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A Skeptical Look at Neil Young's New Album "The Monsanto Years"

by Mike Rothschild

June 23, 2015

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Donate Going back to the late 60’s, rocker Neil Young embodied the social consciousness of rock music, in some ways picking up the torch of protest singing that Bob Dylan dropped after he went electric. During a diverse and willfully eclectic career of nearly 40 solo albums, Young has continued making music in this vein. In recent years, he’s used music to attack the Bush administration of the conduct of the Iraq War, criticize “factory farming”, stump for the electric car and lament the death of American traditions.

But his newest album takes aim at the most sacred of all hippie sacred cows: Monsanto. On his new album “The Monsanto Years”, Young pulls out all the stops and pulls no punches. He attacks corporate giants like Wal-Mart and Chevron, blasts genetically modified organisms, slams campaign finance law for crushing democracy and laments that people only want love songs, not to be told what’s really going on with their food and politics. But it’s Monsanto that Young saves his sharpest barbs for, explicitly slamming the agribusiness monolith over and over for its perceived vice-like grip on the food supply.

Obviously, your mileage may vary with all of this stuff. If you agree with Young’s laments that Big Pharma, Big Oil and Big Corporate are destroying the planet, you’re going to think “The Monsanto Years” is a clarion call. If you think Young is just a crotchety hippie entering his “old man yells at cloud” phase, then “The Monsanto Years” will give you plenty of ammo. Indeed, the whole thing feels like a catchy argumentum ad Monsantum, blaming the massive company for everything wrong under the sun and writing GMO’s off as evil franken-food killing everyone who puts it to their lips. Plenty of anti-GMO activists make a good living doing just this " taking advantage of Monsanto
derangement to push books, lectures and really expensive “clean” food, cashing in on the fear they’ve helped create.

But what’s truly disturbing about “The Monsanto Years” is just how much Young is either guessing at or willfully getting wrong. Young makes a huge number of claims in these songs, and many of them just don’t pass even the slightest amount of scientific or factual scrutiny.

A perfect example is on the track “">People Want to Hear About Love.” Young sarcastically pontificates that his fellow musicians shouldn’t be writing about serious subjects, only love songs. (Never mind that Young himself has written a number of love songs, some of which, like “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man” are his biggest hits). Among Young-approved song topics are “the Chevron millions going to the pipeline politicians”, “the corporations hijacking all your rights” and world poverty. Oh, and this little gem: “Don't say pesticides are causing autistic children.”

Whoa. While it’s not clear how much of a chart-topper a pop song about autism would be, it’s very clear that the link Young is talking about is not clear at all. While one UC-Davis study from 2014 found that there might be a link between autism and pregnant women who live near farms that use large quantities of pesticides, this piece from the great Skeptical Raptor analyzes that study and finds it to be, at best, too small and statistically flawed. Even if this weren’t so, way more research would be needed to be able to claim anything close to “pesticides are causing autistic children.”

The album’s title track is another harangue, this one all-Monsanto all the time. Young laments that the company is destroying agriculture, making life hell for farmers, violating God’s law, you name it. Typical of these claims is what Young sings about Roundup, the Monsanto-developed herbicide that it breeds GMO crops to be able to resist. Young doesn’t hold back, singing:
When these seeds rise they're ready for the pesticide/
And Roundup comes and brings the poison tide of Monsanto
For not that many words, there’s a long of wrong. First, Roundup isn’t a pesticide, it’s an herbicide. A subtle but major difference, in that pesticides kill pests, while herbicides kill weeds " weeds that can hamper the growth of crops. Beyond that, despite the warnings of anti-GMO activists and the flawed studies that get passed around among the converted, Roundup is one of the safest and most widely used herbicides on the market. Having crops that are resistant to weeds is beneficial to everyone, and their safety has been established by numerous well-done studies. While you probably don’t want to drink a quart of RoundUp, as a Monsanto spokesman said could be safely done, it’s not going to give you autism, it’s not going to turn you into a mutant and it’s not going to poison you.

Finally, Young goes after the mostly non-existent link between Monsanto and Starbucks in the punny “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop.” Focusing on the coffee giant’s role in a lawsuit in Vermont regarding GMO labeling, this particular track has gotten the most notice from the music press, and it’s just as full of wrong as the rest of the album. Among the nuggets Young throws out are nonsensical lines like:
Yeah, I want a cup of coffee, but I don’t want a GMO/
I like to start my day off without helping Monsanto
This doesn’t make any sense. Monsanto isn’t a coffee company, doesn’t make coffee and doesn’t sell coffee. GMO coffee is still mostly theoretical at this point, and you are in no way “helping Monsanto” when you get your triple venti whipped half-caf whatever at Starbucks.

Later in the track, Young sings:
When the people of Vermont voted to label food with GMOs/
So they can find out what was in what the farmer grows/
Monsanto and Starbucks through the Grocery Manufacturers Alliance/
Sued the state of Vermont to overturn the people’s will
Here’s where it all goes off the rails. The voting that the song refers to is Act 120, voted upon in Vermont in April 2014 and signed a month later. This law poises Vermont to become the first state to require labeling of all foods containing genetically modified ingredients, to go into effect two years later.

A few weeks later, the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (not “Alliance” as the song states) stated it would challenge the law by claiming it’s unconstitutional. They were rightly concerned about more states imposing expensive and scientifically unsound labeling standards.

What does Starbucks have to do with any of this? Both Starbucks and Monsanto are members of the GMA, and a petition on the website SumOfUs got a lot of viral play making the claim that “Starbucks doesn’t want you to know what’s in their coffee” and had partnered with Monsanto to fund the lawsuit. It’s apparent that Young bought into what the petition had to say, as he soon claimed he would no longer support Starbucks.

But none of this is accurate. Starbucks has nothing to do with the lawsuit by the GMA, and both Starbucks and the GMA have confirmed this. The company has no stated position on GMO’s or GMO labeling and has little to gain from the outcome of this suit. Monsanto isn’t directly linked to the suit, either. Young’s claim that “Monsanto and Starbucks […] sued the state of Vermont” is ridiculous and not supported by factual evidence.

Whether or not you agree with Neil Young’s polemics against big business, Monsanto and GMO’s is entirely up to you. But it’s important to make those decisions using factual, evidence-based information. " not on lyrics seemingly cribbed from email forwards, message board comments and posts by the Food Babe. And based on what I’ve heard in “The Monsanto Years,” you’re not going to get such information from Young " at least not on this album.

by Mike Rothschild

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