Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 6, 2014

The New York Times’s free advertisement for genetically modified crops

Filed under: Ecology,farming,food,journalism — louisproyect @ 8:24 pm

University of Hawaii officers hold up Monsanto gift–no strings attached, of course

I am not sure when I began reading the N.Y. Times on daily basis but it must have been just after I graduated Bard College in 1965 and moved to New York City. So addicted I became to the paper that I had recurring bad dreams a few years ago about waking up much later than usual on a Sunday morning and desperately searching newsstands for a copy of the Sunday Times to no avail. In all the years I have been reading the paper, I have never run into a more biased and misleading article than the one that appeared yesterday—a Sunday—under the title “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops” by Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter Amy Harmon. This 5442-word article reads as if someone working for Monsanto wrote it. Harmon, like Clifford Krause who is a shameless propagandist for fracking in the paper’s business section, is clearly an industry spokesperson. Her sordid record is worth examining, as is the question of genetic modification itself that she practically likens to global warming denialism or creationism as this excerpt bears out:

Scientists, who have come to rely on liberals in political battles over stem-cell research, climate change and the teaching of evolution, have been dismayed to find themselves at odds with their traditional allies on this issue. Some compare the hostility to G.M.O.s to the rejection of climate-change science, except with liberal opponents instead of conservative ones.

“These are my people, they’re lefties, I’m with them on almost everything,” said Michael Shintaku, a plant pathologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who testified several times against the bill. “It hurts.”

A number of the pro-GM scientists Harmon refers to are at the University of Hawaii. From the university’s newspaper:

The College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa received $500,000 from Monsanto Company to establish the Monsanto Research Fellows Fund. The fund will assist graduate students pursuing a masters or PhD degree and post doctoral researchers at the college related to the study of plant science and protection.

 “We are very grateful to Monsanto Company for its generous financial support of CTAHR students engaged in agricultural research – Hawai‘i’s future leaders of sustainable industries and a strong, diversified economy,” said UH Mānoa Chancellor Virginia S. Hinshaw.

Harmon dismisses the idea that the contribution might have an influence on the school by quoting an administration figure that said that the money is only one percent of the school’s budget.

This question of corporate ties to pro-GM scientists is a sensitive one since Monsanto and other such firms have such a shitty reputation. Harmon cites a blog that supports her case:

“Just as many on the political right discount the broad scientific consensus that human activities contribute to global warming, many progressive advocacy groups disregard, reject or ignore the decades of scientific studies demonstrating the safety and wide-reaching benefits” of genetically engineered crops, Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, wrote on the blog of the nonprofit Biology Fortified.

If you go to Biology Fortified, you will get these assurances on their financial information page:

The site hosting costs of Biology Fortified, Inc. (BFI) were initially footed by the founding editors, and currently the majority of financial support for these overhead costs comes from individual personal donations. BFI is not supported by any companies, government entities, or political parties.

Now I don’t know if Pamela Ronald says the things she says because Monsanto is paying her under the table, but one has to wonder about the journalistic integrity of Amy Harmon by accepting Ronald’s word at face value in light of the reporting on her work at Independent Science News just six weeks before Harmon’s article appeared. Does the N.Y. Times care that Harmon was trawling through the garbage for support? Apparently not. In the article titled “Can the Scientific Reputation of Pamela Ronald, Public Face of GMOs, Be Salvaged?”, we discover:

Did Pamela Ronald jump, or was she pushed?

In fact, scientific doubts had been raised about Ronald-authored publications at least as far back as August 2012. In that month Ronald and co-authors responded in the scientific journal The Plant Cell to a critique from a German group. The German researchers had been unable to repeat Ronald’s discoveries in a third Ax21 paper (Danna et al 2011) and they suggested as a likely reason that her samples were contaminated (Mueller et al 2012).

Furthermore, the German paper also asserted that, for a theoretical reason (3), her group’s claims were inherently unlikely.

In conclusion, the German group wrote:

“While inadvertent contamination is a possible explanation, we cannot finally explain the obvious discrepancies to the results in..…..Danna et al. (2011)”

Pamela Ronald, however, did not concede any of the points raised by the German researchers and did not retract the Danna et al 2011 paper. Instead, she published a rebuttal (Danna et al 2012) (4).

The subsequent retractions, beginning in January 2013 (of Lee et al 2009 and Han et al 2011), however, confirm that in fact very sizable scientific errors were being made in the Ronald laboratory. But more importantly for the ‘Kudos to Pam’ story, it was not Pamela Ronald who initiated public discussion of the credibility of her research.

Harmon can’t resist taking a potshot at Vandana Shiva, who is probably the best known critic of GM crops in the world today:

Monsanto’s cotton, engineered with a gene from bacteria to ward off certain insects, had “pushed 270,000 farmers to suicide” since the company started selling it in India in 2002, the activist Vandana Shiva said in a Honolulu speech Ms. Wille attended.

But in Nature, a leading academic journal, Mr. Ilagan [a Hawaiian elected politician who favors GM] found an article with the subhead “GM Cotton Has Driven Farmers to Suicide: False.”

You can read Shiva’s rebuttal to the Nature article here but I think it is far more worthwhile to consider what India’s Supreme Court has decided. In October 2012 they called for a 10 year ban on Monsanto’s GM cotton over worries that “transgenics can contaminate and adversely affect the biodiversity”. The last time I checked the Indian Supreme Court was not exactly a champion of poor peasants or environmental safety. Something must be going on, no?

Furthermore, the Hindustan Times reported on March 26, 2012 that a “Secret govt note says Bt cotton failing, leading to farmer suicides” had been leaked to the press. The government agency referred to in the article was the Ministry of Agriculture, which like the Supreme Court was not to be mistaken for Vandana Shiva even on its best days.

Harmon makes the case that genetically modified papayas have been a boon to the Hawaiian economy relying on the expertise of one Jon Suzuki. Unfortunately, she neglects to mention that he is an employee of the United States Department of Agriculture, an agency that has been presented with over 5,000 applications for field trials of genetically engineered crops. Not a single one has been denied.

This is now the third article in a row in which Harmon has made the case for GM crops. So egregious has been her advocacy that it has even attracted the notice of the Columbia Journalism Review that gave her the benefit of the doubt, no doubt a function of the journalism school’s cozy relationship to the gray lady. I do recommend a look at it, however, since it will give you an idea of the amount of controversy Amy Harmon has been generating. It is focused on food policy expert Michael Pollan’s disapproving tweet of an earlier Harmon article: “Important NYT story on GM oranges; 2 many industry talking pts.” For those unaccustomed to the 140-character straight jacket imposes, the 2 means too. The concluding paragraphs of the CJR article will give you a sense of the authoritative journal’s unease with Amy Harmon’s reporting, despite her Pulitzer Prize (but then again Thomas Friedman has a wheelbarrow full of them.)

In many ways this is less a clash of journalistic ethics than of journalistic styles. Pollan would like Harmon to use more of the history and economics of crop modification to give a picture of Monsanto’s cornering of the market. Harmon explicitly chose to leave out such scope to focus on the narrative at hand. “I didn’t consider it my responsibility to put in 20 years of the GMO debate,” she says.

But without a fact-driven chronicling of GMO’s lineage, Harmon’s story of innovation lacks what Pollan considers crucial context. “Should we be debating what GM might do to feed the 9 billion, or should we debate what, after 15 years in the market, it can and has done,” he says. “They’re always trying to get us to focus on these wonders to come. And I’m looking forward to the wonders to come too. I just haven’t seen them yet.”


  1. Go the library and read the NYT from 25-30 years ago, and compare it to today’s paper, you will be amazed by the difference. While the paper may have always served the same interests, it now does so in a way that is openly propagandistic, without the subtlety and journalistic skill that its writers used to possess. The independence that people like Tom Wicker and Anthony Lewis would sometimes display is long gone. Much the same is true, on a smaller scale, with my local newspaper, the Sacramento Bee.

    There is a name for what most US newpapers have become: a greensheet. Back in the day, greensheets were small neighborhood, frequently suburban, newspapers supported by car dealer, insurance agent and realtor ads. They ran boosterish articles about the opening of new restaurants, local musicians and artists, small business developments, the July 4th parade and high school sports teams. Now, we have greensheets on a regional, national and international scale.

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 6, 2014 @ 10:31 pm

  2. The battle over GMO crops was lost twenty years ago in the US and we can’t even get labeling laws passed. There is one bright spot in this gloomy picture and that is in Venezuela where activists have again stopped the penetration of Monsanto into their country. A new seed law that was worded in a way to allow GMO use was stopped even though it was sponsored by a high ranking party official. Almost as important the agroecologists stopped a new seed patent law and are fighting to protect vital native seed varieties.

    Africa is the new target for GMO and seed patent penetration by Monsanto and other multinationals, with the help of Liberals like Bill Gates there is little chance they can resist the capture of their food production.

    Comment by PeteM — January 7, 2014 @ 5:49 pm

  3. This is an excellent and thought-provoking piece. The following is not meant to refute it–no need for that–but to suggest some complementary thoughts.

    I wonder whether the demonization of GMO crops as such by the broader Left isn’t in a general sense drawing attention away from the more fundamental problem, the necessarily predatory business practices of Monsanto and their kind, which in turn emerge directly from the necessary historical dynamic of advanced capitalism.

    Example: If GMO corn is “Roundup-ready,” we can be sure the resulting products will be saturated with Roundup–surely a very bad thing. But what evidence is there that the genetic modification in and of itself has created this evil?

    If farmers can be sued for harboring plants that have been accidentally pollinated by neighboring fields of patented stuff, this is surely a great injustice. But the salient thing is the outrageousness of the business practices here–and the craven support provided to the predatory capitalists by our supposedly impartial laws. The intrinsic qualities of the GM stuff itself are another matter.

    Readers of this blog may or may not consider GM in and of itself to be evil. I myself certainly accept in any case without reservation that among the evils spread by Monsanto is their typical capitalist reluctance to perform due diligence in developing and marketing their products. Of course this includes a willful failure to assess or acknowledge any inherent failings or dangers of the products. There may be many of these. If “Monsanto” knows about any such effects, you can be sure that they will suppress the knowledge–with violence if necessary.

    But in the world of self-described progressives, which dwarfs in scope the world of the Marx-friendly (read Truthout, Raw Story, or Democratic Underground to get a flavor of this) there is a kind of uncritical moralism that wants to place individual spiritual transcendence at the center of political consciousness. In this world, it is convenient to speak of personified Nature as a real and active being, and to identify virtue as the defense of nature against evil technology–the fruit of a private and individual communion with Nature. People–at least Americans–are easily stirred to outrage by the familiar melodrama of this theme. But they are also turned away by it from an awareness of class conflict. So the outrage leads to very little in the way of social change. It becomes as virtuous to shop at Whole Foods as to oppose capitalism–indeed the latter may (and in many cases does) become superfluous or itself outrageous.

    Should we not as leftists be struggling against this form of false consciousness as well as against the machinery of GM domination of world agriculture.

    Comment by Angela Ward — January 13, 2014 @ 8:14 pm

  4. Excellent post.
    On the other hand, i think this sort of situation maybe just shows how complex systems evolve (eg the paper arxiv.org/abs/1107.5728 —- the web of corporate control ). Expecting academia, or the media to be objective, truth interested rather than just self-interested, may be as impossible as it is for human individuals. Humyns always have blind spots (and robert trivers, the sociobiologist, of course expands this to saying that all or much of evolution derives from lying and deception; i would add advertizing of course—darwinian sexual selection—such as for the peacock’s tail, and one can add other factors (eg the moral sense, etc.)). Large complex organizations will have blind spots, faulty parts like the appendix, competing components just like sperm (one of my most original and famous discoveries was that for sperm, its survival of the fittest only the strong survive, which becomes a hiphop tune (google fittest on my blog for more info).
    So maybe these people are actually neccesary and useful. I think Lenin said something like he was pro-capitalist because they are good at organizing complex production that make good ropes.
    In complex systems i dont think its easy to say who’s to blame (eg people don’t have to go to universities or buy media) just as its impossible i think to say who deserves what (eg machover’s ‘laws of chaos’ argument for equal incomes — the chain (food, supply, etc.) chain is no stronger than the weakest link. Of course chains evolve, links break, and new conformations result—as appears to have happened in history, from the point of mutations and DNA.
    Knotted nots, dotted oughts, haves and have nots, crossed teas, what is our Lot?

    Comment by ishi mart — January 15, 2014 @ 11:02 am

  5. good blog post this morning debunking the GMO/farmer suicide link:

    Comment by godoggo — March 14, 2014 @ 5:23 pm

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