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Neil Young vs. GMOs: Why the rocker's latest cause is a sham

Young joined the anti-GMO fight with a new album and a short film. But the result is a sad case of good science parting ways with bad art.

Neil Young is a perennially pissed-off legend of rock, a toe-tapping lyricist who has used his songs to protest a lot of alleged evil over the years. He’s often dead right, and way out in front, as he was when he started singing about spying in 2006 -- years before NSA leaker Edward Snowden turned surveillance into a cause.

But Young’s latest cause is a sham.

In the past decade, the agrochemical giant Monsanto has become one of the biggest presumed villains in business. Critics blame the company for the rise of genetically modified food, and a related wave of toxic crop runoff and even farmer suicides.

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Young joined the fight this summer with a new album, “The Monsanto Years,” and a short film, “Seeding Fear.” They are critical flops and intellectual failures, a case of good music, solid science and one man’s conscience running in opposite directions.

Nevertheless, they are both popular.

The album broke the Billboard Top 40 in June. The film has picked up millions of views online. Young has also been touring. It’s a bizarre stage show, featuring young women dressed as farmers tossing seed.

When he performed his hit "Long May You Run," at a recent concert in Woodstock, New York, Young actually bowed toward the seeds in a kind of prayer. "Long may you run," he sang, "although these changes have come.” 

Young is also funding a legal fight in Vermont. He recently pledged $100,000 to support a state law that will require all genetically modified food to be labeled as such by next summer. 

"I'm just a rocker who believes that people should know what they're eating," Young told NBC affiliate WPTZ last week. The Grocery Manufacturers Alliance, which includes Monsanto, has led a lawsuit to overturn the law, calling it "a costly and misguided measure." 

It’s no surprise that Young’s fight would be a popular one. Most people support labeling GMO foods, because most people think GMOs are actively “unsafe,” according to a pair of recent polls from The New York Times and Pew Research Center.

What all of this reflects is the fact that most Americans are afraid of GMOs. They seem to feel like altering food in a lab is a cosmic power, a tool as miraculous as it is unnerving. But here’s a simple, unmusical truth about GMOs: there is no good evidence – none, zero, zilch – that they are dangerous. 

There have been thousands of studies of these foods, none turning up a clear and present danger. Virtually every mainstream science organization is satisfied: The National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization, and the FDA. All have concluded that GMOs are safe to eat.

But Young’s music and movie play on these fears nonetheless. The lyrics imply that Monsanto’s pesticides are poisoning crops, fouling the health of farmers, and even contributing to cases of autism. In the title track Young sings, "Family seeds they used to save were gifts from God, not Monsanto, Monsanto / Their own child grows ill near the poisoned crops / While they work on, they can't find an easy way to stop, Monsanto, Monsanto."

Again and again on Young's album -- dubbed "lazy" by the Los Angeles Times and "as though he simply cranked up the Current Events Rhyming Couplet Generator" by NPR -- Young returns to GMOs and Monsanto. "Don't say pesticides are causing autistic children / People want to hear about love," he sings on one song. "Yeah, I want a cup of coffee but I don't want a GMO / I like to start my day off without helping Monsanto," he adds in another. 

The movie, meanwhile, tells the story of Michael White, a pugnacious Alabama soy farmer and seed merchant. "The film I would like you to see tells the story of a farming family in America," Young writes in a pious, ping-pongy introduction. "It is a simple human one, telling the heartbreaking story of one man who fought the corporate behemoth Monsanto, and it illustrates why I was moved to write The Monsanto Years." 

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Young's subject accuses Monsanto—which engineered the seeds that grow 90% of the soy, corn and cotton in America -- of soul-troubling breeches of natural law. God made seeds, the farmer argues, and then Monsanto started trying to play God, tweaking these seeds in the name of money and power. White rejects Monsanto’s allegation that he used GMO seeds illegally. And he predicts that GMOs will yield a future of “cancer and severe health products.”

It's easy to find similar sentiments parading through America's social media feeds, fluorescing online and passing through the pages of national media. The hysteria has spread in a wave so big that sales of non-GMO foods tripled last year. Companies have registered nearly 30,000 food products and counting with the Non-GMO Project, an independent certification group. 

"I believe that Neil Young has a heart of gold," Monsanto's chief technology officer Robb Farley said in a statement published on LinkedIn. 

But the case against GMOs – the case Young has built his art upon – is "full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations and lies, according to a months-long investigation published this month by Slate.

“The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false," columnist William Saletan wrote. "They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.”

They’re counting on you to listen to Neil Young, in other words. But this time around, please do not. Your ears and eyes will thank you. Your stomach might too.