I Was Lured Into Monsanto’s GMO Crusade. Here’s What I Learned.

Public debates about science and technology are rarely ever just about the science and technology.

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  • The controversial agricultural company Monsanto, acquired last June by Bayer, has become synonymous with genetically modified food.

    Visual: Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images


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It wasn’t until long after I first met Vance Crowe, at the 2016 conference for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry in Las Vegas, that I realized he was trying to win me over. Tall, white, conventionally handsome, and extremely charismatic, the 34-year-old Crowe was two years into a stint as the director of millennial engagement for Monsanto, the controversial agricultural company that has become synonymous with genetically modified food. And I was exactly the kind of person that he sought to engage.

As a millennial, progressive, science-minded mom of two, I had grown sick of fearmongers who were using bad science, poorly interpreted science, or — worst of all — no science at all to render parents’ love for their children into an anxiety about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. I’d found solace in the skeptics movement, whose members stress empiricism and the scientific method, and I began blogging to counter the fear and myths that were so pervasive in the parenting world.

So began my strange dance with Crowe and Monsanto — a dance that saw me go from vocal supporter of Crowe and his GMO movement to unabashed critic. The dance more or less ended in May of this year, when Crowe announced in a blog post that he stepped down as Monsanto’s director of millennial engagement, having largely failed at his goal of warming young people to the idea of GMOs. (Bayer, which acquired Monsanto last June, said in a statement that the company does not currently have plans to fill the position.) During my years of interactions with Crowe and some of the who’s who of Monsanto and the pro-GMO world, however, I learned an important lesson — one that Crowe never seemed to grasp: Public debates about science and technology are never just about science and technology.

Monsanto has been a lightning rod for people’s views on food, the food system, global health, and war since well before it began its pivot into agricultural biotechnology in the 1980s. And in 2013, 31 years after Monsanto scientists first modified a cell line, the furor around the corporation showed few signs of slowing. Amid a wave of anti-Monsanto fervor on the internet, a reported hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets around the world to “March Against Monsanto.” GMOs, and Monsanto in particular, were being wrongly blamed for a raft of health and social problems, including rising allergy rates, farmer suicides in India and even racial health disparities in America.

In 2014, in an apparent attempt to win over young minds and “crack the millennial code” — to borrow the theme at that year’s Animal Agriculture Alliance conference — Monsanto hired Crowe, a communications strategist, as their director of millennial engagement. As journalist Jessie Scott put it in a 2017 profile for Successful Farming, Crowe’s overarching goal was “to engage with millennials about the intersection of farming, food, and technology,” and push back against activists who “spread fear of modern agriculture.” He identified six like-minded communities — which he problematically called “tribes”— that he hoped to recruit as allies: computer technologists, STEM proponents, pragmatic environmentalists, food-as-fuel proponents, agriculture advocates, and skeptics.

It was no surprise that Crowe and Monsanto eventually noticed my writing. During my young but very active career as a blogger, I’d written article after article and tweeted ad nauseam about how GMOs weren’t the cause of the myriad problems attributed to them. I’d interviewed Nobel Laureate Sir Richard Roberts to help amplify his #Nobels4GMOs campaign. I made it clear that widespread opposition to genetic engineering technologies had kept important agricultural solutions out of the hands of people who need it. I even co-founded March Against Myths, a science activist organization forged to counter the “pseudoscience injustice” that we believed was being perpetuated by the March Against Monsanto.

Crowe soon began to engage me. We shared cordial Twitter exchanges and even commiserated face-to-face about the often fact-scarce rhetoric of genetic engineering opponents. It was unsettling to later realize that he was deliberately targeting not just me but the entire community of skeptics — who had rescued me from my own fear as a young mother — and the other so-called tribes.

Crowe preached a scientific gospel of GMOs that went something like this: If you’re pro-science, you must be pro-GMO. If you’re anti-Monsanto, then you’re anti-GMO. Therefore, if you’re anti-Monsanto, you’re anti-science. His objective, it seemed, was to render opposition to GMOs as ridiculous as belief in Bigfoot, and to amass a movement that could be counted on to shout that message from the rooftops.

For a while, I played the part of loyal apostle. One frequent target of my work was the Non-GMO Project, which had begun putting its distinctive butterfly label on the packaging of foods it certifies as free of genetic modification. Altogether, the Non-GMO project claims to certify more than 50,000 products representing more than $26 billion in annual sales. In a 2017 op-ed, I wrote that “the Non-GMO Project’s vilification of safe technologies” was indefensible, and that they were “ruining my shopping experience.”

However, I gradually began to sense that there was something very wrong with the GMO gospel. In August 2017, several pieces I co-wrote for Forbes were taken down when it was discovered that my co-author had published articles ghostwritten by Monsanto. That feeling that something was wrong came into even sharper focus early last year when Crowe and Monsanto hosted a fireside chat with University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson to address farmers on “the danger of allowing ideologies to grow unopposed.” Peterson’s star was rising among the political right, following his very public refusal to comply with his university’s policy of addressing students with their preferred gender pronouns.

In an essay for Slate, I criticized the decision to invite Peterson, both on account of his bigoted views and because as far as I could tell — in his numerous lectures and hundreds of hours of popular YouTube videos — he had never before addressed the topic of agriculture. Soon after my story went live, a slew of pro-GMO tribespeople rushed to Monsanto and Crowe’s defense. Among them was Kevin Folta, then one of the most prominent scientists advocating for genetic engineering, who tweeted that his “heart hurts” for Crowe, adding, “That was a shitty title and a hit job Kavin. I hope the check was worth it.”

The blowback from the Slate story catalyzed an awakening, and suddenly I saw the landscape of the GMO battle with aerial clarity. Everything I’d written and said in support of GMOs was factually correct, but my approach had been all wrong. It’s impossible to have a constructive conversation about GMOs without acknowledging that underlying the unscientific claims made by many GMO opponents is a legitimate desire for trustworthy behavior from the companies that dominate the agricultural marketplace.

For instance, I had dismissed the Non-GMO Project’s ever-present butterfly labels as an annoying tactic based on pseudoscience. But the label’s popularity showed that something in the Non-GMO Project’s narrative was resonating with the North American marketplace: The labels play to people’s desire for transparency, to their underlying lack of trust in the food system, and to their desire to have some say in the way our food is grown and made.

According to a 2016 Gallup analysis, Millennials in particular tend not to trust big companies to deliver on their promises. And Monsanto has repeatedly failed to behave in trustworthy ways. A year after Bayer acquired it, Monsanto is still embroiled in controversy for several previous misdeeds, including keeping a list of influential critics and allies, in possible violation of French law. Since March, the company has been ordered to pay damages in three cases involving cancer said to be caused by its glyphosate-based weed killer Roundup

But Crowe didn’t pay credence to such concerns. Behind his and Monsanto’s doomed struggle to position the company as a beacon of sustainable innovation was always a bit of contempt for those who didn’t agree with them. “If we don’t stop these ideas from opponents and get other ideas about modern agriculture to spread faster,” he told Sustainable Farming in 2017 “the world won’t look the way that I hope for or want it to look.”

But people, this millennial included, don’t necessarily want the world to look the way that Monsanto wants it to look. What was missing from Crowe’s battle for the hearts and minds of millennials were answers to big picture problems — about the health of our families, the environment, the food system, and the injustices that pervade all of these facets of life — that people on both sides of the GMO debate care about.

The entities that push unscientific, fear-based narratives about GMOs will never be defeated if the powers that be neglect to sincerely tackle the people’s underlying mistrust. As I said in a speech to fellow skeptics this past fall on the steps of the Sacramento capitol building, “While the scientific method may be the way we interact with the world, largely by choice, the scientific method is wielded by people, and what drives those people are values.” I’m hopeful that Monsanto will get the message, but I’m not holding my breath.


Kavin Senapathy is a freelance writer covering science, health, parenting, and food, based in Madison, Wisconsin. She’s the co-founder and contributing editor at SciMoms.com, and the co-host of the Point of Inquiry podcast. She also works with Genome International, a family owned business since 1992. Previously, she received travel and speaking funds from Monsanto parent-company Bayer.

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137 comments / Join the Discussion

    In other words: GMO’s aren’t bad, but Monsanto is bad because it engaged Jordan Peterson.

    Brought to you by Monsanto:
    Saccharin
    DDT
    Dioxin
    Agent Orange
    Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH)
    Seriously, how can you trust Monsanto? Years of environmental damage have been the cost of this trust.

    You say the scientific consensus says that GMOs are safe; however, do you realise that most GMO research comes from companies like Monsanto? journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0167777 This is an article by Thomas Guillemaud showing that about 40 percent of all GMO research is biased. Plus, an independent French research team repeated one of Monsanto’s trials except the researchers extended the trial period for 2 yrs and found that GMOs really do cause cancer; it posed so much of a threat to Monsanto that it was retracted but fortunately was republished with responses to its critics. So all that so called “science” about GMOs is really nothing more than corporate propaganda. The same is true with Big Pharma and Big Tobacco. Another interesting experiment performed by a farmer regarding GMOs can be found here governmentslaves.news/2019/07/06/farmer-conducts-experiment-using-gmo-and-non-gmo-corn-discovers-sobering-truth-that-animals-know-and-humans-dont/ If animals can sense something wrong with GMOs then why should we trust them with our health?

    You are referring I presume to the Seralini study? That study has been widely panned by the scientific community. It suffered from a wide variety of problems including that it involved a very small sample size, and used a breed of rats that are very prone to random cancers, which of course increases the potential for alarming, but statistically insignificant, findings. The study found no dose response effect, and a variety of very curious results if GMO’s genuinely are toxic (e.g. In the male groups, the GMO and glyphosate groups tended to do better, if anything). It’s subsequent republication was done in an open access journal and without further peer review. Finally, the findings of the Seralini study were tested by three replication studies, all of which found no link between GMO’s or glysophate and cancer. The Seralini study is borderline pseudoscience and its findings totally worthless. For a good summary of all the problems with it, try reading the following:

    https://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/seralini-gmo-study-republished/

    Your article mentions the “cases involving cancer said to be caused by [Monsanto’s] glyphosate-based weed killer Roundup”. But you didn’t mention that these suits were based entirely on the IARC’s Group 2A carcinogen classification, which doesn’t take dosage into account and which doesn’t have to follow the scientific consensus.

    I understand that your point was the public perception of Monsanto’s integrity, rather than the scientific basis (or lack thereof) of these lawsuits. But as you’re someone scientifically literate, you know that the actual scientific consensus around glyphosate is that it’s less toxic than table salt and is almost certainly NOT carcinogenic in the quantities consumers are exposed to. To not mention this fact when talking about the lawsuits against Monsanto/Bayer seems disingenuous.

    There are two separate issues here:

    * The actions and ethics of Monsanto.
    * The risks and safety of GMO foods.

    Monsanto has acted the greedy bully, and it’s present troubles are well deserved.

    The methodology of gene modification is suspect: New genes are inserted via a tiny gold pellet coated with the genetic material, and it’s fired into the cell. “Shotgun surgery” Most of the cells die. Sometimes the gene is active. Sometimes not.

    We do not have a good understanding of how genes interact. It’s almost never the simple tall/medium/short peas of Mendel’s experiments, or brown eyes/blue eyes in your high school biology book. Two examples: Dog coat colour involves at least 7 genes, and another bunch for patterns. (Many dark hued dogs have white tip tails, and light socks. Some are speckled, patched, countershaded (light underneath) Pigments can be black, brown, red(ish), grey.) (Imagine the opportunities for racism if people had as much variation as dogs…)

    A second striking example was the Russian researcher who started a project to breed a more tractable, less fearful silver fox. The breeding was successful. In 6 generations he had a fox that instead of cowering int he back of it’s pen ready to bite, was calm enough to be picked up and petted. Their coats went from silver-tipped black to the same sort of patchy mix of black, white, and brown that Canadian Eskimo dogs exhibit today.

    ***

    There are tradeoffs in round-up ready foods. It’s a fairly simple modification. The ready canola has an enzyme that breaks up glyphosate before it can take effect. But since this is encoded in the plant’s genes then it can cross over to any species that the grain can hybridize with. Thus we now have round-up ready Johnson’s Weed. Worse: Your neighbour’s non GMO canola can be pollenated by your roundup ready canola. And Monsanto can sue your neighbor for “stealing” and confiscate your seed crop for next year. (Monsanto clients agree to buy new seed every year.)

    Meh. Garbage in/ garbage out. You sign up to be a propagandist for Monsanto, you pay the piper when they sell out and get sued for billions. Kavin has been shilling for the biotech brigade for several years now. I guess Bayer doesn’t buy into the same shenanigans that Monsanto pulled. No more shill-bucks for you, Kavin. So sad…

    I’m not sure if this is a conspiracy theory or if I just have my facts completely wrong. Also, please bear in mind, I also don’t care about left or right or any other direction – I’m just one of your below average plonkers trying to make sense of the world :) So –

    As far as I know these “modified seeds” get copy righted. So the genetic code for these modified seeds belong to Monsanto. If said seeds grow into plants and then cross pollinate your crop (via wind), then because that code is now in your crops seeds – Monsanto owns them ? Is that right?

    I want to grow my own veggies in my garden. But what if one of Monsanto’s plants corrupts my natural god given/ for all life to use/ original big bang plants? Then Monsanto can tell me its theirs? What if their plants contaminate all the plants? Then Monsanto owns every living plant?

    So its ok for all life to belong to everyone – and then for Monsanto to come contaminate it- then take it……. away from us – all for them greedy selves ……for money and power? Why would the rest of humanity allow that?

    In my opinion: GMO’s, science, solutions – in a world that is not ideal, ever changing and predominately under mankind’s dominion ( a mankind still struggling with self) – will be with us until the end. My issue is not with genetically engineering solutions or with pesticides or, or, or. We will start from the beginning, make a lot of mistakes, then tweak and improve and learn as we go along – striving for the best outcome.

    My issue is with the business side of things. With inequality, corruption, greed and the devaluation of human life / mankind. Business outcome (predominately) is for the one at the top of the pyramid – not for all.

    Or am I way off? Please advise, please clarify.

    Kind regards

    To “JENNIFER” the FARMER and others who say they can not farm without ag chems this attitude backed by the American Farm Bureau is to counter organic farmers who continue to show us via the millions of dollars they are raking in by not using Beyer ag chem products. My family farmed with huge success by simply recycling bio-nutrients from dairy barn, beef cattle sheds and layer coops and yards into the grain fields by use of a manure spreader. Cultivators were mechanical not chemical. Record yields were realized in oats, wheat , corn and several types of hay. Pastures were tall in grass. Minerals, N,P, Mg along with ORGANIC MATTER applied to all fields and pasture creates a soil rich in microbial life (bacteria, viruses, fungi and invertebrate fauna), Applying chemicals to your growing crops is toxic to all things alive in the soil. I watch idiot farmers around my farm grow cover crops like seasonal rye…then kill it with Roundup prior to planting soy beans! How about some cows out there to eat it and fertilize the field num nutz! DO not eat peanuts! Sprayed no less than 4 times before harvest with herbicides and fungicides! Buy organic peanut butter for you and the kids, please! Farmers can not do math.
    Roundup is a fault free chemical? No one in my county in FL uses just Round Up on fields of peanuts, melons.. Years of repeated season use of Roundup has made most weeds Roundup resistant so chems such as pelargonic, diquat, and 2,4-D are mixed with Roundup in tanks and out to the fields they go. Good by insects and birds that fly by these fields as these potent chems vaporize as the sun beats down on the fields. When it rains…? BUY ORGANIC ONLY!

    Who funds the research programs and resulting research that is used to train and educate the young farmer of today? Controlling the funding and research of modern schools of medicine and farming research , while burying questions of cheap versus healthier-research questions that might find behemoth companies less sacrosanct is just capitalist American business practice. So?

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