For decades, Monsanto and its enablers inside the USDA have denied the central tenets of evolutionary biology, namely natural selection and adaptation
EXCERPT: In less than 20 years, more than half of all U.S. farms have some Roundup resistant "superweeds", weeds that now infest 70 million acres of U.S farmland, an area the size of Wyoming. Each year we see major expansion of this "superweed" acreage. Texas has gone so far as to declare a state of emergency for cotton farmers. Superweeds are already causing major economic problems for farmers with a current estimate of $1 billion lost in damages to crops so far.
1. GMO science deniers: Monsanto and the USDA
2. The great GMO legitimation crisis
1. GMO science deniers: Monsanto and the USDA
Huffington Post, 20 March 2015
Perhaps no group of science deniers has been more ridiculed than those who deny the science of evolution. What you may not know is that Monsanto and our United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are among them. That's right: for decades, Monsanto and its enablers inside the USDA have denied the central tenets of evolutionary biology, namely natural selection and adaptation. And this denial of basic science by the company and our government threatens the future viability of American agriculture.
Third Grade Science
Let's start with interrelated concepts of natural selection and adaptation. This is elementary school science. In fact, in Washington D.C. it is part of the basic third grade science curriculum.
As we all remember from biology class, when an environment changes, trait variation in a species could allow some in that species to adapt to that new environment and survive. Others will die out. The survivors are then able to reproduce and even thrive under the new environmental conditions. For example, if a drought were to occur, some plants might have traits that allow them to survive while other plants in the same species would perish. The drought-resistant plants then become the "evolved" species, and they are able to reproduce in the drought environment.
Obvious, you are thinking. But let's explore how Monsanto's top scientists and government regulators would have failed a third grade science class in D.C. and the dire consequences that it is bringing to us all.
Biotech's Dirty Little Secret
First a little background. Since the early 1980s, Monsanto has endlessly hyped genetically engineered (GE) crops they claim could reduce hunger, reduce pesticide use, and survive droughts. In reality, no such "miracle" crops exist. No significantly greater yielding crops, no more effective drought resistance crops. And as for the claim of less pesticide use, behind this myth lies the "dirty little secret" of agricultural biotechnology. Namely, that GE crops actually add hundreds of millions of pounds of pesticides to our fields and crops, and create greater agrochemical residues on our food. Why? Because around 85 percent of all genetically engineered crops in the United States and around the world have been engineered to withstand massive doses of herbicides, mostly Monsanto's Roundup. Usually, if toxic weed-killing chemicals such as Roundup come into contact with a crop they will destroy it as well as the weeds around it. But Monsanto scientists genetically engineered a cassette of bacterial and viral DNA into plants that allowed them to tolerate these herbicides. So the weeds are killed, but the crops remain.
In the United States, more than 50 percent of all our cropland is devoted to GE corn, soy, and cotton. They are commodity crops that feed cars, animals in industrial meat production and are used for additives like high fructose corn syrup. Almost none directly feeds people. So rather than feeding the hungry, this technology is about chemical companies selling more chemicals, a lot more chemicals. So as noted, each year 115 million more pounds of Roundup are spread on our farmlands because of these altered crops.
Profits versus Science: Science loses
If half of our nation's cropland is doused year after year with a particular herbicide, that is a significant change in the environment. The accompanying problem of adaptation and selection has probably already occurred to you. Wouldn't that massive increase in Roundup use over that huge a portion of our cropland cause some weed populations to develop resistance? Wouldn't weeds with natural resistance thrive in this new environment? Wouldn't these new "superweeds" eventually become a major problem for U.S. farmers, overrunning their crops?
As government regulators were considering whether to approve these plants in the mid-1990s, they asked Monsanto just that question. No doubt considering the billions they were going to make selling more Roundup, this is a moment when Monsanto's scientists seemed to find it convenient to their bottom line to deny basic evolutionary science. They stated, "Evolution of weed resistance to glyphosate (Roundup's active ingredient) appears to be an unlikely event." They also suggested that massive use of Roundup would lead to "no resistant weeds". Independent scientists were aghast. They mocked Monsanto's view that Roundup was somehow "invincible" from the laws of natural selection, and pointed out that the company's scientists purposely ignored numerous studies that showed there would be weed resistance. But incredibly, despite the strong contrary evidence, the USDA regulators just nodded in science-denying agreement with Monsanto.
Of course, adaptation and natural selection did take place. As a result, in less than 20 years, more than half of all U.S. farms have some Roundup resistant "superweeds", weeds that now infest 70 million acres of U.S farmland, an area the size of Wyoming. Each year we see major expansion of this "superweed" acreage. Texas has gone so far as to declare a state of emergency for cotton farmers. Superweeds are already causing major economic problems for farmers with a current estimate of $1 billion lost in damages to crops so far.
Last year in a panel discussion with Robert Fraley, Chief Technology Officer for Monsanto and a founder of these herbicide tolerant crops, I confronted him. How could he and the other Monsanto scientists have claimed that natural selection would not take place? How could they ignore basic evolutionary science and clear contrary evidence? He just shook his head and said, "You're right, weeds have evolved resistance." But apparently, Monsanto and their government regulators still haven't learned this third grade science lesson. They're denying science once again, and the stakes are even higher.
"Agent Orange Crops" and More Science Denial
Now Monsanto and Dow Chemical have received government approval to market new genetically engineered corn, soy and cotton, that are "stacked" with engineered DNA that make them resistant to Roundup as well as 2,4-D (one of the chief elements of "Agent Orange"). Monsanto has also gained approval from the USDA for the same three crops that can tolerate Dicamba. 2,4-D and Dicamba are older, more toxic herbicides than Roundup, and these companies are reverting to them because they have brought us to the point of peak herbicides. They simply don't have any new ones, similar to the current crisis in antibiotics.
But won't the weeds simply become resistant to these herbicides as well? Not according to the science deniers at Monsanto and Dow Chemical. Despite predictions that their new crops will add hundreds of millions more pounds of these herbicides each year, they say not to worry. They claim - as they did 20 years ago - that natural selection will not happen, that it is extremely unlikely for weeds to survive simultaneous attacks from two or more different herbicides with different methods.
Weed scientists have shredded this argument, noting that weeds in the past, through adaption, have done this and will almost certainly do it again. So in a few years we will be overrun with "superweeds" that are virtually indestructible by any known chemical. But by then Monsanto and Dow will have made billions selling their chemicals and can leave the "superweed" agronomic nightmare for others to solve. Nor will they have to deal with the other nightmares that could possibly occur: increased rates of cancer and diseases like Parkinson's associated with exposure to these herbicides.
A Better Way
A science-based, and safer, way forward is to abandon this doomed-to-fail chemical arms race against weeds and use ecologically based weed control. There are proven organic and agroecological approaches that emphasize weed management rather than weed eradication, soil building rather than soil supplementing. Crop rotation and cover crops can return productive yields without ridding the land of genetic biodiversity, and could reduce herbicide use by 90 percent.
So it's long past due that our government required real and rigorous science when regulating GE crops. It's time for them to say "no" to these herbicide-promoting crops, and prevent the looming agronomic disaster they will inevitably bring with them.
In the meantime, the next time you read hear about "GMO science deniers" - think of 70 million acres of superweeds; think cancer, Parkinson’s and other diseases caused by this growing use of herbicides; think Monsanto and its enablers at the USDA.
2. The great GMO legitimation crisis
RINF Alternative News, 21 March 2015
Author of "Altered Genes, Twisted Truth" Steven Druker recently talked of how, back in the seventies, a group of molecular biologists formed part of a scientific elite that sought to allay fears about genetic engineering by putting a positive spin on it. At the same time, critics of this emerging technology were increasingly depicted as being little more than non-scientists who expressed ignorant but well-meaning concerns about science and genetic engineering.
This continues today, but the attacks on critics are becoming more vicious. Former British Environment Minister Owen Paterson recently attacked critics of GMOs with a scathing speech that described them as a self-serving, elitist “green blob” that was condemning “billions” to misery. Professor Anthony Trewavas has continued this theme by stating:
“Greenpeace notably decides its opinions must prevail regardless of others, so it arrogates to itself the right to tear up and destroy things it doesn’t like. That is absolutely typical of people who are unable to convince others by debate and discussion and in the last century such attitudes, amplified obviously, ended up killing people that others did not like. But the same personality type the authoritarian, 'do as I tell you', was at the root of it all. Such groups therefore sit uneasily with countries that are democracies.”
According to this, critics of GMOs possess authoritarian personality types, are ignorant of science and unable to convince people of their arguments and thus resort to violence.
Part of the pro-GMO narrative also involves a good deal of glib talk about democracy. In an open letter to me, Anthony Trewavas says:
“It would be nice if you could say you are a democrat and believe that argument is better than destruction but argument that deals with all the facts and does not select out of those to construct a misleading programme. Misleading selection of limited information is causing considerable problems in various parts of the world that leads some into very violent behaviour, particularly in religious belief. I am sure you agree that this is not a good way forward… Whatever their [farmers’] choice is… they must be allowed to make that decision… That is the nature of every democracy that I hope all will finally live under?”
Pro-GMO scientists like Trewavas have every right to speak on psychology, politics and democracy. However, let a non-scientist discuss GMOs in a critical light and they are accused of self-serving elitism or ignorance. Indeed, let even a scientist produce scientific evidence that runs counter to the industry-led science and he or she is smeared and attacked.
Let a respected academically qualified political scientist, trade policy analyst, or social scientist whose views are in some way critical of GMOs and the corporations promoting them express a coherent viewpoint supported by evidence from their specific discipline and they are attacked for being little more than ideologues with an agenda, or their evidence or sources are described as "biased". Any analysis of the role of the IMF, World Bank, and WTO and their part in restructuring agriculture in poor nations or devising policies to favour Western agribusiness is suddenly to be side lined in favour of a narrow focus on "science", which the masses and ideologues could not possibly comprehend; by implication, they should therefore defer to (pro-GMO) scientists for the necessary information.
The pro-GMO lobby talks about choice, democracy and the alleged violence of certain environmental groups but says nothing about the structural violence waged on rural communities resulting from IMF/World Bank strings-attached loans, the undermining of global food security as a result of Wall Street commodity and land speculators, the crushing effects of trade rules on poorer regions or the devastating impacts of GMOs in regions like SouthAmerica. To discuss such things is political and thus "ideological" and is therefore not up for discussion it seems.
Much easier to try to focus on "the science" and simply mouth platitudes about democracy and freedom of choice while saying nothing about how both been captured or debased by powerful interests, including agribusiness. By attempting not to appear to be ideological or political, such people are attempting to depoliticise and thus disguise the highly political status quo whereby powerful corporations (and some bogus notion of a "free market") are left unchallenged to shape agriculture as they see fit:
“Anyone who’s seen the recent virally circulated Venn diagrams of the personnel overlap between Monsanto and USDA personnel, or Pfizer and FDA, will immediately know what I’m talking about… A model of capitalism in which the commanding heights of the economy are an interlocking directorate of large corporations and government agencies, a major share of the total operating costs of the dominant firms are socialized (and profits privatized, of course), and “intellectual property” protectionism and other regulatory cartels allow bureaucratic corporate dinosaurs… to operate profitably without fear of competition.” Kevin Carson, Center for a Stateless Society.
If certain politicians or scientists and the companies they support really do want to ‘feed the world’ and are concerned with poverty and hunger, they should forget about GMOs and focus their attention elsewhere: not least on how the "free market" system that they cherish so much causes hunger and poverty, whether for example through food commodity speculation (see earlier link) by powerful banking interests or a US foreign policy that has for decades used agriculture to trap nations into subservience.
Rather than have the public focus on such things, such people try to mislead and divert attention away from these things with puerile notions of authoritarian personality types who reject some illusory notion of open debate, free choice and democracy.
Failure is us
Even with this power and political influence at its disposal, the GMO agritech industry is far from being a success. Much of its profits actually derive from failure: for example, Andrew Kimbrell notes that after having chosen to ignore science, the industry’s failing inputs are now to be replaced with more destined-to-fail and ever-stronger poisonous inputs. The legacy of poisoned environments and ecological devastation is for someone else to deal with. In his book, Steven Druker has shown that from very early on the US government has colluded with the GMO agritech sector to set a "technical fix-failure-technical fix" merry-go-round in motion.
This system is designed to stumble from one crisis to the next, all the while hiding behind the banners of "innovation" or "research and development". But it’s all good business. And that’s all that really matters to the industry.
There’s always good PR ground to be made from blaming critics for being "anti-science" and money to be made from a continuous state of crisis management ("innovation" and bombarding farmers with a never-ending stream of new technologies and inputs). Part of the great con-trick is that it attempts to pass off its endless crises and failures as brilliant successes.
For many promoters of the GMO cause, it is a case of not even wanting to understand alternative approaches or the devastating impacts of GMOs when their lavish salary or consultancy fees depend on them not wanting to understand any of it.
When it comes to labelling unsafe and untested GM food in the US, the pro-GMO lobby grasps at straws by saying too much information confuses the public or sends out the wrong message.
When it says sound science should underpin the GMO issue, it does everything it can to circumvent any science that threatens its interests.
When it says its critics have a political agenda, it side-lines debates on how it hijacks international and national policy making bodies and regulatory agencies.
When it talks about elite, affluent environmentalists robbing food from the bellies of the poor, its private companies are owned by people who form part of a privileged class that seek to turn their vested interests into policy proscriptions for the rest of us.
The pro-GMO lobby engages in the fraudulent notion that it knows what is best for humanity. Co-opting public institutions and using science as an ideology, it indulges in an arrogant form of exceptionalism.
The world does not need GMO food or crops, especially those which have not been proven safe or whose benefits are questionable to say the least. There are alternative ways to boost food production if or when there is a need to. There are other (existing) ways to tackle the impacts of volatile climates.
However, the alternatives are being squeezed out as big agritech and its captured policy/regulatory bodies place emphasis on proprietary products, not least GMOs and chemical inputs.
The pro-GMO lobby has a crisis of legitimation. No amount of twisted truths or altered genes, expensive PR or attacks on its critics can disguise this.