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Sun, Aug. 24th, 2008, 09:21 pm
Genetically Modified Food - Penn & Teller = Bullshit!

I just finished watching an episode of "Bullshit!" by Penn & Teller, which dealt with genetically modified (GM) foods. Their position was that GM could improve crop quality and quantity; in principle this is true, and it's only marginally different than what we have done for 10,000 years, in artificially selecting (and improving) particular crops for cultivation.

What pissed me off was that they claimed that opponents of GM food are a bunch of nutjobs, who hate GM food because it's "unnatural" (of course, corn is not 'natural'), or "poison" (as the President of Zambia apparently said, though no in-context quote was provided, and it's hard to find one online). I am concerned about GM food, but i do not believe that it is necessarily poisonous or toxic in any way; nothing resembling mine (and many others) views on GM crops appeared on the show.

On the pro-GM side, they did have a guy from the "Hudson Institute" - a right-wing think-tank, funded in large part by corporations such as Monsanto (which produces and sells GM food). (Penn & Teller didn't actually mention this, i found out from Wikipedia. If the Hudson Institute resembles other think-tanks (e.g. the radical right-wing "Institute of Public Affairs" in Australia, or the pro-pollution group (yes, you read me right) that calls itself the "Lavoisier Institute"), then it is probably a fake-grassroots organisation, set up with corporate money to promote corporate interests. Big corporations have done this for a while: see the references at the asterisk below*.)

Naturally, this guy didn't mention that some of the main concerns regarding GM food have nothing to do with ideas of "poison" and "dirtiness"; instead he started flinging around guilt-tripping accusations that anti-GM campaigners wanted poor people to starve. Penn & Teller bought it hook, line and sinker, and their rhetoric by the end of the show might well have been written by the Hudson Institute shill himself.

What bothers me about GM food are it's economic arrangements. There is nothing humanitarian or generous about the position of pro-GM corporations like Monsanto. They are interested in patenting the new crops they create. This is not a natural extension of farming improvements that have been happening for millenia; this is a group of greedy, cynical people wanting to get royalties from the use of basic foodstuffs.

The more-or-less famous Percy Shmeiser case sums it up (links to his website); this is a Canadian farmer who was sued by Monsanto because Monsanto-patented crops appeared in his fields, and he hadn't paid them. Monsanto rightly lost the case, because the crops had been blown into Shmeiser's fields by accident. But that's hardly a good thing - the fact is, Monsanto had patented the crop in the first place. This isn't like Coca Cola patenting it's recipe - this is a corporation patenting a basic, staple crop - the fundamental ingredient of food. They don't want to feed the starving of the world, as the Hudson Institute led Penn & Teller to believe - they want to draw royalties from the farmers of the world. To all the other costs that a farmer must bear to get their crops going, to be harvesting enough to feed their community, and then to create a surplus to send to other communities, they want to add an extra, utterly unnatural, cost to the basic grain itself.

This fundamentally evil policy attitude is one supported by companies such as Monsanto, who fund the Hudson Institute. Penn & Teller didn't bring this up; they were happy to quote Greenpeace members saying things like "Genetic engineering is just unnatural, man"; but the much stronger economic criticism of GM crops didn't come up once. And i know that the economic criticism is a part of Greenpeace's platform, because that's where i first found out about it myself, about a decade ago, in the Greenpeace newsletter.

You think GM crops are fine for the environment? That's fair enough; at least, most ecological criticisms of GM crops can be applicable to non-GM crops anyway**. But try pushing these requirements:

- Make it unlawful to recognize a patent on staple foodstuffs;
- Farmers be under no onus whatsoever to pay for the same seed more than once;
- Open and free bartering/trading of seeds between farmers;
- All genetic modifications be geared toward crop productivity - i.e. no use of "hybrid" seeds that prevent farmers from drawing next years seed from the current crop.

You'll find that arseholes like Penn & Teller's Hudson Institute shill and the companies that pay him to write for them suddenly develop some issues.

When Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine, saving untold lives from a disease that - thanks to him - has been almost eradicated from the world, he was asked if he intended to patent it. He replied:

"Would you patent the sun?"

You'll find that a lot of people on the pro-GM side of the fence would. And that's my problem with GM crops.



Footnotes:

* Think tanks:

Wheelwright, E.L. (1995) Why has economics become so conservative? The Visible hand of the think tanks. Journal of Economic and Social Policy, Summer 1995, pp.21-29

Pamphlet, Union of Concerned Scientists, e-mail:ucs@ucsusa.org (2007) Smoke, Mirrors and Hot Air: How ExxonMobil uses big tobacco's tactics to manufacture uncertainty on climate science.

** Monocultural farming practices can be theoretically terrible for subsistence communities, for example, and they do reduce the ecologic diversity of life around the farms themselves. But there's no reason you can't have mixed-cultures of GM crops that avoid these problems, in theory at least.

Sun, Aug. 24th, 2008 12:38 pm (UTC)
rockcriedout

there was some serious, serious bracket usage in your third paragraph.

Mon, Aug. 25th, 2008 08:26 am (UTC)
dissembly

I aim to please!

(things that are awesome (things that i love (third-tier brackets (comments on third-tier brackets))))

Sun, Aug. 24th, 2008 11:26 pm (UTC)
(Anonymous): Not quite right

Percy Schmeiser lost the court case. He lost it because over 95% of his canola was found to be roundup ready. That doesn't happen from wind! It happens because you have deliberately harvested the roundup ready seed.

Regarding the corporatisation of agriculture - its already happened. Take a good look at a country without GM. It is still controlled by a few big companies like Cargill.

At the end of the day if farmers don't think they will make money then noone is forcing them to buy the seed. Percy obviously thought he could make money...

Sun, Aug. 24th, 2008 11:54 pm (UTC)
(Anonymous): Re: Not quite right

Anonymous, I don't see how anything you stated (except for the different outcome of the court case cited - and it would appear from a cursory glance at Percy Schmeiser's website that you are both wrong in different ways; the case was settled out of court) in any way detracts from dissembly's argument against GM Crops, nor his criticism of the very unbalanced, lazy and stupid reporting by Penn & Teller.

How does the fact that corporate agriculture has "already happened" preclude anybody from criticising corporate agricultural trends? Do we not all live in this world, and contribute to its continued existence and prosperity? Are we supposed to simply resign ourselves to the notion that the world, as it is today, is how it always ever will be, and no perceivable problems or flaws within its functioning are able to be critiqued, debated and changed?

While I don't know enough, personally, about agricultural economics in every country in the world, one can quite comfortably argue that regardless of whether countries "without GM" are "controlled by a few big companies like Cargill", this does not denounce the basis of dissembly's argument. His main points, as I understand them, are that the pro-GM stance, supported and funded by companies like Monsanto and the think-tanks they fund to manufacture 'objective expert knowledge' that sounds remarkably like PR, is predominantly used to satisfy a profit-motive, and that Penn & Teller failed woefully in adequately comparing the pro-GM and anti-GM stances, instead opting to selectively parody those on the anti-GM side.

-B

Mon, Aug. 25th, 2008 07:09 am (UTC)
dissembly : Re: Not quite right

Thank-you! Exactly my position.

Mon, Apr. 5th, 2010 02:34 am (UTC)
(Anonymous): Re: Not quite right

So this is what I dont get about people. from everything I have studied, I will break it down.
GM modified food- nothing inherintly wrong with it, we have done it by grafting and selective breeding for thousands of years. We have found quicker ways to do it that may allow places in the world with starving people and poor soil to have food. This isnt even debated, there are very strange studies on both sides arguing that its bad and good, I dont trust the studies from either side, but logic dictates that it is more good than bad for the world at this point in time.

Nobody arguements have anything to do with GM food, its all about corporations and socialism, WHY!?
How bout we ban corporate patenting of life, and use the science we have created for good, instead of going off on how we need socialism to fix it, no we dont, we write our senators and congressmen and we make a big deal of it, and we keep both the corporations and the government in their proper places, out of our freedom.
capitalism is not the issue, corporatism is, socialism is not the answer, we have the power to do it now, just nobody cares enough to see past the media to see whats going on in the world and take the power of the people to solve it. My point is Yes patents are bad, no science is not and yes GM can save lives. quit debating for socialism and change the problems.

Wed, Jun. 16th, 2010 03:34 am (UTC)
dissembly : Re: Not quite right

* "instead of going off on how we need socialism to fix it, no we dont, we write our senators and congressmen and we make a big deal of it"

That sounds like a small component of a socialist strategy, to me. It doesn't work; politicians receive letters on dozens of issues. They pick and choose the letters that correspond to their politics, and go with that.

And their politics are generally going to be in favour of big business. The game is rigged - perhaps even more-so in America than where I am (Australia), as you don't even have a preferential voting system.

Mass movements do cause change, but not through letter-writing campaigns. (I am happy to be proven wrong, but I doubt i ever will be.) You need an intelligent use of protests and media campaigns to back up the letter-writing if it is ever going to go anywhere. Even then, you'd need to resort to strikes/work stoppages, civil disobedience, and that sort of action to actually see the changes through.

And even then, governments will tend to warp it in their own (and big business) interests.

"capitalism is not the issue, corporatism is"

Corporatism is capitalism! Capitalism is defined as a system involving the accumulation of wealth through ownership of productive processes ("capital") and employees ("labour").

Socialism, on the other hand, is defined as the presence of workplace and community democracy. Why on earth would you argue against this?

Instead, you want to mount a letter-writing campaign as a substitute for any real change. A letter-writing campaign. I argue for people having control over what goes on in their environment and their lives, and you said "No! Have a letter-writing campaign"?

I'm sorry, but I cannot see how you can possibly justify this rant.

Mon, Aug. 25th, 2008 08:24 am (UTC)
dissembly : Re: Not quite right

- Percy Schmeiser lost the court case.

Actually, the case went through to the Canadian Supreme Court, and Monsanto lost on this issue. Schmeiser failed to overturn Monsanto's patent rights - and the existence of these patent rights are quite clearly the target of my post - but Monsanto failed to get Schmeiser to pay anything, because it didn't look like Schmeiser had planted the crops deliberately. According to an ABC report: "However it did not believe Mr Schmeiser had used the technology for commercial gain, so therefore overruled previous decisions that he pay Monsanto for using the technology."

- He lost it because over 95% of his canola was found to be roundup ready.

Actually, you're wrong again. The judgement in the first trial (made available online at Schmeiser's website) offers a fairly concise summary of what happened, and the testing procedures used were hardly ideal. For example, the university tester indicated that the variance between different tests was astronomical!

In fact, the judge acknowledges this, writing: "It is also urged that the sampling procedures were not designed to support scientific grow-out tests that could be accepted as indicating the extent of Roundup tolerant canola grown by the defendants in 1998, or in 1997. Moreover, the sampling was done by Robinson’s investigators with police backgrounds and experience, but no reputed scientific qualifications, and the integrity of the samples, once collected, was in some cases said to be questionable." The judge goes on to accept the tests, even after acknowledging the issues with them, but it is not something that a scientifically minded person would consider acceptable.

And even if you were right that "95% of his canola was found to be roundup ready", you're wrong in that this was not why he "lost the case"; he lost the first trial because they did not convince the judge that the patent was unenforceable. In fact, Schmeiser won on culpability in the Supreme Court because they didn't believe he had stolen Monsanto seed in order to profit from it.

- At the end of the day if farmers don't think they will make money then noone is forcing them to buy the seed.

It's not about making money, it's about producing food, and producing enough of it to feed a population. Like i said, this isn't like Coca-Cola patenting a recipe. The Bullshit! episode focused on problems of drought-induced famine, and the ways in which GM crops could alleviate massive local food shortages. In any case, the problem of producing enough food to keep a country going is a central issue in agriculture. If someone's developed a new strain of some staple crop, they should not have the right to charge per acre/per year for it's use. This is probably the most important single point i was driving at. I'm sorry I didn't make it clearer for you.

- Regarding the corporatisation of agriculture - its already happened.

The Saskatoon Star Pheonix article quoted on Schmeiser's website says: "the case involves a collision of patent law with common law property rights of a farmer to own and save seed to replant another year." Patenting of GM crops is a new phenomenon. Indeed, the ABC report i referenced earlier is about the changes that this use of patent law would force onto farmers. Many of the reports about the case are. I question your familiarity with this issue.

Sun, Aug. 2nd, 2009 05:22 am (UTC)
(Anonymous): Re: Not quite right

I think the idea of patenting crops would have been inconceivable 50+ years ago. The reason is because people knew what kind of tyranny this would lead. Now we've just become so accustomed to tyranny and brainwashing that we no longer seem to resist. We figure there isn't much we can do about it so why even bother. and the rest of the population is just brainwashed by our corrupt corporate controlled media. It's really sad.

Tue, Dec. 30th, 2008 11:28 am (UTC)
(Anonymous): Re: Not quite right

Percy Schmeiser won the alternative nobel prize last year.

See http://www.rightlivelihood.org/

Wed, May. 5th, 2010 01:16 pm (UTC)
(Anonymous): which episode?

which episode of penn and teller was this? i dont see it on the website

Wed, Jun. 16th, 2010 03:47 am (UTC)
dissembly : Re: which episode?

It was episode 11 of season 1, "Eat This!"

http://www.sho.com/site/ptbs/episodes.do?episodeid=118367&ep=111

It also contained a range of other distortions of the truth concerning the so-called "Green Revolution" in agriculture, funded by private think tanks, which I may update this post about (I wasn't aware of them at the time).

They make a lot of noise in this episode about a man named Norman Borlaug saving the Third World from famine by spearheading a Green Revolution in agriculture, and at the time I watched it, I just swallowed this stuff at face value.

I have since found out that many in the Third World remember the Green Revolution as condemning them to famine - it wiped out many small producers, crippled the rice industry in the Phillipines (can you imagine the Phillipines importing rice? Apparently they need to do this now, thanks to the Green Revolution), and was immediately followed by massive increases in the numbers of hungry people, in every single country in which it was applied except for one: China.

It's pretty significant, considering Penn & Teller wank on and on about this guy Borlaug, and make him out to be the second coming of Christ. Now i know why i'd never heard of him before.

Sun, Sep. 26th, 2010 09:29 pm (UTC)
ext_267877 : Which Episode?

What season and what episode was this? I have all of their shows, but I can't seem to figure out which episode it was. I am doing an argument paper on pro transgenic products and referencing Penn & Teller as my inspiration. Could you help me out here.

Also, I'd like to mention that you shouldn't use Wikipedia as a reliable source. I'm sure you knew that, but as a future reference.

Mon, Sep. 27th, 2010 01:09 pm (UTC)
dissembly : Re: Which Episode?

Episode 11 of Season 1, "Eat This!"

I agree with you about the limitations of Wikipedia; i often don't find that site reliable at all for political (or even just historical) issues. But I don't find Penn & Teller reliable on these particular issues either (I mostly watch them for their criticism of paranormal claims and crazy fads).

I used Wikipedia to point out the role of the Hudson Institute as:
1) a right-wing political lobby group, and
2) a group that is funded by companies which have stakes in the issues that they talk about,
...and these two points are well documented outside of Wikipedia, and the Hudson Institute, or Penn & Teller themselves, probably would not deny it (although they would refrain from mentioning it).

I referenced a Wheelwright article about think tanks above, if you want a *.pdf i should be able to send you one. If you want to track it down, "JESP" is the "Journal of Economic and Social Policy". But i believe there are many other references you could find about the nature of think tanks, and about their strong connection to some extreme vested interests. (If you do a search for "Smoke, Mirrors and Hot Air", you should find a *.pdf online about the role of right-wing think tanks in the global warming debate.)

I would also recommend tracking down books and/or articles by Raj Patel or Eric Holt-Gimenez. They both write a great deal about the "Green Revolution" that Penn & Teller discuss, and about the destructive influence of big business on Third World agriculture.

Pambazuka News covers some of these issues from the perspective of people in Africa: http://www.pambazuka.org/en/

Penn & Teller are funny, talented magicians, and good debunkers of paranormal claims. But i do not trust them one bit on any issue that is vaguely political. They will often use 'experts' who are actually 'think tank' employees, often being paid by the industries that they comment on.

Penn Gilette's particular views (he is a libertarian) come from a political tradition that is based on values i would agree with (e.g. freedom from coercion by powerful people), but which often ignores or fails to understand real issues in society, and which often finds itself firmly on the side of the powerful, betraying it's own basic values.

Good luck with your paper, i hope you keep a skeptical eye open.

Mon, Sep. 27th, 2010 01:35 pm (UTC)
dissembly : other references

The Journal of Australian Political Economy has also sometimes covered this issue, they have an article in 2003 called "GM Crops in Australia: A Critique of the Economic Modelling", by Stephen Rix and Richard Denniss; issue 52 pages 5-21. They do a breif summary of the anti-GM position in Australia.

You might also want to check out some of what geneticist Richard Lewontin has said about hybrid crops (the economic model for GM crops is the same as for hybrid crops, even if the science used is different).

There is a section in "Biology As Ideology" (1991) Lewontin, R. and also a chapter in "The Dialectical Biologist" (1985) Lewontin, R. & Levins, R. (The chapter in 'Dialectical Biologist' is called "The Political Economy of Agricultural Research", pages 209-221.) A more recent (2007) book by the same authors is "Biology under the influence : dialectical essays on ecology, agriculture, and health". At least a couple of these should be available in a decent university library, and i've found some good genetics stuff in smaller libraries too.

Fri, Jan. 28th, 2011 12:38 am (UTC)
(Anonymous)

Glad to see you found out your information from Wikipedia..

Thu, Feb. 3rd, 2011 02:23 am (UTC)
dissembly : The best response to a troll is cut-and-paste. No point wasting time.

Hey moron,

"I agree with you about the limitations of Wikipedia; i often don't find that site reliable at all for political (or even just historical) issues. But I don't find Penn & Teller reliable on these particular issues either (I mostly watch them for their criticism of paranormal claims and crazy fads).

I used Wikipedia to point out the role of the Hudson Institute as:
1) a right-wing political lobby group, and
2) a group that is funded by companies which have stakes in the issues that they talk about,
...and these two points are well documented outside of Wikipedia, and the Hudson Institute, or Penn & Teller themselves, probably would not deny it (although they would refrain from mentioning it).

I referenced a Wheelwright article about think tanks above, if you want a *.pdf i should be able to send you one. If you want to track it down, "JESP" is the "Journal of Economic and Social Policy". But i believe there are many other references you could find about the nature of think tanks, and about their strong connection to some extreme vested interests. (If you do a search for "Smoke, Mirrors and Hot Air", you should find a *.pdf online about the role of right-wing think tanks in the global warming debate.)

I would also recommend tracking down books and/or articles by Raj Patel or Eric Holt-Gimenez. They both write a great deal about the "Green Revolution" that Penn & Teller discuss, and about the destructive influence of big business on Third World agriculture.

Pambazuka News covers some of these issues from the perspective of people in Africa: http://www.pambazuka.org/en/

Penn & Teller are funny, talented magicians, and good debunkers of paranormal claims. But i do not trust them one bit on any issue that is vaguely political. They will often use 'experts' who are actually 'think tank' employees, often being paid by the industries that they comment on.

Penn Gilette's particular views (he is a libertarian) come from a political tradition that is based on values i would agree with (e.g. freedom from coercion by powerful people), but which often ignores or fails to understand real issues in society, and which often finds itself firmly on the side of the powerful, betraying it's own basic values."

Fri, May. 18th, 2012 08:18 pm (UTC)
(Anonymous)

Well I am a bit late to the party but I wanted to chime in.
I took something completely different from that episode. The argument I saw was 'To fight the technologies that are feeding the worlds poor/hungry without a viable alternative is to quote Penn: "self-centered, and racist."' And they really don't like it when people use things like the food supply as the proxy battleground for a war on a company or to promote other political agendas.

To clarify:
Monsanto's business practices make me sick and I don't think there are any circumstances under which any life form or genetic sequence should be either patentable or copyrightable. But I agree with them on the fact that demanding a reduction in the food supply because of some disagreements with one or more companies is to borrow a phrase 'Bullshit'.

Tue, Jun. 19th, 2012 02:47 am (UTC)
dissembly

I agree, but I don't agree that this is what Penn & Teller argued. What they attempted to do was paint all opposition to the practices surrounding genetic technology as a mindless "chemicals are baddd" type arguments. It was a straw man, and one that was well-suited to making particular companies (who pay the think tanks that pay Penn Gillette) look good.

Global food supply is actually not in danger of reducing the world to starvation - global food supply for wheat alone is something like 1.5 times global demand; other basic food products are also in excess. Genetic technology COULD allow us all live with peace and plenty - but it isn't. I don't demand a reduction in the food supply - I demand an increase in it, I demand that this technology be taken into public hands, be made accessible through democratic mechanisms, subject to community control.

Companies like Monsanto, and their shills, are not solving food crises with this technology, not at all. The problem is precisely that these technologies are *not* "feeding the worlds poor/hungry", and it is because of who owns the technology and how the economics around it works. What the third world suffers from is a distribution problem, one created (in part) by precisely the same companies that indirectly fund episodes of Bullshit!.

What Penn & Teller did was focus the conversation onto a straw man argument that's largely irrelevant to the real problems, and act as if the real conversation doesn't exist at all. And that is a political choice, and a part of a very well defined political agenda - not some elaborate conspiracy, but in fact a fairly simple and straightforward PR campaign.

Edited at 2012-06-19 02:52 am (UTC)