Saturday, April 21, 2012

Agent Orange, Monsanto, and a Little Clarificiation

On Tuesday I gave a talk at Florida State College at Jacksonville entitled "The Future of Food: Feeding More People with Less".  The talk described the challenges to modern agriculture, the need for conservation, improved production practices (including low-input/organic ag) and new genetics from breeding.  One of the key facets was transgenic technology to complement other improvements.

There was one person in attendance that was not a student, but a guy from the community that thought the topic was interesting.  As soon as I got into the GMO part of the lecture he began being disruptive.  I usually invite interaction, but his objections were relatively constant.  As usual, they were dogmatic and uninformed, tying nicely to the propaganda lines of the anti-GMO interests.

For my lecture I held up glyphosate resistance as a successful implementation of transgenics in agriculture.  Here a relatively innocuous chemical displaces others that are more dangerous.  Most of all, glyphosate resistant crops have paved an inarguable track record of success. There are some downsides, and I discussed them, including generation of resistant weed and some minor developmental effects on some animals.

He would have none of it.  "You know what glyphosate is, right?"

I was puzzled.  Sure I knew what it was, how it works, how it breaks down, etc.

"It is Agent Orange made by Monsanto", he continued.

I told him that it was not true, but of course, he knew better.  He knew it was the dreaded glyphosate, "Monsatan's Roundup".  I directed everyone to their smartphones and told them that the components of Agent Orange were synthetic auxins and not glyphosate.  But then I started to wonder, was I right?  So what is the relationship between Monsanto and Agent Orange?  What is Agent Orange?  

Agent Orange was a defoliant weaponized by the US military during the Vietnam War.  It was composed of a 50-50 mix of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid and 2,4,5 trichlorophenoxyacetic acid, respectfully. These compounds are auxins.  Auxins are a class of plant growth regulator associated with cell division, elongation growth, and a large suite of other plant processes.  These two auxins are synthetic mimics of the natural compounds.  They work well at low concentrations because plants do not have a means to break them down easily.  Essentially, a plant grows itself to death.

The two principle plant growth regulators in Agent Orange


Who made 2,4-D?  It was manufactured by  several agrochemical companies, including good ol' Monsanto. Others were Uniroyal, Diamond Shamrock, Hercules and Dow Chemical.

So when the military wanted to defoliate large swatches of dense jungle for military operations, Agent Orange was the ticket.  Over 20 million gallons of the stuff was dumped over Vietnam during Operation Ranch Hand.  Nobody could ever know the exact numbers for sure, but there are huge numbers of affected US military and Vietnamese civilians that suffered from the effects of Agent Orange.


Of course, the anti-GMO types don't care too much about facts, just shock value.  If you look at the sign on the right they do make an attempt to be somewhat honest with the mice type above the bottom words... can you see it? 

The problem was (well, the toxicity issue was) that 2,4,5-T was contaminated with 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin, a potent dioxin that causes alterations of gene expression that can be carcinogenic.  Documented cancers from Agent Orange exposure include prostate cancer, respiratory cancers (lung, trachea/bronchus, larynx), soft-tissue sarcomas, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Hodgkins disease, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and multiple myeloma. 

Oh, by the way, no glyphosate.  Not a drop.  Kevin one, disruptive guy zero for those keeping score at home.

Beyond that my response to this guy was completely on target.  I asked him, "How can you blame the chemical or the company that makes it, when someone (in this case the US government) chooses to use it in an unethical manner?"

It is like if someone beat another person to death with an organic zucchini... in his eyes it would not make organic zucchini evil.  Unless of course Monsanto made organic zucchini.

This is the point of the matter.  This guy had the information wrong.  There was no glyphosate in Agent Orange.  The use of a plant growth regulator and its contaminants as a weapon is now manipulated to connect a major US health issue to Monsanto.  And the anti-Monsanto, anti-GMO, anti-scientists just love that. 

It is unfortunate to have the Agent Orange / 2,4-D tie because these synthetic auxins are the cornerstone of the next generation of herbicide-resistant plants.  The companies working with this technology will have to endure the mis-representation of their products by people that really know nothing about them.

And by the way, the instructor that organized the session said that everyone in the class verified my information, was impressed with how I handled the criticism, and "thought the disruptive guy was a dick."