The other day I heard a trio of screams filled with terror and anguish from my wife and children coming from upstairs. Truly concerned about the wellbeing of my family, I dropped what I was doing and rushed upstairs in a panic.
Countless thoughts ran through my mind. Had someone severed a limb? Did something expensive break? Is the house on fire? Did someone fall out of a window? Should I call 9-1-1? What could have happened that inspired such a raucous squalling?
The culprit — a spider in the corner. I quickly addressed the situation to the relief of all parties involved (except the spider).
Now, to be fair, this was a particularly terrifying looking spider — a bit larger around than a quarter and bearing all of the creepy qualities of its brethren. Yet, even the worst Ohio spider is not worth that type of over-reaction (which, in turn, produces more over-reaction). My family over-reacted by screaming, I over-reacted with my level of concern. This is an example of what I unscientifically refer to as the compounding law of over-reaction.
The same thing seems to be happening with the Monsanto wheat fiasco that is still unfolding after a farmer in Oregon found volunteer wheat still growing in an 80-acre field after spraying glyphosate.
So, it appears that somewhere, someone messed up pretty significantly in a manner that resulted in a wheat variety that is not approved for sale or production growing in a field. To be clear, this is not good, at all. But, in reality, the facts that are now known are not really all that bad either. The wheat poses no health concerns in the food supply and there is no evidence yet that it ever made it there anyway.
But, due to the laws of compounding over-reaction, these few innocent looking (though persistent) wheat sprouts could very well have massive economic implications and significantly set back the development of beneficial technology for meeting the world’s nutritional and environmental needs in coming years.
The announcement about the wheat came just days after the national March Against Monsanto that was the culmination of months of a steady stream of blind hate-filled rhetoric about the corporation. Previously, though, this mountain of an anti-Monsanto campaign did not even have a molehill to go on before the GM-wheat situation. Now they do.
The GM wheat discovery left Monsanto akin to a giant hunk of meat floating in the sea and the sharks just smelled the blood. Hours after the announcement concerning the Oregon field, the anti-Monsanto camp was up in arms, the USDA was talking about fines and penalties of scary amounts and major U.S. wheat importers, including Japan, began altering purchasing decisions based upon the hype of the news (and not common sense or science). As markets reacted, the lawsuits began with hopeful “tractor-chasing” attorneys estimating payouts of damages in the hundreds of millions of dollars to U.S. farmers claiming the company’s gross negligence hurt U.S. growers by driving down wheat prices. Ernest Barnes, who farms 1,000 acres in Kansas, filed the first federal civil lawsuit less than a week after the announcement about the wheat discovery.
Monsanto said the incident was isolated and its process for handling the wheat research program was clearly documented, government-directed and audited. The company has not ruled out sabotage as a possible cause of the problem. Legally, Monsanto feels that no liability exists and the company will present a vigorous defense with regard to the lawsuits.
The legal future of this fiasco will likely be hashed out in the coming weeks and months, but a greater concern may be the other long-term impacts of these unfortunately significant wheat seedlings. Author Mark Lynas, a former anti-biotech activist, describes the danger of what he now calls the “anti-GMO conspiracy theory” in a recent blog post:
“I think the controversy over GMOs represents one of the greatest science communications failures of the past half-century. Millions, possibly billions, of people have come to believe what is essentially a conspiracy theory, generating fear and misunderstanding about a whole class of technologies on an unprecedentedly global scale.
“This matters enormously because these technologies — in particular the various uses of molecular biology to enhance plant breeding potential — are clearly some of our most important tools for addressing food security and future environmental change.”
As outrage spreads, monetary damages pile up and legal battles continue over a few wheat sprouts, children will continue to suffer from malnutrition that could be addressed by the yet-to-be approved genetically modified “Golden Rice” and many other potential benefits of stalled biotechnology research will go unrealized. How many fines, lawsuits and unfounded PR beatings can biotechnology take before research into the next generation of life-saving and enhancing biotechnology is irreparably crippled?
Lynas had this to say: “I think these scientists are the unsung heroes of this saga. They carried on with their important work and tried year after year to fight against the rising tide of misinformation, while people like me were belittling and undermining them at every turn…So for me also there is also a moral dimension to this. The fact that I helped promote unfounded scare stories in the early stages of the anti-GMO movement in the mid 1990s is the reason why I now feel compelled to speak out against them. I have a personal responsibility to help put these myths to rest because I was so complicit in initially promoting them.”
Unfortunately, no matter what the final facts of the matter are with regard to the GM wheat found in Oregon, this will inevitably fuel the fires of the conspiracy theories that continue to persist. Facts are unimportant with conspiracies.
Ultimately, the unapproved wheat growing in the field is not good, but these few small plants in an Oregon field do not constitute a global crisis, either. I just hope the many future benefits of biotech are not slowed (or squashed like a spider in the corner) because of the over-reactions based upon over-reactions based on over-reactions…