Plants in popular culture is an occasional series where I delve into the plants that are an integral part of a piece of popular culture (rest of the series is here). In this edition, I take on a few portrayals of Monsanto from ‘Continuum’ and ‘Futurama’. I’ve addressed this a bit before in PiPC4: Leverage.
The world of Continuum is one where technology rules. In the year 2077, cities (Vancouver in this case, I think…where ALL the things happen that matter to recent world history apparently). However, that technology is only available to those who are well off. In fact, it’s a rather dystopian world with a cabal of corporations rule the world after bailing out the world’s indebted governments and they track everything, snuff out dissent, and otherwise act in rather Orwellian terms. A group of terrorists (in their terms Freedom Fighters) called Liber8 end up going back in time to 2012 along with a corporate police officer (CPC officer) named Keira. Liber8 tries to derail the future by winning the past. Keira tries to stop them all while trying to adjust to life in 2012.
One of the ‘evil’ companies is ‘Sonmanto’, a stand in for Monsanto and an early target of Liber8. Amongst other things they produce toxic chemicals (billed as an ‘herbicide’ in this case). In this world, no company can do a good deed and they are quite opaque (also above the law, with no accountability to anyone, and are “people” that never seem to die). While it is nuanced with some of the characters, the businesses are decidedly evil.
It plays into income inequality fears (a few haves, many, many more left to deal with what the wealthy build and no amount of effort lets you move up if you happen to be low born). It’s certainly a fear with some basis in current reality and the business of Monsanto with it’s combination of being a high tech company and one that deals with genetic modification (both by traditional, but marker assisted, breeding and via inserting genes into the genome) easily play into modern fears of life science technology and what it could unleash on the world. Will Sonmanto, with its partners, take over the world? Will profit win over people— is it more important to make a few people rich than to produce a good product and treat employees as human beings (e.g. is economy here to serve a few or everyone)? Can income inequality be solved (not everyone totally equal, just more equal; a narrowing of the range of incomes)? Will corporations truly run our lives more than they do now. We all depend on private sector businesses, just as we all depend on the Government and even nature itself can be thought of as a massive institution. These are the questions Continuum plays with a lot.
We live in an era where taking from the rich and giving to the poor is more noble than it has been in a long time. Income inequality is the greatest it has been in history and it’s easy to look at a company—Monsanto is midsize in corporate terms— and say they are the Sheriff of Nottingham. A recent story on the NPR blog, The Salt, had a profile of Vance Crowe, part of who’s job it is to make Monsanto a bit more transparent. Their customers are farmers (many who apparently like Monsanto seeds and buy them each year). Engagement with the broader public seems relatively new. Although it’s not all about transparency; Monsanto could open it’s books and intellectual property and it likely wouldn’t derail fears of GM technology. that’s not me arguing against transparency. Usually openness is a good thing, but do understand companies and governments have to keep some things secret though from where I sit, it does seem like both institutions keep too many things close to the vest.
Currently, all GMOs on the market have been deemed safe by regulators, independent scientists, as well as the internal testing of the companies themselves (they do have an incentive to serve a market and most people like buying quality products as affordably as possible). There are more than just Monsanto/coporate produced GMOs too (Papayas from Hawaii, for instance) and scientists use GMOs all the time in labs to study how plants (and other organisms) work. these both, as far as I know do not generate the controversies that Monsanto inspires. There’s a weariness about the debate over GMOs that Tamar Haspel wrote about recently. And I largely agree with her points (though there may be ways to achieve labeling that are reasonable besides putting it on the food itself). And if you haven’t seen Nathanael Johnson’s ‘panic free GMOs‘ series for Grist, it’s worth a look too. GM is a technology. and how it’s used is what really matters and each case needs to be evaluated independently.
In Season 10, episode 9 of Futurama , entitled ‘Leela and the Genestalk’, Leela— a mutant— starts to be affected by a condition called ‘squidification’, slowly turning her bodies into tentacles. The World of Futurama is one where anything imaginable is possible. Humans have left Earth, aliens have migrated here, the universe is just a large city. And it’s seen through the eyes of Fry, who was cryogenically Frozen in the year 2000 to be unthawed in the year 3000 in New New York.
As you may have guessed from the title of the episode the narrative is that of Jack and the Bean Stalk. The twist here is that the beans aren’t magic. They’re GMOs. They’re gigantic. And Leela decides to climb one that germinates rather than go live with her mutant parents in the sewer with her squidification. Leela climbs high into the sky about NNY until the bean stalk suddenly collapses. Desperate she reaches one of her hyper extendable squid arms up to a cloud and instead of passing through, it grabs onto something solid. Leela pulls herself up only to be on a flying platform with a castle on it and a unicorn running around the courtyard. This is Momsanto, Momcorp’s genetic engineering division. Momcorp is the evil large corporation of the Futurama world. It’s run by Mom and her 3 idiot sons.
Mom explains that Momsanto is flying above the Earth to get past regulations so she can perform any kind of genetic experiments she likes away from prying eyes (for the record, Mom does plenty of terrible things down on the Earth too). In the episode, Mom produced the giant beans by splicing in elephant genes into standard beans1 to make them gigantic. The determination of size of biological organisms is complex and fascinating and really not quite as easy as just splicing in genes from an elephant into a plant to make ti big; plants can get big absent elephant DNA, but I admit it makes a good visual. Momsanto on the inside looks like Frankenstein’s lab, and that’s probably not an accident. the experiments being done likely would never make it past an IRB.
Fry and Bender the awesome sarcastic robot go to rescue Leela when they realize she’s alive up in the sky and they find Leela even more squidified, all tentacles. They run through the castle and discover a giant man hooked up to a machine, presumably being genetically engineered! Leela lets him loose and they chase him. They escape to the bridge of the ship where Mom and her kids are piloting the flying lab. Leela crashes it into NNY because she’s anti-GMO And horrified about the experiments going on…the end.
Except not quite. Mom pays Leela a visit to thank her for her squidified DNA, it solved the bean stalk falling down problem. Taking DNA without consent is a big no-no, I believe. And I think perhaps in this case, Leela may deserve a co-inventor credit. The beans can hold themselves up with suckers2. And she introduces the giant that chased them before, now normal sized…he was being helped by Mom for his gigantism condition. Leela is still a bit horrified, that growing a giant bean and curing a person of a condition might be well and good, but the method is terrifying to her. Mom informs her she can fix Leela’s squidification too…which she consents to. And so there’s the villainous and the upside of GM technology in one story.
The implication is that people would drop their objection if they really saw how the technology could benefit them. I have no doubt that that would convince some people, but probably not many. How much data would it take to convince a GM skeptic that a particular GM is safe/non-harmful? Probably no amount is sufficient since it’s often an emotional argument they make, something that is a really key part of their identity as Brendan Nyhan has shown really makes correcting people’s misconceptions about things hard to correct. Data will convince some people, certainly, but not all. Even noted science communicator and otherwise intelligent person Bill Nye seems to have a hard time accepting GM technology, someone who idealizes evidence, but apparently not in this case.
While it’s possible that a future GM modification could be problematic and the company that releases it should be held accountable for whatever damage it causes, it seems unlikely (or like most problems that come up with technology, we’ll find a way to address it when it arises). Most scientists want to solve problems the world has. Monsanto is a company dedicated to helping feed the world’s growing population on less land with lower input of resources (fertilizer, water). At least that’s their public mission. GM can help with that. Farmers do choose what seed to buy and in the case of Maize, soy and cotton, GM varieties are now favored I presume because the offer better yields/quality output product. I sincerely hope it’s not because of a lack of alternatives; organic grain/seed does exist and is plantable. I haven’t been behind the scenes to know what it’s actually like there, but I know a few scientists that work there and they are conscientious people that have lives and eat food just like everyone else.
Our industrial food system does have real issues that need to be addressed (e.g. large carbon footprint, some perverse incentives to not rotate crops frequently or let fields lay fallow to recover). GM isn’t a panacea, but it is one of the tools we’re likely to need in our toolkit as we take on the challenge of feeding the world, preserving the environment and dealing with climate change. The popular portrayal of biotech firms as (mostly) evil is overly simplistic and I hope a more nuanced view prevails.
1I like to think beans were chosen as the plant because they are also related to peas and that’s a nod to Gregor Mendel
2 The actual plant solution to growing tall is lignification— woodiness— to grow up. There’s a bit more to it than that, but trees can get tall because of lignin.