Agent Orange and GMO: Non-Sequitur of the Day

Today I was alerted to a blog post entitled “Outrageous: Agent Orange Maker Monsanto Seeks Return to Vietnam for GMO Crops“. The headline is certainly startling and attention-grabbing; it includes just about every shock-inducing term known.

To summarize the article, it states that Monsanto manufactured Agent Orange, the infamous strategic defoliant used in the Vietnam War. That very same Monsanto is now trying to get back into Vietnam to deliver another dose of destruction; this time in the form of GMO. The post is basically an exaggerated version of this news report from a Vietnamese paper, which notes that activists in that country are concerned that the very same company that profited from poisoning them might now profit from feeding them.

Although the Vietnamese article suggests that Vietnam has trailed much of the world in its adoption of GMO technology, this is misleading. Vietnam is the world’s second largest exporter of rice, and more than 1,600 (!!) varieties of it are grown there. The overwhelming majority consists of modern hybridized strains developed by the International Rice Research Institute. Like it or not, biotech feeds Vietnam, the same as it feeds most of the world.

Why is it in the news now? According to the article, the government is now in the midst of a multiple-year-long process to license new crop strains from Monsanto, Syngenta, and Pioneer.

The invalid logic suggested by the Vietnamese article, and greatly overhyped by the Natural Society blog post, is the following:

  1. Agent Orange was very horrible.
  2. Therefore, GMO crops are bad.

Why? Well, because if we dig enough, we can find a connection between the two. Along with Dow, Monsanto was indeed one of the government contractors selected to produce some twenty million gallons of Agent Orange. And today, Monsanto is probably the largest developer of proprietary customized crops.

In fact, the Natural Society post spends the bulk of its space reproducing practically the entire Wikipedia history of everything bad you can think of to say about Agent Orange. In short, it’s an effort to show GMO crops in a negative light “by association” with frightening wartime imagery.

The articles, either deliberately or carelessly, attempt to conflate several unrelated questions:

  1. The business ethics of Monsanto
  2. The safety of Agent Orange
  3. The safety of GMO crops

These subjects have nothing to do with each other. They are all, individually, perfectly valid questions. But an answer to any one of them has no bearing on any of the others. They’re unrelated.

Neither the argument Agent Orange was bad nor Monsanto is unethical says anything about GMO crops. If you want to know my findings on that question, you can see the Skeptoid episode on GMO. My finding on the use of invalid logic to frighten an unscientific public into accepting your opinion on something, is that it is unethical, lazy, and intellectually dishonest.

About Brian Dunning

Science writer Brian Dunning is the host and producer of Skeptoid.
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28 Responses to Agent Orange and GMO: Non-Sequitur of the Day

  1. Max says:

    Here’s their logic.
    1. Agent Orange was very horrible.
    2. GMO crops are bad.
    3. Therefore, Monsanto is twice as evil for first poisoning Vietnam with Agent Orange, and now returning to Vietnam with GMO.

    Same logic as reporting that convicted felon Kevin Trudeau came back with another scam.

    • Max says:

      That said, having a history of fraud does make one less trustworthy.

      • Agreed. But not even Monsanto’s history of business fraud says anything about the value of biotech improved products. Monsanto is 23% of the GNO market and 0% of the whole world’s non-GMO market. You’d be tossing a lot of babies out with that bath water.

        • Ewan R says:

          “Monsanto is 23% of the GNO market and 0% of the whole world’s non-GMO market.”

          Where are you getting those figures from?

          Monsanto has presence in the non-GMO market which exceeds 0% (assuming we’re talking the seed business here and not just all business everywhere) – the vegetable division is about a $1Bn business in its own right and is entirely non-GMO (by the tight molecular biology criteria) and I’d have to guess that amongst non-trangenic soy, cotton and corn they have a sizeable chunk of that market also (because their breeding program is top notch also – and includes other non-GMed crops such as sorghum)

    • OK, let’s try that again.
      1. Agent Orange, a weapon, was very horrible.
      2. GMO crops, a fast growing grain that’s naturally resilient to pests and drought, has amazing results and is used to great success in supermarkets worldwide.
      3. Therefore, Monsanto is a competent weapons contractor and an advanced seed developer. Jekyll & Hyde?

      • Max says:

        Agent Orange was supposed to defoliate trees, not kill people and cause birth defects, but it was contaminated with a dioxin that’s toxic to humans.

        When you combine unethical practices, genetic engineering, and contamination, you get the L-tryptophan disaster.

        “Until 1973, L-tryptophan and other amino acids were included on a list of food substances generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for use as dietary supplements. In 1973, the FDA revoked this GRAS status and stated that amino acids could not be marketed without approval as food additives…”

  2. Ewan R says:

    I dunno if you’re putting breeding under the umbrella of “GMO” here, but in the colloquial sense none of the rice strains developed by the IRRI are GMO – ie having genetic material inserted by techniques of molecular biology (be that bio-ballistic, or agro-bacterium mediated, or some other such methodology) – technically I guess all breeding falls under “biotech” but most people wouldn’t take it as such. In this respect Vietnam certainly is currently behind in terms of adoption of GMOs (although afaik there aren’t any commercially available GM rice strains yet, although many are in the pipeline, particularly in China)

    Of course I agree with the rest of your piece (I would though, I’m a Monsanto employee, and as such the following disclaimer applies to the previous – these views are my own, and not those of the company)

    • I am, to a degree, putting both biotechnologies under the same umbrella, for the purpose of this point. IRRI varieties were designed with the most advanced tools we had at the time, and GMO crops are the same. The tools have improved, the product has improved, and many millions of hunger survivors have that collaboration to thank.

  3. Christopher Webb says:

    I would strongly urge everyone to read the Wikipedia entry on Monsanto, although its quite extensive. I think many will agree that Agent Orange manufacture is insignificant compared to some of the company’s other actions detailed there.
    Here in England we got a little upset when this happened:
    “Between 1965 and 1972, Monsanto paid contractors to illegally dump thousands of tons of highly toxic waste in UK landfill sites, knowing that their chemicals were liable to contaminate wildlife and people. The Environment Agency said the chemicals were found to be polluting groundwater and the atmosphere 30 years after they were dumped.”
    The problems that the company has caused in many other countries of the world are surprising and should be better known.

  4. Eric Baumholer says:

    Dioxin is not toxic to humans. At worst, it causes acne. The chemical arm of Monsanto was spun off into a separate company known as Solutia. A link between Agent Orange and Vietnamese illness has not yet been established. The safety of GM crops has been established in over 400 peer-reviewed papers.

    All the article does is line up some urban legends.

    • Mark B says:

      Dioxin is a carcinogen. At the Saveso disaster the most contaminated houses were destroyed and the topsoil carefully removed from a wider area for careful disposal. New crops were grown, analysed and then destroyed. By the mid 80’s costs had risen to several hundred million Swiss Franks, Not something that would be done for a non toxic chemical. It is linked to breast cancer and I would not like to see my children with chloracne. Do an images search, the pictures of it are disgusting.

  5. Jens says:

    “Short-term exposure of humans to high levels of dioxins may result in skin lesions, such as chloracne and patchy darkening of the skin, and altered liver function. Long-term exposure is linked to impairment of the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions. Chronic exposure of animals to dioxins has resulted in several types of cancer.”
    and I really want to know why GW is not man made. I so wish it wasn’t. Thank You.

  6. Andrew Ball says:

    Wow that is a fascinating field trip into the land of logical fallacies. Seems like there is a set pattern of comments:
    1 – several people will agree completely with the article.
    2 – a rogue skeptic will arrive and point out that either the claim is nonsense, or as in the subject of this post, that it’s irrelevant.
    3 – skeptic will be called a shill and an delusinal idiot who will look mightlily stupid when Monsanto have destroyed the world.
    4 – maybe one or two supporters will come up with some interesting ethical points , but as we have already established, they are a separate issue.
    5 – repeat ad nauseum.

  7. Janet Camp says:

    I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve posted somewhere that Monsanto’s ethics and GM technology are two separate things. A lot of people who I would otherwise consider smart, make the mistake of conflating the two. Thanks for writing about this–I tend to start spluttering when people go down this path and you say it much more articulately than I; now I will have something to forward.

  8. Guy McCardle says:

    One should not look at the past history of a company, even one who has made a product as miserable as Agent Orange, and damn it’s present day products. The logic just doesn’t follow. Consider Mitsubishi. They built Zeros for the Empire of Japan during WWII. Remember? Ever ridden in a VW bug? Volkswagen (meaning “people’s car” in German) was ordered into existence by Adolf Hitler to fill the need for cheap, reliable transportation for the masses.

    Why don’t we just let Monsanto move forward like everyone else?

  9. Mark B says:

    I agree that Monsanto’s ethics are non existant but there are other more important issues.

    GMOs reduce biodiversity which is always bad. A disease will develop naturally that will wipe the crop out, given time and normal random processes. This is inevitable. Bio terrorism with one target to hit is aided by a mono culture of GMO crops. Terminator technology reduces the target to the seed production areas. Destroy that with a GM virus and the whole GM crop would vanish in one year. A nice military as well as terrorist target.

    So Monsanto and the high risk GMO strategy are only linked in so far as both could cause huge damage to the world at many different levels. I would say the risk is not worth it.

    • Curious what trait you’re referring to, that would make one strain vulnerable to a virus, but not the identical strain with a different gene? I’m assuming you know what you’re talking about here.

    • Ewan R says:

      GMOs reduce biodiversity which is always bad.

      No, they don’t.

      Commercialized GMOs are not one single variety of say corn which is genetically modified. They are multiple different varieties which have had the trait bred into them.

      To illustrate the process:-

      A transgene is discovered, lets say for resistance to herbicide X – the discovery process likely occurs in a single easily transformed germplasm (variety) and is tested in such to prove to the folk doing it that it works, and does so well enough to make for a product. Once the company is convinced that the product works they’ll pick the best transformation “event” from the “construct” which works and go forwards with all the regulatory characterization required for it. A “construct” is the piece of DNA used to get the transgene into the plant, an “event” is an instance of that construct inserting into a genome – therefore a single construct may have multiple events – all sitting in different spots (probably) of the genome of the organism which has been modified.

      Importantly it is at the event level that regulatory approvals are given.

      So our gene for resistance to X may have 100 events which have been tested, but only event number 23 is picked (perhaps because it works best, or because out of all the events that work well it is the one situated in the genome such that it isn’t close to any endogenous genes and doesn’t have multiple copies or other genetic mess sitting about (ie stuff that scares regulatory agencies)

      Once this has regulatory approval it is bred into all the varieties it can be – and may be licensed to competitors so they can breed it into their varieties – with molecular breeding techniques you can, as close as damn it, breed in just your transgene and nothing else. So varietal integrity is preserved and biodiversity within the crop is not altered one bit.

      Your scenario of monoculture is absurd and based on a complete and utter lack of understanding.

      • Mark B says:

        If a sack of GM wheat is genuinely a mix of many varieties and sacks from the same supplier delivered across the country are completely different from each other then I agree there is no issue. I was under the impression that genetic modifications were made to a single variety that also had other desired traits. To me that makes commercial sense as it would be easier to implement and more predictable. If I have misunderstood the process then I put my hands up.

        Mea culpa. I have been loose with the term GMO. This has happened because of the public perception of industrialized agriculture has given GMO a bad name and muddied use of the term. GM equates to contamination of food and land. The first is rubbish as modified food is probably safe. If pollen from a GM crop remains in the environment and viable for several seasons then the concept of contamination may not be completely wrong.

        Either way from a European viewpoint I am happy for the US to take the lead. Or to put it another way if you are crossing ground that might contain mines let the other guy walk in front and tread in his footprints. Safer that way.

        • Ewan R says:

          If a sack of GM wheat is genuinely a mix of many varieties and sacks from the same supplier delivered across the country are completely different from each other then I agree there is no issue.

          Couple of points on this. First – there is no GM wheat (yet)

          Second – the scenario you portray doesn’t even apply to non-GM seed for wheat or corn (or anything really). The bag of seed that a farmer purchases will always be a single variety (pretty much, there may be some exceptions I am not aware of, but this will be the case with most of production Ag). However different bags may well be different varieties – a single farmer will likely plant multiple varieties at different locations on their farm – high historical yield fields may warrant more expensive higher producing hybrids, whereas crappy fields may jsut get filled with bog standard varieties which don’t have the potential to get top end yield (which doesn’t matter, because the field sucks).

          The results of your approach would be practically disasterous for a farmer – a field of corn with essentially random varieties is going to flower at different times per variety, mature at different rates, and have varieties well and ill suited to the environment in which they find themselves – I assume the same applies to most crops (although with corn it is very important that your field flower at the same time – for crops which are better self pollinators this may not be as big of an issue)

          Monoculture can mean a couple different things (in my mind at least, before a dictionary fanatic comes and beats me up) – it can mean simply planting a whole bunch of a single crop (which modern agriculture is most certainly guilty of) or it can mean planting only a single variety of a single crop (which modern agriculture isn’t guilty of, generally not even on a single farm – although likely the case in a single field)

          To me that makes commercial sense as it would be easier to implement and more predictable.

          As I described above this certainly isn’t more predictable or easy to implement – it takes about $100M to get a single event through the regulatory process – if each variety had to be modified that’d be $100M per variety into which the trait went – in which case we wouldn’t be having this discussion because there’s no way GM traits would ever recoup their value. Once a trait has been discovered and shown to be useful it is introgressed widely into as many varieties as possible – as such you have exactly the same scope for variation as you do without GMOs – they’re biodiversity neutral (at least at the level of the crop, at the level of the ecosystem there’s an arguement to be made that both Bt and RR are biodiversity positive given that they reduce the toxic load of applied pesticides compared to conventional Ag without GM)

          I just noticed another glaring error in a prior post also, which I feel needs to be addressed for the sake of accuracy:-

          terminator technology reduces the target to the seed production areas.

          Imagine, if you will, that I’m smacking you in the nose with a rolled up newspaper right now. Imagine I’m looking sorely disappointed. Terminator technology is not used. At all. There are patents around it that exist sure, but it has never been deployed in a commercial product.

          If you see a piece espousing terminator technology as somethign that is used, and is bad, know that whoever wrote the piece has gone to absolutely no trouble whatsoever to understand the issues – this doesn’t necessarily mean that all their arguements ring hollow, but it does rather suggest that there will be other spots where they will be less than accurate (given that it is hard to be more inaccurate than stating that terminator technology is used in the first place)

          As a European I am utterly appalled (and have been for well over a decade now) at the backwards approach the EU takes on GMOs (just incase anyone reading makes the false assumption that all Europeans are as misinformed and spectacularly risk averse (it makes no sense, when wandering through a park, to be afraid of mines, one should only take precautions against stepping on a mine when there is sound reason to believe mines may be present – that is sensible, to be afraid of them at all times simply because you can imagine they exist – that’s borderline insane)

          • Mark B says:

            You are right about the sacks. I was wording it badly as usual. What I mean is if a particular genetic modification is made to several varieties of a crop and the number of varieties are not reduced then there is no issue. If the seeds are available across the whole range that is. If one variety is modified and the range of varieties reduced then I see problems. I dont think it matters what crop we are talking about BTW the same principle applies.

            Terminator technology is something that concerns me. My argument is *if * it is implemented then it simplifies bioterrorism by reducing the crop area that needs to be destroyed. Luckily most terrorists seem to be fairly inept. Why agriculture has not been extensively attacked yet is surprising.

            As for mines. Well if Europe stays behind the curve then there is no need for safety trials of modified foods etc. The entire US is a massive experiment that we can watch and licence crops when no adverse results arise. As long as biodiversity is maintained of course. I agree that risks are very, very low but letting someone else take them is prudent.

          • Ewan R says:

            If the seeds are available across the whole range that is. If one variety is modified and the range of varieties reduced then I see problems. I dont think it matters what crop we are talking about BTW the same principle applies.

            It would appear then that you have no problem. Genetic modification is introgressed into available varieties. There is no reduction in varietal availability due to the process of genetic modification (there may be a reduction of varieties available that are not GMO, but this is a function of market economics and not the process of genetic modification itself – if everyone wants to buy the GM version of a variety there is little incentive for a seed company to maintain the non-modified version as an available product)

            Terminator technology is something that concerns me. My argument is *if * it is implemented then it simplifies bioterrorism by reducing the crop area that needs to be destroyed.

            Depends on the seed production model – if you had a single centralized site for seed production then sure, but as things are there are diverse companies and geographies where seed are manufactured – targetting the whole shebang would be nigh on impossible – particularly as so many varieties are in play that to be succesful you’d have a bio-weapon that you may as well just unleash on the whole crop (as it would be species rather than variety specific)

            I agree that risks are very, very low but letting someone else take them is prudent.

            That might make sense (in a very cowardly sort of way) if there weren’t risks of non-adoption. There are however. Non-adoption of herbicide resistance traits for instance leaves the EU having to utilize herbicide regimes which have a higher environmental impact than the systems GM allows. Non-adoption of IR traits leaves the EU utilizing more broad spectrum insecticides. Non-adoption in general by the EU sets back the capacity for areas which would benefit greatly from GMOs to do so – the non-adoption of Bt brinjal in India for instance was fueled, in part, by the batshit stupid stance of the EU on GMOs.

            I’m sure however that any Indian kids who happen to get poisoned by broad spectrum insecticides over the next few years while assisting with the cultivation of Brinjal will be more than happy to know that the EU has avoided stepping on a mine that doesn’t exist.

  10. NEW REQUIREMENT TO COMMENT ON THIS POST: When you say “GMOs are…” that’s exactly like saying “Papers written on a word processor are…” If you have a comment about a specific strain or trait or gene that you feel has negative implications, I welcome your comment, just please BE SPECIFIC and know what you’re talking about. Thank you.

    • Mark B says:

      “Mark B on Agent Orange and GMO: Non-Sequitur of the Day.” Gosh that is harsh. If I have made a technical mistake then fine I am open to other peoples opinions and experience. Happy to own up to being wrong. Thats how we learn. I even apologize on occasions.

  11. Linda says:

    Check out “The World according to Monsanto’ It’s on you tube.

  12. Dave says:

    First: I’ve no quarrel with GMOs. If we’re going to feed the planet in the next century we’re sure as heck not going to do it “organically.”

    Second: I’ve lots of quarrels with chemical weapons. Agent Orange is a chemical weapon and should have been prohibited from use by the US in Vietnam. Up until a few years ago, when I started volunteering in Vietnam, the only thing I heard about Agent Orange was its supposed effects on American GIs.

    Those claims may be true. But what’s tragically true is the horrible effects it had on the populations who had to live in the areas coated by AO, who lived on crops grown in the regions. Whatever effects our veterans had, it pales in comparison. I’m not going to go into my experiences, because that rightfully falls into the realm of anecdotal evidence. Likewise, I don’t have any stats on Vietnamese birth defects in regions where Agent Orange was used.

    Agent Orange was a horrific weapon that we (Americans) used against plants. Surely, it killed plants and it had deleterious effects on soldiers in the area. It had completely catastrophic effects on the people who actually lived in the areas where Agent Orange was used, and on their unborn children.

    Sorry if I sound shrill. It bothers me when we yell about the problems our GIs have coming back from combat (which are 100% legitimate) but completely disregard the plight of the people we are leaving behind those war-torn countries. We left two generations of Vietnamese to suck-up the problems of Agent Orange and we’re leaving a broad generations of Iraqi children to be victims of PTSD.

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