Category Archives: Observation

What Monsanto missed

Andrew Leonard has an insightful analysis of the WTO ruling on genetically modified organisms in Salon (if you’re not a subscriber, you have to watch a brief ad to access his post).

There’s a big difference between the days of the Green Revolution and now. Back then, governments, academic researchers and philanthropic institutions took the lead in the research and deployment of new technologies for boosting food and crop production. Today, the private sector, globally dominated to an extraordinary degree by one single company, Monsanto, sets the pace.

This fact alone has to be profoundly disturbing to anyone who cares about issues of transparency, informed debate and the decision-making process. Monsanto is not particularly interested in developing crops that address the direct needs of poor and hungry small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. The vast bulk of its profits derive from the production of just four crops — soybeans, maize, cotton and canola — whose harvests are not generally consumed as food by humans. And yet, Monsanto lobbyists are busy shaping (and weakening) national bio-safety laws all over the world. Who has the greatest incentive to introduce genetically modified organisms into the biosphere without taking the time to truly understand their long-term impact? Who is the least interested in upholding the so-called precautionary principle — a fundamental part of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which is part of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity?

I think he has left out another important element.

Monsanto now is a far less powerful company than when it first tried to introduce GMOs into Europe. That’s because it didn’t understand the overwhelming public opposition to GMOs. I lived in Britain at the time and the government was — and remains — largely pro-biotech and pro-GMO. But all the government support possible couldn’t overcome the mass public dissent.

Some of that public dissent was ill-informed, I believe. Some of it was just a gut reaction against science and technology, an attitude that is far more widespread in Europe than in the US. Some of the reaction was because of an understanding that the precautionary principle had largely been overlooked. Importantly, another large factor in the reaction against GMOs was that Monsanto and the government were focused solely on the benefits to producers (higher crop yields, less use of expensive pesticides, etc) and didn’t make clear what, if any, benefits would accrue to consumers.

In Europe, I think it’s likely the result of the WTO judgment will be very little change. That’s because European consumers, rightly or wrongly, do not want products with GMOs, just as they don’t want American beef filled with hormones. As many of the news stories on the decision made clear, its effect will be felt largely in other parts of the world.

Incidentally, I think on balance GMOs will ultimately be a good thing for the world in terms of improved production, not least in sub-Saharan Africa, where drought-resistant strains will prove valuable; reduced use of pesticides; preservation of topsoil; and ultimately the development of functional crops that, for example, include added vitamins or valuable medicines (cholesterol lowering cereals, for example).

Before the GMO storm blew up, I interviewed Robert Shapiro, then CEO of Monsanto, about many of these issues. Shapiro was undoubtedly one of the most intellectually curious and thoughtful CEOs I have met. But he is long gone and the company he ran is a shadow of its former self. That’s largely because they completely failed to understand how the public viewed their products.

Interesting spam in Gmail

One of the many good things about Gmail is that its spam filter seems very effective. The little that gets through is mostly dumped in a spam folder, which I check from time to time.

What’s amusing is that Google’s unstoppable ad machine knows no limits, even where the keyword spam is concerned. So at the top of my Gmail page I have a series of spam recipes, including creamy spam broccoli casserole. I haven’t decided whether this is an in joke from the Googleplex or whether Recipe Source is paying for the placement.

Following the Enron trial

If you want to understand what’s going on in the courtroom in Houston, The Houston Chronicle has gone to heroic lengths with both a legal commentary blog and a blow-by-blow trial blog. The legal blog in particular is filled with fascinating detail and some great writing.

Kent Shaffer on whether people plead guilty to things they didn’t do:

The bottom line is that people really do plead guilty to things that they did not do; it happens all of the time. Their decisions can be motivated by money, by a desire to limit their exposure, or simply due to a lack of courage and if the cost of a lenient sentence is doing a few pet tricks for the government then it is simply the cost of doing business. Get ready to see grown men in Oxford suits and wingtip shoes rolling over, playing dead, and barking while on their hind legs; trying to earn a few extra biscuits.

And Samuel Buell, who was lead prosecutor on the Enron case until March 2004, explains what proving intent to defraud will require:

So look for this trial, and later judicial review of the case if it gets that far, potentially to turn on small pieces of evidence that might tell a great deal about the extent to which the defendants were thinking at the time of their conduct that they were engaged in something wrongful. Often, this telling kind of evidence takes the form of efforts to conceal some important fact about a defendant’s conduct from others, in a way that indicates the defendant feared reprisal or rebuke for what he or she was doing. This kind of evidence is what white-collar practitioners often refer to as “badges of fraud.” This might be more than a lawyer’s concept. Juries often focus on this kind of thing too, because it seems to connect to basic intuitions about how to distinguish fraud from routine business practice.

Compelling, wonderful stuff, that provides insight I wasn’t getting from most press coverage of the case.

Why The Berghoff closed

It’s far less important than the distortions about WMD or not publishing the NSA scandal for a year, but another example of how The New York Times completely misses (or conceals) the true story was explained to me the other day.

The Times recently wrote about the demise of The Berghoff, a landmark Chicago restaurant where my father, like many of his generation, ate lunch for most of his business career. I didn’t get to The Berghoff before it closed, but I read the Times article with a huge sense of nostalgia.

According to the Times, the closing was a family decision, taken with regret. No details. But everyone in Chicago apparently knows the real reason. The Berghoff is on an immensely valuable downtown site. The building is landmarked and required to remain as a restaurant. However, close the restaurant, wait two or three years, and, hey presto, you can probably free the land to build an office tower and make a huge, huge financial killing.

The administration's dishonest trash

Glenn Greenwald:

Intimidating and threatening people who expose wrongdoing and illegality are the hallmarks of street gangs and military juntas. The idea that anything meaningful was disclosed when we learned that our Government is eavesdropping without judicial oversight and approval (rather than with it) has always been frivolous on its face. But the statement from Cheney that this disclosure caused ”enormous damage to our national security” is dishonest trash, transparently intended — on the eve of the NSA hearings — to stir up populist rage against anyone who blows the whistle on misconduct by the Administration and to intimidate other potential whistle-blowers with threats of criminal prosecution and treason accusations from the highest levels of our government.

Throw out European business models

Wolfgang Munchau in the Financial Times:

The hostile takeover bid by Mittal Steel, the world’s largest steelmaker, for its rival Arcelor has given us an object lesson in the failure of European economic policy. Its paradigm has been that we can preserve our consensus-based economic model as long as we reform our welfare systems. I would argue that we should do the exact opposite: we should throw our business model on to the scrap heap and try to preserve our diverse welfare systems instead.

The xenophobia being shown by French and Luxembourgeois political leaders in defence of Arcelor is embarrassing.

Standing ovations

I don’t know when the tradition of frequent standing ovations in the State of the Union speech began, but I’ll guess it’s a modern phenomenon. Even exuberant American culture once had a reticence that seems to have vanished.

My own feelings about standing ovations were shaped when I was, at a guess, 12 years old. I spent my summer at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan (I went to Interlochen for seven summers in all). That first summer, my friends and I had the great wheeze of invariably giving a standing ovation at the end of a concert — and, at a music camp, you go to lots of concerts every week.

Our cabin counselor decided we needed to learn something about ovations. He was an interesting guy, a composer in the real world, who had severe views about how to encourage contemporary music. He thought music written more than 20 years ago should be available in libraries, but not performed, to create space for contemporary work. He was equally draconian on standing ovations.

“You should give a standing ovation perhaps six times in your life,” he declared. It should be reserved for the kind of performances that were truly memorable, perhaps even life-changing.

I suspect there’s not much advice from 37 years ago, but I do believe what that long-forgotten counselor suggested. I have often found myself at the end of concerts sitting and clapping enthusiastically, while all round me stand and roar their huzzahs. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the performance, it’s just that I reserve my standing “o” for something truly extraordinary.