What’s Ben Goldacre’s Beef with Monsanto?!

Edited by Peter

Ben Goldacre’sBad Science’ is a collection of columns he wrote for The Guardian that are critical of the mainstream media coverage of scientific and medical issues. It covers topics such as the vaccinations scare after the publication of Andrew Wakefield’s paper, the history and effectiveness of homeopathy, and snake oil salesmen selling their products to AIDS sufferers. I have to admit that at first I was not very interested in reading Ben’s book. This was not because I was worried that it would challenge some of my beliefs on subjects that the general public regards as controversial, but rather because I felt the book would be preaching to the choir.

bad sceince ben goldacre

I eventually bought myself a copy of the book after succumbing to peer pressure from people online and, to my surprise, I found myself really enjoying it. Yes, it did contain a lot of information that I already knew but it was presented in a way that was quick, funny and informative without being too preachy. It was also, on a personal note, nice hearing about someone else’s experiences of dealing with pseudoscience and those who peddle it. As cheesy as this sounds, I found the book to be a real page-turner and it now sits on my bookshelf as one of my all time favourites. 

Having said all that, I have to admit that the book is not perfect. There is one very small part where Ben goes off the rails. Towards the end of the book, Ben has a small section dedicated to GMOs and the agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology company, Monsanto. Now, to his credit, he says when referring to GMOs that “there’s nothing desperately remarkable or uniquely dangerous about it as a technology.” Unfortunately, this is then immediately followed by…

“Despite all that, I remain extremely wary of GM for reasons that have nothing to do with the science, simply because it has created a dangerous power shift in agriculture, and ‘terminator seeds’, which die at the end of the season, are a way to increase farmers’ dependency, both nationally and in the developing world, while placing the global food supply in the hands of a multinational corporation. If you really want to dig deeper, Monsanto is also, very simply, an unpleasant company (it made Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, for example).”

There are many things wrong with the above paragraph – starting with the simple fact that Monsanto don’t, and never have, sold ‘terminator seeds’.  This is a little on the embarrassing side for a book that claims to lift the lid on scaremongering journalists and to be a journey though the bad science we are fed daily. These seeds, which are incapable of producing offspring, are also often the target of the anti-Monsanto/anti-GMO scaremongering crowd who, rather paradoxically, also worry that GM-plants could cross breed with native species. They see them as a way of the evil corporation taking a stranglehold over the small independent farmer, but if Monsanto were to sell them, would it be that bad or different? Monsanto already require their customers to sign a contract forbidding them from collecting and planting seeds from their previous harvest. They do this to protect their intellectual property and to recover the vast cost of researching and developing their product for market. Having terminator seeds would not only protect Monsantos product but also farmers from others who may break the contract and therefore have an unfair advantage. Let’s also not forget that nobody is forcing farmers to use Monsanto, and other agricultural companies, products – they are using them because they are more profitable. Having said all that, I agree that it would be extremely unethical for an agricultural company to introduce this technology to developing countries.

Monsanto were not the only company to produce Agent Orange and, technically, Agent Orange is not the cause of the serious long-term health effects we see. Agent Orange was one of the herbicides used by the American military during the Vietnam War. It consists of a 1:1 mixture of 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic (2,4,5-T) acid and 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic (2,4-D). Unfortunately, due to a manufacturing error, the highly toxic dioxin, 2,3,7,8- tetrachloroibenzodioxin was synthesised in the production of 2,4,D. This highly toxic dioxin impurity is responsible for all the detrimental health effects we see. What’s interesting is that as far back as 1952, Monsanto informed army officials of the impurity. Yet the American military still decided to go ahead and use the herbicide in Vietnam – despite the warnings from scientists at the time about the possible long-term effects on the people and ecology of the area. Although Agent Orange is a dark chapter in Monsanto’s history, it is essentially irrelevant when it comes to the subject of GM-food.

Monsanto is not the only company that produces GM-food, and you can’t interchange the two terms. I know this sounds like nit picking, but it’s probably the most important point as if you exclusively link the two, then you can cast a shadow on the technology by simply discrediting a particular company. This can do great harm, as GM-food can not only produce higher yields and profits, but also has the potential to alleviate a lot of the suffering in the world. Take, for example, golden rice – which has been genetically modified to produce beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. A dietary lack of vitamin A causes blindness, and is estimated to kill 670,000 children under the age of 5 every year. It is imperative that practical solutions to major problems like this are used in the developing world.

golden rice

This is why I have such a problem with this one tiny paragraph – in an otherwise awesome book. This nugget of pure bullshit, which is not only factually incorrect, but is also ironically in a book critical of the mainstream media’s coverage of scientific and medical issues, will make people skeptical about GM-food. This is because people look up to Ben as a scientific authority, and trust him even when he unwarrantedly says that he is “extremely wary” of the use of GM technology in agriculture.

But hey, I guess it’s easy to be flippant against a technology when your belly is full and your children aren’t blind.

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About Myles Power (615 Articles)
My name is Myles Power, and I run the educational YouTube channel, powerm1985. I spend what little free time I have sharing my love of SCIENCE! through home experiments, visiting sites of scientific interest, and angrily ranting at pseudoscience proponents. I am also one of the founding members of the podcast 'The League of Nerds' - which I co-host with James from 'The History of Infection'.

15 Comments on What’s Ben Goldacre’s Beef with Monsanto?!

  1. Jason Brooke // February 15, 2015 at 6:03 pm // Reply

    Love your work Myles

    One little nitpick: “They do this to protect their intellectual property and to recover the vast cost of researching and developing their product for market.”

    Does this have the potential to sound like you’re a little too soft in your wording about company that seems to have pretty decent profits? I’d have thought making money would be a pretty big factor to include in that sentence as well. Admittedly I’m going on nothing other than the assumption that they’re ultimately in it to make a buck, but they are a business after all so it seems like a fair assumption.

    Just thinking from the perspective of someone from the other camp jumping at any little chance to paint you as biased or whatever. Might be the tiniest little thing that helps them decide one way or the other.

    Cheers

    Like

    • Well, considering a single GM crops cost over $100 million to produce, not to mention over a decade of R&D, in addition to 3-5 years of safety testing.

      Like

      • Jason Brooke // February 16, 2015 at 2:43 am //

        HI Sterling – I’m not disputing that at all, and I don’t understand why you made that reply based on what I said :)

        Like

      • I think you’re saying Monsanto warned the American department of military since 1952, that their Agent Orange herbicide was contaminated with dioxin and therefore might have long-term effects on people and ecology. Then you conclude, this “is essentially irrelevant when it comes to the subject of GM-food.”

        There were two parties to the massive biological warfare crime upon Allied Army, Navy and Airforce personnel, plus generations of Vietnamese citizens and Vietnamese Defence personnel. One party (Monsanto) knowingly supplied the biological weapon. The other party (U.S. Department of Military) knowingly wielded it.

        Like a growing number of people, I am mightily concerned by the reported subsequent practices of this company. I add the fact of impunity for supplying ‘dioxin contaminated’ Agent Orange, plus the fact that the former partner in crime is essentially the same partner today (U.S. Government), plus the fact that Monsanto’s biggest profit still comes from agri-chemicals.

        “Essentially irrelevant,” you say? Not in my code of ethics, nor in my worst state of naivety.

        Like

    • Neurotic Knight // February 15, 2015 at 10:19 pm // Reply

      Why do you think they have that decent profit. Genetic Code, just like regular Code takes effort to develop and take profit off. Same people who complain about Monsanto seeds, have no problem running windows, this site is built on wordpress which is free, but not all websites are such, if majority of developers choosed to use squarespace over this. would that automatically make them immoral?

      Like

      • Jason Brooke // February 16, 2015 at 2:46 am //

        I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with them making a profit, if you check what I said :) I just think it’s worth mentioning that when listing the reasons they might bind farmers to a contract.

        Like

    • I think the Monsanto episode of TLoN did a good job explaining it. The amount of R&D that goes into making the seeds is huge. Farmers can’t afford to pay all the R&D in a single year. Thus they make a contract where each year the farmers uses Monsanto’s seeds, they would buy the seeds directly from Monsanto. It’s for the benefit of the farmers so they don’t have to pay a single amazingly large entry price.

      Like

      • Jason Brooke // February 16, 2015 at 2:49 am //

        Yep I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that, and wasn’t intending to suggest there was.

        Like

  2. Did he talk about fluoridation at all in his book?

    Like

  3. So Goldacre basing his opposition to GM on a crop which has never been brought to market (terminator seeds) is ‘pure bullshit’, but your basing your support on a crop which has never been brought to market (golden rice) is completely reasonable?

    I see.

    Like

    • Myles was using Golden Rice as an example of the potential that GM crops have, as a way of showcasing the medical or environmental benefits that *could* be gained from GM crops if this technology was allowed to develop in the right way. Whether Golden Rice is currently on the market or not is irrelevant to the fact that it’s a proof of principle of the good GM can do. Whereas Goldacre was making a claim that is factually completely wrong, which is not only embarrassing but throws into question the validity of any critique he makes about Monsanto of GM in general, given he couldn’t get that one simple fact right.

      Like

  4. Just thought I’d leave some good news. Although the article isn’t the best, today the BBC reported that several mps are pushing for reform to the GMO approvals. Not being from the UK I don’t know exactly what the story and legal situation are but it seemed like good news on the world stage to me. Although I have to go look up that study on the possible negative effects of GMO on the UK’s environment.

    The news piece can be found here:http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-31628160

    Like

  5. I believe Goldacre wrote that in 2007 or thereabouts, and a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. Perhaps one should have asked him about what his stance is on GMOs today, in stead of basing a whole bog post on what he wrote eight years old

    Like

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  1. A Review of Ben Goldacre’s Book Bad Science – Myles Reviews | Myles Power (powerm1985)
  2. Agent Orange – Part One – Introduction – Myles Power (powerm1985)

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