Monsanto Did Not Pay Me to Write This

My Generation

It's become all too easy to assume, infer and suggest that when someone disagrees with you, they're being paid off. Not so, here.

Published on: August 30, 2013

Among many lovely conversations with readers at the Farm Progress Show this week, one exchange has had me thinking, ever since.

He began with a statement: "You have written a couple columns about biotechnology." I confirmed that as true. He followed up with a question: "So you have to tow the party line? Or do you believe what you wrote?" I asked him to clarify and he responded, "Someone's paying you to write that? You don't really believe that, right?"

And I'll be honest: my first thought was, "Here we go." But my second, and prevailing, thought has been more along the lines of: "That's really kind of insulting."

A disclaimer: I am not insulted easily. I tend to figure people have the right to their opinions and have developed a reasonably thick skin, having done this job for several years now. We don't have to agree. The world will keep spinning.

But it's insulting to me as an agricultural journalist when someone assumes I have been paid or influenced by an advertiser. I assured the reader that if I have written something, it is darn well my own opinion, and that in 15 years at Prairie Farmer no one has ever told me what I could and could not write. Not once. Not ever. In 15 years. Actually, 15 and a half.

The problem, of course, is that it's becoming more common for people to assume that if you don't agree with them, someone must be paying you off.

That is simply bad logic. And poor debate. To assume that someone is being paid off is to assume:

1/ They are incapable of forming their own opinions;

2/ Their morals are so poor that they are willing to sell their opinion;

3/ Your own argument is so superior that it's beyond debate, sufficing to write off the disagreeing party with a simple, "You must be paid to think that."

Please understand this: when you read an opinion column in Prairie Farmer, it is solely the opinion of that editor. Not an advertiser. Not an influencer. Not someone with deep pockets. It is an opinion formed after careful study, research, experience and time.

Nobody's paying us off. Not even Monsanto. I promise.

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  1. Connie Kuramoto says:

    The trouble with this whole issue is the idea of corporate funding (both direct and indirect) of universities, who, in turn, graduate scads of students sympathetic to the bio tech cause, without providing a balanced picture. Of course the majority of research is done by biotech. No one else has the money, and they sure do! It comes out of farmers pockets.

  2. Rod Thorson says:

    As a farm broadcaster for 21 years, I can say that I've witnessed farm media corruption, mostly in the form of agribusiness influence of the National Assoc. of Farm Broadcasters. It has harmed the quality of content to the extent that it has nearly killed farm broadcasting in this country. Most of the corruption that I've witnessed is not in the form of what's reported, but instead, what is omitted,

  3. Rick says:

    I believe the media could do a better job all around and be a little more critical in its reporting of information from gmo skeptic sources as well. As far as intimidation and condescension of those with opposing views, and confirmation bias and uncritical acceptance of information supplied by favored sources, opponents of genetic engineering as a tool for crop improvement don't come to this debate with clean hands either. You don't get to claim to be the victim here. Up until about 6 months ago, my education on the topic was mainly passive, merely absorbing what might be reported in newspaper and magazine articles. When the California labeling initiative began heating up, my personal education has been more proactive. I have purposely sought out information and now have on my favorites tab websites ranging from Greenpeace, Earth Open Source and GMO Watch to Biofortified and the Genetic Literacy Project. I have paid close attention to the GMO Questions and Answers website launched by the Council for Biotechnology Information. Although I am not a scientist and have to rely on those with knowledge of the field, I am increasingly convinced that the weight of the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of a conclusion that foods derived from crops whose genetic information has been altered by transgenic insertion of a trait present no more human health or animal feed safety risk than foods derived by crops whose genetic information has been manipulated by any other means. In fact, if anything, they may be safer because we know way more about them than we know about any other food including organic offerings at the farmers market. The development and regulatory process includes a comparison of the gm plant genome to confirm the gene location and to be able to compare directly the complete gm genome to the non-gm isolene or parent variety to detect any other rearrangements of DNA. Additionally, the proteins expressed both in the plant as well as any harvested portions such as seeds or fruit are profiled to determine whether any novel proteins are found or if normal protein expression is suppressed or enhanced after endowing the plant with a transgene event. These are then be evaluated for toxicity, allergenicity, anti-nutrient activity or reduced nutrient content and so forth. So we know precisely what changes have been made in the genetic composition of the plant, we know what gene expression changes have or haven't occurred, and we look for and examine implications of any change in protein expression, including any novel proteins. Thus, the only point of doing long-term whole food feeding studies would be to accept the premise that there is some sort of factor X that escapes detection that occurs with transgenic techniques that can cause adverse health effects for humans and animals consuming foods and feeds derived from gm crops over time. Although I have not completely shut the door to the possibility that someone someday may find convincing evidence that genetic engineering somehow alters the plant in some previously unknown way that causes human health concerns (and I have no interest or means to suppress such inquiry unlike anti-GMO groups who seek to censure scientific research through vandalism and destruction) I am increasingly convinced that there is nothing to find. There is a prominent inference in anti-gmo literature that transgenic insertion of a gene is somehow like a vampire bite- the recipient may outwardly look and function similarly, but there has been an insidious fundamental transformation of its essence. No there is no zombie voodoo here. My perception is that the public square has been dominated by the GMO skeptic side for the presentation and interpretation of the science for too long, and that too much pseudoscience has infiltrated this discussion. I think that the Seralini study and Judy Carmon's pig gut study are turning points that have inspired other scientists to engage in this

    • Holly Spangler says:

      Rick, thank you for a well-thought out premise and comment. I agree, entirely. I suspect that the scientific community is as frustrated as the agricultural community.

      • Rick says:

        Holly – Sorry for the rant. It is frustrating and insulting that skeptics automatically assume that one cannot arrive at a conclusion that there is no reason to believe that altering a plant's genetic information through transgenic insertion of a single or couple genes is any more dangerous than altering a plant's genetic information through cross breeding, mutigenisis or even horizontal transfer of genetic information that occurs in nature, without being programmed or paid by Monsanto. I arrive at the conclusion that there is no there, there, (that we are unlikely to find any adverse health effect voo doo of long-term consumption of foods derived from biotech altered crops that go beyond the actual health concerns we analyze for currently even if we fed rats for 50 years) from two lines of reasoning. First, the evidence of health concerns by scientists championed by anti-gmo folks is in my view weak to outright fabricated and contradicts a body of more solid research that the anti-gmo crowd asks us to ignore. Secondly, regulatory process of genome composition comparison and protein analysis already detects in a more direct and useful way if any causitive agents exist that would manifest as health outcomes that we would look for in long term feeding experiments. In fact, I would venture that many of the non-gmo foods we eat today would raise concerns and not be marketable if subjected to the same regulatory approval as those that happen to have genetic information inserted by transgenic methods. I believe biotech can serve many valuable functions. Whether Monsanto remains a major player in offering biotech products in the marketplace as a proprietary activity is irrellivent to the core question of whether biotech is a beneficial technology with out imposing undue risk

  4. Loren Eaton says:

    Holly, I feel your pain. I’m a biotecher (no, not with Monsanto) for 25 years now. I’ve been bouncing around blogs and forums since the Monarch butterfly fiasco. I learned very quickly that there are a sizable number of people out there who would rather focus not on the strengths or weaknesses of my argument, but my motivation for making the argument. Orac at Respectful Insolence calls this the ‘Pharma Shill Gambit’. It is basically a tool to invalidate what you say before you it. But take heart. Usually, this means you’ve gotten under their skin because they have no logical response to what you’re communicating. I can live with that!!

    • Holly Spangler says:

      Thanks, Loren! And you are correct; it is a difficult discussion when the other side chooses to opt out based on your perceived motivation. Thanks for commenting!

  5. AgMgr says:

    Mostly just asking the ag media(and researchers)to quit giving Monsanto a pass on unbiased research. Nothing wrong with that.

    • Holly Spangler says:

      AgMgr, I think that much of the research and agricultural media communities are very disheartened about the state of ag research these days and the fact that much university land grant research has to be funded by corporations and/or commodity organizations. It's a sad reality brought about by (mismanaged) state budgets. Once upon a time, C-FAR existed to provide ag research funding at universities throughout Illinois, to the tune of $13 million. No longer. There is no money for ag research at land grant institutions, and those state universities are rapidly on the path to becoming private, tuition-based universities - for all intents and practices, anyway. So my question for you: what's the solution? No one likes Monsanto, et al., involved in public research. Where should the money come from? And who will supply it?

      • Holly Spangler says:

        AgMgr, we've been covering the Extension cuts and reorganization for the past several years, and covering the changes in research funding. Again, it comes back to funding; the State of Illinois does not value ag research and Extension. Given that void, where should funding come from?

      • AgMgr says:

        Could you explain what this is? I don't do any bank business with related people. That's not likely to change. When the U of IL cut something like 60 out of 66 position in commerical ag and basically got out of the advisory business very few took note. The Extension Director called Monsanto and FS reps the new extension ag educators, few said anything. There was a huge media void. The concept from the Director was for the U of IL to do the research and pass that to industry who would pass it to farmers. Of course who paid for the research? Industry did. Never saw any media really address this. How about having a media as a watch dog to not give the corporate interests low cost commericals and hold feet to the fire on unbiased research with impunity? How about holding commodity groups feet to the fire rather than being a commerical? Commoidity groups would be a great source, but the message from them is the same. No distance between the groups and industry.

  6. Sarah [NurseLovesFarmer.com] of http://www.nurselovesfarmer.com says:

    I get the same thing on my blog when I post about GMOs. If Monsanto was handing out cheques like everyone thinks they are, I might even be willing to take one! ;)

    • Holly Spangler says:

      Exactly, Sarah! These are phantom checks, for sure! (Love your blog, btw. My best girl friend marred on 7/7/07, too!)

    • Loren Eaton says:

      I hear you. My residuals have not yet arrived...but I'm patient;-)

  7. Holly, I just wanted to give you some encouragement to keep up the good work of educator, writer, and farm wife with great kids. I like reading your columns (opinions) and would probably stop reading them if you had to write research papers to support your opinions. I am referring to AgMgr post.

    • Holly Spangler says:

      Thanks so much, Tom! A ray of hope and encouragement - I like that!

  8. AgMgr says:

    Holly, I was not the person you spoke to. However, it does come off that you are pandering to what might be your bread and butter. I was at an international conference at the U of IL. The internationals were skeptical of gmo. The head researcher basically said...GMO good. Anti GMO idiots. The internationals asked for evidence. The researcher basically said, I'm the expert and I say the research says it's ok. The exchange didn’t go well for the U of IL researcher…who is quite well known. He offered no real researcher, only anecdotal evidence (no one had died). He really struggled when asked how much Monsanto pays his department. I’m not anti gmo. However, the gmo crowd needs to do a much better job of researching AND communication. The gmo crowd also is guilty of vilifying (you did this yourself by making fun of city moms as being ignorant). The gmo crowd also needs to do things by not allowing heads of Midwest land grant research universities to serve on the board of directors of very large gmo companies. Conflict of interest?! Where you make your mistake is not offering real information on research (including funding sources) as opposed to saying “the evidence says….” Actually lead the anti-gmo crowd to the real evidence and evidence that is clearly not tainted by funding sources or anecdotal evidence. Otherwise to the anti-gmo crowd you will always come off as singing to the ear that wants to listen to you and pays your advertising. Too much is at stake. What happens if someday if there is a real problem and real people are really hurt? Do you want to be on the side of saying….GMO good and anti-gmo bad? Especially if you personally had a chance to report on real evidence (or the lack of it) and didn’t? Raise the bar. Show your detractors the evidence, not just words of support. One doesn't have to be directly "paid off" to be influenced. Some of your words "really tick off and insult those wanting more evidence. Some of these people are not ignorant and uniformed as implied.

    • Holly Spangler says:

      AgMgr, I won't rehash a lot of the response here, as Elaine handled it very well below. Certainly, I never intend to make fun of anyone, and city moms were never mentioned in the post you referenced. That was a story out of North Carolina, as told in a public forum. Laughter comes from a group of people finding humor in something they deal with everyday; I have no doubt doctors laugh about the crazy things their patients ask them and that's ok. Some days, you've either got to laugh or cry. That said, thank you for a thoughtful comment, even if we don't agree.

    • Elaine says:

      One should never begin a sentence with “however”; it is not proper grammar. In response to your comments, however, I find it hard to believe that Holly made fun of someone. I especially cannot imagine her making fun of one of the urban Moms after working so hard to educate that group about farming and feeding the increasing world population. Ignorant? According to Merriam Webster, ignorance is lacking knowledge or comprehension of the thing specified. If in fact she called someone ignorant, I doubt she meant it as in insult. We are all ignorant on some topics. There is no shame in that. The shame is in not being willing to educate one’s self on a topic, when that person has clearly made up their mind regardless of the facts.

      • Holly Spangler says:

        Right on, sister. I like the use of the word ignorant, as it applies to our knowledge, or lack thereof, of a given topic, and not as an insult. I also like the word terrific, the way my Grandma used it: meaning something is terrific/large/impressive, often in size or quantity. Grammar nerds, unite! :)

      • AgMgr says:

        Elaine, for the reference please check the July 18 article by Holly. To repeat that "joke" is meant to poke fun at someone to score points for the crowd you are reaching. About grammar, one word sentences.... Back to the topic, the intention was to poke fun. Although making points, it was designed to make those who "don't know" seem...ignorant in the not so polite way of using the term. My main point is that the pro gmo crowd should also use facts in making up their mind. Anecdotal evidence isn't...proper research....gramatically and scientifically speaking.