Edited by Peter
Anyone who knows me in real life knows that the past month or so has been a little on the challenging side. A few things have happened to me, but by far the most time consuming was having to find a new job after I was told that I was going to be made redundant. Because of this, I had no free time to do what I love the most – reading books with questionable conclusions that reference flawed, if not fraudulent, scientific papers. However, an opportunity to read one of the smaller books on my ever-expanding shelf of woo came up when I was traveling to Glasgow to talk at Skepti-Caley. The book was called ‘Monsanto Vs. The World’ and it seemed fitting as I was about to give a presentation in which I critique several highly referenced anti-GM papers. I was curious to see if the book could convince me on my train ride that GMOs do indeed pose a risk to human health. SPOILERS… it didn’t.
The book is on the short side at only 42 pages and, for the most part, is boring and brings nothing new to the table. Most of the reasons it gives for why you should be against the use of genetic modification in agriculture and the company Monsanto have been countered here on this website. They include the Indian farmer suicide rates, agent orange, and the Seralini paper to name a few. The book is also riddled with the cardinal sin of trying to pass public opinion as evidence. For example, in a section titled ’Monsanto’s Greatest Hits’ where it lists products Monsanto has previously been involved with in order to poison the well against them. Take, for example, what it had to say about the artificial sweetener, Aspartame.
“Aspartame is widely held in public opinion to be both carcinogenic and neurotoxic, in some cases due to chain e-mails. However, a 2007 medical review found it safe for public consumption, and it remains in wide use despite public skepticism”
It is very misleading to sandwich the fact that there is no evidence of aspartame’s ill effects on humans between two hyperbolic statements about the number of people who believe it has. It gives the reader the impression that there is something nefarious about the artificial sweetener when, in reality, the compound has been extensively researched and shown that it and it’s degradation products are safe for humans. I know this is obvious for most people reading this, but just because some people believe it to be both carcinogenic and neurotoxic, that does not make it true
The book is also guilty of only telling half the story. Take, for example, when it begins to talk about what activists referred to as ‘terminator’ seeds. These are seeds which are incapable of producing viable offspring and, contrary to popular belief, are not currently on the market. Monsanto does hold a patent for a form of this technology but has publicly stated that they have no plans to research it further in order to commercialise it. Credit where credit is due – the book does bring a lot of attention to this fact but ends somewhat ominously by saying…
“Nature magazine reported in February 2013 that the concept of terminator technology may be regaining traction.”
The reference used to back up this line does indeed suggested that there are people interested in this technology. What the book failed to mention is that the people who may be interested, at least according to the reference, are organic farmers. It makes the case that this technology would be a way of preventing cross contamination and alleviate a lot of environmental concerns. Don’t get me wrong, there are many valid concerns with using this technology (like what would happen if the infrastructure of the country in which it was planted collapsed) but I think if the author truly wanted his book to be unbiased and have a certain level of credibility he should have told the full story.
Overall the book is nothing new and was full of the same parroted anti-GMO rhetoric that we have all heard a thousand times before. The only thing of interest brought up was one worrying aspect of the anti-agrotechnology movement that I have been reluctant to talk about – that some believe we should allow people to die to prevent over population.
The book brings up this viewpoint when talking about Norman Borlaug – a man who most won’t know, but who is credited with saving the lives of over a billion people. Borlaug introduced high-yielding varieties of wheat as well as modern agricultural production techniques resulting in increased agricultural production worldwide, particularly in the developing world. The man has progressed mankind and helped to alleviate an unfathomable amount of pain and suffering yet, unbelievably, some are critical of his work.
“Critics, frostily, have stated that Borlaug’s dwarf wheat is a major contributor to world overpopulation. The number of people in the world has increased by over four billion since the Green Revolution sparked by Borlaug’s work; the adoption of transgenic wheat might create an even greater population explosion. We are well into highly uncomfortable ethical territory at this point”
I am not going to lie and say that I have the solution to the very real problem of overpopulation, but I know the answer can’t be to let people die of starvation. How anyone can be so detached from humanity and think of themselves as above those who their view could potentially harm is beyond me. I think some need to be reminded that we are all in this together, that we are all human, and that it’s it’s easy to oppose technology that increases agricultural production when you don’t have to worry about feeding your family.