Thinking beyond Argumentum ad Monsantum.

I wish Monsanto would go away. The anti-GMO activist obsession with them has queered the genetic technology discussion. It has clouded their thinking.

Common Dreams has a link to a pdf, which I won’t link to here, that is a history of Monsanto’s evil chemicals.  The logic is since they created or helped create such poisons as Agent Orange, the fact they use GE technology means  because of past work, this must be bad as well. It’s their main argument against GMOs. Argumentum ad Monsantum.

But even if they have invented some gnarly compounds, does that mean everything they do is bad? They were the first producer of bulk aspirin. They developed  chiral hydrogenation catalysts. That made possible  L-dopa, a breakthrough drug used  in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.

Somehow the anti-GMO crowd (hereinafter referred to as “the crowd”) has to get by their hatred of Monsanto and look objectively at the technology itself. Instead, they look for any industry connection to a study to discredit it. They spend more time looking for industry connections than they do learning about the technology

It baffles me how people who consider themselves progressive can be so regressive when it comes to this issue. Again, it goes back to their hatred of corporations.  It’s really blinkered thinking.

A big misconception of the crowd is that GMO is the answer. In a way, I can’t really blame them since there are companies and people out there who oversell  GM as a silver bullet. It’s not. It’s just another tool. But companies are going to pimp their product no matter what it is.  How many products are New and Improved!  The crowd should be able to see beyond that.

But here’s where not thinking things through raises its ugly head. The technology of GE is safe and proven, or as safe as anything can be.  It is a technology that can provide benefits if only the crowd would stop focusing on Monsanto. They didn’t invent it. They only use it.

At present, the only real benefit is to the farmer who uses the technology. They get better yields, crops that are more resilient and they don’t have to use as much herbicide/pesticide. Yet there are biotech seeds out there that are literally sitting in the refrigerators of universities and small companies, languishing due to the high cost and red tape of getting a crop approved. That is where the future of GMOs lie.

Anti-GMO site, GMWatch recently linked to a story from Cornell regarding  the development of a disease resistant tomato. They used it to promote the idea that GM isn’t needed; that the same result can come from conventional breeding. Cornell plant breeder Martha Mutschler-Chu did come up with a solution, but that solution took ten years.

What if you don’t have the luxury of ten years? What if the threat is imminent?  That’s one area where GM can be beneficial.

The Hawaiian papaya industry was on the verge of collapse due to a virulent disease, papaya ring spot virus. Nothing could eliminate or contain it. Enter Dr. Dennis Gonsalves, retired Professor Emeritus of Plant Pathology at Cornell and at the time, director of the USDA’s Pacific Basin Agricultural Center. He developed a genetically modified disease resistant papaya and gave it to the growers.  It is now sold to them at cost. They didn’t have the luxury of ten years.

How big of a deal was it? The Governor of Hawaii. Neil Abercrombie declared April 6th of this year as  Dr. Dennis Gonsalves Day

Dr. Gonsalves served for 10 years as PBARC’s director and recently retired. He is most noted for his efforts that saved Hawaii’s papaya industry from the ringspot virus. The transgenic “Rainbow Papaya” that he and his team developed and released to growers in 1998 helped to bring the industry back after ringspot virus had reduced Hawaii’s papaya production by 50 percent.

A few years ago, a plum pox virus was devastating the plum crops in the Adams County, Pa. In order to contain the virus and keep if from spreading across the U.S. the only method to stop it was to pull up the trees and bulldoze them before the disease spread.  Then in 2010, through government research, they came up with the GM Honeysweet, a disease resistant plum that solved the problem.  Should they have waited ten years for a more “natural” method while the disease spread and threatened the entire plum industry?

Then you have the idea that future GMOs can have increased nutrients, like Golden Rice or other beneficial health aspects. That is going to come,  more than likely from smaller companies, universities and government research, not big corporations.  But in order for that to happen, the crowd has to look past Monsanto. It has to allow a faster and less costly approval process.

Toss argumentum ad Monsantum to the sidelines, where it belongs.


15 thoughts on “Thinking beyond Argumentum ad Monsantum.

  1. I understand where many anti-GMO people come from, I was there once. I agree that it would be great if Monsanto could just be out of the picture because they are such an easy target because of their past history, their current lobbying in congress (good or bad, but large corporation lobbying does lend to distrust among people), and (right or wrong) their perceived profit-at-any-cost mentality. What would really help perceptions of GMO production would be more people like Dr. Gonsalves or the makers of Golden Rice essentially giving the modified seed away (at cost) rather than profiting from their work. I know, not always possible, but more stories like that would ameliorate the perception that GMO are only made for profit without benefits.

  2. Gonsalves didn’t profit from it. He developed it as a sense of duty to his community. When the GM papaya was first developed it was given to the growers for free and now I think it’s sold to them at cost. The Golden Rice people will give the seed for free to poor farmers,if it ever gets approved. The GR people licensed it to Syngenta, the other evil gmo white meat and Syngenta agreed to forgo licensing issues etc and allow poor farmers to save their seed. In return they get to make money off it from those who can afford it.

    As much as corporations suck, occasionally they do the right thing. It might not be for the right reasons, but when you’re starving, I don’t think that matters so much.

  3. What’s more remarkable about the disease resistant tomato is that in this case the crowd accepts an insect resistance trait! If GM crops are insect resistant the argument is that the pests will develop resistance, that secondary pests will cancel out any gains, that the trait may outcross to wild plants that then have a competitive advantage, which threatens biodiversity, etc. Why is it that an IR trait in GM crops is evil but in conventional crops is great progress?

    • Very good point. I hadn’t thought of that. I hate it when I don’t think of things. 😉 Also, the best I can figure from the article, it was a “foreign” gene, “…discovered in a wild plant native to Peru.” I’m assuming that means it wasn’t a tomato.

      • Yes “good” point. Pretty disingenuous by the crowd, arguing on the one hand that GMOs will do all kinds of bad stuff… to then claiming that anyway they are not needed because conventional breeding is just as good at producing the same traits???

        Like in the case of Golden Rice, they say it’s useless because it doesn’t contain enough beta-carotene to meet daily requirements (which is not true), but at the same time they suggest it’s risky because vitamin A can be toxic and consumers may be overdosed (which may happen with supplementation where actual vitamin A is given, but not with Golden Rice that only contains beta-carotene, which the human body converts only as needed into vitamin A).

        But then again, if the crowd would be reasonable or could think logically, the whole issue would not exist…

        One last observation, it is not always “companies and people out there who oversell GM as a silver bullet” but quite often it is people from the crowd itself who are happy to push this notion as a straw man that they can tear down easily to “show” how GM crops do not come up to their hyped promises (no matter how remarkable it is what actually is achieved). On the other hand, the crowd does not really tire in suggesting that organic agriculture could save (or at least easily feed) the world, or do I understand them wrong?

  4. Thanks for posting Bernie… I, too, am sick of the ‘Argumentum ad Monsantum’ which is proliferated ‘ad nauseum’ – – – It’s time to get past the ‘blinkered thinking’ of ‘silver bullets’ and ‘agent orange’ and get down to resolving some of the real issues at hand.

  5. Good post, Bernie, although I would like to point out that I don’t think that the virus-resistant plum trees are being grown for production anywhere yet, so in that respect they haven’t “solved the problem” yet. I’m not sure what the reasons are, it could be sensitivity to market issues, or grower concerns. (If so, then it bolsters your argument about how the “crowd” has prevented useful crops from being grown.) If anyone has information about these plum trees that differs, do let me know!

  6. Thanks Karl. I’ll have to defer to your knowledge. I’m not sure if the GM plums are on the market. I just know they did come up with a solution. I’ll have to check it out.

  7. It is so unfortunate that this has become the crowds biggest defense. As I see it, the anti-GMO movement has become a religion of sorts based too much on weak reasoning and emotion. They have pretty much made the common folks into raving activists that have little to no understanding of the reasoning for the GE of plants let alone basic science knowledge. So much easier to create an “evil” and get folks to jump on the bandwagon to triumph over this so called evil. Its funny how if you support GE and speak up in the forums, you’re always labeled a Monsanto troll.

  8. Back during the 2012 campaign when Prop. 37 was on the ballot in California, I ran across your blog and bookmarked it because I thought I should hear what a “Progressive Contrarian” had to say. Someone whose claim is that “My desire is to help keep the Left honest.” How’s that working out for you? (“2012 was a hard one for The Contrarian”..)
    Six months later, I can’t avoid the impression that the vast bulk of your blogs are simply a defense of GMO’s. I gotta tell ya, (if you didn’t know it..) an “irrational” fear of GMO’s is pretty far down the list of progressive priorities. So your focus (obsession?) is not furthering your stated goal of “tilting at nonsense” very appreciably. Meanwhile, there’s a whole ocean of right-wing ignorance and dishonesty out there, and the sea level is rising, if you see what I mean.
    Accordingly, I herewith UN-bookmark your blog. I hope you will continue to follow the science on GMO’s (and everything else!), and will keep in mind that absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence..

    • “Meanwhile, there’s a whole ocean of right-wing ignorance and dishonesty out there, and the sea level is rising, if you see what I mean.”

      In other words, “their nonsense is worse than ‘our’ nonsense.”


  9. Just a proposition, to be truly “contrarian”:

    If it can be shown that Monsanto has not done anything illegal, and if it can be shown that what they do to enforce their patents is no different than what other corporations do, then why not shut up about Monsanto?

    I’m a small CSA farmer who has no access to GM crops, nor do I bother with organic nonsense; therefore, I really couldn’t care less about Monsanto.

    I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that–because of the egregious nature of the arguments the “left” wackos make against GE technologies, against Monsanto, the flagrant falsehoods they repeat ad nauseum–maybe Monsanto isn’t as bad as all that?

    It’s just a thought, and I don’t have the time to research it myself, but until someone finds Monsanto doing something wrong and prosecutes them for it, I’m just going to ignore them–and I’m going to ignore the hammerheaded activists.

  10. They’re chasing their tail, or we’re chasing ours. Monsanto and others trying to solve problems they have created by large scale industrial-factory farming. These are not inherent farming problems, or maybe they weren’t until now.

    Do you also think organically grown produce is “nonsense”? I’d better remind myself not to take the bait again.

    If your main concern about all this is feeding the world, I’m sure you know how much more food yield can be produced from land used to grow produce instead of to feed animals which you then eat. If that’s your issue you should be pushing vegetarianism.

    • If no more food animals and everyone grows organic, where will all the fertilizer come from for these organic farms?

      As to large scale farmming…

      To have Organically produced the full output of 2008 US crops, it would have been necessary to harvest from an additional 121.7 million acres of cropland (based on 30 major crops and excluding crops for which Organic growers might be growing specialty types)

      That additional area would represent a 39% increase over current US cropland

      The theoretical, additional cropland needed (190,101 sq miles, 492,363 sq km) would be the equivalent of all the current cropland acres in Iowa, Illinois, North Dakota, Florida, Kansas,Minnesota combined

      On a land-area basis, this additional area would be 97% the physical size of Spain or 71% the size of Texas.


      • Organic food waste, animal waste, other organic waste materials = compost = much healthier soil = fertilizer.

        Less meat production vs. produce would be 10x more efficient use of land as far as feeding ability. You are comparing organic produce farming to chemical factory produce production. I am comparing organic produce farming to meat production and the land it takes for the feed necessary for that.

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