Wednesday, February 03, 2016

ANS -- GMohno! Part 3: "Because Monsanto"

Here's some controversial articles -- part of a series.  It's about GMO and Monsanto and are they really bad or not?  I think the truth is probably somewhere in between.  But I learned some stuff from this series, so I thought you might like to look at it too.  Keep an open mind.  

GMohno! Part 3: "Because Monsanto"

  • Jul. 29th, 2015 at 7:24 PM

It's an article of faith among certain people that Monsanto, Inc, the American seed company, is inherently and intrinsically evil. And not just evil in the way that you might say any large corporation is "evil," in that it's an organization of people with a vested interest in the organization's survival, but maliciously evil--deliberately and vindictively harmful to others and to society as a whole.

So pervasive is this attitude that it's accepted even by folks who don't have a particular problem with GM food or agricultural biotechnology.

I can't really complain about the folks who accept this idea. I used to be one of them. For many years, my conversations about GM food took the form "I think that genetic modification is a valuable tool for feeding a world of billions, and there is not the slightest evidence whatsoever that GM foods are in any way harmful or dangerous, even though I think Monsanto is evil."

I couldn't really put my finger on why I thought they were evil. I just knew they were. It was an idea I'd heard so often and was so pervasive I accepted it as true. (There is a quote that runs "If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it." It's often erroneously attributed to propagandist Joseph Goebbels, though there's no documentation that he ever said it; the idea appears to have been around for quite a while.) I consider myself a skeptic and a rationalist, but I am still not immune to accepting things without evidence merely because I have heard them often enough.

In fact, it was during an effort to prove how evil Monsanto is that I started to realize many of the things I'd believed about the company were wrong. Someone in an online debate had challenged me to support the idea that Monsanto is an evil company, and I'm rarely one to turn away from a challenge to what I believe. "Piece of cake," I thought. "A few minutes and a half-dozen links ought to be enough. This ought to be about as hard as proving that Moscow is a city in Russia."

If you Google "Monsanto evil," you'll find a vast river of hysterical Web sites that scream Monsanto's vileness to the heavens, usually accompanied by ridiculous and emotionally manipulative pictures like this:

But this river of Google effluent is about as persuasive as a Flat Earth Society page, and I reasoned that if I wouldn't find the source credible myself, it would be disingenuous to try to use it to support my argument. Besides, I thought, I didn't need to cite crap sources like that--there was plenty of legitimate support for Monsanto's encyclopedic catalog of evil from reputable sources.

So I kept going, past the Googlerrhea of sites like NaturalNews and GMOwatch, looking for the clear and obvious evidence I knew would be there. I had heard all the standard arguments, naturally, and was quite confident they would be easy to support.

It turned out to be not so simple after all. In fact, the deeper I got, the more Monsanto's supposed "evil" started to look like smoke and mirrors--propaganda fabricated from the flimsiest of cloth by people frightened of agricultural technology.

First, I thought Monsanto was enormous. It's not. As corporations go, it's actually not all that big. It's about the same size as Whole Foods. It's smaller than Starbucks and The Gap. It's way smaller than UPS and 7-11. (In fact, I wrote a blog post about that last year.) As of the middle of 2014, Monsanto's size compared to other corporations looked like this:

In fact, this graph is now out of date; as of the last quarter of 2014, Whole Foods is significantly larger in terms of revenue than Monsanto. (People who believe that little guys like Whole Foods are sticking it to the big bad megacorps like Monsanto likely don't realize what they're doing is merely supporting one giant megacorp over another.)

Then I read the company's history, and learned that when people talk about things like how Monsanto made Agent Orange, they're showing ignorance of a simple fact I also used to be ignorant of: there are, in a real sense, two Monsantos.

A Tale of Two Companies

The first Monsanto was Monsanto Chemical, a company that manufactured food additives, industrial chemicals, and plastics. This Monsanto no longer exists. In the late 1990s, it developed the drug Celebrex. Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company, bought Monsanto in 2002 because they wanted to capture Celebrex, a profitable and popular drug for treating arthritis.

Pfizer is a pharmaceutical company. As a pharmaceutical company, it's not especially interested in being in agribusiness. In 1996, Monsanto (the chemical company) had bought an agricultural company, but Pfizer didn't want to keep the agricultural business. So after the purchase of Monsanto, Pfizer spun off the agricultural business as a new company, which kept the old name Monsanto. This new Monsanto was entirely distinct from the old: new board, new directors, new business model, new bylaws, new incorporation. In what would prove an ill-fated decision, it kept the name "Monsanto," which Pfizer also wasn't interested in, to avoid having to rebrand itself. Changing the name, they estimated, would cost $40 million.

Was the old Monsanto evil? A case can be made that Monsanto (the chemical company) was a ruthless competitor. But a lot of the charges levied against it by the "Monsanto is evil" crowd turn out not to be true.

Monsanto invented saccharin? Not so fast

One of the claims I've heard many, many times is that Monsanto invented saccharin, the artificial sweetener. This is so far from true it's "not even wrong," as the saying goes. Saccharin was invented in 1879 by chemist Constantin Fahlberg of Johns Hopkins University. It was first manufactured in Magdeburg, Germany. Monsanto was one of many saccharin producers until 1972, but the claim they "invented" it is absolutely false.

In fact, these days, "Monsanto invented saccharin" is a litmus test I use in conversations with anti-Monsanto activists. If someone trots out this chestnut, I know he's a person who can't be arsed to do even a simple Wikipedia search to support his ideas. He is the sort of person who blindly accepts anything that supports his existing beliefs, and I stop talking to him.

Monsanto and Agent Orange

This is another factoid routinely trotted out to prove Monsanto's despicable evil. Only an evil company could invent and manufacture so foul a substance as Agent Orange, right?

Well, Monsanto didn't invent Agent Orange. It was invented by the US Army in 1943--the notion that Monsanto created it is another of those litmus tests I use to determine whether someone is interested in doing even the most rudimentary fact-checking or not. 

During the Vietnam War, Monsanto wasn't even the main contractor that manufactured Agent Orange--that dubious honor belongs to Dow. Monsanto was one of many overflow suppliers the government used when Dow couldn't make it fast enough; the others included Uniroyal (the tire manufacturer), Thompson-Hayward Chemicals (now Harcros Chemical Co), Hercules (now Ashland Inc), the Diamond Shamrock Corporation (now Valero Energy Corporation), and Thomson Chemical Company.

It's interesting that folks will tell you "Monsanto is evil because Agent Orange," but not "don't buy tires from Uniroyal; they're evil because Agent Orange." It is, sadly, a truism that we will use an argument to support a position we already believe even when that argument applies equally well to a premise we aren't invested in.

Monsanto and glyphosate

The notion that glyphosate is bad is accepted as self-evident by many folks who oppose GMOs, and I've often heard a circular argument used in discussions about glyphosate resistance: Monsanto is evil because they make glyphosate, and glyphosate is evil because it's made by Monsanto.

Monsanto (the chemical company) was only incidentally interested in agribusiness. Monsanto (the chemical company) developed the herbicide glyphosate in 1970. The patent on glyphosate expired in 2000, two years before Pfizer bought Monsanto (the chemical company). Pfizer wasn't interested in making herbicides, so Monsanto (the seed company) kept the glyphosate business. They still make glyphosate today, but they're not a huge manufacturer--because the patent has expired, most glyphosate manufacture these days is by other companies in China.

Old Monsanto aside, the new Monsanto is still evil!

So what about Monsanto (the seed company)? I keep reading tons of stories about how evil it is, but when I go to validate those stories, they tend to turn out not to be true.

A lot of folks fear GMOs, for the same reasons a lot of folks fear vaccines--there's a lot of bad info out there. Some of it (like "GMOs aren't tested" or "GMOs cause cancer") is demonstrably false.

Monsanto gets a lot of its bad reputation on the basis that it makes GMOs and people are frightened of GMOs. A lot of other companies also make GMOs, but Monsanto is singled out for special hate, even though it's not the biggest company in the GMO business (Syngenta, for instance, is bigger).

Another common argument on the "Monsanto is evil" side of the fence is that Monsanto patents seeds. If a corporation can control our seeds they can control our food! That's clearly evil, right?

I touched on plant patents briefly in part 1 of this series. A lot of folks don't understand plant patents, but many foods--including organic and conventional produce--is patented. (Yes, you read that right. The 100% organic, all-natural kale you buy at Whole Foods is patented.) Any kind of new seedline--whether GMO, hybrid, conventional, or organic, can be patented. The first plant patents in the world were issued in the 1800s; the first plant patents in the United States were issued in the 1930s...long before GM technology existed.

And not all GM food is patented.

If you want to argue that patenting plants is a bad idea, by all means, make your argument. But don't get confused. That argument has nothing to do with Monsanto and nothing to do with GM food.

Saving Seeds and Monsanto Lawsuits

Once you get through the clearly false claims about saccharin and Agent Orange and patents, you start encountering the second wave of arguments for Monsanto's evil evilness of evil, which usually ride into battle under one of two banners: "Monsanto doesn't let farmers save seeds!" and "Monsanto sues farmers for accidental contamination!"

Here is where I believed I would find some real meat--some genuine, clear-cut evidence that Monsanto is bad news.

That evidence turned out to be a mirage--I saw it glittering on the horizon, but when I got close, there was nothing there but sand.

Now, it is true that farmers can't save seeds from patented crops. This isn't a GM issue; farmers also can't save seeds from patented organic or conventional crops either. They also can't save seeds from hybrid crops (seeds from hybrid crops don't tend to breed the desired traits reliably, as I talked about in part 1). But I grew up in a farm town, and I've never met a farmer who wants to save seeds. It's bad for business. Seeds are one of the cheapest parts of running a farm. Farmers who save seeds have to dry, process, and store them. Farmers who buy seeds get a guarantee that the seeds will grow; if they don't, the seed company will pay them.

As for the idea that Monsanto is evil because they sue farmers for accidental contamination of their fields. I looked, but I couldn't find any court cases of this. I did find court cases where farmers denied stealing seeds and said it must be contamination, but in allthose cases, a jury or the court found they were lying. (Protip: If someone inspects your field and 98% of the plants growing on it are a patented variety, that's not accidental contamination.)

Monsanto neonicotinoid GMO dead bees!

There is a lot of confusion and misinformation about GM plants. And, unfortunately, that confusion tends to lead to a lot of conflation about entirely unrelated issues.

One complaint I've heard many times, including in the comments on an earlier part of this series, is Monsanto is evil because their GMO seeds are coated in neonicotinoid insecticides that kill bees.

It's hard, at first glance, to tell where to begin to untangle this snarl, because it confuses entirely unrelated things into a tangled mess of misinformation and error.

I mean, yes, neonics might be harmful to bees, possibly,, um...

...that technology was developed by Bayer, not Monsanto

And it has nothing to do with GMOs. Neonics are insecticides, not herbicides. They are not poisonous to plants; you don't need to engineer plants to resist them. (In fact, they are derived from nicotine, a natural insecticide made by plants. The name "neonicotinoid" literally means "new nicotine.") Neonicotinoids are seed coatings--they're applied to seeds after the seeds are collected, not produced by the seeds themselves.

Of course, all this information is irrelevant in the face of the final, last-ditch argument put forward by Monsanto's detractors...

It's all a conspiracy, man

The conspiracy theory is the final sanctuary of the person with no arguments. It's an attempt to discredit an argument without looking at the argument directly, and also poison the well, by claiming that anyone who supports the dies of some debate you don't support is in league with a sinister and all-encompassing evil.

I've received emails--many emails--from my blog posts about GM foods, asking me how much money Monsanto is paying me to write them.

The idea Monsanto has paid off all the world's scientists to engage in a vast conspiracy to say GMOs are safe when they're really not is so absurd as to be farcical. Look, ExxonMobil is enormous compared to Monsanto, and with their vast piles of money they can't pay off all the world's scientists to say global warming isn't a thing! If ExxonMobil can't afford to pay off scientists, how can a company that makes less money than Whole Foods?

So after looking into it, I was forced to change my mind and conclude that Monsanto (the seed company) isn't particularly evil, at least not in a way that other corporations aren't. ConAgra might be more evil, if you look at biotech companies. But Monsanto (the seed company)? Not so much.

Now if you'll excise me, I'm off to buy another Lamborghini with the shill bucks Monsanto just paid me.

Note: This blog post is part of a series.
Part 0 is here.
Part 0.5 is here.
Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.

GMohno! Part 2: Food safety

  • Mar. 29th, 2015 at 6:46 PM
It's much too early in the morning. You stumble blearily out of bed and put on the hot water for a nice cup of tea, or perhaps flip on the percolator to brew some coffee. Unfortunately, your morning beverage is laced with a poisonous chemical that keeps the crop from being eaten by insects--an insecticide that is toxic not only to bugs, but to humans too.

You go out to lunch. The server recommends the rainbow salad, which unknown to you, also contains a number of insect-killing chemicals. Your workmate from across the hall--you know, the one who always plays the stereo too loud and makes that weird snorting sound when he laughs--skips the salad in favor of a nice, healthy ginger tofu with peanut sauce. Sounds healthy? It, too, contains pesticide chemicals, even though there's a little "organic" sticker on the menu right next to it.

Sound scary? We'll come back to that in a bit.

One of the objections that people have about GM food is the idea that it's intrinsically less healthy than normal or organic food. Fears about health and food safety are sometimes hysterical, as when Zambian president Levy Patrick Mwanawasa banned all GM food imports and destroyed donated food over GM fears in 2002, even though his country was facing a famine and millions were at risk of starvation, and sometimes more muted, as when people try to link GM food to cancer.

Food safety is absolutely a legitimate and valid concern. Imagine, for instance, what people might reasonably say if a strain of genetically modified zucchini were linked to widespread cases of illness. In our hypothetical example, if it were shown that something intrinsic to the zucchini--not an insecticide or herbicide the zucchini had been modified to resist, but a compound actually produced by this strain of zucchini itself--sickened people, we might expect that folks would voice some concerns about the safety of genetic modification.

And that would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

This hypothetical case isn't actually hypothetical. In 2003, a number of people in New Zealand were hospitalized by an outbreak of food poisoning linked to zucchini. Environmentalists jumped on the story, quick to point out the dangers of untested genetic engineering of food.

Problem was, it turned out the zucchini in question wasn't genetically modified. In fact, it was organic--a fact that quickly caused the environmental groups to fall silent.

Plants are complex factories that produce staggering numbers of chemicals. Because plants can't run away from hungry insects, they have evolved a formidable arsenal of chemical weapons designed to kill insects that try to feed on them. 

In 2003, New Zealand experienced a severe aphid infestation. Conventional farmers who controlled the bugs with synthetic pesticides grew crops that were unaffected by the infestation. Organic growers, however, didn't deal effectively with the aphids. The organic zucchini that survived the infestation produced large quantities of cucurbitacin, a toxic chemical zucchinis and other plants (like pumpkins and gourds) use to defend themselves from pests. The organic zucchini with elevated levels of cucurbitacin contained so much of the chemical it was toxic to humans as well, hospitalizing people who ate it.

Something similar happened in the 1960s. Farmers using conventional breeding techniques bred the Lenape potato, cultivated to fry without burning and make perfect potato chips. Unfortunately, potatoes belong to the same family as deadly nightshade, and like nightshade, they are toxic. Potatoes produce a glycoalkaloid poison called solanine, which is extremely toxic to humans--quantities as small as 3 mg per kg of body weight can be fatal. (That's crazy poisonous, by the way.)

All potatoes produce this toxin. The potato root contains solanine, but not usually enough of it to cause health problems--it's the dose that makes the poison, after all. But the Lenape potato had elevated levels of solanine--enough to sicken people who ate it.

And it wasn't GMO. It was an ordinary hybrid bred through conventional agriculture.

So, back to the beginning of this post. When you drink tea or coffee, you are consuming a toxic chemical that belongs to a class of chemicals called cyclic alkaloids. This toxin, evolved as a defense against marauding insects, is a neurotoxin called 1,3,7-Trimethylxanthine, or more commonly, "caffeine."

And your lunch? The peppers in it contain capsaicin, a toxin that gives peppers their characteristic burning (and are also linked to cancer in animal studies). Such compounds exist all over nature--the wonderful aromatic smell of ginger, the sulfur compounds that flavor onions and leeks (and also make your eyes burn when you chop them)--all toxic chemicals that exist for their pesticide properties.

People who object to GMOs on food safety grounds tend to ignore the fact that any food potentially carries risks. Proponents of GMOs do not claim that GM food is always absolutely safe under all conditions; such a claim would be very silly indeed. GM food simply isn't inherently any more dangerous than organic or conventional agriculture, that's all. (In fact, if you judge strictly by cases of food recalls and documented foodborne illnesses, organic food is arguably the most dangerous of all broad classifications of food; it's disproportionately represented in FDA food recalls for potentially health-threatening contamination, for example.)

One of the many organic foods recalled in the last 60 days because of potentially life-threatening contamination.

What makes GM food so much more frightening than other food, even when we know other types of food are more prone to dangerous contamination?

A lot of it is the same kind of fear that makes flying seem more scary than driving, even though the reality is exactly the opposite. We feel more familiar with driving. We feel more in control. Few people understand basic biology; fewer still understand agricultural science. Scientists overwhelmingly believe GM food is safe; laypeople don't. Indeed, ignorance of basic science is so common in the US that many people don't know what DNA is, and at least one poll has suggested that there are large numbers of folks who think that genes are only found in genetically modified food!

That ignorance leads to a common cognitive error called the appeal to nature--the notion that genetically modified food is "unnatural" and therefore intrinsically worse than organic or conventional food, which is more "natural."

This cognitive error is inevitably on parade in almost any argument against GM food:

Not all objections are quite that uninformed, of course. Of the arguments that don't boil down to "unnatural=bad, natural=good," many of the health concerns about GMOs center around two things:

1. Concerns about pesticides such as glyphosate; and
2. Concerns about allergens.

A great deal of noisy press has been generated by the WHO's classification of glyphosate as "possibly carcinogenic." This classification is based on a study that shows that people who handle large amounts of glyphosate, a key ingredient in Roundup, might be at greater risk of a form of cancer called non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Strangely, the same study showed such people to be atlower risk of many other forms of cancer. Here's the experimental data:

So what should we make of this? That Roundup causes some cancer and cures other cancer?

It's not that simple. there's a good writeup over here, but the TL;DR version is: The data make no attempt to control for confounding factors. These are "case control" studies (studies that compare people who have cancer with people who don't, and look for differences between the groups) rather than "cohort" studies (studies that track people for long periods of time, note and isolate potential risk factors, and then observe the relative incidence of cancer).

Another issue is that food isn't like, say cigarettes. We can eliminate cigarettes; I've never smoked in my life. We can not, however, stop eating. So we can't look at an isolated risk factor for some kind of food production technique without comparing it to the risk of other food production techniques, because we all have to eat!

And when we do that, we discover that there's not only no increased risk with GMO food, but in fact organic and conventional agriculture often uses more dangerous chemicals and more risky growing techniques. As I noted in Part 0 of this series, for instance, many people wrongly think that organic food is grown without pesticides. In fact, organic food is grown with pesticides, and those pesticides are often more toxic than synthetic pesticides.

One pesticide used by organic farmers is rotenone. It's strongly linked to Parkinson's disease, and its use is banned in California. It should be noted that the same WHO body that classified glyphosate as a possible carcinogen also classifies rotenone as a moderate toxin--a more severe classification than glyphosate. In 2006, the FDA revoked approval for use of rotenone on food. In 2007, under lobbying pressure from organic growers, the FDA allowed use of rotenone as a pesticide in food production. Rotenone and other "natural" pesticides are often found in high concentrations in organic foods, especially organic olives and olive oil.

There's something really interesting going on here. If the FDA had revoked permission to use a synthetic herbicide like glyphosate, then reversed direction under lobbying from Monsanto a year later, it's quite likely that anti-GMO activists would be quite upset and vocal about it. Strangely, they're silent about it when it's an "organic" pesticide, even though it's linked to human health hazards and residues are found in organic foods. 

This is similar to the lack of reaction when organic zucchini were found to be hospitalizing people, even while environmentalists made quite a lot of noise when they wrongly believed the zucchini in question was genetically modified. 

To my mind, this demonstrates conclusively that it's not evidence of harm that's the motivating factor in resistance to GMOs. Opponents aren't motivated by analysis of evidence; they ignore things that apply to conventional or organic agriculture that they use as arguments to oppose GMOs. So the arguments themselves are validations, but aren't the real reason for the opposition.

The other argument often used against GMOs is the allergy argument. GMOs are genetically modified to express proteins that aren't found in the unmodified plant, the reasoning goes. Novel proteins in plants can potentially be allergens. Therefore, GMOs might provoke dangerous allergic responses.

It's a legitimate concern, and contrary to common isperception, GM food is rigorously screened for potential allergens and development is discontinued if a new allergen is discovered. While any food can potentially cause an allergic response, novel allergens are taken very seriously by agricultural researchers.

Organic and conventional agriculture is not screened for potential new allergens. The development of hybrids and the use of mutagenesis, both of which are common in conventional agricultures, certainly can create novel proteins and novel allergens--yet only GM food is tested, conventional and organic food is not. 

But the assumption that a GM food must contain some new protein, like the assumption that GMOs are any foods that contain DNA from a different species, is based on a profound misunderstanding of what a GMO is.

Some GMOs contain nothing new, either from another species or from anywhere else. The Arctic apple, for instance, is an example of a GMO made by turning off an existing gene, rather than adding a new gene.

Arctic apples are a breed of apples that don't turn brown when they're cut. There's a natural breed of grapes called Sultana grapes, which are used to make golden raisins. These grapes don't oxidize on exposure to air. Researchers noticed they had a natural mutation that silenced a gene--one of the same genes that Apples have. So, they reasoned, switching off that same gene in an apple might cause the apple not to turn brown. And they were correct.

The tearless onion is another example of a gene-silenced modification. Onions naturally produce various sulfur compounds to poison insects. One of these creates sulphuric acid--battery acid--on contact with water. When you cut an onion, this chemical is released into the air; when it comes in contact with your eyes or nose, it produces acid, which results in the pain and tears you feel. No-tear onions have the gene that produces this chemical turned off. It's difficult to understand the objection to this kind of genetic modification. There's no rational mechanism for harm caused by turning a gene off.

The fact is, we've now been eating GM food for a very long time, with no evidence whatsoever of harm. Proposed mechanisms of harm that aren't based on the appeal to nature are similar, and in some cases greater, than organic and conventional agriculture, yet GMOs are singled out for special fear. That fear is difficult to overcome, because you can't reason someone out of a position they did not reason themselves into.

Note: This blog post is part of a series.
Part 0 is here.
Part 0.5 is here.
Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.

GMohno! Part 1: "Because Society"

  • Nov. 30th, 2014 at 7:32 PM
This is part 1 of a series about GMO foods. The previous two parts of this series can be found at GMohno! Part 0: What It Is, which talks about what GMO actually means; and GMohno! Part 0.5: How to Tell when you're Being Emotionally Manipulated, which talks about some of the techniques of emotional manipulation frequently encountered in any discussion about GMOs.

The remaining parts of this series are this one, which looks at the legal, political, and social consequences of GMOs; the next one, which addresses health and safety issues; and the third, which looks at the "evil corporate malfeasance" arguments.

So, let's begin!

Imagine this scenario: You're a farmer. Your parents and grandparents were farmers. Your family has worked the same field with the same techniques for generations.

But now, you're offered new seeds. These new seeds, you're told, will make your farm more productive. But there's a catch. The seeds are patented by a seed company; in order to plant them, you must pay a patent licensing fee. Also, if you plant these seeds and then, at harvest, try to keep some of the seeds the plants produce so you can plant them next year, the seeds you save won't produce well. You will have to buy new seeds from the seed company next year, and the year after that, and the year after that.

Is this the way big agribusiness uses GMO technology to control your farm and make more profit from you? Well, maybe.

It might also be the consequence of buying patented organic hybrid seeds for an organic farm.

In conversations about GMOs, it's very common for someone to raise the point that GMO foods are often protected by patent law. This patent protection means that farmers must pay patent licensing royalties to the seed producer in order to plant the seeds. Many seed companies also prohibit saving and re-planting seeds, which can create a dependence on the seed company for annual resupplies of seed stock. 

This might seem to be a pretty compelling argument against GMOs, particularly in the developing world. But it ignores some information, and it's based on misconceptions and ignorance about plant patents and seed licensing.

Let's talk first about the economics of using patented seeds. In the US and Western countries, the genes of a plant are often the limiting factor on the maximum yield per acre. Modern Western farms are heavily mechanized and use irrigation, fertilizers and pest management to provide nearly optimal growing conditions for the plants, so the limiting factor on production is how good the plants themselves are.

Anti-GMO activists often talk about seed companies such as Monsanto "forcing" farmers into seed purchase and non-reuse contracts. This argument infantilizes farmers; farmers have a choice, and are not forced to use GMO seed if they don't want to. There's no contract that says "you have to buy our seed every year from now on." The contracts instead say "if you use this seed, you can't save seeds for next season and you agree to pay a per-acre fee to license the patent." If the deal isn't beneficial to farmers, next year they choose a different seed; there's quite a lot out there to choose from.

Most US farmers--and I've talked to quite a few--really don't mind not saving seeds. Indeed, they generally don't want to save seeds. For one thing, on a modern US farm, the cost of seed is a very small part of the yearly cost of a farm; it might typically be anywhere from 5% to 7% of a farmer's annual expenses, depending on the type of crop and the type of seed. In exchange, the farmer is getting seeds that have been dried and treated to maximize germination rates. It's important to consider that saving seed is not free; the seed, once it's saved, must be processed, dried, and stored, and the storage not only isn't free but also brings pest management issues with it. On large-scale Western farms, the cost of seeds is worth it. It saves work, increases germination, and in many cases comes with written guarantees from the seed company.

Similarly, licensing fees for GMO seeds are modest. They have to be, or the farmers wouldn't use them. For example, Monsanto's GMO soy license fees are typically about $17 an acre. DuPont charges about $40 an acre for GMO alfalfa. On average, DuPont alfalfa produces about a thousand pounds more per year per acre of alfalfa over similar non-GMO alfalfa varieties. As of mid-year this year, alfalfa was selling for about $280 a ton, meaning that thousand pounds returns $120 per acre per year to the farmer, three times the DuPont licensing fee. 

If this is what your farm looks like, patents aren't a big deal

So in the US, where farm yield is bound by plant genetics and the licensing fees for GMO patents are more than offset by increasing yields, the economics of plant patents makes sense.

But what about in developing nations, where farms may not be running close to the theoretical maximum yields, and plant patent restrictions are more costly in terms of total percentage of outlays on farming?

That's a more complicated issue, and addressing it will require a brief digression into a technique often used to lie with statistics: the problem of excluded information.

"But patents!" people say. "We shouldn't be allowing seed companies to patent GMO seeds. Seed patents give corporations control over our food supply!"

I'v heard a lot of folks say this. I think there's room to debate whether or not basic food stock should be patentable.

But here's the missing bit: Organic and conventional crops are also patented. I never really understood the objection about GMO crops being protected by patents until I finally figured out that most people simply don't know that plant patents apply to all kinds of plants, not just GMOs.

The first plant patents were issued in the 1800s. Natural mutations of crops can be patented. So can hybrids. Plants created by mutagenesis can be patented.

There is an excellent overview on the Johnny Seed Company's Web site that talks about plant patents, which I highly recommend reading. 

This is an example of the problem of excluded information. When a person says "GMO seeds are bad because they are patented and patenting seeds gives the seed companies too much power," that person is, intentionally or unintentionally, excluding information that undermines the argument: conventional, hybrid, and organic seeds are also patented. When you include this information, the argument against GMO seeds becomes far less compelling.

The argument that GMO seeds often can't be saved also rests on excluded information. Most folks may not be aware that hybrid seeds also can't be saved.

A hybrid seed is a seed from two different plant lines whose genetics are stable enough that they produce a particular trait generation after generation. Let's say, for hypothetical example, that you have two lines of some fruit. One line is highly resistant to drought, and survives well with little water...but it produces small, bitter fruit. The other produces plump, tasty fruit, but is fragile; it dies without lots of water.

It may be possible to cross-pollinate these two lines and get something that produces tasty fruit but also is quite hardy. This is an "F1 cross"--a first-generation cross between two lines that tend to consistently express the same trait.

The problem is the desired qualities of the hybrid may not be stable. That is, if you save the seeds from the F1 cross and re-plant them, you may end up with only half your plants able to resist drought, and only half your plants producing tasty only a quarter of your crop has the traits you want, robustness and good fruit. The characteristics of a hybrid are not necessarily stable, and only the first generation may have the traits you want! If you want to be sure to get both traits, you have to go back to your original two lines and cross them again. Only the F1 crosses will consistently have both.

That means the seed companies that produced the cross must maintain fields of the original robust but inedible variety and the fragile but tasty variety, so they can go back to those lines and hybridize them each year. That means farmers who want to use that hybrid must buy new seed each year. They're legally allowed to save seed, if they choose to--but the seed they save may not be any good! Hence the example that started this article--a farmer buying hybrid seeds but not being able to save seeds from his harvest. Hybrid seeds can be patented, and hybrid seeds generally can't be saved.

So the "but patents!" and "but saving seeds!" arguments both rest on missing information: non-GMO crops are also patented, and non-GMO crops also prevent farmers from saving seeds.

In extreme cases, missing information in an argument can actually lead to a conclusion that is exactly the opposite of the truth. That's why it's important to evaluate any claim in the context of the environment in which the claim is made.

For example, a couple of years ago there was a surge of news reports of suicides in the Foxconn factories where Dell laptops, Apple iPhones, Microsoft mice, and other consumer electronics are made. People blamed poor working conditions and long hours for causing suicides among factory workers.

What's the missing information in these claims? We don't know if people at Foxconn factories are committing suicide at high rates because we don't know the normal rates of suicide for the areas where the factories are located.

The Foxconn factories employ about 400,000 people. In any group of 400,000 people, there will be some incidence of suicide. 

The base rate of suicide in China is 7.9 suicides per 100,000 people per year. The base rate of suicide among Foxconn's employees is 14 people per year, or about 3.5 suicides per 100,000 people per year. That is, the rate of suicide at Foxconn factories is unusually low--Foxconn employees are less likely, not more likely, to kill themselves. In isolation, "14 suicides at this factory!" sounds high; in context, the reverse is true. (By way of comparison, the base rate of suicide in the United States is 12 suicides per 100,000 people per year.)

An argument made by anti-GMO activists follows this exact model. Many folks have claimed that farmer suicides in India surged when GMO cotton (specifically, Bt cotton, a variant resistant to insect pests) was introduced. In fact, the rate of suicide among farmers in India has been flat for decades and showed no measurable increase after the introduction of Bt cotton. The reports linking GMO cotton to farmer suicide relied on omitted information: the base rate of suicide before the introduction of Bt cotton.

So back to the issue of farms in the developing world. It's a complicated one, and there are a lot of factors at play...which virtually guarantees that there will be a lot of arguments on the Internet that distort and oversimplify the issues to the point of absurdity.

Is it advantageous for farmers in the developing world to use GMO crops? It depends on the kind of farm, the kind of crop, the place, and a lot more.

White Westerners tend to have a view of the developing world that's both overly homogenized and overly primitive. When we think of a farm in the developing world, a lot of people probably have a mental image that looks something like this:

On the other hand, we tend to think First World farms look more like this:

In fact, that first picture is from Oregon; the second is from Africa. The reality isn't as simple as the pictures we have in our head.

When pro-GMO folks say "GMOs are good for the developing world" and anti-GMO activists say "GMOs are terrible for Third World farmers," they're both wrong, or both right, depending on which specific farm in which specific part of the developing world you're talking about. 

It also depends on which specific GMO crop you're talking about. You see, there's yet another piece of missing information in the "GMOs are bad for farmers because of patents" argument: Not all GMOs are patented.

Plant patents are complicated. Some plants that are not GMO are protected by patents. Some GMOs are not patented. Some GMO licensing terms forbid saving seeds. Some organic hybrid crops prevent saving seeds. Some GMO crops permit saving seeds.

For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation finances research and development on GM crops, and any GM technology financed by their foundation must allow farmers to save seeds (note: link is a PDF).

Is it beneficial for farmers in developing countries to plant GM crop? If the farm's productivity is bound by plant genetics, or the farm is facing a specific problem (for example, poor water or pests) for which a GM-resistant crop exists, then probably yes, depending on the cost and licensing terms, if any, of the GM crop. If productivity isn't bound by plant genetics and there's not a compelling reason to use a particular GM variety, then maybe not. That's one of the key points to remember about GM food: it's not a cure-all or a magic technology. It's simply one tool among many in the toolkit. It's a powerful tool, but not the only tool...and it's just as silly to think it will solve all the world's problems as it is to think we shouldn't ever use it.

So let's talk about Golden Rice.

This is golden rice. It's a strain of GMO rice that has a gene to produce beta carotene, which is used by the body to produce Vitamin A. In parts of the world where rice is a staple crop, vitamin A deficiency is a leading source of blindness and death.

Golden rice was not invented by a huge multinational corporation; it was developed by university research supported by a charitable grant. It is not encumbered by patent restrictions; it is public-domain and open-source, freely available to whoever wants it. It requires few pesticides, reducing pesticide exposure by farmers who plant it. And yet, distribution of golden rice has been effectively blocked by anti-GMO activists--primarily wealthy Westerners who don't have to contend with vitamin deficiency--who have destroyed fields and worked hard to create fear and doubt around it. According to an article published in Environment and Development Economics, "The economic power of the Golden Rice opposition," the fact that golden rice has not been distributed has has cost 1,424,000 life years since 2002, the year it was, arguably, first ready for commercial planting. This accounts not only for death but for loss of life due to debilitating disease...and, most tragically, the majority of human beings affected have been children.

This is one of the most insidious costs of irrational hysteria. When people fear vaccination, it's most often children who are sickened or killed. With fear of GMOs, it's most often children who suffer.

The people who oppose GMOs rarely seem to consider the human cost, and even when they do, it tends to be in a shallow and superficial way. (On one online forum I read, an opponent of golden rice said, and I quote, "why can't those people just plant carrots?") Golden rice is intended to be used in parts of the world where rice is already a staple crop. It's resistant to flooding (which carrots aren't), it can be used as a staple food (which carrots can't), it requires no new investment in infrastructure or farming technology (which carrots don't). It is, in fact, precisely the kind of solution that self-described "environmentalists" claim to want: openly available, not controlled by big for-profit Western corporations, able to be used in farms that already exist, and without creating reliance on Western companies.

There is often an irony in movements based on fear. When environmental activists succeeded in creating widespread fear of nuclear power, power utilities started investing in more coal-fired plants, which are far more dangerous. Coal kills about 10,000 people a year in the United States, mostly from complications from air pollution. In China, where coal is less regulated and even more widespread, coal kills about 300,000 a year. And coal power is, of course, a huge source of greenhouse gas. So in creating fear of nuclear power, environmentalists pushed the world to greater use of coal, which has killed far more people than even the worst-case nuclear power scenarios, and has created a global threat. If every coal plant were replaced with a nuclear plant, and as a result there was a Chernobyl-sized disaster every six months, nuclear would STILL kill fewer people than coal! Opposition to nuclear power created exactly the opposite of what the opponents claim to have wanted.

With GMOs, the reactionary opposition to GM food has, in the case of golden rice, created exactly what the activists claim they want to avoid: greater dependence on Westerners in the developing world.

UNICEF distributes vitamin A to children in need. In 2012, they celebrated a milestone: reaching 70% of the kids in the developing world who would otherwise have suffered from vitamin A deficiencies. It's a commendable achievement, but when we consider the billions of people who live in developing nations, I'm not sure a C+ grade is sufficient. And aid organizations distributing vitamin A pills doesn't help ensure food security or sovereignty. What's the endgame, a never-ending program of aid distribution?

So what are the objections to golden rice? Well, here's a sample:

If you read Part 0.5 of this essay series, you'll probably be able to spot the various types of emotional manipulation going on in this argument. The argument doesn't make sense on a number of levels (Monsanto doesn't have anything to do with golden rice, golden rice has no magical powers to 'contaminate' any other rice strain, farmers can make choices about whether or not to grow it, and so on), but ultimately those shortcomings aren't relevant because information, by itself, almost never changes attitudes. The objection to golden rice is primary emotional; knocking down the objections is as unlikely to change ideas as farting into a hurricane is to change the trajectory of the storm.

I live in the liberal side of Oregon, where for a while it was trendy to oppose vaccination. The antivax movement is beginning to sputter, thanks in part to measles and whooping cough making a comeback in Oregon. Kids in the antivaxers' back yards--sometimes, kids in the antivaxers' families--are dying, and that changes attitudes right quick.

Unfortunately, with vitamin A deficiency, the kids who are dying aren't in our families or neighborhoods. They're in far-flung corners of the globe where we as white wealthy Westerners seldom see them. They're in places where white wealthy Westerners expectkids to die. One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. The anti-GMO movement, which predicates many of its arguments on the idea that GM technology will take food sovereignty out of the hands of people in the developing world and concentrate it in the hands of rich Western corporations, play the opposite tune with golden rice: the solution to vitamin A deficiency is not a food that helps provide vitamin A, it's aid organizations handing out pills, now and tomorrow and next week and next year.

When we consider any technology, whether it's agricultural or power generation or whatever, we have to look at its risks not in isolation, but in comparison to what the alternatives are. When people opposed nuclear power without thinking of the alternatives, we ended up with coal...and people died. When people reject GM technology out of hand without thinking of the alternatives, we get aid communities celebrating the 70% of kids they are able to supply with vitamin pills...but who's mourning the 30% they are not?

These are not abstract ideological crusades. They're real problems with real consequences. We tend to run with what we're afraid might be true, even when our fears are not substantiated, but decline responsibility for the consequences of our choices. You will never meet those kids; what problem is it of yours?

While we're on the subject of unintended consequences, let's talk monoculture.

Let's backtrack for a moment to the late 1950s. The developing world was on the edge of mass starvation. India, Mexico, and Pakistan could not feed their populations. Norman Borlaug, an American biologist, dedicated his entire life to finding ways to feed a hungry population.

By the time he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, Borlaug was credited, personally, with saving the lives of a billion human beings. In a world that more often remembers people who commit murder on a massive scale, that's an amazing feat. He spent ten years in Mexico, crossing thousands of wheat varieties to develop a strain of high-yield, disease-resistant wheat. From there he traveled to Pakistan, which was facing a famine so acute that even emergency food aid in the form of millions of tons of US wheat couldn't feed everyone. In five years, he doubled Pakistan's food production. By 1974, India became self-sufficient in food, no longer requiring foreign aid to feed its population (something which, just for the record, many of Borlaug's contemporaries flatly dismissed as 'impossible').

Norman Borlaug saved a billion human lives, but there was a downside. The high-yield, resilient, drought and disease resistant crops he developed became very widespread, because they survived and thrived and fed a lot of folks. Now, enormous parts of the world rely on only a handful of crop species for their food.

This is a "monoculture," a practice of growing a single strain of a single crop on large areas of land. Monocultures can be bred for toughness and resistance to pests, but if a pest or a disease should affect them, the consequences are potentially huge.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has a statement on their Web site that dismisses current large-scale agriculture as "a dead end, a mistaken application to living systems of approaches better suited for making jet fighters and refrigerators." Which sounds smug and patronizing when you consider that "dead end" saved a billion lives. Oh, but pish-posh, they're just brown people, right? So it saved a billion Mexicans and Indians and Pakistanis...dead end.

Today, one of the arguments against GMO technology is the "but it will create crop monocultures!" argument. The anti-GMO activist GMO Journal says "Since genetically modified crops (a.k.a. GMOs) reinforce genetic homogeneity and promote large scale monocultures, they contribute to the decline in biodiversity and increase vulnerability of crops to climate change, pests and diseases."

There's an incredible, and probably unintentional, irony here.

Monocultures are fragile. Everyone knows this. Everyone has always known this. When you're faced with a billion human beings dying right now, you (well, if you're a decent person, anyway) solve that problem first, then deal with solving more far-off problems like crop monocultures. If you think Norman Borlaug shouldn't have developed his crop strains that saved all those people because you think crop monocultures are a bigger problem than a billion human deaths, you're a special kind of evil and I don't want to talk to you. 

Now, about GMOs.

As I said, everyone knows crop monocultures are problematic. I think it's callous in the extreme to dismiss large-scale agriculture as a "dead end" as if the lives of the people it saved don't matter, but I also think that, yes, monocultures are inherently fragile. They represent a problem that needs to be solved.

Here's the unintended irony part: The development of GM technology was seen as a way to solve the problem of crop monocultures.

Prior to GM technology, developing new strains of crops was incredibly difficult and labor-intensive. There were two approaches: hybridization (crossing thousands and thousands of strains of plant to look for hybrids that have desirable traits, then back-crossing those to try to get a strain that breeds true) and mutagenesis (taking seeds and bombarding them with chemicals or radiation to deliberately disrupt their DNA, in the hopes that some of the seeds will then by random chance end up with desirable traits...then back-crossing those to try to get a strain that breeds true).

GM technology is precisely targeted. When we find a plant with a gene we want (say, immunity to a plant virus, or drought resistance, or whatever), we can introduce just that gene in a controlled way. We don't need to do large-scale, random reshuffling of tens or hundreds of thousands of genes. We don't need massive disruption of DNA in a spray-and-pray fashion. We can get just the strain with just the traits we want.

This was hailed, at first, as a way to custom-tailor specific plant strains to exactly the growing conditions and needs of farmers. No more giving every farmer the exact same strain; farmers could choose from a wide variety of different crop strains with different genes, selecting just the traits they needed. GM technology, in other words, was developed partly as a solution to the problem of monocultures.

Anti-GMO activists complaining that GMOs promote monoculture is a bit like religious Fundamentalists saying that homosexuality MUST be bad, because look at how many gay teenagers commit suicide! The problem is one of their own creation. Fundamentalists start with the idea that homosexuality is bad, and bully, harass, and intimidate kids based on real or perceived sexual orientation...then when those kids kill themselves because they're being bullied and harassed, the Fundamentalists say "see? Look how bad it is to be gay!"

Similarly, the anti-GMO activists create a culture of hostility and fear around food technology, that creates an environment where it's almost impossible to produce new GM strains and get them approved. Then they point and say "see? There are only a handful of GM crop strains out there! GMO technology leads to monoculture!" And, like the environmentalists whose effort led to the proliferation of dirty coal-burning power plants, they create an outcome exactly at odds with their professed goals.

The next part of this series will deal with another big area of fear around GMO foods: food safety. Stay tuned!

Note: This blog post is part of a series.
Part 0 is here.
Part 0.5 is here.
Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.

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