Reality check

Note to climate-change deniers: Monsanto just bought Climate Corp. for $970M.

I’m not qualified to judge whether the sale of Climate Corporation to Monsanto is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, or how much of the “Monsatan” label Monsanto has actually earned.

But I’d like to hear the climate-change deniers explain why Monsanto wanted to pay almost $1 billion for a company whose business model is protecting farmers against increasing volatility in the weather, and whose models predict that Kansas will become inhospitable to corn and Alaska a good place to grow wheat.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

48 thoughts on “Reality check”

  1. You are totally qualified to judge, if you want to take 2 minutes you can easily learn that the existing Monsanto corp. is nothing more than an agricultural resource company. It’s no longer a chemical company — it was spun off from the old Monsanto a dozen years ago… The old chemical co. is now part of Pfizer. Somehow people have decided that patent law, industrial agriculture, the existence of pesticides and herbicides, autism, celiac disease, habitat destruction, bee dieoffs, monarch butterfly disappearance and ingrown toenails are all the fault of this seed company. Because DNA.

    If you’re capable of being a full professor at UCLA, you’re perfectly capable of puzzling out the the anti-Monsanto crowd is pretty much the luddite lunatic left and their co-tribalists. Promoted by NGOs that stay in business by feeding the fears of the ignorant.

    1. “luddite lunatic left” is a good start, but if you really want to punch your idiot wingnut ticket you’re going to have to do better than that. Maybe add something about Hitler? If we can’t smell the crazy from a block away, your comrades are going to think you’re a closet soshulist.

      1. Laertes, I’m afraid you’ve got my politics exactly wrong. I get pissed off about the whole “Monsatan” anti-GMO thing precisely because my politics are progressive, and the people getting wound up about this stuff mostly have views aligned with mine. Outrage is a finite resource. I’d like to see that energy pointed in a meaningful direction – on fighting disenfranchisement and mobilizing the left – not squandered on bogeyman fantasies. When Glenn Beck’s followers start ranting about hyperinflation and Kenyan Marxists it just gives me a chuckle.

        George Monbiot expresses the argument well here, in the context of anti-mobile-phone “environmentalists”:

        1. Well, that’s egg on my face then. Sorry about lumping you in with the sort of people who I usually hear turning phrases like “lunatic luddite left.”

        2. Thanks. Evil-Corporation-Monsanto stuff is _such_ a tired and predictable tick with a certain kind of mind, regrettably not yet marginalized on the left. There’s the anti-science stuff of course – distrust to the point of fetishism any progress narrative in general, and scientific ones in particular, genetic engineering is Fish-Tomato, Natural means safe and Chemical or Artificial means dangerous and so forth. It combines with a pretty instinctive and generic distrust for any corporation that doesn’t make stuff you buy. I’m thinking of the sort of social criticism that thinks affixing ‘Corporate’ or ‘Big’ to anything is a useful, let alone sufficient, criticism of it.

          The combination yields, as you observe, the mad conviction that somehow a company with about 15 billion in revenue is destroying all of global agriculture. [A useful counterpoint, btw, is that Monsanto has about the same revenues as Whole Foods. This isn’t exactly a private leviathan we’re talking about.] And the talking points you’ll see on Grist or Mother Jones are utterly mad, divorced from fact – Monsanto has led to half a million suicides in India, it sues farmers for any accidental contamination, sells terminator seeds that will lead to an epidemic of mass plant sterility (yeah) – the paranoid fantasies seem almost impossible to kill. Which isn’t to say they’re angels – they’re a pretty run of the mill company, which is to say there’s much to object to about them, or about modern agrobusiness in general. But you’d think Monsanto was Satan from reading the enviro movement on this, when they’re pretty ho-hum.

    2. “luddite lunatic left”
      This would be a more devastating insult if the long history of the John Birchers and fluoride were not widely known.

      Anti-science stupidity exists on both the left and the right, but it is the right that is doing vastly more damage with it.

    3. HoHoHO!

      Somehow corporations have decided that patent law, industrial agriculture, the existence of pesticides and herbicides, autism, celiac disease, habitat destruction, bee dieoffs, monarch butterfly disappearance and ingrown toenails can be wonderfully profitable.
      That’s what they “do” for a living.

      Wink wink.



  2. They don’t deserve shit over GM crops, but do deserve crap for some of the bad litigation they’ve done when seeds from GM plots blew over on to non-GM plots.

    In any case, this sounds like a good move for them. If you’re an agricultural resource and research company, then buying resources that will help you try and predict what types of crops we might need in a changing climate seems like nothing but a good idea.

    1. ‘ bad litigation they’ve done when seeds from GM plots blew over on to non-GM plots. ‘

      Where? The most famous case like this is of Percy Schmeiser, except the story was nothing resembling what you hear. The guy was deliberately selecting their seeds by spraying roundup and saving what survived. He then planted this seed over 1400 acres. Basically he was looking for a way to use their seeds without paying them for it. You can object to patenting new seeds in general I suppose (why? what separates agro patents from pharma patents?), but even if so it’s hard to find much to sympathize with in someone who wants to use these seeds without paying.

      1. Re “Why? what separates agro patents from pharma patents?” Answer: Not much, that’s how we know they are bad.

        1. Maybe, but
          a) the view that _drug_ companies (unless alternate systems are set up) are incentivized to develop drugs if given a 20 year monopoly is neither crazy, nor (and more to my point) regarded as proof positive that such companies are wicked for patenting their innovations.
          b) saying agro patents are as bad doesn’t explain the disproportionate amounts of outrage directed at agro rather than than drug patents

          So again, what’s distinctive about patents and innovation in agriculture? Because this is really the dog that never barks on the GM debate – pharma companies have been doing genetic engineering to produce old and new drugs for almost fifty years now, and there’s no-one agitating for say “organic” insulin, or excoriating drug companies for producing franken-insulin from patent yeast. But sugar from GM beets? Now that’s a cause.

          Ronald Herring offers a diagnosis:

          assumption that farmers were hapless before the powers of corporate property illustrates a key weakness of elite interpretation of rural dynamics: correlates of class distance. This particular case manifests a deep cultural bias: urban people are capable of deploying something like “weapons of the weak” against global intellectual property regimes quite effectively: software, music, films, pharmaceuticals; but in rural areas, intellectual property will somehow overwhelm the rural Volk, who otherwise are held to possess superior knowledge and wisdom. Denigration of “the peasantry” has historically defined farmers as a class — culturally, politically, and economically inferior to those sectors of society that dominate them. The assumption of patent power (especially at a time that India allowed no patents on plants) can be understood only as an outcome of overlapping forces: ignorance of agronomy (the “terminator-technology” hoax discussed below), cultural denigration of rural people, or conformity to a discourse of global coalitions to which activists subscribe.

          1. I don’t know, maybe I don’t read the same blogs/papers/whatever but I do see a lot of criticism against Big Pharma. I find it quite telling that you feel the need to invoke some supposed “disproportionate amounts of outrage” to be able to talk past my point and argue yet again about elites-that-don’t-like-agriculture (or something) whereas I just explicitly disavowed the notion that our current intellectual property law serves anybody particularly well.

            And yes, people have been arguing that the patent system makes drugs company do many wicked things with very little benefits. New-generation drugs with similar effectiveness, more side effects, phony research to disguise that fact and a huge marketing budget to push them are innovative in an economic sense and that’s what the patent system incentivizes.

            Consequently, the notion that extending the patent system to other industries that apparently don’t particularly need it to be profitable and innovative (software, agriculture) is itself wicked doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

          2. Lets back up a second. I said ‘You can object to patenting new seeds _in general_’ and asked why this blanket opposition would be a better idea for agriculture than it is for drugs. The view that ALL agro patents are a bad idea is vastly more prevalent than the idea that all drug patents are bad. [If you seriously dispute this, if you honestly think opposition to patenting seeds is exactly as hardline as opposition to drug patents, we have an additional debate, though frankly the view seems batty to me]

            Now you’re reimagining me as some kind of defender of the status quo regarding drug patent law, as if I’m some kind of supporter of say me-too drugs. But this has nothing to do with my view. My actual point, and the whole of it, is to compare attitudes on ‘patenting life’ yada yada between these two sectors.

            If you don’t find that interesting, shrug. You, in replying to me, can scarcely accuse me of “talking past” your misunderstandings of my view! You got your own hobby horse, find your own frickin indent level if you aren’t replying to me 🙂

  3. Monsanto is a perfect enemy. No matter what you don’t like about industrial agriculture, they’re doing it. (For me, it’s the abuse of the patent system.) It’s easy to build a coalition to hate Monsanto, composed of people who agree about nothing else.

  4. My own beef with Monsanto is that they oppose labeling of genetically engineered food, indeed, they support outlawing the labeling of genetically engineered food. If their product is good then people will want to buy it, and they don’t need to make it impossible for consumers to exercise a choice in the matter. Since they DO want to make it impossible to choose non-GE food, we’re free to draw the obvious conclusions, one regarding their product, one regarding their character.

    But one thing I’d never call Monsanto, is unprofitable. Can’t wait to hear the climate change denier response to Mark’s challenge.

    1. This blog has its very own climate-baiter, and when he weighs in, it will no doubt be to say that Climate Corporation represents capitalism’s very effective answer to climate change.

    2. Most of the scientific academies in the US and across the world say GMOs are safe, and don’t stand for a mandatory label. Instead you have a movement of activists that spreads incredible amounts of fear and misinformation about the technology. And then turns on a dime to say labels are only about “freedom of information,” as if a mandatory label that’s divorced from any scientifically demonstrated health concerns is somehow a stand for freedom.

      Anyone who wants to buy food that’s GMO free can already buy organic. Just like anyone who wants to buy Kosher or Halal can but what gratifies _their_ religious preferences. Mandated labels should rely on scientific fact, not the fears of people whose attitudes on the science here are about as respectable as those of climate denialists. Gaia worshippers have no special claim to having their faith based positions respected.

      1. Thank you for reducing me to a cultural stereotype.

        You reject mandatory labeling without addressing the flip side, which is the outlawing of non-GMO labeling. This article in the Washington Post documents the latter (at the end of the piece).
        In a market where I can’t buy organic everything (let’s be reality-based, right?), it would be nice to buy products that were labeled GMO-free. I can’t buy them—not because there’s no demand for them, not because no manufacturers are unwilling to sell me products so labeled, but because the GMO industry has managed to change the rules to make that transaction impossible.

        1. Don, that’s false, and you’ve misinterpreted what the article says. It’s true that the USDA doesn’t let *organic* producers label their products as GMO-free (for what reason I don’t know). But that’s already part of the organic certification requirement, so it’s automatically true. Foods that aren’t certified organic are free to attach a non-GMO label to their products, as Cheerios just did. There’s a certification organization devoted to exactly this: They have a larger agenda, but at least on the matter of labeling they’re doing it exactly right: providing a private certification process whose cost and benefit are both borne by those who care, and not by anyone else.

          See here for a recent summary:

          1. I haven’t misinterpreted the WaPo article. The relevant passage is below. It unequivocally describes government prohibition of GMO-free labeling, without qualifying it as to whether the producer is organic or not.

            “The labeling matter is further complicated because the FDA has maintained a tough stance for food makers who don’t use genetically engineered ingredients and want to promote their products as an alternative. The agency allows manufacturers to label their products as not genetically engineered as long as those labels are accurate and do not imply that the products are therefore more healthful.

            “The agency warned the dairy industry in 1994 that it could not use ‘Hormone Free’ labeling on milk from cows that are not given engineered hormones, because all milk contains some hormones.

            “It has sent a flurry of enforcement letters to food makers, including B&G Foods, which was told it could not use the phrase ‘GMO-free’ on its Polaner All Fruit strawberry spread label because GMO refers to genetically modified organisms and strawberries are produce, not organisms.

            “It told the maker of Spectrum Canola Oil that it could not use a label that included a red circle with a line through it and the words ‘GMO,’ saying the symbol suggested that there was something wrong with genetically engineered food.

            “‘This to me raises questions about whose interest the FDA is protecting,’ said Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), who has introduced legislation that would require labeling for genetically engineered food. ‘They are clearly protecting industry and not the public.’

            “One state with a sizable salmon fishing industry – Alaska – passed a law in 2005 that requires labeling of any genetically engineered fish sold there.

            “‘One side of the argument says let’s give consumers sovereignty over their food choices,’ Hallman said. ‘The other says we’ve done the science on this and it’s no different, so if we put a label on it, we’re implying it’s somehow risky and that’s like government imposed false advertising.'”

            Perhaps the article is out of date, given the Cheerios counterexample. I’m not sure what General Mills is up to. They contributed more than $1 million to the No on 37 campaign in California. Maybe they changed their minds, maybe they’re trying to run a public relations scam. If they really changed their minds, I’d like to reward them. (And since they’re the target of a boycott by racists,
            I’m inclined to buy Cheerios by the truckload.)

          2. Replying to Don here, since I can’t below. The very second sentence of the article you quote:

            “The agency allows manufacturers to label their products as not genetically engineered as long as those labels are accurate and do not imply that the products are therefore more healthful.”

            Allows. Not “doesn’t allow”.

          3. There seem to be more examples of the FDA saying “no” than “yes” in practice. Apparently General Mills’ labeling on Cheerios is less of a health claim than Spectrum Canola Oil’s simple red circle with a line through it. Fair enough, I hope Cheerios is the first of many.

    3. “My own beef with Monsanto is that they oppose labeling of genetically engineered food,”

      If you accept the science that says that GMO food is fine, then this labeling is a demand for a compulsory RELIGIOUS label, not a demand for information of social benefit. It’s no different from demanding that every food have a label on it saying that it is kosher because of XYZ, is not halal because of ABC, and is not fit for Brahmins but is fit for Kshatriyas and lower. You’ll note that it is quite OK today to include such labels if you want, but few feel they should be compulsory.

      If you don’t accept the science that says that GMO food is OK, that’s what you should be targeting.

  5. If you were sufficiently conspiracy-minded, you could argue that a billion dollars is a perfectly reasonable price for a Big Ag company to pay to muzzle someone who is trying to make money by spreading FUD in ways that could cut into its sales. (Oh, and saying that an “agricultural resources company” is not a chemical company, uh.)

    1. You could, you know, um… actually look up what it is they produce. Like I did. The one chemical they still sell is glyphosate, which is so safe that it carries the lowest category of safe-handling warning labels required by the EPA. (But of course – I know, I know – the EPA is in their pocket, along with the FDA, the USDA, the AAAS, the WHO and the EFSA.)

      1. Hmm… The comment I was replying to disappeared. This wasn’t addressed to the OP.

      2. Side note: I will say that although EPA is definitely not in the pocket of big agrobusiness, changing pesticide rules is particularly challenging, because they tend to have sizable and quantifiable costs relative to difficult-to-quantify benefits, and the costs mostly hit farmers, many of whom count as “small businesses”, which subjects these rulemakings to additional scrutiny. I don’t really want to say what my experience with this is, but let’s just say that I know what I’m talking about.

        Anyway, way off-topic. Sorry.

  6. I remember when our little company was bought by Enron which no one thought anything of at the time. In retrospect, I have a deep mistrust of Mergers and Acquisitions in general because they usually result in downsizing and people losing jobs sooner or later.

  7. It is very easy. Climate Corporation isn’t selling useful data, they are selling fear to farmers who have been confused by the liberal academic conspiracy (after all all those professors are living large on the grant money and if they produced evidence the granters didn’t like would lose their gravy train) Monsanto spent the money on them because they saw the possibility of a profitable business taking advantage of those poor unsuspecting farmers. Not exactly the best but what else can you expect when government steps in to distort markets with conspiracies like this. After all the managers of Monsanto have a fiduciary obligation to their shareholders which trumps any petty morality or other social concerns.

    1. I can’t tell. Is this trolling or sarcasm? I suspect sarcasm, because as is obvious to all sentient observers, research grant money is not the path to riches. But then I see a line suggesting that the government is engaging in conspiracy-mongering through grant-funding of climate research, and that smacks of trolling. So which is it?

  8. Somewhere lost in all the hype about climate change is the fact that weather has always been volatile, especially from a farmer’s viewpoint. A late or early freeze, for example, can endanger their entire year’s earnings. Somehow we seem to have adopted this bizarre idea that volatility in weather is some sort of recent phenomena, an idea that would certainly be startling to, say, an Oklahoma farmer in the 1930s.

    Even in the absence of any change in climate, products for farmers that better shelter them from weather volatility is has potential market value (if they work and are priced reasonably, I cannot comment on that).

    To some extent, it does not matter if Monsanto even believes in man-made climate change or not. It matters more whether they think their customers believe. And I have no doubt that now matter what their previous management position, they will certainly climb on the bandwagon now. Nothing sells better than fear, as politicians learned long ago in attempting to get re-elected. Because for some reason we have developed another odd notion in the global warming debate — that somehow skeptics are the only ones who can have financial incentives to hold certain positions.

  9. By the way, this kind of example is fairly facile. I could offer any number of such queries in the other direction — e.g., why has Al Gore been buying expensive ocean front property if he really believes his 20 foot sea level rise prediction.

    1. Because he didn’t put a time frame on the prediction (which he should have – it’s accurate but will likely take centuries).

      Got a better one?

    1. And the answer, apparently is: “There sure are an awful lot of hard-headed types out there who have fallen for the climate change hoax.”

  10. Re climate change/global warming: the news media across the board seem to have missed a major point about this week’s cold weather covering much of the country: the polar vortex is dipping so far south as a direct result of global warming; the disappearance of ice from the Arctic has led to the instability of the jet stream which has led to the big chill in Chicago and elsewhere. “Liberal” NPR had a superficial discussion of the vortex which talked about a skater’s wobbling on ice, but no connection to the slowing of the jet stream’s winds attributable to the decrease in polar to mid-latitude temperature gradients. Now the yahoos can just go ahead and say “It is cold somewhere, so global warming is a hoax after all.”

    1. Then it’s simple. You point to the widely publicized prediction from years ago when the models were published, that this vortex was going to shift far south – a prediction that nobody else made. I don’t remember it, but I assume you have a reference handy?

      1. Well, I am entirely dependent upon highly simplified summaries by experts in the field. Jennifer Francis at Rutgers has been working on the Arctic oscillation for a number of years and has a bibliography going back to 2003, but I am damned if I can grasp the results, much less the methods section of her published papers. The first linked article (published in 2012) is free public access, and paragraph [2] gives some of the background to her study, including references to earlier work predicting extreme weather events from global warming. Prof. Francis does have a YouTube video on the basic dynamics of the Jet Stream, and how the decreasing north-south gradients slow the Stream and lead to a meandering pattern which affects the mid-latitudes as we saw this week on every news program, with pictures of citizens coping with the extreme weather. There was even a teen-ager in Chicago who had his pants pulled up all the way, it was so cold!

        It is fine with me if Arctic oscillation is not presented as settled science, and Prof. Francis would probably be the first person to say that her observations are a work in progress. My beef with the news media is that there is not even a whisper about credible science to show that cold snaps may be part of global warming. NASA also had a summary for the Compleat Idiot which was helpful to me.

  11. It maybe that they paid $1 billion for the profitability of the company with the climate we have now – not the one forecast for the end of the century.

    After all, profits in the future are discounted by invested, so anything as far of as global warming (and in the USA it must feel far off indeed at the moment!) will have had no real impact on the purchase price.

    From an investors viewpoint then, it is onto a “sure bet” – you have a company that has shown it is profitable in the current climatic conditions, and one which is predicted to be profitable if they change. So a “climate change uncertainty” proof investment. Nice to have given the fact that the current models failed to predict the hiatus.

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