it properly; a family farm trying to survive against agribusiness illegally uses the pesticide; two biologically produced (“natural”) chemicals cause paralysis when combined in the mammalian stomach.  Rather than get lost in the tall grass of whether or not biotechs are good for the world or not, the writers lay out the issues for viewers to ponder. They ask viewers to question their assumptions about their food, and just what it means to be “all natural”, and they ask viewers to consider the class-issues around food.

Hood telegraphs the message early on, when he notes that the term “non-toxic” has no legal meaning, it’s strictly a marketing term. As it happens, the same is true with the word “natural”, and readers of Michael Pollan’s work know that the government definition of the term “organic” is so broad as to approach uselessness. It opens the door to the sorts of problems describes in this episode: all-natural pesticides that can be just as bad for us as any synthetically manufactured chemical.

I even loved how Eleventh Hour closed the episode. Hood opens a green Jello Pudding Cup, and says, “Green food coloring, on the other hand, is a petroleum-derived triphenylmethane, nothing natural about it. Yummy.”


Comments (7)

  1. Very interesting article, the use of pesticides over in the uk is highly regulated and wherever possible eco-friendly ways are encouraged for pest control

  2. I CAN “ASSURE YOU” this is NOT science fiction.!!!!

    The following articles and video links listed below, concerning the “advanced pest control and the trouble with GMO’s” that you speak of, will give the reader a “REAL” look at the human health effects of occupational exposures from working only 5 months and 9 days in a REAL company that makes biopesticides, bioinsecticides, biofungicides etc.

    The biotechnology industry DOES NOT WANT THIS KNOWN to the public. It is now coming out.

    All Doctors Eliminated At Ca-OSHA : LA IMC

    THURSDAY, OCTOBER 16, 2008
    Blood, phlegm and tears

    FRIDAY, OCTOBER 17, 2008
    Did Davis Biotech Firm Expose Davis to Potentially Dangerous Pathogens?


    Did Congressman Lungren Ignore Potential National Security Threat?



    The Vanguard’s Article on AgraQuest Provokes Strong Response from Both County Health Director and Building Owner


    Workers Comp, The Destruction Of Ca-OSHA/EPA And The Case of David Bell

    Pam Marrone & Agraquest You Will Not Get Away With Your Environmental/Healthcare Crimes

    Injured Workers Get Support from Ralph Nader At 8/1/2008 CCWMD Press Conference

    Injured Workers Get Support from Matt Gonzalez at 8/1/2008 CCWMD Press Conference

  3. Harmony

    I feel I need to point out, since no one else has and they certainly didn’t on the show, that we do NOT consider GMOs to be ‘natural.’ In fact, one of my major complaints against organic food stores is that they are also anti-GMO.

  4. well, I think that’s partly the point. GMOs are considered natural by marketers. And they’re the ones who decide whether or not the word will appear.

  5. If you would “really” like to know what happens when you work for a company that says they use natural microorganisms……. Please go to the website: http://www.biotechawareness.com

  6. Funny that this article states:

    “All-natural pesticides that can be just as bad for us as any synthetically manufactured chemical.”

    They could be just as good for you as well. Or essentially equal to each other.

    There is some truth to this hyped up drama http://blogpestcontrol.com/2010/02/scorpion-venom-extermination – Scorpion venom in pesticides. They have indeed tested and altered plants to include scorpion toxins. Although the plant was unsuccessful because the toxin was ingested and not injected.

    I do like how this series broaches the question of what happens next and how will this ultimately effect humans.

  7. I can not believe the quantity of high quality material which exists on this web site. The website is quite attractive as well as draws your reader right in, the articles tend to be terrific quality and are really professionally written. I have noticed too many of these websites where it would appear that they pay an seven year old to perform the writing – Not this one. Your blog is definitely the top which i have looked at in a longer while.


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