Science writer Kyle Hill coins the new term argumentum ad monsantum on his blog. Among other things, he argues:
If Monsanto has anything to do with it, it must be evil. That seems to be the prevailing opinion on the monolithic biotech company.
Making the leap from Monsanto’s business practices—whatever you may think of them—to the “dangers” of GM foods is a mistake in logical reasoning. It is akin to saying landscape paintings are potentially evil because the painter was a serial killer. The conclusion does not follow from the premise. And giving some product or process the attributes of its user is the logical fallacy that currently leads typically pro-science liberals like [Bill] Maher astray on questions of nuclear power, vaccination, and especially GMOs. Whether genetically modified foods are safe is a scientific, not a political, question. To intertwine views of Monsanto with GM foods is therefore an argumentum ad monsantum, a disturbingly popular logical fallacy, and Bill Maher is the classic example.
The first component to the liberal opposition to genetically modified food appears to be a genuine misunderstanding of how it works. The genetic modification of food is a much more exact science than many opponents realize. As this fantastic explainer outlines, genetic modification is typically about inserting a single gene—whose effects we test for toxicity and allergenic properties—into a crop. It is not a haphazard Frankenstein process of sowing and suturing animal and plant parts together. In fact, a Frankenstein-style process is exactly what was done before genetic modification.
Even when we are taking genes from animals and inserting them into plants or vice-versa, the results are still safe, reduce pesticide use, and dramatically increase crop yields. In fact, this year, a review of over 1,700 papers [PDF] concerning the safety of GM food in the journal Critical Reviews in Biotechnology concluded, “The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”
It’s fashionable to think that the conservative parties in America are the science deniers. You certainly wouldn’t have trouble supporting that claim. But liberals are not exempt. Though the denial of evolution, climate change, and stem cell research tends to find a home on the right of the aisle, the denial of vaccine, nuclear power, and genetic modification safety have found a home on the left (though the extent to which each side denies the science is debatable). It makes one wonder: Why do liberals like Maher—psychologically considered open to new ideas—deny the science of GM food while accepting the science in other fields?
He provides his opinion on this question, but why do you believe it is happening?
There are a couple of conflicting, general principles here: having faith in nature and traditional food production, vs economic, mass production.
Mass production makes food more affordable, but new technology and efficiency adds health risks. It should be expected that big corporations strive to make profit, often in denial of big picture risks to their consumers. We could just as easily blame Burger King, McD, et al for giving us bad choices. Ever since we humans started to profit from planning and optimizing food production (as far back as 50k years ago), we've been unknowingly playing nature's game of experimental, nutritional risks vs benefits.
Prehistoric adaptations in diet and environment have even affected our basic genetics, such as skin color, digestive capabilities (e.g. more reliance on animal products, like milk with lactose, meat with high fat, and grains). But in the past few centuries, industrialized food production and distribution has pushed us to higher levels of health risk, along with the benefits of wider availability.
Genetic modification is a whole new area of experimentation with even higher risks and benefits. It's no longer a question in civilization of whether food technology and its business are either good or evil. It's a question of who's savvy enough to make the best choices, their demographics, and their experience/knowledge of how capable, mindful, and transparent big business practices and government are, on their behalf. (I.e., no magic formulas here, so try to ignore all one-sided opinions. There are new gray areas and tradeoffs we have to deal with.)
Also imagine future dilemmas and choices as clean water becomes less available, and local climates and other environmental conditions change. Decisions about food (in the big picture) just get increasingly complicated.
Sadly I run into this because of my many left leaning friends, and social activism. I tend to do alot of fence sitting, due to my deep desire for honesty. When someone makes an assertion concerning Monsanto motivations, I just assume that an attribution error is being made, and that we must look closely at the science behind it. So a case by case evaluation must be made. Sadly I have seen the effect of confounding of money on the sciences a few times, and there clearly is both left and right spin.
The argument Monsanto poses is that they are not the evil empire because they make genetically modified seed and push hard to protect their patent's on said seed.
Bob is a farmer. Bob is a very successful farmer. Bob can afford to buy Monsanto's genetically modified seed. Fred is a farmer also. Not as successful as Bob but he get's by. Fred does not buy Monsanto's seeds cause he just can't afford to. So Fred grows his crop with unmodified seeds.
One day a strong breeze blows some of Bob's seed's into Fred's garden. Fred doesn't notice, cause he doesn't own or walk around with an electron microscope to detect when the wind tossed errant seeds into his garden. He goes about his business of tending to "his" crop.
Monsanto knows that Bob bought seeds off of them. They also know that Fred did not. They are also fully aware that the wind does crazy things. They send a team of chemist out by Fred's land and take a gander from outside the fence. They observe and come to the conclusion that some of those plants Fred is growing come from genetically engineered seeds. The same one's Monsanto sells. Well, they are not having any of that! They get a warrant to test Fred's crop, because they've got ton's of cash on hand to spend on the best lawyers money could buy; Fred does not, he's just your normal middle class working slob of a farmer, and let's face it, he's just trying to get by. But Fred is adamant that he did not steal Monsanto's seeds. He refuses to be strong armed by Monsanto and decides to try and fight against the agricultural giant. We all know how this ends. A judge finds that some of the crop that Fred is growing is in fact genetically altered by Monsanto and order's Fred to pay Monsanto for use of their seed and their technology and to pay court cost for their high priced lawyers.
All because a gust of wind blew Monsanto's seeds into his garden… Fred is SOL.
Why doesn't someone patent some seeds and set up a field upwind of the field where Monsanto grows the seeds it sells? (...or are they grown in a greenhouse?)
This is the basic problem i have with GM crops. As what exactly does a patent mean on a plant that throws its genetic material around on the wind? If GM crops pick up in popularity then sooner or later virtually every field will contain those patented genes. Whether the farmer payed for them or not.
Sadly, on the other side of the equation...
If memory serves, this question now becomes one of the 'commons'.
Since Monsanto, has been the originator of the crop/seed/pollen, and this material is not part of the normal variation of the crop/seed/pollen population, but a fabricated biological, should such material should be considered an 'environmental contaminate'! This contaminate, was sold on the open market, with promisses of improved utility to customers.
If Monsanto were to sell a widget to one person, but then the widget reproduces to become an invasive widget onto the lands/property/life/etc of others, and these 'others' had no intent to use this new widget, could these 'others' be empowered for legal action? Just because Monsanto released the widget into the environment, which then affects others that had no interest in its use, does Monsanto actually have a right for compensation because of this unintended utility/contamination? I would like to suggest that Monsanto is now no better that an energy company burning Coal, a mining company releasing toxic waste, or a nuclear power plant releasing radiation!
A coal company might be able to claim that the CO2/H2O released from a power plant might have utility for plant growth, but since other materials such as Mercury, and other heavy metals are also released, the over all effect maybe negative! Charging the citizens of the world for the minor additional utility of the CO2/H2O, but then failing to consider/mention the other contaminates would be, in short, bull-shit!
In a similar way, the inadvertent effects of a manmade biological, released into the environment, for economic gain, which then affects others that were not the original customers, which then contaminates their crop or lives of these others, does not enable Monsanto to create a 'perfect storm' of economic gain!
In the spirit of adding some good sources to our discussions, I found a very solid article on rejection of science and conspiracist ideation: