Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad 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.
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.
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.