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.”
Man, that would suck if it were true, right? Good thing it isn’t. In fact, the “Monsanto Protection Act” doesn’t limit liability for Monsanto or any other biotech company. It protects the farmers who buy their product — and then only temporarily. The rider was intended to dampen some of the adverse consequences of the fact that each and every GMO is regulated as a potential “plant pest” by the government, unless and until its manufacturer completes a lengthy and onerous regulatory process to reclassify it. This arrangement gave regulators broader powers over GMOs than over legacy crops, and exposed planters who purchased them to immense regulatory risks. David Bier at the Skeptical Libertarian blog explains it well:
In August 2010, the Center for Food Safety and some organic farmers . . . managed to convince a court to void the five-year-old approval of GE sugar beet seeds. This decision, in effect, reverted the sugar beets to “pest” status. In November 2010, a federal judge ordered the sugar beet seedlings pulled from the ground, as required by law. But by this point, nearly 95 percent of domestic sugar beet production was from GE seeds. In other words, if the decision had stood, it could have destroyed as much as half of America’s granulated sugar production on purely procedural grounds.
The so-called “Monsanto Protection Act” actually does nothing to protect Monsanto. Rather, it protects the farmers that bought Monsanto seeds and planted them under the belief that it was legal to do so by granting them temporary permits for their existing crops and seeds, which have already been subjected to extensive USDA scrutiny. It does not allow them to keep planting where there are proven health risks or to keep planting at all. . . . In fact, the sale of GE seeds would still [have been] prohibited after a court finding [under the rider].
Of course, doing tort reform piecemeal, and hiding it in the creases of a continuing resolution that was never in any danger of not passing, is not ideal. And Monsanto’s is most certainly a powerful lobby. But minor deregulatory measures like this don’t merit maydays on the old ham radio.
There are legitimate political questions surrounding what GMO producers do — how should their seed patents be treated, for instance? — but the liability issue is, for Monsanto haters on the mainstream left, ancillary to the real threat, which is the very existence of these “unnatural” foods. This hysteria extends from an ill-founded conviction they share with many full-blown conspiracy theorists that GMOs are unhealthy, even deadly.
Never mind that there isn’t any proof of that. Since 2000, at least 35 peer-reviewed studies have been published on the consumption of GMOs, and every single one showed no negative effects — or positive effects — on the health of the consumer. In 2012, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a non-profit governed by a bunch of academics, concluded that GMOs “pose no greater risk than the same foods made from crops modified by conventional plant breeding techniques” like our old friend Gregor’s. They noted that the World Health Organization, American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, and British Royal Society had all reached similar conclusions.
Virtually every soybean and ear of corn in the United States is genetically modified and already subjected to rigorous testing and regulation. And any new genotype exhibited by a crop has to be shown to be non-toxic and non-allergenic before it can be marketed for consumption. In part because of this, the AAAS concluded that requiring special labeling for foods containing GMOs — as many Monsanto-haters have called for — would “mislead and falsely alarm consumers.”
That didn’t stop a dozen states from introducing GMO-labeling bills in 2012, in no small part because of the advocacy of left-wing grassroots groups such as “Food Democracy Now!” who make no secret of their hatred for Monsanto and its ilk. On the other hand, every single one of these efforts failed, according to the Associated Press. Even California — California! — voted down a ballot measure that would have required labeling. That’s right, folks, one of the most big-government states in a country so frenzied about safety that we’re about two years from mandating bubble-wrap suits thinks the whole exercise is an alarmist waste of time.
But don’t expect it to go away. Monsanto is just too perfect an issue for a certain class of urbane lefty already inclined to food snobbery and to activism. It harmonizes with his inherent mistrust of corporations, confirms him in the superiority of his lifestyle choices, and accords with the deep strain of Rousseauian anti-modernism that runs through him. Never mind that a world without GMOs would be a hungrier world, a world in which the poor would have to pay something closer to the prices he happily bears for the peace of mind that comes from the politically correct consumption of roughage. As for the rest, well, let them eat cake. Locally sourced, sustainably produced, certified organic cake.
— Daniel Foster is NRO’s news editor.