Our recent feature ‘Why are we being fed by a poison expert?’ compelled quite a few people to enter the untamed lands of Internet Comment Threads to share their thoughts. Some wandered in apprehensively to remark it was an important issue that needed highlighting, some dragged themselves in by the elbows prepared for combat. Quite a few intelligently debated the science, while others dismissed us as unqualified charlatans and ‘smug pricks in beards’ who have no business discussing such adult issues. Given that, of the four sex chromosomes our two person team possesses only one is a ‘Y’, we take exception to the beard reference.
We witnessed astroturfing that would make FIFA proud, along with a methodical, strategic effort to decouple Monsanto from the debate. The assertion seems to be that Monsanto aren’t the only player on the field and that we focus solely on them because we are emotionally invested in them being an ‘evil corporation’. The assertion then follows that this reduces our capacity to logically evaluate the scientific, technological and sociological issues relevant to the debate.
Permit us to address some of the main concerns people had and provide some source material.
Old Monsanto, the one that began operations in 1901, is not the same legal entity as New Monsanto (Monsanto Company) that exists today. Some viewers felt we were unfairly lumping Old Monsanto’s mistakes on a company that was reborn in the early 2000’s. We take the position that one company’s pre Y2K mistakes are another’s 2002 Supreme Court’s ruling of conduct ‘…so outrageous in character and extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency so as to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilised society.’
Monsanto state they are a ‘…relatively new company’. If a new partner had changed their name after a heinous record you’d want to know about it before integrating your kitchen utensils.
It appears New Monsanto are willing to use profits invented by Old Monsanto (Roundup, some RR crops) to increase their current day profits, but remain unwilling to accept responsibility for any of Old Monsanto’s controversial products (PCB’s or Agent Orange). Monsanto’s cherry-picking of their legacy leads us to argue it is fair to judge Monsanto on its entire history. Not simply because they once did bad things but because the ties between the Old and New are very strong and their past behaviour is entirely relevant to the trust they should be afforded as a corporate citizen today.
‘Mentioning Agent Orange was disingenuous because it’s an old product that Monsanto did not invent’
In the piece we raised some career highlights from Old Monsanto such as DDT, BGH, PCB’s and Agent Orange. Most viewers didn’t seem to take exception to us mentioning these products but some cited the raising of Agent Orange specifically was unfair to Monsanto given they were not the only ones to make it during the war, they did not invent it and that they were simply a government contractor.
Here is Monsanto’s statement about Agent Orange, which can be summarised as ‘it’s not fair, other companies did bad stuff too’. Monsanto’s position appears to be that every negative action was undertaken by Old Monsanto, arrived at the company’s door via the purchase of other entities who had already invented the technology, or has been subsequently divested to other companies.
In their statement Monsanto argue other companies supplied products to the war effort, many of which also caused significant damage, and that modern society doesn’t hold them to the same standard as we do Monsanto over Agent Orange. We argue that personal judgement can be exercised when stepping into a Hugo Boss suit or a Volkswagen today and that neither of those things are probable human carcinogens.
We argue Monsanto’s track record of dealing with the harm caused by products they used to manufacture is entirely relevant when they are still producing products that are classified as probably carcinogenic to humans.
‘Issues with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classification’
Some viewers argue the IARC were remiss in their reclassification of glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen, or that the IARC don’t fully represent the WHO.
While not everyone agrees with the ruling, there is simply no refuting the fact that the IARC classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. The IARC homepage shows the WHO logo directly beneath the IARC’s. Not only does the IARC consider itself part of the WHO, but publicising the WHO logo on the homepage would lead the average consumer to presume the IARCs findings represent the broader WHO.
‘Implied Pesticide Residues’
Some viewers felt because we explained that crops absorb Roundup rather than deflecting it via magical force field we were using fear tactics to infer residual toxicity and it was careless of us not to concurrently mention glyphosate persistence in food, safe toxicity limits or regulatory oversight.
We make a grand total of zero claims about pesticide residues. We explain that while the genetic modification patented by Monsanto deactivates the pathway by which Roundup would usually kill a plant this does not equate to the plant deflecting the chemical. It is still absorbed into the roots, stems and/or leaves of the plant.
Much of the language around Roundup Ready crops refers to them as being resistant to Roundup. They are not. They are tolerant to Roundup and demonstrating the difference is not intellectually disingenuous or misleading. We raise this point because many people believe chemicals used during the agricultural process can be washed off or removed via peeling, which is not always the case.
‘Monsanto as a Poison Expert’
A small number of viewers were quite rattled by our description of Monsanto as a poison expert. The reality is Monsanto does manufacture poisons. Yes, safe dosage limits are a factor, as they are in many other things like alcohol, medications and even water. And yes, other companies also manufacture poisons that help us achieve other things, like treating cancer. But stating that
- Other people do it too
- Some people make worse stuff
- Monsanto are also experts at other things
does not detract from Monsanto’s expertise in poison manufacture.
The question we ask ‘why are we being fed by a poison expert?’ is one we stand by given their size and market share, track record and their approach to bind sales of crops with sales of Roundup. Some viewers argued we were using a question to frame a wild accusation in order to protect ourselves from litigation and the responsibility of having to back up our claims. This is not the case and we think it is entirely reasonable to ask this question about Monsanto.
‘Monsanto isn’t that big’
Some viewers raised the issue that Monsanto isn’t that big and felt we were misrepresenting their size or influence over the market. Monsanto operates globally with 22,000 employees across 404 facilities in 66 countries and reported $15.9bn in sales for 2014. They ranked 197 on the Fortune 500 list, placing it between Starbucks (187) and Facebook (242).
‘Monsanto’s market dominance’
Some viewers believe our statement that Monsanto ‘…control in the US market 80% of corn & 93% of soy’ is incorrect because Monsanto licences its technology to other seed companies and that some patents on their most popular products have expired. Others argue this licencing is precisely what makes Monsanto the leader in GM crops at the global level with 93% of soybeans and 80% of corn grown in the US in 2009 sourced from seeds containing Monsanto patented genetics.
‘Big Ag seed market buy-up’
Some viewers noted the global seed market is awash with independent companies that all benefit from the leaps and bounds Monsanto and their commercial peers have made in transgenic research. However we refer to a study visualising consolidation in the global seed industry from 1996 – 2008 where the author explains ‘[s]ince the commercialization of transgenic crops in the mid-1990s, the sale of seeds has become dominated globally by Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta. In addition, the largest firms are increasingly networked through agreements to cross-license transgenic seed traits’. The author has since released an updated version for 1996 – 2013.
‘The ‘Monsanto Protection Act’ wasn’t about Monsanto’
Monsanto argue the Farmer Provision Act was designed to prevent farmers having to remove crops if a legal challenge to the USDA’s safety approval for a GM product was lodged, as has happened in the past. However the media widely referred to the bill as the ‘Monsanto Protection Act’, indicating it’s unpopularity and how synonymous it was with Monsanto.
We referred to claims in the media that Monsanto helped write the bill via the involvement of Sen. Roy Blunt who, as the Center for Responsive Politics points out,‘…received $64,250 from Monsanto to go towards his campaign committee between 2008 and 2012. The Money Monocle website adds that Blunt has been the largest Republican Party recipient of Monsanto funding as of late.’
If on one hand the technology is so different the seeds have to be patented while on the other GM seeds are so identical to their non GM counterparts there are no health concerns why do we need legislation to protect the crops in the event of adverse health effects being discovered?
‘Safety of GM Foods’
‘We’ll save the much needed discussion on the dangers of messing with the DNA of a plant you put in your mouth and feed to your cattle for another episode.’ This one comment resulted in a deluge of evidence asserting and condemning the safety of GMO’s. Monsanto are well practiced at defending their science, which is both reasonable and to be expected. But here is an alternative view with some researchers claiming they are unable to research the safety of GMO independently.
It is, of course, difficult to say you have concerns about GMO without being wrapped up in the anti GMO tin foil hat brigade, but possibly the most thoughtful reply on this subject comes from David Suzuki. Many of the points he raises are things we think deserve further sociological and scientific discussion. Here are two resources to get you started on pros and cons of the debate.
‘Indian farmer suicide issue’
Some viewers felt raising this issue was an attempt to inject hysteria into the debate, arguing it has been well studied and that the introduction of GM cotton and suicide rates of Indian farmers are not linked. However, others argue the introduction of GM cotton contributes significantly to the issue because
- A large proportion of farmers who took their own lives were indebted due to increased cost of inputs (seeds, herbicides, etc)
- Although crop outputs have increased, a disproportionate rise in the input costs has resulted in a fall in income
- The requirement of farmers to use increasingly expensive pesticides alongside the GM cotton, and that these pesticides have risen significantly in price since its introduction
- Primary insect predators are targeted by the insecticides used in parallel with GM cotton giving secondary predators an opportunity to thrive and cause large amounts of damage. Secondary predators are not controlled by the insecticides marketed in parallel with the GM seeds
- The decreasing availability of non GM seed so farmers can choose which seed they grow, and which farming methods they choose to use.
Our script reads ‘The Indian government directly links to the introduction and spread of GM cotton in India to a significant rise in the suicide rate of farmers’, which they do.
A final word from us…
We note with interest the lack of any viewers refuting the claim that researchers have acted as paid consultants to Monsanto. This one is intriguing given some were very quick to argue any organisation who receives funding from an anti-GMO organisation cannot produce credible scientific research or opinion on the subject.
We argue that Monsanto’s record is wholly relevant to what they do today in both the technology they develop and the way they conduct their business. We legitimately ask the specific question ‘why are we all being fed by a poison expert?’ in the belief the ensuing discussion is both necessary and can be void of hysteria.
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UPDATE: Monsanto have asked for a right of reply, which is here.