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Agent Orange and GMO: Non-Sequitur of the Day

by Brian Dunning

February 9, 2012

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Donate 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 fromMonsanto, 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.

by Brian Dunning

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