The year is 1856 and a Silesian friar and science teacher named Gregor Johann Mendel gets the go-ahead from his abbot to conduct horticultural experiments on the few acres the monks maintain at the Augustinian Abbey of St. Thomas, in the vowel-starved city of Brno in what is now the Czech Republic. Mendel selects and crossbreeds strains of garden peas in every combination, trying to precisely control and predict the expression of various characteristics (pea color, pod shape, plant height, etc.). Along the way he discovers that the plants vary according to a regular statistical function, and more interestingly still, that a “daughter” plant’s characteristics are not merely a blend of its parents’. Rather, a pair of “factors” that split and recombine during the reproductive process controls the offspring’s characteristics, and certain of these factors are “dominant” over others. Mendel presents his findings in a paper (“Versuche über Pflanzenhybriden”) to the local natural-history society, and by all accounts there is much nodding and favorable rapping of walking-sticks. But Mendel’s work is forgotten for decades, and only in the middle of the 20th century is his path-breaking discovery of these “factors” (we call them genes) rediscovered and Mendel recognized as the father of modern genetics.
Fast-forward to 2013. A distant Facebook “friend” whom we’ll call Fletcher — the brother of an acquaintance’s ex-girlfriend — is in full lather, clogging my wall with the agit-prop of a tinfoil-hat brigade called “Truth Seeds.” The paradigmatic image: a collection of one-dollar bills scrawled with magic-marker entreaties: “RESEARCH: 9/11 Building Controlled Demolition Thermite,” “RESEARCH: U.S. Government Created Al-Qaeda,” “RESEARCH: Free Energy Suppression Tesla,” “RESEARCH: Sodium Fluoride Side Effects,” “RESEARCH: Bilderberg Group Trilateral Commission Logan Act,” “RESEARCH: Monsanto GMO.” If you don’t like my answers, Fletcher seems to be saying, I suggest you cease asking frightening questions.
Gregor Mendel is a genius. My acquaintance’s ex-girlfriend’s brother is, by contrast, a cretin. So it is not surprising that in the Venn Diagram of the Ages, their circles intersect but little. But it is somewhat surprising that that small area of overlap should be human meddling in the genetic lives of members of kingdom plantae — that is, with the sorts of things Monsanto does.
Monsanto, a hundred-year-old Missouri conglomerate, is among the pioneering developers of “genetically modified organisms,” agricultural products whose DNA has been modified to produce desirable characteristics. In other words, jumped-up Mendelian peas — without the limitations imposed by natural sexual compatibility or the hassle of the hundreds of generations of crosses frequently required to lock in the sought-after traits.
GMOs can be engineered to do lots of great things, such as better withstand climate extremes, resist pests and pathogens, and pack more nutritional punch. And indeed, Monsanto’s “transgenic” products have substantially enhanced agricultural and horticultural efficiency, leading to increased yields, reduced costs, and fuller bellies. Unfortunately, they have also implicated Monsanto (along with the Illuminati and Colonel Sanders) in an international conspiracy to enslave us all in a neo-fascist world government.
At least, that’s the sort of thing you’ll see hypothesized in the fever swamp that is the “alternative news” blogosphere, where sites with names like “Conspiracy Planet” and “DarkGovernment” warn that Monsanto is “America’s Most Dangerous Criminal,” spearheading a “de-population conspiracy” with the active abetting of the United States government. Of course, paranoia knows no party, but what’s strange about the case of Monsanto — and what sets it apart from the Truther, Bilderberger, and fluoridation legs of the Silly Stool — is that the nutter’s brief against the food giant is co-opted, in broad outline and sometimes in fine detail, by plenty of people in the mainstream American Left.
Take the latest purported sign of Monsanto’s genetically modified grip on American democracy, the nefariously dysphemized “Monsanto Protection Act”: a rider buried (by Democrats, by the bye) in the last continuing resolution that, according to sites such as Jezebel, Gawker, Salon, and Huffington Post, “protects genetically modified seeds from litigation in the face of health risks” and renders federal courts “powerless to stop Monsanto” from planting and selling “potentially unsafe” genetically modified products. The agribusiness, they warn, “bought enough influence to bypass the system of checks and balances.”