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The Big Lie: Monsanto and the New York Times

By: Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director

December 15, 2016
Center for Food Safety

Originally published in The Huffington Post.

Most of us have told a lie a time or two and probably a variety of them. For example, there is the excuse lie as in the timeless “my dog ate my homework,” and the proverbial “white lie” as in “No you really do look great in those jeans.” But the “The Big Lie” is different. The term refers to a propaganda or advertising technique by which first you say the opposite of an obvious truth about an event or product, and then keep repeating and repeating that lie until it becomes an unquestioned mantra for the public. So no matter how much the lie defies common sense it over time becomes commonplace.

Take the iconic marketing campaign promoting Coca Cola. You’ll easily recall the endlessly repeated mantra: “Coke, it’s the real thing.” Well, whatever you may think of Coke, not much in my estimation, it is anything but the real thing. It’s highly processed, is laden with high fructose corn syrup derived from GMO corn, contains caramel coloring and it goes downhill from there. So the ad is obviously the exact opposite of the truth. But repeated countless times the slogan becomes accepted without thought. Here’s another favorite example, the AT&T telephone ad campaign, “Reach out and touch someone.” Certainly phones can be great but as anyone separated from a loved one knows, to their great frustration, the one thing you can’t do with them is actually reach out and touch that important someone. You are actually just touching the dial pad and handset. Again, a mantra that is obviously false but was repeated so often it almost made sense.

Similarly, for more than two decades the promotion of genetically engineered (GE) crops in the United States and worldwide has been based in the Big Lie. Led by Monsanto’s aggressive international marketing campaign the mantra has been, and still is, that GE crops “reduce pesticide use, increase yield and are key to feeding the world.” I have been working on this issue for decades and during that time have seen that virtually every major media story on GE crops began with this “Big Lie” claim, and using almost identical language. These claims, as with those in the Coke and AT&T commercials, defy common sense. Monsanto and the other leaders in promoting GE crops—Dow, Dupont, Syngenta and Bayer—are all chemical companies that make tens of billions of dollars in profits by selling ever more pesticides, especially herbicides. Why would they spend hundreds of millions of research dollars and then billions in advertising and lobbying to promote crops that actually “reduce pesticides” and thereby destroy their bottom line? Are these companies committing economic suicide in an altruistic attempt to feed the world? Obviously not. You can accuse Monsanto of many things, including myriad corporate crimes over many decades, but altruism is not one of them. As my organization and many others have scientifically demonstrated many times to a deaf media, the vast majority of GMOs are not designed to decrease herbicide use but to massively increase it. More than 90% of US corn, soy, cotton, and sugar beets have been genetically engineered to withstand massive doses of the toxic herbicides these companies make, and profit from. Normally care has to be taken using herbicides because they kill not just weeds but anything green, including the crops they come into contact with. But with these herbicide tolerant crops large scale operations can even conduct aerial spraying of their fields with these herbicides and the weeds die but the crops survive.

Because of GE crops each year more than 100 million more pounds of Roundup are used on America’s croplands each year. These toxic chemicals pollute our water and air, kill wildlife and native plants and threaten the very survival of the monarch butterfly and other species. In 2015 the World Health Organization’s research arm found that the active ingredient in Roundup is a “probable carcinogen.” So for Monsanto and the other chemical companies, genetically engineering crops is just another way to significantly increase profits. They sell the seeds and the poisons sprayed on those seeds. Great for their bottom line, terrible for the rest of us and the planet.

What about the Big Lie about increased yield and feeding the world? Well in 2009 the Union of Concerned Scientists published a definitive report called “Failure to Yield” which made it clear that there was no significant yield increase with GE crops. Despite the clear title and message the media entranced with the Big Lie barely noticed.

But as Martin Luther King, Jr. liked to say, “No lie can live forever.” And in the waning weeks of the recent contentious and dispiriting election campaign a surprising ray of light illuminated the longstanding GE crops debate. Remarkably, the source was the New York Times, which for so many years had ignored the science about genetic engineering and bought the Big Lie. But in a front page story the Times became among the first mainstream media sources to debunk the Big Lie about GMOs. The newspaper story was based on research comparing pesticide use and yield between the United States, where genetic engineering has dominated major crops, and Western Europe, which did not embrace the technology. They found that overall the use of herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup had increased by more than 20% in the United States since the introduction of GE crops, while during the same time period herbicide use in France, Europe’s biggest crop producer, had not only not increased but actually decreased by 36 percent. Moreover, the analysis by the Times, which utilized United Nations data, showed that the United States and Canada “have gained no discernible advantage in yields—food per acre—when measured against Western Europe.” So the truth was out in the Times for all to see. GE crops significantly increase the use of toxic herbicides while not increasing yield, so they help poison the world’s food supply but do not increase it. So much for Monsanto’s claim of feeding the world.

In all probability one story, albeit a major one, is probably not enough to finally debunk Monsanto and friends’ Big Lie about GE crop technology. You will probably continue to see the common sense-defying claims for a while yet. But if as the Ancients said the truth is “like a lion — just let it loose”, then maybe we can finally go past the already failed but still dangerous GE experiment and move to an ecological agriculture that really will reduce and eventually eliminate pesticides and provide a secure sustainable food future for us all.

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