Monday, May 11, 2015

Vice gives up on balanced reporting for GMO segment

Over the weekend the HBO series Vice did a segment on GMOs. Despite being balanced in most of their stories, Vice decided to put their hands on the scale for this one.

We start off the segment with a visit to the infamous seed bank in Norway. The seed bank was created so that if a global catastrophe occurs, humans will be able to replant the Earth. The aim of this documentary is clear from this first part, to convince the viewer that modern agriculture is going to destroy the planet. Isobel Yeung, the reporter, cherry picks the interview with Cary Fowler who accurately states that a diversity of crops is necessary for our survival. She never mentions GMOs to Fowler, probably because Cary Fowler is in favor of GMOs. In an interview with Ted Talks he describes how GMOs are not all that different from traditional breeding, comparing them to Mendel using a paintbrush to move pollen between peas and even calling his own dog a genetic modification. Fowler even explains the importance of patents in encouraging innovation, stating that his job is just to keep the base stock available for use. “If there were to be a ban on all GMOs, virtually everyone in the US and Europe would be affected. Ninety-five percent, or more, of the world still uses food crops that have been traditionally bred and technically speaking that’s a modification. It’s just not one that upsets anybody these days.” The best part? The seed bank receives a lot of funding from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who also spend a lot to fund GMO research.

Next is an encounter with Dr. Major Goodman. “One of my main concerns with transgenics is that the same gene is being used almost worldwide.” The problem here is that this isn’t an issue with transgenics. His concern is about the susceptibility of monocrops to disease. Kind of like the  non-transgenic crops oranges, bananas, and cassava. All of which are currently at risk from such diseases. There is no mention of how transgenics have saved papaya and squash from just such a disease.
Now our fearless reporter enters the heart of the beast, Monsanto itself. To their credit they give Robb Fraley a few seconds of screen time, a scientist even less, and then on to scary footage of what appears to be a simulation of a soybean crop field being sprayed by glyphosate. The simulation fails to show that application of Roundup past a specific stage is illegal, and that it is not actually sprayed on food. While Fraley discusses the safety of glyphosate, footage rolls on showing scary spraying of crops. The footage shows post emergent crops being sprayed with what is most likely an insecticide or a fungicide, and probably not soybeans or corn. (I had a great conversation with many people over at GMOLOL trying to figure out exactly what was being sprayed, where, and on what.)

Paraguay is up next. With absolutely zero historical context. No explanation at all of the old slash and burn methods used before modern agriculture arrived, and still practiced by small farmers there. No mention ofcotton monocropping that existed before converting over to soy. No mention of the farmers there who used GM soy illegally, forcing the government to legalize it, and Monsanto easing up on royalty requirements. Prior to the legalization of GM soy in Paraguay, farmers got it from Argentina where farmers were allowed to replant the seed. Taking a tour of Monsanto’s distributor there she discusses the requirement of farmers to purchase new seed from Monsanto each year, but fails to mention that this iscommon for improved hybrids regardless of how they were bred or patented. Heading out to a farmer’s field next to discuss glyphosate resistant weeds and bt resistant bugs. When looking at the percent of cultivated land, Paraguay leads the world in no-till farmingThis is due to multiple practices there, including the herbicide tolerant system used. This is a good thing. Erosion is being prevented, and soil health is being preserved. Herbicide resistance in weeds is going to evolve with any herbicide product. Methods like the rotation of herbicides, the rotation of crops, and cover crops (practiced in the United States) can be used to drastically reduce this problem. The farmers interviewed are never asked if they are practicing these methods, and judging from the condition of their fields I can only assume that they are not.

Back to Fraley she brings up a document from Monsanto’s past that states, “it is unlikely that weed resistance to glyphosate will become a problem.” She twists the statement into accusing Fraley of making a mistake that Monsanto was not expecting resistance to glyphosate to occur. Compared to other common herbicides, it hasn’t become a problem. New GMOs that are resistant to glyphosate and dicamba are mentioned, and it is stated that Monsanto also produces dicamba. They do not, BASF does.

The viewer is now returned to Paraguay, where scary statistics are thrown at us. 80% of farmland in Paraguay being owned by 2% of the farmers has nothing to do with Monsanto. This is an issue dating much further back than the introduction of GMOs. Removing technology is not going to help the smaller farmers. The problem isn’t the seed. Smaller farmers have lost cotton to disease, and drought has impacted sesame grown to replace it. Soy itself, regardless of the breeding method, is not suitable to small family farming in Paraguay. Their government is investing in the large landowners, and very little going to crops grown by the small farmers. They have a system of inequality built into their very government. This is what needs to be addressed. Not the breeding method of seeds. If Monsanto was banned from Paraguay today, those large landowners would just use hybrid seed and different herbicides.

We next meet M. Jahi Chappell, whose argument boils down to being anti-corporation.  Which is fine, except that he feels the need to lump GMOs in with that. GMOs are being developed in Africa, by Africans, right now. But the same fear mongering about Monsanto is being connected to seed they aren’t even working on. Even in countries without approved cultivation, they are still buying seed from the same companies. I also wonder why M. Jahi Chappell’s speech at the world food prize was pictured, but not Rob Fraley’s winning of the award. 

Next up is Senator Jon Tester, a farmer from Montana to talk about corruption in our government and to hint at the possibility of Monsanto controlling things. His attempt to remove the farmer’s assurance provision is briefly discussed, even though the provision did not do anything for Monsanto. The language protects farmers from losing their crops while Monsanto, or another company, is in court. Without that language biotech opponents could force farmers to rip up their crops with any frivolous lawsuit. She never mentions that Jon Tester is an organic farmer with a financial stake in scaring people away from GMOs.

Ending with the report on glyphosate being a probable human carcinogen, and the flipping back to Tester stating that we should just label it, was clearly meant as fear mongering. The production method of seed has nothing to do with the pesticide use of one trait. There are GMOs without that trait, and there are non-GMO seeds with that trait. BASF has more varities of herbicide tolerant crops than Monsanto, none of which is scrutinized because they are not GMOs.

A lot of people are jumping on the fact that Bill Maher is executive producer of the show. It is entirely possible that his bias played a huge part in the show. Vice is also aimed at the millenials, the generation furthest removed from hunger and disease. I grew up with a grandfather who was a Newsie during the Great Depression, most of them will not hear such stories outside of history class.