Neil Young’s 36th studio album “The Monsanto Years” is available now on his website via his own Pono digital music platform, as well as through iTunes and Amazon, and possibly even in fine record stores everywhere, or those that still exist.
You can probably guess what the record is about from the title, and also given Young’s track record of caustic and frequently insightful social criticism. Throughout his entire career, Neil Young has felt the need to both play and grind an axe.
To give you a taste of the content, Young sings, “Don’t say pesticides are causing autistic children / People want to hear about love” and “Yeah, I want a cup of coffee but I don’t want a GMO / I like to start my day off without helping Monsanto.”
There have been worse lyrics in pop music. “Ob-La-Di” by the Beatles comes to mind. But there’s a difference between harmless nonsense and nonsense that’s harmful.
Young explains his mission in a social media post, “Monsanto is a corporation with great wealth, now controlling over 90% of soybean and corn growth in America. Family farms have been replaced by giant agri corp farms across this great vast country we call home. Farm aid and other organizations have been fighting the losing battle against this for 30 years now.”
That is basically true, and if Young’s argument is essentially that everything will be fine if we all return to organic family farming and get rid of agribusiness, then that puts him in line with Prince Charles and Pete Seeger and a lot of other anti-modernity activists who wish that we’d never invented electricity and returned instead to chopping firewood and going to bed when it gets dark because there’d be no TV to keep us awake.
It’s a puritanical vision, fueled partly by a Norman Rockwell-ish nostalgia for a world that never existed except in fictional representations of the past and propaganda meant to stir up feelings against people who don’t fit into that folksy vision.
In Young’s case, it’s also fueled by a healthy anti-authoritarianism that goes off the rails by dividing the world into black hats and white hats, representing those who can do no right and those who can do no wrong.
However, it’s one thing to criticize Monsanto as a company and another thing entirely to make scientific claims about the dangers of genetically modified foods.
Monsanto does have a troubling history of bullying farmers through the legal and patent system and then spinning those cases so as to make them appear trivial.
But in staking out his argument against Monsanto, Young allies himself with all of the other fear-mongering nonsense of the anti-GMO and anti-vax crowd while also displaying contempt for science, which he regards as being firmly in the black hat camp. One of the founders of the movement, Mark Lynas, eventually found the issue to be many shades of grey.
The rise of “wellness” bloggers and “mindfulness” advocates like the Food Babe and Dr. Oz attests to the fact that nobody ever went broke playing on the fears and insecurities of the public while offering them half-baked nutritional advice, despite being frequently debunked.
Even Belle Gibson, the wellness blogger who was caught lying about having cancer in order to profit from selling the healthy diet that purportedly cured her, now claims that she was the primary victim of the circus that she created, and that she is now “traumatized” at having “lost everything” in the phony empire that she manipulated into existence.
So there are flakes and narcissists on one side, science and industry on the other, and Neil Young striding up the middle and presenting himself as a concerned artist/citizen singing on behalf of the little guy against authority and heartless corporations.
As much as he and the anti-GMO crowd like to present themselves as marginal outsiders, Neil Young’s beliefs are actually not that out of step with the mainstream.
A Pew Research Center poll earlier this year found that a “majority of the general public (57%) says that genetically modified (GM) foods are generally unsafe to eat, while 37% say such foods are safe; by contrast 88% of AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) scientists say GM foods are generally safe.”
How is it that the opinion of scientists are so dramatically out of step with laypeople? Scientists famously have a problem communicating scientific data and research to the general public. But that isn’t the entire problem.
The anti-GMO, anti-vax and anti-science people manipulate that inability extremely well, implying that science is just another opinion in a crowded field of opinions while incidentally making a pretty good living selling lifestyle advice to a public hungry for a quick fix.
Which would be fine if the science regarding genetically modified food wasn’t so clear.
“In order to maintain the position that GMOs are not adequately tested, or that they are harmful or risky, you have to either highly selectively cherry pick a few outliers of low scientific quality, or you have to simply deny the science.” – Dr. Steven Novella
In 2014, a paper was published by University of California-Davis Department of Animal Science geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam and research assistant Amy E. Young in the Journal of Animal Science, laying out 29 years of data on livestock productivity and health, before and after the introduction of genetically engineered feed in 1996.
According to Van Eenennam, “The results have consistently revealed that the performance and health of GE-fed animals were comparable with those fed near isogenic non-GE lines and commercial varieties.”
Evaluating the report on his blog, Dr. Steven Novella writes, “We now have a large set of data, both experimental and observational, showing that genetically modified feed is safe and nutritionally equivalent to non-GMO feed. There does not appear to be any health risk to the animals, and it is even less likely that there could be any health effect on humans who eat those animals. In order to maintain the position that GMOs are not adequately tested, or that they are harmful or risky, you have to either highly selectively cherry pick a few outliers of low scientific quality, or you have to simply deny the science.”
Noting that Van Eenennam’s study merely joins the now overwhelming mass of evidence that for some reason has to joust with all of the conspiracy minded and half-baked “evidence” presented by the anti-GM crowd, Novella encourages readers to consult his comprehensive list of other animal feeding studies.
That certainly won’t be enough for GM opponents, though, who regard all opinions expressed by scientists as corporate propaganda delivered by mouthpiece schills “on the payroll” of big agribusiness.
No amount of actual evidence will ever convince people whose minds are already made up.
Songs, though, have a certain power to persuade. Or at least they do if they’re well-written and emotionally delivered. Think, for example, of “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” by Phil Ochs or “Mississippi Goddamn” by Nina Simone or Verdi’s great anti-slavery anthem “Va penserio”.
Let’s just say that “The Monsanto Years” doesn’t rise to any of those standards, either artistically or politically, or even to those of Young’s own “Ohio”.
It should pain anyone who enjoys music to say an unkind word about Neil Young, one of Canada’s many great contributors to 20th century pop/rock, which revolutionized culture so significantly and profoundly at a time when the culture wanted change.
And credit the man who is still up to the task of writing songs with the ambition of changing society, damn the consequences, after so many of his peers gave up so long ago, content to parade their unchallenging back catalogue hits in front of audiences looking for a good time.
You don’t hear the Rolling Stones writing protest songs advocating their right to hunt foxes in the English countryside, or Paul McCartney singing about the Gulf of St. Lawrence seal hunt.
The best that can be said about Neil Young’s recent attempt at activism is that he’s preaching to the choir.
The more accurate way to describe “The Monsanto Years”, though, is that it’s music for an echo chamber.
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