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April 2nd, 2015

System Noise

BY Christian Ford

A couple weeks ago, the World Health Organization dropped a press release that labelled the world’s most used herbicide “probably carcinogenic.” This, of course, is glyphosate, better known as the key ingredient in Roundup, the jewel in the crown of Monsanto’s commercial empire.  In case the connection isn’t clear, glyphosate is the lynchpin of Monsanto’s business model of creating both a powerful plant killing chemical and also modifying the DNA of crop plants to resist said herbicide, thus allowing farmers to douse their entire field with glyphosate and leave only the crop alive — the catch being that they have to purchase both the killer and the (very pricey and one-time-use only) seed from Monsanto.

The press release comes from WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, which released their findings in The Lancet.  Their finding isn’t based on new research, but rather a meta-analysis of existing studies.  Monsanto, as you might imagine, disagrees.  Their quietly injured statement is a disappointingly manipulative document (surprise?) from the same corporation that pitched five million dollars into the “World Food Prize,” and (surprise?) found their CEO awarded the prize a few years later.

Read it for yourselves, but for me, the standout part is where Monsanto damningly lists  “everyday items” the IARC has also classified as carcinogenic — coffee, for instance, and pickled vegetables, aloe vera — while neglecting to mention that all these things fall into IARC’s Category Two-B, “possibly carcinogenic” rather that where glyphosate fits, IARC’s Category Two-A, “probably carcinogenic.”   Now, demerits to IARC for making “possible” and “probable” subcategories of a single number instead of anteing up for a whole different digit, but a flunking grade to Monsanto for attempting the kind of sleight of hand which is a lie-by-conflation and debunkable with a fifteen second web-search.

My purpose here isn’t to get into the debate about the safety of Roundup, but rather to ponder just how we got here.  For some strange reason, I think the answer lies in a passage from Michael Pollan’s Cooked where he relates his visit to a Wonder Bread factory.  If you’re wondering why Pollan was visiting a WonderBread factory, it’s because the strangely immortal bread — having outlived several companies, most recently Hostess — has bowed to the times and now offers both “Whole Grain White” and “Soft 100% Whole Wheat.”  These are mysterious breads, attempting to simultaneously own the unmistakable cotton-candy mouth-feel of the original while also delivering on the health promise of whole grains.

Thanks to an under-read, first-day PR hire at Hostess, the most prominent critic of the industrial food complex was granted access to a Wonder Bread factory, and so the curtain parts.  It’s a marvel of industrialized efficiency, a vast snaking conveyor system that takes the bread from flour hoppers to sliced, bagged and twist-tied in four hours.  What’s intriguing is that the same baking-line that cranks out original white-bread Wonder Bread operates unchanged to create the “whole grain” varieties.  It takes 31 ingredients to preserve the delicate equilibrium of the machinery and for the industrial bakers who tend the machines, it doesn’t really make a difference which kind they’re producing.

If you’ve ever baked yourself, you know that this is not normally the case.  Whole grain breads are a tremendously different creature than the kind that white flour produces, and they take real work and attention to make something you’d want to eat.  But in the Wonder Bread factory, the recipe has been relentlessly tweaked to simply sidestep all that.  Dough conditioners keep the dough from sticking to the machines, immense doses of yeast raise the dough quickly enough to not slow the line, other ingredients feed the yeast to make it work quickly enough, create the cotton feel of the bread, keep it soft, keep from rotting.  The list goes on to end at four different kind of sugars, needed to (a) make it taste like Wonder Bread and (b) mask the distinctly un-breadlike taste of all those bewildering ingredients.

Pollen makes the salient point that almost everything put into Wonder Bread would have been considered adulterants to bread in the first half of the twentieth century and he quotes a legal definition of bread from that time which reads:

The word bread, with out any qualifier, is exclusively reserved for the product resulting from cooking dough made with a mixture of wheat flour, sourdough culture or yeast (made from beer or grain), drinking water, and salt.

The irony of this is that Wonder Bread produces, from much greater complexity, a product  less nutritionally sophisticated than the rustic loaf.  The slow rise of a traditional bread is not just laggardly injection of air, it is, like all forms of fermentation in foods, a kind of predigestion which makes nutrients more available and things like gluten more digestible.   But time is an ingredient too expensive to add to a loaf of Wonder Bread, and so the end product, whether unvarnished white or “whole grain” ends up being almost identical in say, glycemic index, where both burn in the body at the same rate as honey.

So how does Wonder Bread relate to Roundup?  If you want to go all the way back to the start, I’d peg it to the seventeenth century and the kickoff of the Enlightenment.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the Enlightenment was a welcome corrective.  But as a project meant to displace religion as the center of Western thought, it unsurprisingly ended up as a religion itself.

Perhaps those first couple centuries of remarkable discovery did the trick, or maybe it was the transformation from a world powered by muscle to a world fueled by petroleum that created a sense of limitless power, the ability to remake the world on a scale previously reserved for deities.  Regardless, it left us with the unshakeable belief that we could understand it, remake it, control it, whatever it was.  All we needed was the right machine.

Roundup’s machine is genetic, Wonder Bread’s is mechanical, and both are remarkable testaments to human ingenuity.  But neither is remotely up to the task.  Monsanto’s integrated biocide/seed system produces short term gains in productivity before spectacularly crashing as a result of an apparently unforeseeable mechanism called evolution.  Wonder Bread’s effort to reassemble the components of healthy whole grains in spongy whitebread form only proves that just because you mix together — for example — 65% oxygen, 18.5% carbon, 9.5% hydrogen, 3.2% nitrogen, 1.5% calcium, 1% phosphorous and sundry trace elements, doesn’t mean you’ll end up with a human being when you’re done.

Of course you might say — and you might be right — that I’ve foolishly misunderstood the basic function of these mechanisms.  Here I am assuming that they’re about producing food, but what if food is a side effect and the intended product is profit?

That would go a long way to explaining certain anomalies, like the air of hysteria behind repeated gestures in the direction of higher motivation — “feeding the world” in Monsanto’s case, a fervent embrace of American history for Wonder Bread.  Or the way Monsanto relentlessly pursues the intellectual property lock-in of GMO + Seed while simultaneously spending any amount of money to prevent the term “GMO” from appearing on the label of a food product.

In truth, the more I look at it, the more it seems as though these are disingenuous and mendacious companies cloaking themselves in the garb of selflessness while working tirelessly to squeeze every last dime out of a morally indefensible business plan.  But I know that’s not right.  I’ve got proof, right there on Monsanto’s webpage, in the section labelled Monsanto Viewpoints:  Just Plain False.  I’ll quote in full:

Myth: Monsanto is developing GMO marijuana

Monsanto has not and is not working on GMO marijuana. This allegation is an Internet rumor and lie.

So, clearly, they’re not in it for the money.


WonderBread by William Clifford
Bad Seeds by Light Brigading
Old Skool by the Municipal Archives of Trondheim, Norway