I write letters: Urban myths about HR 875

posted in: Science | 6

Note: This one is a little old, it took Anastasia’s recent post on food selling laws to remind me to post it.

In the discussion about the food safety bill, HR 875, there are many urban myths going around. From our friend Stephen Lendman’s characterization of it as a “GMO proliferation bill,” to the claim that it will ban backyard gardens, many of the myths seem to follow a similar pattern. And almost no one who promotes these myths has even bothered to read the bills.

Point of fact – if you read the text of the bill, there is absolutely nothing in it about genetic engineering, so where do they get this idea?

Nevertheless, myths such as these have traversed the intertubes and the lack of fact-checking combined with the sensationalism (and perceived plausibility?) of such a bill have put it on youtube, blogs, and some news sites.

Linn Cohen-Cole, who reads half of what she writes about genetic engineering, understands half of what she she reads, and fact-checks half of what she understands, wrote a prolific piece for OpEdNewsBlogs called Monsanto’s Dream Bill, HR 875. It was short, (not just short on facts) and spread very widely on the internet. The folks at the Monsanto Blog ended up writing a post explaining how their company doesn’t even have a position on the bill.

Marion Nestle wrote a post about the chain emails that went around trying to scare up opposition to the bill, and even after she pointed out the dubiousness of the claims, people kept opining on what the bill must be really about – still without ever reading the thing.

So it came as no surprise that when I commented on this other post at OpEdNewsBlogs, I got what would otherwise be characterized as a bizarre denial – but in internet food politics it seems to be standard fare. I said:

Currently, Monsanto is behind a Federal Government bill to stop all organic farming. Introduced by Rosa DeLauro, HR 875 is ultimately about one thing: defining ONLY Monsanto’s GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) products as “safe.””

I would like to direct your attention to Snopes.com – the internet repository for debunked hoaxes. http://www.snopes.com/politics/business/organic.asp And this comes straight out of the hoax chain emails that are going around.

And the response I got from the author Barbara Metzler was:

I would also like to remind Karl Haro von Mogel that there is a distinct possibility that Snopes.com could be wrong.  What proof is there that Snopes.com is always 100% correct?  Get rational, Karl!

My counter:

The facts behind the Snopes.com article are widely available – everyone connected to that chain email that has been going around has denied the link. The point is that you do not have a source for this claim that you repeat – that is poor scholarship and bad journalism. It is your responsibility to determine that something is true before you put it into print. Get rational! (What does that even mean in this context?)

Sorry, but ‘rational’ is not code for any particular political or social viewpoint – it refers to the means by which we reach our conclusions. You start with something that you can verify is true, and logically proceed from that information to drawing conclusions. Your conclusions are only as good as your starting information and your logic – even if your logic is sound, the facts need to be true in order for your conclusions to be acceptable. Starting from your conclusion and steadfastly denying the need to verify the source is, well, not rational.

Several of the myths about the bill have been addressed by Rosa DeLauro’s office, and the Las Vegas Review Journal corrected one of its stories here, pointing out that it has been ten years since DeLauro’s husband’s firm had Monsanto as a client.

So when I came across this letter to the editor on BlueRidgeNow.com, I felt I had to respond.

Ag Biodiversity could be destroyed.

To The Editor: HR 875 is not about food safety, it has the potential to destroy agricultural biodiversity.

An extremely potentially dangerous bill is before Congress right now, in the sheep’s clothing of so-called “modernization” of food safety. HR 875 (text of bill) is a bill lobbied for by Monsanto and other corporations who’s interest is to control all agriculture.

It was introduced by Rosa DeLauro, whose husband works for Monsanto, and is ultimately about one thing, defining only their own GMO (genetically modified organism) products as “safe.”

What makes the bill so dangerous is that it is heavy on penalties including prison time, while at the same time being incredibly vague about what would actually trigger those sanctions. There are problems with food safety we can talk about, but HR 875 is not going to make us safer.

It must be stopped.

Kythera Grunge

Black Mountain

Letter passed on urban myths

To The Editor: Re: “Ag biodiversity could be destroyed” (T-N, April 27).

In the letter, the food safety bill HR 875 was discussed, which the writer seems to think is about “one thing, defining (Monsanto’s) own GMO (genetically modified organism) products as ‘safe.’”

I would humbly suggest that the writer actually read the bill before making such declarations, because it doesn’t do that at all. For one thing, there’s no need, because the USDA, FDA and the EPA already regulate genetically engineered crops effectively, and peer-reviewed studies that support their safety number in the hundreds.

If you’ll check out www.snopes.com, you’ll find a collection of mythology that has already sprung up about HR 875. To wit, that it will outlaw organic farms, make your backyard garden illegal, ban farmers markets, or that all farm animals would be tracked by GPS. Yes, even the writer’s claim that the husband of the person who introduced the bill works for Monsanto is false — he does not.

If we are to ever have a rational discussion over food, we are going to need to adopt a higher standard of evidence — something above the level of chain e-mails at least!

Karl Haro von Mogel

Madison, Wisc.

Personally, I don’t know much about this bill, nor the merits of its specifics. But one thing I do know, it is incredibly easy to spread false rumors in politics, whether it’s about ‘death panels’ or genetic engineering. I wonder who would have actually benefited by stopping HR 875? Or was it just a viral claim based upon popular food fears?

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.