Sunday, May 26, 2013

Some Thoughts on Monsanto

This week someone forwarded me an article entitled “The Goodman Affair.”  (I hadn’t had one, but read the piece anyway.)  It concerned further efforts to insulate Monsanto’s genetically-modified corn from scientific scrutiny – and provided a context in which to contemplate the NMSU Regents’ vote elevating Garrey Carruthers to University President.

Monsanto has tinkered extensively with “genetically modified” corn and other seeds.  A major genetic modification is to make the corn survive the use of a particular Monsanto herbicide, Roundup.

Many folks would prefer not to eat genetically modified food.   There’s been a move to require labeling, to retain people’s freedom to choose.  Monsanto has strenuously opposed labeling, insisting that since there’s no possible health danger, labeling would be wasteful.

The Goodman Affair?  In October 2012 a team of scientists published in a scientific journal a study in which rats given the genetically-modified maize and Roundup developed tumors and died prematurely at a faster rate than rats fed more normal food.  Monsanto experienced a storm of negative publicity.

Other scientists, many or all with undisclosed ties to Monsanto, immediately criticized the French study.  I don’t know who’s right, but the disputed study followed rats for their full two-year life span, not for just a few months.  Earlier studies relied on by Monsanto apparently took the shorter view.

The most disturbing thing is that within months former Monsanto employee Dr. Richard Goodman suddenly held a newly-created position (“Associate Editor for Biotechnology”) at the journal.  He’ll be in charge of deciding which biotechnology studies get published.  Although usually those journals promote from within, and slowly, Dr. Goodman apparently had no previous tie to the journal.   Monsanto ain’t gonna have to worry about Food and Chemical Toxicology anymore.

This is no isolated incident.  Monsanto has consistently used its astonishing political clout (with both parties) and its wealth to evade objective scrutiny.   Initial approval of GMO seeds in the U.S. came in a proclamation by the first President Bush (at Monsanto’s request) that no special Government safety tests would be done because the President deemed GMO seeds “substantially equivalent” to non-GMO seeds; Monsanto’s  contracts for the sale of seeds flatly prohibit use of the seeds for independent research; and recently Congress slipped into emergency legislation on another subject a law allowing farmers to plant genetically modified crops even if a court orders suspension of planting pending environmental review!  The Government has still done no testing of the GMO seeds.

Monsanto’s questionable conduct strengthens my support of required labeling, the way a TV detective’s eyes narrow when someone objects violently to a perfectly reasonable question, or runs down the alley at the first sign of a squad-car.

Monsanto reminds me of the scientists in a bad 1950's sci-fi movie, who have discovered what’s best for us and don’t care what we might think about it.  If we had free choice we’d only act like immature barbarians, so they save us from ourselves, even if that requires killing or reprogramming dissenters.

I’m sure Monsanto has invented or could invent things that could help us negotiate the tough decades ahead, with crazy weather, drought, rising seas, food shortages, and what-not.  I know some pretty good people who collaborate with Monsanto on projects.

But I’d like the freedom to decide what I’ll eat.  When I interviewed farmers’ market customers for a video project recently, many stressed that they liked locally-produced food “because I know what’s in it” or because there were “no pesticides.”

Unfortunately, scientific research more and more depends on industry funding.

In earlier centuries, scientific truth was what a prince or king said it was (or the Church or local medicine man).  Briefly, after the Enlightenment, it was what objective scientists, struggling to understand our complex world, seemed to be finding out, although there was a lot of uncertainty.  Now it’s not unreasonable to fear that truth will be what the wealthiest corporations say it is.

At a minimum, objective science is under siege, particularly in the U.S.  Industry hacks spending a few years with the FDA or EPA often make the rules.  Politicians beholden to Monsanto, the oil industry, and other deep pockets make the laws and appoint the judges.  Now even university science and administrative posts, and the editorships of scientific journals, belong to industry people with vested interests.

There’s an ongoing battle over whether universities and scientific journals will retain at least some semblance of objectivity.  In that contest, how can one be pleased that the NMSU regents have chosen a fellow who attacked good science for the tobacco companies and still apparently doesn’t get it about global warming?  Nothing personal.  It’s just wrong.

I’m not saying Mike Cheney got a call from Monsanto.  Cheney’s just a small-time businessman who saw his pal Carruthers as good for business: a man who’d bring in money.  Whose money, and for what, Cheney probably doesn’t much care.  The university reputation is a resource, and if it can be rented out for some quick cash, why not?

Cheney’s university-as-business view is sad.  I know the Socratic model of teacher and students questioning and arguing all day is no longer feasible.  But couldn’t we dream of a university somewhere between that and the business model – where learning mattered and science at least tried for objectivity and high competence?

[The foregoing column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 26 May.  As always, it represents my views and not necessarily those of the newspaper.]

There were marches against Monsanto in much of the world yesterday, including El Paso, Texas, and Albuqerque, Santa Fe, Silver City, and Taos, New Mexico.  In Las Cruces, there were scattered individuals trying to start something but not able to find each other.  One man did play a guitar and hand out leaflets at the Farmers' Market.

GMO's, and the larger issue of the attacks on objective science by Big Pharma, the Oil and Gas Industry, and Monsanto, need to be raised more and more often. 

With the GMO's, I'd like to belief Monsanto's claim that there's no problem.  But we've heard that repeated so often with all sorts of things.  A few years ago an interesting memoir by the son of a scientist with a major asbestos manufacturer reported playing with pieces of asbestos -- and his mother growing tomatoes in pots made from asbestos.  More recently, ten years ago I probably laughed at a co-worker, Charles, who refused to own a cell-phone or even talk on mine when we had to talk with someone about Charles's field of expertise, and I probably cursed him for objecting to my use of my cell-phone while driving us to court.  Now science seems to be suggesting that overuse of cell-phones can be a health hazard, and cities and states are outlawing the use of cell-phones.  

Monsanto's own conduct discourages me from believing much that it says on this subject.  Its unusually secretive mode, its extensive steps to avoid independent scrutiny, and some of the conduct discussed in the column sure suggest it has something to hide.  Too, "the Goodman affair" is just one example among many, too many to fit into a newspaper column.

Right after posting this I read allegations that Facebook had suspended a woman for posting photographs of her children holding signs at a rally against GMO's yesterday.   I read the allegation on something called -- and read it with some skepticism.  Here are the photographs:
They show the two children of Andrea Lalama.  Almost immediately her account was suspended, with a message on her account that read, "FACEBOOK: You have been restricted from Interacting With Pages until Saturday, June 8, 2013 at 6:47 p.m."

My first reaction was to wonder if maybe there was something else -- something Ms. Lalama either had forgotten, didn't realize, or wasn't mentioning.  However, the same apparently happened to a lady named Georgia Gallucci, for repositing a friend's photos from the Monsanto March; and the same happened to an account called "Reversing Autism."

In each case, the photographs were labeled "abusive."  


I'll be curious to hear more, one way or the other.


  1. My pleasure to meet you at Farmer's market this morning.

    Your pictures are at

  2. Peter,
    I also don’t “Get It” about human-caused CO2-fueled Global Warming.
    Please cite data which shows that the present climate has been significantly influenced by man’s use of CO2. Please show me facts, measurements, observations and data t support your view. Please don’t cite studies, projections, consensus, or other similar. As Joe Friday used to say, “Just the Facts, sir.”
    In this post, you use the phrase, “tough decades ahead, with crazy weather, drought, rising seas, food shortages…”
    Was there ever a time when there was not crazy weather? If so, I would like you to tell me when that was. When was there ever a period when there was not drought, especially in the mountain West?
    Are you familiar with the tree ring data from U of Arizona posted in the New York Times at
    Perhaps you could show me, using these data, the halcyon times when there was no drought in New Mexico. Maybe you have your own sources for this, if so tell us or me. Please note that the 20th Century was a time of especially bountiful rainfall in New Mexico, seemingly falsifying those who say that man’s use of CO2 is causing New Mexico drought.
    Sea level has been rising for over 18,000 years but from your post you would think that it is me, driving my old Bronco, causing sea level rise. Please look at some data, for instance, at
    or, more recent data at:
    I am glad that you mentioned food shortages, because all of the food upon which we and the world’s animals depend, originated from CO2in the atmosphere, and the plants which bring us our food are at present CO2 starved. I would suggest that you embrace the notion of enriching the atmosphere with CO2 since it clearly has beneficial effects on plants and food production. From the tone of your post, I would guess that you have not visited the web site
    If you are interested in reducing food shortages, please let me recommend to you these references, easily found on the Internet:
    Also please note the numbers of studies at
    Which show, through the use of objective studies, how increasing quantitatively increases plant growth and food production.
    You seem to like to cite objective science in your posts. Perhaps you could take a glance at
    Especially take a look at the graphic halfway down the opening page, and tell me is it not true that there is a 95% chance that the Global Warming Alarms are completely wrong?
    Bob Endlich,