I abhor attempts by large corporations to throw intellectual property nets over, well, anything they can. In addition, I think that once you’ve sold something to someone, your purview over the application of whatever it is should end and it’s up to the buyer to determine what they do with it. I believe this as true of seeds as it is of video game consoles. In this, I’m in agreement with many people who oppose Monsanto suing organic farmers whose crops might have been contaminated with pollen from their genetically modified seeds.
Here’s where I see a bizarre disconnect and misappropriation of blame. It appears that most people complaining about these practices are condemning genetically modified food itself, as if the practice of genetically modifying food is somehow responsible for the irresponsibly frivolous legal tactics employed by a company selling it.
It is my personal belief that the patenting of genetically modified organisms is wrong. Or, at the very least, it’s wrong for a company to claim that someone has violated their intellectual property rights by growing a seed containing genetic code which they modified.
That is simply annoying in comparison with what follows. I find it absolutely abhorrent that a company with these intellectual property rights can then sue farmers whose fields have been “contaminated” by this pollen. (as Monsanto has done.) If anything I believe the farmers perhaps should be able to bring a suit against the company for contaminating their crops with the unwanted organisms.
However, this does not automatically and, by extension make GM crops wrong or dangerous. In fact, it’s a totally different issue. But, perhaps because it’s easy to make emotional appeals to the public involving science and food, it appears the opponents of such practices by Monsanto are quick to go after the science of genetic modification itself. In so doing, they employ intellectually dishonest tactics, cherry pick their evidence and make all kinds of spurious claims.
Let’s take a look at some of the arguments presented by Dr. Vandana Shiva, (Ph.D in philosophy.) who, according to her Wikipedia page(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vandana_Shiva) is a “philosopher, environmental activist, and eco feminist.” Here’s a video in which she makes some claims:
“A Cornell study showed that butterflies fed with pollen from corn had a much higher level of mortality.” (Cooking Up)
This Cornell study is indeed real, and came out in 1999, but, in real science, as Dr. Shiva should know very well (or maybe they don’t teach this in philosophy?), a scientific study isn’t really valid until it’s been independently replicated. The findings made a big splash in the mainstream media—which almost always jumps the gun in cases like this– and much work was undertaken by different experimenters to reproduce the results. They couldn’t. The results of the Cornell study were determined to be inaccurate as we see in the abstract of this article from 2002:
“A publication reporting the harmful effects on the monarch butterfly of maize genetically modified to express insecticidal δ-endotoxins from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) caused much public interest. A series of ecologically based studies were subsequently carried out to evaluate rigorously the impact of pollen from such crops and to quantify the risks. The results demonstrated that the commercial large-scale cultivation of current Bt–maize hybrids did not pose a significant risk to the monarch population. Further studies also demonstrated that Bt-expressing crops posed little risk to other nontarget insects, including beneficial insects such as pollinators and natural enemies.” (Angharad, et. al.)
Since this video is dated 2009, either Dr. Vandana is unaware that the study she cites has been definitively refuted by the scientific community, or she doesn’t care. So she is either uninformed or she is being intellectually dishonest.
Repeated studies of Bt on bees have found that Bt “toxin” doesn’t pose a threat to bees (Ping-Li, et al), (Biao, et al).
“There are reports from India of cattle dying after grazing from Bt cotton fields, because, after all, it’s a toxin.” (Cooking Up)
I looked up these “reports”. It turns out they’re spurious anecdotes, with no evidence whatsoever to connect the deaths to the plants, as opposed to any number of other causes. They also come from farmers who have shown themselves to be outspoken opponents of GM crops, which makes their assertions suspect. In short, this is a wild, completely baseless assertion, and I think Dr. Vandana probably knows better and is again either not researching these claims fully, or is being intellectually dishonest.
“If this is happening to animals and bees, what’s going to happen to human beings, with a lifetime of feeding these toxic foods?” (Cooking Up)
We see there’s no evidence to conclude that this is happening at all. And this is also a loaded question. The word “toxin” sounds great if you want to make something sound bad. It’s often employed by pseudoscience. But something that’s toxic to one organism can be dinner to another. You can stuff your face full of chocolate bars all day and you might get a tummy ache, but you’ll be fine. To your dog, and especially your cat, however, these are dangerous toxins (Adams). The word “toxin” is not a universal identifier, and using it as such is disingenuous, and playing on the fears of the uninformed public.
In addition, several long term studies show that Bt doesn’t harm animals. (Snell 2008)
“This is not being done to improve the food supply or improve nutrition, it’s being done to control food.” (Cooking Up)
Though I don’t have any proof that these are the intentions of Monsanto, I’m inclined to agree with Vandana on this one. Large, for-profit corporations have an intrinsic goal of increasing shareholder value and have demonstrated repeatedly that all other concerns are secondary. They also use misleading PR and advertisement to coerce people into thinking that the company really is driven by the best interests of the public, but when we look at the track record we see that the good of the public is often only worked for by companies such as Monsanto where it coincides with their financial interests, coercion by government agencies, or PR gestures.
Dr. Vandana goes on to say that a farmer whose field has been contaminated by pollen from genetically modified crops should not be considered a thief. In this, I also agree. I, in fact, am in full agreement with her idea that a seed shouldn’t be considered intellectual property at all.
So while I agree with Dr. Vandana’s political leanings and stance against certain use of genetically modified plants to lean on farmers, I do not agree with the condemnation of the application of GM itself. I think Vandana is making spurious claims and is either being intellectually sloppy or dishonest in these cases. No matter what my opinions or beliefs are on a subject, I can’t endorse the use of dishonest tactics to promote them. This is especially important in the field of science. Scientists are not politicians or lawyers. Their first duty is to the truth, as best as they can find it.
Adams, Cecil. “Is chocolate toxic to dogs?” The Straight Dope. Creative Loafing Media, Inc, 1995. Web. 19 May 2012.
Angharad, M.R Gatehouse. Natalie Ferry, Romaan J.M Raemaekers. “The case of the monarch butterfly: a verdict is returned.” Trends in Genetics 8.15, (2002): 249-251. Science Direct. Web. 19 May 2012
Biao Liu, Chang Shu, Kun Xue, Kexin Zhou, Xiaogang Li, Doudou Liu, Yangping Zheng, Chongren Xu, The oral toxicity of the transgenic Bt+CpTI cotton pollen to honeybees (Apis mellifera), Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety, Volume 72, Issue 4, May 2009, Pages 1163-1169, ISSN 0147-6513, 10.1016/j.ecoenv.2009.02.002.
Chelsea Snell, Aude Bernheim, Jean-Baptiste Bergé, Marcel Kuntz, Gérard Pascal, Alain Paris, Agnès E. Ricroch, Assessment of the health impact of GM plant diets in long-term and multigenerational animal feeding trials: A literature review, Food and Chemical Toxicology, Volume 50, Issues 3–4, March–April 2012, Pages 1134-1148, ISSN 0278-6915, 10.1016/j.fct.2011.11.048.
Cooking up a Story, prod. Vandana, Shiva: The Future of Food-Part 1. YouTube. YouTube, 23 Jul 2009. Web. 19 May 2012.
Y. Barrière, R. Vérité, P. Brunschwig, F. Surault, J.C. Emile, Feeding Value of Corn Silage Estimated with Sheep and Dairy Cows Is Not Altered by Genetic Incorporation of Bt176 Resistance to Ostrinia nubilalis, Journal of Dairy Science, Volume 84, Issue 8, August 2001, Pages 1863-1871, ISSN 0022-0302, 10.3168/jds.S0022-0302(01)74627-9.