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."


8 comments:

Mary said...

Ya know, I talk to a lot of people who think that the internet is the source of all nasty encounters. I think those people are just not getting out enough. This happens in real life too. And I keep trying to tell them that. Thanks for additional evidence!

Michael Godey said...

All appears worth considering until this statement:

"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."

Comparing organic zucchini to agent orange is like comparing apples to oranges. I wonder what the scientist gets from Monsanto for such breach of logic, I looked at the history of agent orange and his logic does not hold up. If nothing else Monsanto twists logic for the good of the company at expense of others, as may be the case with its test results. The shadow of doubt is deep and dark. There is good reason to suspect a fair about of guilt in Monsanto's actions as well as by the US government.

Michael Habib said...

Michael: The business ethics of Monsanto have certainly been questionable on many occasions, but that does not change the chemistry of the situation, nor does it mean that every product Monsanto makes is inherently harmful or evil.

The zucchini analogy is admittedly glib, but it's still on point. Making a defoliant is not unethical. Unloading millions of tons of defoliant that contains a carcinogenic contaminant onto forests full of people is unethical.

What I find particularly concerning is how much anti-intellectual sentiment you managed to pack into one phrase. Namely, this one: "I wonder what the scientist gets from Monsanto for such breach of logic". This single statement carries a wealth of implicit disdain for someone merely on account of their profession.

Lamna nasus said...

1. Apologies for the 'necropost'.

2. Thanks for the useful clarification on the chemistry.

3. Don't assume all environmental activists are 'anti-science'.

4. Monsanto were happy to take the cash from the US Gov't agencies using their products to perpetrate a war crime.. which tells you all you need to know about Monsanto et al's corporate ethics.

5. Could you elaborate on this statement - "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."?

Kevin M. Folta said...

Hi Lamna. My replies follow the >>

1. Apologies for the 'necropost'.
>> cool


2. Thanks for the useful clarification on the chemistry.
>> my favorite!


3. Don't assume all environmental activists are 'anti-science'.
>> That's true, I guess most of them are pro-science, but pro science they like. Like the global warming deniers. They sure like science that finds new oil and better ways to get it out of the earth, but the thermometers are all wrong. Same with anti-GMoers. You can mutate, duplicate, screw with plants in so many ways... add 10,000 genes of unknown function. Just don't add one if it helps a big corporation.



4. Monsanto were happy to take the cash from the US Gov't agencies using their products to perpetrate a war crime.. which tells you all you need to know about Monsanto et al's corporate ethics.
>>> No argument there. My pro- anti- Monsanto stance is issue specific. My argument is that the technology and science are good, at least so far.


5. Could you elaborate on this statement - "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."?

>>> Sure. 2,4-D and dicamba resistance will be the next herbicide tolerant plants. The problem with glyphosate is that some weeds are resistant. This is an emerging problem and using a new herbicide solves that. Stacking traits in the future will make it (close to) impossible to develop tolerance. The downside-- another herbicide in the environment and higher costs for farmers. The upside, another way to farm with less fuel, labor and tilling.

Good points.

Cinnamon Crake said...

This whole post and site seems like a red herring. Ru kidding me? If it perfectly safe feed it to ur kids

Imnot George said...

@Cinnamon Crake - Arsenic, uranium and thorium are all "natural" elements yet you wouldn't feed them to your kids. Sodium chloride and sugar are naturally occurring yet if you eat too much they can poison you. The two most toxic chemicals for humans, that we know of, are botulinum toxin and tetanospasmin and both are organic.

If you want to understand a bit better this Scientific American article explains it pretty well - http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2013/04/10/natural-vs-synthetic-chemicals-is-a-gray-matter/

Imnot George said...

@Cinnamon Crake - Arsenic, uranium and thorium are all "natural" elements yet you wouldn't feed them to your kids. Sodium chloride and sugar are naturally occurring yet if you eat too much they can poison you. The two most toxic chemicals for humans, that we know of, are botulinum toxin and tetanospasmin and both are organic.

If you want to understand a bit better this Scientific American article explains it pretty well - http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2013/04/10/natural-vs-synthetic-chemicals-is-a-gray-matter/