Political Flavors

Next Post: It’s The Heartbreak »

Monsanto, Microfungi and Mass Hysteria

Posted in Editorials on March 8th, 2011

I never understood the argument against genetically modified food. I’m not sure how species of crops created with new methods are any different from the bananas and strawberries I love today that were created from less palatable fruits over many generations of careful cultivation. After watching Food Inc., I had a better idea of why Monsanto has a bad reputation. The way they enforce their patent on the most common type of soybean in the United States makes earning a living almost impossible for farmers. But does that take away from all the successes of genetically modified foods? What about golden rice? I remain unconvinced that genetic modification of crops is inherently a bad idea, and I find the rhetoric about “Frankenfood” childishly silly

However, when I heard that the scientists at Monsanto may have unleashed a hellish horror on the world from their labs, I was alarmed. Dr. Don Huber, a retired professor from Purdue University wrote a letter to the USDA about the discovery of a new pathogen found in Monsanto Roundup Ready crops (crops that remain unharmed when sprayed with pesticides). If I am understanding him correctly, this pathogen evolved in response to the use of genetically modified crops, the way that MRSA evolved in response to misuse of antibiotics.

The discussion around Huber’s letter is intense, and it should be. If there really is some new “microfungus” pathogen that can attack plants and animals, and it’s in our food supply, this is very dangerous. I started thinking about mad cow disease and swine flu and SARS and the Ebola virus!! All my friends who had warned me about genetically modified food were right! It should be labeled! How could I have been so naive?

Dear Lord, where is Rene Russo!?

But after a few days of not seeing the story in the mainstream media, I wondered if things were as bad as Huber is presenting them. Now, I know that there are scores of important stories not covered in our media. But in general, they seem to be at least semi-competent at covering food safety and all over anything that can create panic in the masses. (Panic sells more beer and Strawberry Pop Tarts.) Contamination of common staples
like spinach, or the latest gross out of who found what in their fast food are usually top stories. Why not this?

There is some evidence that Huber is misrepresenting what he found, or just plain wrong. I’m hoping for all of our sakes that he is. And I think that before everyone goes wacky, we should at least understand what we are up against.

What is frustrating me the most about this controversy is the way that anti-science forces have muddied the waters in previous scientific debates. If science were not so abused by the likes of climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers and others it would be easier to follow what was going on. But the checkered history of Monsanto and the way some people abuse science to drum up panic makes it difficult to choose a side. I don’t want to be a rube easily led by the megatheocorporatocracy (hat tip) but I’m also hesitant to jump on a band wagon that may be carrying Jenny McCarthy and James Inhofe. I don’t know how many people are alarmed by Huber because what he’s saying really is alarming, and how many people just don’t like the idea of genetically modified food and now they have found their reason to crow. In an age where any two groups of people who disagree on an issue can rarely agree on any facts in common, I hope the dust will clear soon.

Next Post: It’s The Heartbreak »

3 Responses to “Monsanto, Microfungi and Mass Hysteria”

  1. Steve Bowen Says:

    The thing that doesn’t quite work for me (and I speak as a biology graduate) is that this organism is being described as a “fungus” but is the size of a “medium” virus. That is around two orders of magnitude smaller that any single celled fungus, not big enough to contain a fungal genome let alone the supporting metabolism.
    Huber’s credentials seem sound but you would expect that even minus the food chain implications, this particular organism would have attracted a lot of interest among microbiologists in it’s own right.

  2. MissCherryPi Says:

    I linked this debunking of Huber’s letter in the text of the post because I found it very useful as a lay person. The author also leaves room for the remote possibility that he has discovered a new form of life.

  3. Steve Bowen Says:

    Aah! So you did, missed it on first reading. It makes a lot of sense too, but I’m mindful of confirmation bias because like you I have no intrinsic problem with GM as a technology (although I have reservations about the commercial exploitation of it) mainly because I think that with population and environmental pressures as they are, GM is our best hope for survival on the food front.

Leave a Reply