My mind is a work in progress
This is my blog about the March Against Monsanto in Santa Fe on May 25, 2013. It originally appeared here.
I debated a long time about whether to go and will explain why I went, what my debate was, and what concerns I think merit marching over.
Twenty years ago I helped fight the construction of a new biotechnology research park at Ohio University where I was an undergraduate student and environmental activist in the early 1990s. I read widely about technology and the environment, and was particularly influenced by Jerry Mander’s book In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and Survival of the Indian Nations.
I came to believe that GMO (and monoculture farming more generally) was inherently bad for the earth and I promoted permaculture as the “appropriate technology” answer to the biggest food problems that GMO proponents claimed their technologies would solve.
Because GMO was my first big issue, I’ve paid particular attention to it over the years. At some point I began to notice an increase in questionable health claims. Since they were mostly propagating on Facebook, I published my thoughts there in a note titled Are GMO Crops Causing Disease Epidemics?.
Around the same time I began working through a sequence of articles in the “Less Wrong” wiki titled How to Actually Change Your Mind. I’d read some books on rationality and cognitive biases, but none of them were so practically useful.
I’ve come to see that the only mind I have any power to change is my own. If this is more generally true and other people only have the power to change their own minds, then I feel that I have an obligation to learn this and change what I can of my mind as needed. I still frequently consult that wiki because my mind a work in progress.
For example, in the course of my research on GMO agriculture I recently came across a blog about the relative risks of conventional vs. GMO breeding methods. It has a chart in it that I found particularly useful and it marks a point where I updated myself incrementally on the issues around GMO. Some of my arguments had to change after giving it due consideration.
I also gained a better understanding about genetics by reading Carl Zimmer’s excellent book A Planet of Viruses (and his ongoing columns in the NYT and elsewhere) and have come to see how viruses put our genetic engineering abilities to shame. Horizontal gene transfer is a form of “natural” genetic engineering that has probably been occurring throughout the history of life on earth. I’m not making the naturalistic fallacy here that what we’re doing is right because it’s natural, but it makes it even harder to accept arguments that GMO is harmful because it is unnatural.
The “right/wrong” paradigm of “appropriate technology” promoted on by Jerry Mander just doesn’t work for me anymore because I see too much of the more nuanced picture of relative risks of all technologies we use. My mind can’t quite go backward in this particular way to not understanding this (though I imagine there’s plenty more nuance that I still miss).
I no longer accept the majority of arguments I encounter against GMO, and I have issues with the numerous unsubstantiated health claims and poorly done studies cited by many anti-GMO activists.
We need to be as critical of the information coming from “our side” as the other, if not more so.
The lack of profit motive doesn’t make people infallible, nor does the profit motive prove that a person must be lying. This is why accusing someone of being a shill is also a losing strategy. Even if you’re right about why they argue the way they do, it doesn’t mean their arguments are actually wrong (though they are more suspect and deserve closer scrutiny).
I don’t believe Monsanto is evil, or at least they are that much worse than other large corporations whose primary legal obligation to shareholders sometimes leads to actions that endanger human health and the environment, and whose lobbying activities have a deleterious effect on our democracy (there’s a lot of change to be desired in this qualifier alone!)
Because my mind is a work in progress, I can discard all other bad arguments as they are exposed without fear of “losing” anything except false beliefs. This is a great freedom to have.
None of this is meant to imply that I believe all GMO products are intrinsically safe, only that I disbelieve most of the claims being made of harm to date. I don’t believe that there’s evidence GMO techniques pose substantially greater risks than conventional breeding methods, though there may be different risks, and it is possible there are dangers we haven’t been able to foresee. This is a valid reason for concern, but probably not for stopping the development of ALL new crop breeding technology.
I still have concerns about Monsanto’s lobbying in Congress and litigation of farmers.
I really don’t like that they hired a Blackwater-owned firm to spy on activists.
I want them to allow independent scientists to conduct tests using their GMO seeds and to be as transparent as possible. [EDIT: Much has changed since that SA article was published. For an update on the situation, see Steven Novella’s blog Do Seed Companies Restrict Research?]
To be fair, there are other companies doing many of the same offensive things in courts and legislatures as Monsanto does. So does Monsanto deserve to be singled out? This is particularly difficult and I haven’t come to a good conclusion even now. Yes and no. If this had been a “March against GMOs” I might not have gone at all. If this had been a “March against Corporate Malfeasance” I would have gone without hesitation.
I’m concerned about the escalation of violent rhetoric against Monsanto employees and that was a reason not to go to the march. I see comments posted on Facebook that call for violence (up to execution) of Monsanto executives and scientists. Things are getting out of hand and I fear the proliferation of misinformation is going to result in violence.
I’d previously mentioned the Monsanto march to my neighbor Ralf Seebeck and suggested maybe we should go and film it for our new TV show, samvaraTV. He liked the idea and we tentatively made plans. We also have a related segment that we shot a few weeks ago of our neighbor talking about local food security and her farm down on the banks of the Rio Grande. The Monsanto march was a natural followup on that.
Ralf is probably more wary about the health effects of GMO than I am and we’ve had a few great conversations about it. We get each other’s perspectives without having a burning need to change. I think this difference in perspectives actually makes us a good team on this issue.
In the lead-up to the march various Facebook activists were posting old news stories, seizing on anything and everything possible to stir people to action. The lawsuit that Monsanto lost to a French farmer in February 2012 was being touted as breaking news in several places. I also read twice the claim that Monsanto convinced the state of Illinois to illegally seize and destroy bees “resistant to Roundup”.
That last link had me particularly puzzled, since Roundup is an herbicide that targets plants, not insects. Roundup’s toxicity to bees has been assessed and found to be low as it is for other insects, birds and mammals.
In the course of researching this I spent about 4 hours the night before the March reading about glyphosate, neonicotinoid pesticides, GMO crops and colony collapse disorder.
I found Randy Oliver’s blog scientificbeekeeping.com and read a number of his publications which were quite informative and accessible.
I also re-read some of the best posts on Bug Girl’s blog about CCD. See for example Bees, pesticides and CCD: What’s the evidence.
And before the night was out, I found myself at monsanto.com reading their corporate commitments.
I have no doubt that the employees of Monsanto generally believe they’re doing good work that promotes sustainable agriculture. Whether those beliefs (and the PR on their web site) actually match the results of use of their products in the real world is outside the scope of this post. I mention it mainly because I feel the need to speak against the demonization of Monsanto employees (sometimes literally demonized as “minions of MonSATAN”).
I woke up with a headache on the day of the march, probably from staying up too late reading corporate PR and science articles. I really wanted to back out, but felt that I should go to move forward with our new TV show. Plus by playing reporter I had an excuse to not chant or carry a sign. I carried a camera and microphone and asked questions instead, and had a really wonderful day in Santa Fe.
I saw Lisa Law, the owner of the home I live in and she took the above photo of me. I also met some neighbors from Dixon that I hadn’t met yet. I was given three different kinds of heirloom seeds (corn, squash and beans) and interviewed a number of interesting people.
I could have played the truly objective reporter and challenged people on questionable claims, but the only mind I have the power to change is my own. It was also not a good time and place to engage in debates so I generally stuck to asking people why they were marching. We had a good time and got some great footage. Have a look!
I shot a lot of still photos as well.
I have a lot more thoughts about all of this, but it’s nearly 3:00am and I have to stop sometime. I also wanted to write about war, and the relationship of Monsanto to the history of modern warfare. Monsanto was involved in the production of the first atomic bomb. As the Veterans for Peace members noted, they also produced Agent Orange and other chemicals used to defoliate Vietnam in order to starve our enemies from the jungle. I don’t know how much blame they share for what the government did, but it’s non-zero. I understand why peace activists will always hate Monsanto.
I wonder if the VFP members know about the gene gun? It was on my mind when I asked them about the relationship of Monsanto and war. Intuitively it feels like “the militarization of agriculture” but I’m not sure there’s more meaning to this metaphor.
Then there was this, one of the last shots I got before we left town. The place that holds New Mexico state memories has forgotten what it is.
I had a conversation about this with my partner Heather and she asked if I thought the quote was true. I don’t think it is, but I do think that a culture that forgets its past is no longer the same culture any more. I worry about the effect of globalization on local culture. I think it is something worth preserving and don’t necessarily see GMO as intrinsically threatening, any more than the rest of monoculture and industrial agriculture. There is a threat, but GMO may also play a role in saving local food crops some day and shouldn’t be prematurely dismissed.
We can still buy heirloom seeds. We can still trade seeds and share seed stories and I don’t see Monsanto trying to take any of that away from us. If this is heresy, well that’s because my mind is a work in progress.