Commentary to the International Monsanto Tribunal verdict

Daimonie (Facebook) blogs about science and scepticism.

This seems to be how anti-GMO
advocates think it works.
In October 2016, I wrote a post just before the International Monsanto Tribunal. Since then, I also started on my series regarding GMOs in general. But back in October 2016, I concluded:

As expected, the entire Fake Tribunal is a theatre. This is not a scientific conference, nor a court of law. It is quite literally a gathering of people that use pseudo-science to promote "natural" and "organic" alternatives to conventional and contemporary agriculture. Their most important part is in no way their data, their science, or the interests they represent; rather, it is their ability to form incomprehensive gish gallop combined with fear-mongering.
By doing so, they cast doubt on the credibility of science and technology. Worse, they negatively influence public opinion on contemporary agricultural technology that has the potential to greatly improve upon agricultural practises, in ways that benefit health through nutrition (e.g. Golden Rice), reduce pesticide usage (e.g. Bt Crops, Lepidoptera-resistant crops) and improve farm life.
Now, the verdict is here. In this post, I will provide a commentary so that you don't have to watch it. I'll also use their Advisory report. Most of their testimonies have been discussed in my earlier blog post. Amusingly, the questions asked have changed and the sections in this commentary do not line up with those of my earlier blog post.

It starts in a scene of deliberate aesthetics, looking like it isn't heavily sponsored. The introductory statement follows.

Judge Tulkens

Judge Tulkens starts out by trying to seem credible; but it is just a kangaroo court. They're not tasked or required to use anything, even though she claims they do. All of the judges are, apparently, practising legal experts or judges. No official from Monsanto turned up at the kangaroo court, and she points this out for some reason. A lot of references to legal matters follows, clearly an attempt at seeming credible. The tribunal has taken up the form of the court of criminal justice in the Hague.

Here comes the first funny claim. They received the written reports of scientific experts; of course, not of any of the thousands of scientists in the field that agree with GMO safety. Nor any of the precision agriculture Nobel prize winners. Judge Tulkens says the tribunal has no reason to doubt the sincerity or veracity of the testimony before them, which wasn't cross examined nor given under oath. And she points out they can't establish the facts of the allegations. What exactly are you doing? Isn't cross-examination sort of the point? The tribunal is thus trying to inform the media, politicians and public of the consequences of heavy speculation. How useful!

Mr. Orellana: the right to healthy environment

Mr. Orellana is a law lecturer also involved in Center for International Environmental Law. He starts out by tediously rephrasing the right to a healthy environment to its fundamental character.  He also mentions a number of relevant legal cases, verdicts and such. So, the device by which the tribunal can deliver a verdict is clear; now it just needs premises that are met.

Now, to the witnesses. In rapid fire, Mr. Orellana states that the Tribunal heard testimony and documentation on the impact on human health regarding Monsanto's activities. These issues included soils, plants, animal health, biodiversity, farmers and scientific researchers. These affected both indirectly and directly the right to a healthy environment.

As summarised in their report (II Q1.ii Testimonies) it looks like a heavy list. But all of these cases were discussed in my previous blog post, purely based on some research done before they presented their testimony. It is essentially a list of things that happened when glyphosate was nearby, not even necessarily Monsanto's brand. Glyphosate was nearby, so correlation is confused with causation and Monsanto carries the blame.

Mr. Orellana states that Monsanto has engaged in practises that negatively impacted health and environment. That's simply not true; Monsanto is accused of such, but no precedent exist to show any credibility to the accusation. Neither does peer-reviewed research. The premises are not met, and the verdict as presented is false. I'd like to point to the European Food and Safety Authority (EFSA) report:
The substance is unlikely to be genotoxic (i.e. damaging to DNA) or to pose a carcinogenic threat to humans. Glyphosate is not proposed to be classified as carcinogenic under the EU regulation for classification, labelling and packaging of chemical substances. 
 Even worse, Monsanto engages in GMOs. This is mentioned in relation to Roundup Ready products, and only the IARC report classifying glyphosate as 'probable carcinogen' is mentioned. Not the EFSA or WHO reports that followed quickly after, nor the scientific body of literature showing safety. Just the one, heavily criticised, report classifying it as 'probable carcinogen' (which is interpreted as carcinogen).

Any allegation made is cited as if it is true; this is their base system. Any allegation is taken as true, while anything that does not agree with the obvious story they want to tell is blatantly ignored. These 'legal experts and judges' apparently do not feel this compromises their credibility.

Judge Lamm: The right to food

The format is that the Judge first outlines what is under discussion. In this case, it is not only the right to eat but also to feed properly and sufficiently, healthily and permanently and having the possibility to produce. 

A list of testimonies follows, naturally all showing an infringement of this right. As reported to the Tribunal, Monsanto's activities have negatively affected food availability and interfered with the ability to feed.

One of the more amusing claims is that Monsanto's activities deny access to seeds, because they may be too costly. Given that Monsanto does not control any market and that traditional and non-traditional varieties are available, this is simply false. They complain about Monsanto practise forcing farmers to buy their seeds every year, being denied the option of saving seed. Seed saving is hardly modern, as we've been using various cross-bred hybrids and such for a number of years. A field dedicated to harvesting something usually isn't dedicated to forming seeds for the crops of the next year. What is more, it is not Monsanto practise that denies the option but rather national and international patent law which predates GMO seeds and Monsanto. Judge Lamm notes that seed-patents are also an infringement of the right to food, utterly and blatantly denying the reason why patent law exists in the first place; to allow an innovative company to earn money for their investments. Patent law is a form of intellectual property right.

An interesting point is raised. Judge Lamm states that the rise in Organic agricultural practises illustrates that farmers with less or without pesticides and other chemicals is feasible, and that these can deliver the yield to feed the world population. She then claims that this is a sustainable approach to agriculture. The first claim is false, in the sense that the organic yield gap simply means it is less effective (e.g. PLOS One, organic yield averages to 80% of conventional). The second fails in part because the lower yield means the impact per product unit is reduced. If the environmental impact is 90% of that of conventional at 120% of the area, the impact is higher - pure land use is environmental impact as well. And that is on average; I wonder what happens if we take modern practises such as no-till farming.

Judge Lamm: Right to Health

The right to health encompasses both physical and mental aspects. It extends to well-being, such as living arrangements and such. Judge Lamm claims Monsanto not only affected negatively the health of communities but also their mental health. She claims that Monsanto has used PCBS, pesticides and GMOs - "dangerous substances" as she calls them - in their activities.

PCBs are an organic chlorine compound used as coolant fluids, heat transfer fluids and carbon-less copy paper. If you wonder why we haven't heard this one before, it seems to be because it wasn't brought up by any witness. Monsanto and Monsanto spin-offs have been involved in various (real) court cases regarding PCBs, PCB misuse, PCB dumping and so on. While all rather horrid, the real horror is that some part of the company knew of the problems (per internal leaked documents, 2002 [Wiki]). Apparently, these documents were presented to the Tribunal at some point. I'm not sure if this was Monsanto, the agriculture company which exists today, or the former Monsanto Chemical Company. 

Now, we turn to RoundUp. She notes that the combination with RoundUp ready (glyphosate-resistant) crops has led to an increase in glyphosate. What she doesn't mention that this is just about the popularity of this particular herbicide rather than the total amount of pesticide used or its environmental impact. It's well documented that the total amount used is decreased and that glyphosate has less environmental impact than (most) alternatives. The IARC report is mentioned again, but not the EFSA report mentioned earlier nor the Joint FAO/WHO meeting which concluded that it is not necessary to establish an ARfD for glyphosate or its metabolities in view of its low acute toxicity. They do cite an Open letter which states concern over the EFSA decision in 2015. Rather than look at the EFSA decision, they're citing an open letter. Another report is mentioned, this one also not by a scientific body.

They do mention EFSA and EPA reports, but note that some researchers said they disagreed at a later time. This panel notes considerations beyond their ability to judge. They state that while the studies didn't show significant results, a meta-analysis does. With all due respect, Judge Lamm, but can I interest you in a rigorous course of high-school level statistical analysis? This effectively means that yes, they do ignore the EFSA and EPA reports, but refer to the Minutes of a meeting to justify this. In those minutes, the panel concluded that the EPA's review and evaluation chose relevant studies and has a sound, appropriate and acceptable approach. The panel members agreed that based on the evidence presented, there is no association between glyphosate and any solid tumor, leukemia or Hodgkin's lymphoma. This is evidence of clear quote mining. Based on the above, I reject their claim: they do ignore EFSA and EPA reports without justifiable basis. She also states another report does not take into account the risk of exposure; a rather nonsensical point, as this is neither a part of hazard assessment nor particularly relevant as it is extremely low.

Next, they cite 'evidence from released Monsanto documents of an effort to manipulate the science'. Documents from last month can't really be properly addressed as either testimony or documents submitted to the Tribunal. What is more, there is no evidence of such. There is no scientific controversy over glyphosate safety. A singular paper wouldn't even change that.

Regarding GMOs, they claim an absence of consensus. The consensus is there and is very clear. It is underlined by various agencies, such as WHO, EPA and EFSA. There is a public controversy, which doesn't matter, and different countries or unions differ on opinions regarding how strongly the precautionary principle should lead. They point to some concerns such as inadequate design of regulatory frameworks (which are updated frequently) and dependency on company data. The latter is easy to address; do independent studies show the company data is false? So far, they do not (regarding GMOs). There is no lack of transparency and independent researchers are free to test. They also repeat the claim that 'pesticide and herbicide usage per hectare dramatically increased', which is false. The absolute usage and its impact per area has decreased, even though crop land and yield has increased. This is well documented:
 On average, adopters of GE glyphosate-tolerant (GT) soybeans used 28% (0.30 kg/ha) more herbicide than nonadopters, adopters of GT maize used 1.2% (0.03 kg/ha) less herbicide than nonadopters, and adopters of GE insect-resistant (IR) maize used 11.2% (0.013 kg/ha) less insecticide than nonadopters. When pesticides are weighted by the environmental impact quotient, however, we find that (relative to nonadopters) GE adopters used about the same amount of soybean herbicides, 9.8% less of maize herbicides, and 10.4% less of maize insecticides.

Judge Shrybman: Freedom Indispensable for Scientific Research

Judge Shrybman begins by stating that objective and unbiased scientific research gives critical and necessary information about (environmental) risk, a rather nice statement. He also mentions the right to freedom of expression and the right to give and receive information. He states that the need for such has become particularly acute with the election of political leaders with little if any regard with science, fact or reality based advocacy or decision making. Again, this statement is very fine by itself although it seems the Tribunal is not held against this standard. 

He mentions most testimonies were given by scientists, either public or private. A quick look at their advisory report tells us that (for instance) he means Seralini, widely criticised for inadequate and quality-lacking experimental and analytical methods. Also Lovera, who was accused of both incompetency and corruption. I have detailed these testimonies in my earlier blog post. Judge Shrybman then lists a number of accusations, concluding that the accusations must be true. It is honestly beyond me why alleged legal experts are treating accusation and allegation as fact without any cross examination that does not serve their story.

Judge Shrybman details that there is a difference between making claims where legitimate scientific uncertainty exists and taking direct steps to discredit or silence scientists when their findings are not convenient to a particular business model. The latter involves conduct that frustrates the scientific project and that is intended to undermine and silence scientists. This conduct offends and can not be reconciled. I agree, but that begs the question: What are you doing there?

Judge Tulkens: War crimes complicity and Agent Orange

Agent Orange was used as a part of the herbicidal warfare program of the Vietnam War US Military, which had a number of agrochemical companies make (parts of) Agent Orange. So the simple answer is that the US Military is the complicit party, while all manufacturers are informed contributors.

Judge Tulkens starts out with a short summary of Agent Orange and its use in the Vietnam War. A legal action was filed against various of the Agent Orange manufacturers. These decided to pay collectively a fee to these Vietnam veterans. 

Concerning Monsanto's complicity, she claims no evidence was provided and the Tribunal cannot make a definite finding. Nevertheless, they are judged guilty. It is true; the old Monsanto company did manufacture Agent Orange and did know what it was contributing to. Whether that makes a company a war criminal is a different question. It is unlikely any individual working at the company at that time is still working there. How is this even a relevant question? Is a steel manufacturer that knowingly provided steel to an arms company that provided missiles for the US military complicit in their use of that missile against a civilian target? I don't think so, but the sheer weight of the question turns many away from pursuing even such far-removed manufacturers as an employer.

Mr. Orellana: Ecocide

Could past and present practise of Monsanto constitute causing serious damage to the environment significantly affecting the ecosystem services upon which humans rely? He summarises legal precedent for the crime of ecocide, which seems fine.

Surprisingly, the verdict is that Monsanto is guilty. The reasons are the manufacturing of herbicide used by the US military, the large scale use of dangerous agrochemicals in industrial agriculture, the engineering, production, introduction and release of genetically engineered crops, severe contamination of the ecosystem and introduction of PCBs into the environment.

To summarise what we have said about this; the Tribunal accepts all allegations as true. Regarding its role as a manufacturer for herbicides in militant use, the question is whether you condemn all manufacturers or are unjustly targeting Monsanto. Monsanto merely produces agrochemicals, the one under discussion being glyphosate which was found to be safe by numerous agencies across the world. I'm not sure what industrial agriculture must be, as this is a fantasy construct to contrast organic farms and has no real meaning, nor is any such meaning detailed in the report or presentations. Contamination of the ecosystem seems to be bad practise of various parties, not equal to nor limited to Monsanto. Introduction of PCBs is similar to the question of military use herbicides; Monsanto wasn't the only one to do so nor where they the only one to continue after research came up that showed it was not safe.


All allegations are true; we conclude that the alleged kangaroo court is actually a kangaroo court.
There is not too much exciting here; while they cite relevant legal literature as precedent, the devices to condemn Monsanto require premises to be true that have been deconstructed in my earlier blog post and by various agencies, scientists, scientific bodies and others around the world.  As the premises are rejected, the conclusions are discarded. The Kangaroo court has no valid conclusion, other than the organic industry clearly having a majority in donations around this theatre. Actually, we don't know that because they didn't release their sponsors and their contributions.

Luckily, the totally not-involved public is given the word. After a few questions from the public, a man stands up in the back of the audience. This man, dressed in a suite already carries a microphone and, by clear accident and providence, already is standing in front of the cameras (plural). It is Seralini, who had no involvement at all. He outlines his CV in French and then asks about lobbies and claims to be a victim of these lobbies. He then takes about fifteen sentences to ask about the data of papers submitted to regulatory bodies and transparency regarding this matter. He claims nobody was able to get the data which was authorised by the industry and repeats the lie that he proved glyphosate, or rather, Monsanto's brand, was much more toxic. He claims it is not the active ingredient of Round Up, and neglects to mention that both private and public enterprise have tested both glyphosate and Round Up, that there are other producers of glyphosate and that the widespread criticism he faces based on the lack of any solid science in his work. This takes up about half an hour of question time, where the judges mostly underline whatever it is that Seralini said. A few more short questions follow.

The attempt at impressive theatre shown in the Kangaroo court did little that wasn't expected. I can't stress enough that all allegations were accepted without cross examination, and any contribution that did not serve the anti-pesticide, anti-GMO worldview was blatantly ignored. Consider that they used minutes of a meeting, which outlines agreement with findings of EFSA, EPA and WHO, to dismiss those same findings. This because it noted a few scientists 'disagreed' (rather, they pointed out areas where the evidence should be increased).