It is really hard to know where to begin in discussing Bill Maher's comments on GMOs and Prop 37.
He regularly runs a feature on his show called "In the Bubble" where he derides Republicans for living in a bubble where ideas float around; ideas that are impervious to refutation by fact.
Although one can illegitimately debate the merits (and demerits) of Prop 37 and biotechnology, there is virtually nothing in this discussion that transcends beyond mere "bubble talk" among anti-biotech advocates.
Here are a few thoughts that occurred to me as I watched this:
- The interview is with Gary Hirshberg, chairman and co-founder of Stonyfield Farm. I like Stonyfield products. But, Hirshberg is far from a dispassionate observer. Maher is right to point out that Monstanto benefits from sale of chemicals resulting from biotech developments (and from the absence of mandatory labeling). But, he should also point out that Hirshberg benefits if Prop 37 passes. The proposition specifically excludes organics, and by implication, Hirshberg's company. So, by pushing Prop 37, Stonyfield Farm can force their competitors to incur higher costs. I'm glad there are companies like Stonyfield selling the kinds of products they do but don't forget they have a vested financial stake in the matter.
- I find it ironic that Hirshberg claims that the Grocery Manufacturers of America and Monsanto are "stopping your right to know." I say ironic because Hirshberg has made a great deal of money precisely by telling people what's in their food. He profits by selling a more expensive product that has been produced without using certain agricultural practices. The very existence of his successful company proves that no one is being stopped from knowing or buying alternative products.
- Maher's comments claiming a "link" between allergies, cancer, and GMOs is complete nonsense with no basis in scientific fact. Maher says "How can we get people to connect the dots here? This is probably why people have so many more allergies now because there is so many more [of these] chemicals." Where is the scientific evidence for this claim? I guess it's good the word "probably" was thrown in. It is true that increased herbicide use is associated with adoption of GMOs. But, it is also true that adoption of GMOs is associated with reduced insecticide use. Moreover, the average toxicity of pesticides has been falling over time. But, even if these facts weren't true, I've never seen any credible evidence linking Round-up to allergies.
- Hirshberg talks about "chemical inflation" as if pest resistance is somehow new or unique to biotechnology. Organic methods of dealing with pests can be just as (and in many cases are more) toxic than synthetic methods. Moreover, weeds and bugs also develop resistance to organic methods of control. Laying the blame of resistance on biotechnology is a red herring.
- I wonder why they don't mention that GMO adoption is associated with increased conservation practices like no-till? I suppose this is one of those facts that won't enter Maher's bubble.
Biotechnology is not a panacea. It is likely the case that that Round-up resistant crops have increased the speed at which Round-up resistant weeds developed. But, if it is true (as Maher and Hirshberg discuss) that Monsanto is really in the seed business to sell chemicals, then who do you think has the BIG interest in preventing the development of resistance to Round-up? That's one of the reasons Monsanto worked to make sure that resistance to Bt didn't develop as quickly as it otherwise would by initially requiring the planting of refuges and now by putting some non-biotech seed in with the bio-tech seed.
So, yes, let's talk about the costs and benefits of biotechnology. But, let's do it outside the bubble.