Fact Checking the London March Against Monsanto Protesters – Liz O’Neill of GM-Freeze

Edited by Peter

Earlier in the year, thanks to the wonderful people who have been supporting me thought patreon, I was able to take the train down to London to attend the annual March Against Monsanto (MAM) protest. The protest took place on Whitehall opposite 10 Downing street, and was attended by around 100-200 protesters, as well as a relatively large number of journalists.  The event itself was poorly organised, and had conflicting information on where the protest was to be held; as well as having a late start because of a lack of sound system. When someone finally took the initiative, they used something with such low sound quality that it was very difficult to listen to. Also, rather embarrassingly, at one point a MAM speaker was drowned-out by an adjacent protest of less then 10 men who came prepared with decent sound equipment. The march was also not a march at all, but more of a Standing Still Against Monsanto protest – as nobody moved and, unlike the MAM protest I attended in Nottingham the previous year, there was a distinct lack of people dressed up. How very disappointing.

March Against Monsanto London 12

Very early on, it became clear that these protesters, like the ones in Nottingham, were not just there to protest against the agrochemical and agricultural giant Monsanto – but genetically engineering in general. Although I have no problem with people bashing large corporations they deem to be unethical, I do have a problem with people using bad research, fraudulent data, ignorance, and flat out lies to discredit a technology they simply don’t like or don’t understand and, boy, do the majority not understand it. Most of the people I talked to were there specifically because of their opposition of GM technology, and were unable to answer basic follow up questions after being asked “Why are you here today?” Over the next few months, I plan to write a series of blog posts fact-checking some of the statements made by the protesters that allowed me to interview them, and those who gave speeches that day. I wanted to start on a high note with Liz O’Neil from GM-Freeze who, quite frankly, was a cut above the rest.

Liz is the director of GM-Freeze, an organisation that works to “champion the public’s deep concern about genetic modification in food and farming” and that is deeply concerned with the “speed at which genetic modification is being introduced into food and farming”. Those of you with a good memory will know that I was once on the radio with Liz debating the pros and cons of GM technology in agriculture. Although the debate got rather heated, I enjoyed talking to her, and after I discovered that she would be attending the protest in London, I was excited to meet her and listen to what she had to say.

In the speech Liz gave, she lists various reasons you should be worried about GMOs, however I am only going to concentrate on two of her most convincing arguments that were based in science. The first was that Monsantos herbicide Roundup (Glyphosate), which can be used on GM Roundup Ready crops, is responsible for the decline in the Monarch butterfly in North America.

The numbers of the the Monarch butterfly have been worryingly decreasing over the past few decades, with the population in some areas dropping by over 50% in the past 20 years. Many people have looked into the cause of the decline and, as Liz correctly stated, some peer-reviewed papers have put the blame on Roundup. One of the papers I believe she is referencing was ‘Reduction in common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) occurrence in Iowa cropland from 1999 to 2009’, which correlates the decline in butterfly numbers with the increased use of GM technology in the area over a ten year period. The paper claims that the increased use of the weed killer has decimated the areas population of milkweed, which the Monarch butterfly uses to lay its eggs on, as well as using it for food for their young; resulting in the decreased population we see today. Although one could argue correlation does not prove causation, you can’t deny that it’s a sound argument rooted in reality. So, am I saying that Roundup is responsible for the decreased number of Monarch butterflies as Liz stated?……..yes….kinda.

Although scientists have noted that milkweed is on the decline outside of farmers fields, they agree that Roundup has played its part in the decline of the Monarch butterfly. So should we ban Roundup? No! Roundup is simply doing its job as a herbicide and killing weeds and milkweed which, as its name suggests, is a weed. If it were to be banned, then it would force farmers to use another herbicide (which could be potentially more damaging to the environment) to kill the milkweed, resulting in the same decline in the population. The truth is that the intensive farming techniques we have come to rely on to produce higher yields are the true culprits behind the decline in butterflies. This includes organic farming, in which they also remove the plant from their fields in an effort to increase yields.

The second reason Liz believes we should be worried about GMOs is that the World Health Organisation recently stated that Roundup was a possible carcinogen. It is true that in March of 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified, among other things, Roundup as “probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A)”. To come to this conclusion, the IARC seem to have only looked at a limited number of studies, and seem to have disregarded those that contradict their conclusion. For example, they failed to mention the Agricultural Health Study, which was a multi-million dollar study funded by the U.S. taxpayers over 20 years, involving over 89,000 people to investigate the health of American farmers, and found no credible evidence that glyphosate causes cancer. But let’s say that the IARC are correct, and Roundup should be placed in group 2A – a group that the IARC says there is “limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans” – then it shares its classification with hairdressing and working shifts.

At the end of the day, if Liz was 100% correct regarding Roundup, and it was completely responsible for the decline in Monarch butterflies and was discovered to be a group 1 carcinogen, then Roundup ready crop would be an example of just one type of GMO that would be unstable in the market. As I have said to death in the past, the ability to modify an organisms DNA is a tool – not the final product.

Before I left London, I asked Liz if she would answer a few questions about her speech, and she kindly agreed.

I would like to end by saying how much I appreciated Liz taking the time to talk to me and that, when all is said and done, I think she is kinda cool. It was nice to meet someone who felt as passionately as I do about GMOs (albeit on the opposing side), but did not give off a smug “I’m better than you“ vibe, and it was nice to finally hear something from someone who is against GM-technology in agriculture based, somewhat, on facts.

A tip of the hat you you Liz.

About Myles Power (757 Articles)
Hello Internet! My name is Myles Power and I am a chemist from the North East of England, who loves to make videos trying to counter pseudoscience and debunk quackery in all of its various forms! From the hype around GMOs through to Atrazine turning the freakin’ frogs gay, I’ll try to cut through the nonsense that’s out there!

7 Comments on Fact Checking the London March Against Monsanto Protesters – Liz O’Neill of GM-Freeze

  1. I like Liz. The whole thing with weeds becoming resistent so fast that farmers don’t really gain anything by using them and risk getting sued by the big evil corporation doesn’t really make sense tho. If there really wasn’t anything beneficial with the use of GMOs, and their alternative (whatever it is) is so great, then why aren’t all the farmers rushing to them?

    One question for Myles. Do you feel that her worry about the research from companies like Monsanto might be fraudulent is legitimate in any way? I read somewhere that a patent allows a company to control what research is to be done on their patent. I’m not saying that Monsanto faked all their data, but would that even be possible within the current system?


  2. So. what do these posts look like before Peter “edits” them.


  3. Priceless: “Focusing on GM as an answer actually just distracts everybody from the real problems.” (~7:15)

    You know, I really didn’t think I’d agree with her on anything. But it’s true. GM Freeze and the other outfits fixated on GMOs have completely fogged out the discussion on the real issues. They are the ones fixated on GM, and they are the ones that have caused people to believe things such as removal of GMOs gives you butterflies. That’s completely false, and they own that one. She also claimed patents–again, not unique to GMO. All of it, SSDD.

    People actually think that the only herbicide is GMO-related. I’ve had this conversation many, many times. And it’s because people like GM Freeze have misled them. I think that’s one of the most pernicious misinfo campaigns they’ve spread. And they offer no workable alternatives.

    And the reason they have to do this, of course, is because none of their other wild claims about health and GMO technology have come to pass.

    I think you are too kind to her. Sure, she’s a better obfuscator than some, but that’s hardly a nice place to stand.


  4. Are you deliberately misinforming here? Monarch butterflies, really? There are effects observed on HUMAN BEINGS, and on other vertebrate species. Not indirect damage by effects on habitat, direct effects on animals. Do your job, or restrain, please, or you’re not any better than the people you criticize.
    Working as a hairdresser? Are you real? They’re both on the same list for one simple reason, IARC Group 2A carcinogens lists things that need further investigation, it’s not about how dangerous they are as you imply. This argument in particular makes me doubt if you’re just naive, or have some vested interest.
    BTW, apparently glyphosate based herbicides decompose to formaldehyde. In which group do you put one of the most prominent human carcinogens? In the same with ballet dancing?
    Please, think of it this way: if what you’re saying is wrong, you’re doing the same as House of Numbers, spreading bad information that may have awful consequences on peoples lives.
    My country has seen increases of people dying with leukemia, spontaneous abortions, congenital malformations, neurological diseases. All around GM fields. It’s not science, it’s what should make science move and find an answer. Some are doing it, some are hiding it under the carpet. What will you do?


    • Ok, then your issue isn’t with it being a GM. It’s with the byproduct. Did you know that there are completely natural materials that are carcinogenic? Some of them aren’t even biological. Shall we talk about asbestos? Because that’s not a man-made substance, it’s mined. It’s a natural crystal. The cancer isn’t caused by any chemical in asbestos, it’s literally a by-product of the body’s natural response to the physical damage caused by asbestos fibres.

      Please, stop conflating coincidences as causation, it’s ridiculous.


  5. On a second note, the “3rd world needs” argument doesn’t really hold much water. I prefer the term “peripheral capitalism”, because is more descriptive of the role that countries like mine play in global economy. And it’s very relevant here.
    *While the production of food is increased, the takes greater damage, making it less sustainable.
    *The global economical model of distribution and consumption is not changed, so the bigger issue of availability of food is not really addressed. So long for the “feed the poor”.
    *The biggest damage is made on peripheral countries (surprised?), while the bigger benefits, both earnings and savings, benefit central countries (again, surprised?).
    What I’m saying is the benefits are dubious, but we can be sure of one thing:
    it all fits very well with the same old model of the poor feeding the rich.


  6. I like GMO’s, I think they are the only way to feed the world in the long run. What I don’t like are monopolies and using knowledge for finanicial gain. Knowledge, especially that which is beneficial to everyone, should be usable by everyone. And not locked away behind patent monopolies.

    One donwside to GMO’s is, we don’t know their long term effects on ecology yet. We are only starting to grasp how DNA and genes work and we don’t know how small changes could affect the global ecosystem. It’s like we are using fire, without knowing it can burn down the house. And doing that with big campfires in every room. This is even more risky because only a handful of companies know how to even start the fire and control it’s size.

    About Monsanto:

    I worry especially about RoundUp because of the dependence it creates.

    For a good while nothing that’s not RoundUp ready, or mutated to withstand it, will grow on a field treated with it. RoundUp is like a drug in that sense. Once you use it, you’re dependent on it.
    You are not allowed to reproduce the seed. So you have to buy it all new from Monsanto, every time.
    If a RoundUp ready crop cross-pollinates, you cannot use the seed produced afterwards. So you mustn’t have a field of the same crop, but not RoundUp, nearby.
    Therefore you are completly locked in, if you don’t or rather can’t, invest in renewing the fields you used it on, or letting them lay fallow. A farmer probably cannot invest in this, as they already have very low margins as it is. Which also pressures them into using those crops, as they do have a bigger yield.

    Staying with the drugs theme. Since only Monsanto has rights to make and sell, both RoundUp and the ready crops, you could say they are the cartell.
    They are like the tobacco industry. A tolerated drug cartell. Admittedly, probalby not as harmful, but a monopoly that, knowing very well what they do, makes the users of their product dependent on them.
    We don’t tolerate that in most drugs, why do we do that in our food supply?



3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Fact Checking The London March Against Monsanto Protesters – Haider-Laure Giles of War on Want | Myles Power (powerm1985)
  2. Fact Checking the London March Against Monsanto Protesters – Liz O’Neill of GM-Freez | Myles Power (powerm1985)
  3. My Experience Giving a ProGMO Talk at Skeptics Events – Myles Power (powerm1985)

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