Starting with Shane Smith’s introduction that questions “whether they are actually safe to consume,” HBO VICE’s 17 minute piece ”Savior Seeds” (shown last Friday) is a screed against GMO crops without any science to back it up. He “sent Isobel Yeung to investigate this highlight charged debate,” although Yeung has no scientific background.
The report started in the seed bank in Svalbard Norway, where there is a deep caverns containing hundreds of thousands of seeds, preserved in case of catastrophe. The purpose of the storage is to preserve samples of all types of seeds. But Yeung leads with the question of what happens if there is some global disaster and the curator, Carey Fowler quickly notes that then we would be “in a waiting game for all crops to fail.” The point Yeung wants to hammer home is that Svalbard protects against loss of diversity, which is true, but which simply is not a current danger, and certainly not related to GMOs,
She worries in the next scene “what if we are already on the brink,” because many farmers “buy the same seeds from GMO manufacturers.” This is foolish on the face of it, because there are quite a large number of corn (and soy) varieties to which GM traits such a glyphosate resistance or insect resistance have been added. It is not a single variety.
She interviews Dr Major Goodman from North Carolina State University whom she says fears that widespread use of transgenic crops “could be a disaster waiting to happen.” He says he fears that the same gene being used across many crops could mean that some new disease could put all of the crops “in real trouble.” Dr Goodman is a distinguished scientist with a long career, but we note that he hasn’t published anything since 2008 and it seems as if he is less familiar with transgenic crops than he ought to be. After all, many corn varieties share a number of common genes and this has never been any sort of problem.
Yeung asserts that over 90% of all corn and soy grown in the US are genetically modified, completely ignoring that they represent quite a number of varieties of plants, making this danger essentially fictitious.
Turning to Monsanto, she notes that Monsanto has transitioned from a chemical company “known for making Agent Orange,” to an agricultural seed company. Monsanto did not invent Agent Orange nor did it formulate it. It Is a mixture of two common herbicides (2,4-D and 2,4,5-T) and was made by nine different contractors at the direction of the US government and using a government supplied manufacturing procedure. Monsanto, in fact, pointed out defects in this process which caused the production of dioxins, but was not permitted to change the procedure.
She interviewed Dr Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s Chief Technology Officer, but was most interested in why weeds developed resistance to their Roundup herbicide. Claiming that Monsanto had stated that weeds were unlikely to develop such resistance, she asked Fraley why they had said that. Fraley said he had not seen such a claim, but that it was silly: scientists know that weeds always develop resistance to herbicides. The trick is in weed management to minimize this resistance, and Monsanto points out how to minimize this as part of their product literature.
She also misleads the viewer as to the importance to Monsanto of Roundup sales, not mentioning that the patent expired in 2000, and Roundup is available from many suppliers, including Scott’s. She also implies that all Monsanto crops are resistant to Roundup, where there are in fact many conventional seeds and even some GM seeds that are not.
Much of the rest of the piece concentrates on farming in Paraguay, where most farmers have switched to growing GMO soybeans because they are so profitable. We are shown small farmers wedged between larger farms trying to grow other crops but they claim spraying from the large farms makes this impossible. This is an agricultural management problem for Paraguay which has nothing to do with GM crops.
When she asks Fraley what Monsanto does for the small farmer, he responds that in all cases he’s seen, they do better because they have fewer options and growing GM seeds is better for them. Yeung says that in Paraguay the small farmers “cannot afford the seeds,” but this is clearly a fraudulent argument, because seed price is proportional to farm area and small farmers thus buy fewer seeds. Clearly if the seeds are more productive, they should do better too.
Nonetheless, there are significant problems in getting fresh produce in Paraguay because most of the large farmers have switched to the more profitable soy and the smaller farmers cannot plant without being oversprayed. This is a serious agricultural management and political problem, but has nothing to do with biotechnology.
In an interview with Dr M Jahi Chappell, Director of Agriculture and Agroecology at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (an organization with a decidedly anti-GMO and shady business slant) she hears Chappell accuse Monsanto of selling “really low quality low health food to the world.” Chappell, you can easily discover is not a scientist at all, but a political ecologist.
In a brief interview with Senator Jon Tester, who is also an organic farmer, she hears him berate unknown Senators for inserting language “protecting Monsanto from lawsuits.” He is actually referring to the “Monsanto Protection Act,” which in lasted only for 6 months and was written to protect farmers from lawsuits, not Monsanto or any other seed company. She also lets him get away with the statement that “farmers used to save their seeds” and now have to buy them every year. Farmers can indeed save non-patented seeds and replant them if they want to, but this is a fairly inefficient use of resources, and over time replanting leads to less productive seeds. And, in fact, farmers have not been replanting seeds for many years: it is much more efficient to buy fresh seed.
Finally we are again treated to the IARC fiction that Roundup is suddenly carcinogenic, despite dozens of research papers to the contrary, including a recent 4-year study by the German Federal Institute. By contract, the IARC took only about a week to classify Roundup as “probably carcinogenic,” apparently looking only at a little data and conducting no research itself. Amanda Zaluckyj explains this in detail I her blog. And this Group 2A category includes “manufacturing glass, burning wood, emissions from high temperature frying, and work exposure as a hairdresser.”
Most important, the IARC based their conclusions on one study of glyphosate spraying in Columbia. However, that paper by world toxicology authority Keith Solomon says exactly the opposite. The IARC said that glyphosate could cause genotoxicity, which could lead to cancer. Solomon, who wrote the paper says
“There’s no evidence that glyphosate is genotoxic.”
So, in conclusion, this really sloppy report is full of shoddy misinformation and is clearly agenda-driven. They started with a predetermined conclusion and stuck with it, facts be damned!