When Bad News Stories Help Bad Science Go Viral

By Keith Kloor | October 3, 2012 10:46 am

We seem to be having a run of splashy, peer-reviewed GMO (genetically modified organism) studies that are of questionable merit.

Several weeks ago, a team of French researchers published results that linked cancerous tumors in rats to the GM corn they were fed. But many scientists cast doubt on the study’s legitimacy almost immediately, and other odd circumstances surrounding it raised some big red flags for science journalists. I covered the particulars of all this in my recent Slate piece.

This week another study on genetically modified crops is generating big news, thanks to a widely propagated Reuters article headlined: “Pesticide use ramping up as GMO crop technology backfires.” This is big news because biotech crops are believed to reduce the amount of pesticide used in agriculture. But a just-released study claims the opposite is happening due to the rise of certain herbicide resistant weeds.

As I noted on Twitter, the reporting in the Reuters story is rather thin. The only scientist quoted is the lone author of the study, Charles Benbrook of Washington State University.

Nor did the Reuters reporter appear to vet the study with any outside experts. So the resulting article reads more like a press release. And in fact, one of Benbrook’s quotes is straight from the actual university press release:

Resistant weeds have become a major problem for many farmers reliant on GE crops, and are now driving up the volume of herbicide needed each year by about 25 percent.

Just so we’re clear: A story making this kind of claim should not hinge entirely on the word of the scientist whose study is being reported on. It’s not good journalism.  (Alas, this didn’t prevent people that should know better from tweeting and retweeting the story.) I have to think the Reuters reporter knows this and simply rushed the story out to beat the competition. Happens all the time.

In this case, Reuters got a huge jump on everyone, as its story was picked up worldwide and spread throughout the U.S. via high traffic outlets like MSNBC and the Huffington Post. I’m sure Benbrook is ecstatic over the huge amount of uncritical publicity his study has received this week.

Especially since his purported findings are not new. (I’ll get to that in a minute.) Benbrook is also the chief science consultant for the Colorado-based Organic Center, a research-focused organization that aims to raise awareness of  “the health and environmental benefits of organic food.” In a 2011 interview he was asked: “The biotech industry claims that genetically engineered (GE) foods decrease pesticide use. Is that true?” He responded:

The Organic Center has done four reports on this question and has found that crops like corn, cotton and soybeans genetically engineered to be resistant to herbicides have actually increased herbicide use by hundreds of millions of pounds over what herbicide use would have been had these crops not been commercialized. So when the biotech industry says that today’s GE crops have reduced and are reducing pesticide use, they’re factually wrong.

In 2009, Anastasia Bodnar, a maize geneticist now at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), critiqued one of these reports at Biofortified, “a group website devoted to providing factual information and fostering discussion about agriculture, especially plant genetics and genetic engineering.” She wrote:

 I can’t help but get the feeling that Dr. Benbrook started with a conclusion and found data to fit rather than starting with a general review then finding significant conclusions.

When I asked around in the plant science/biotech community about the new study by Benbrook, I was referred to Bodnar’s detailed 2009 critique. That’s because his study, as Andrew Kniss, a University of Wyoming agronomist puts it,

is an updated version of a report that The Organic Center published in 2009.

In her analysis of that iteration, Bodnar writes:

There are a lot of problems with this report, but I’m particualrly concerned with the way Dr. Benbrook fails, for the most part, to distinguish between different biotech traits, fails to distinguish and between different pesticides, and fails to consider non-biotech traits that could increase pesticide use.

First, all GMOs are not created equal. The two biotech traits currently on the market are herbicide tolerance and insect resistance (Bt). These traits are obviously very different, but most of the report just lumps them together as “GE crops”, even though the report clearly states multiple times that Bt crops have reduced insecticide use.

To my eye, the same lumping and conflation appears to hold true for the study Benbrook published this week. In an email communication, Pamela Ronald, the University of California plant geneticist, agrees and adds,

he [Benbrook] does not take into account that glyphosate has displaced more toxic herbicides, thus there is a net reduction in toxicity.

Glyphosate is the compound used in Monsanto’s Round-up Ready crop, which Benbrook cites as the main culprit for the pesticide uptick. Others have pointed out the same thing as Ronald, that the metric Benbrook uses is disingenuous.

Additionally, Ronald said to me that

the [Benbrook study] conclusions conflict with virtually all peer reviewed studies, including two recent studies in PNAS and Nature which demonstrate reductions in synthetic insecticide use and enhanced biological diversity in GE cotton fields.

Bodnar, after taking a fresh look at Benbrook’s newly minted study, has posted some thoughts, including this:

There are a lot of assertions made by Benbrook that just aren’t supported.

Kniss, in his own examination, has raised some questions about the study’s methodology. He notes that Benbrook “modeled” data for some of the years data on pesticide spraying wasn’t available. Specifically, Kniss found that “70% of his [Benbrook's] estimated increase in herbicide use is based on…extrapolated soybean data, that are not well supported by actual USDA data.”

I made Benbrook aware of this critique by Kniss and he responded at the latter’s website.

I don’t have the technical knowledge to independently assess the scientific merits of Benbrook’s published findings or the statistical critique of it by Kniss. But in the last 24 hours I did communicate with numerous scientists familiar with Benbrook’s work and poked around enough to learn the backstory of the study he published this week.

In sum, I can safely conclude one thing: The widely disseminated Reuters article on Benbrook’s study is a gross disservice to the public.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: biotechnology, GMOs, science
MORE ABOUT: biotechnology, GMOs
  • Ed Forbes

    “..He notes that Benbrook “modeled” data for some of the years data on pesticide spraying wasn’t available. Specifically, Kniss found that “70% of his [Benbrook's] estimated increase in herbicide use is based on”¦extrapolated soybean data, that are not well supported by actual USDA data…..” …….LOL…the parallel with CAGW research is truly amazing. Seems there are quite a few green “deniers” out there. 

  • Mary

    Wow, it’s so nice to see someone contact the appropriate sources for comment on this. I noticed that Tom Philpott couldn’t be bothered to do that…

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Part of the consequences of my (over) concentration on climate and energy issues is that, while I am extremely interested in discussions about GMOs and other scientific / technology issues, I am not sufficiently well-informed to discuss the issues.

    So why this comment? First, to thank you for engendering the discussion. I’d like to know more about the subject(s). Second to note the striking similarity between this study and the accompanying reporting and what we’ve seen trotted out as climate science in recent years.

    I’ve seen others make the point in recent GMO posts of yours, so even that isn’t new. So what I will try and say, Keith, is that you may get a lot fewer comments on these posts, but that doesn’t mean they are any less worthwhile or interesting than the typical goads to us climate junkies.

    Thanks

  • Tom Scharf

    Truthiness…scienciness.  Who’s policing the science?  

    I truly feel sorry for those in academia whose work is ignored when those making outlandish claims to support an activist agenda get all the attention and funding.  And where is journalism in this?  These media ambushes by press release that never get publicly corrected are dragging the integrity of science down.

    The same high profile media brought us this gem recently:

    Reuters: 100 million will die by 2030 if world fails to act on climate: report 

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/09/25/us-climate-inaction-idUSBRE88O1HG20120925

  • Jarmo
  • Kasia

    Great commentary and investigation! Thanks for sharing, I knew that Reuters article didn’t seem well researched beyond the publication itself, and that it could be misleading.

    Just a comment, you say “Glyphosate is the compound used in Monsanto’s Round-up Ready crop”. However glyphosate is actually the active compound in the herbicide Roundup, not in the plants themselves. Roundup-ready crops have a trangenic gene that gives them resistance to glyphosate, so that they won’t be affected by the herbicide when a field is sprayed (but the weeds around them will be).

  • http://kfolta.blogspot.com Kevin Folta

    The National Academies of Science, our most prized scientific brain trust, commissioned the book “The Impact of Genetically Engineered Corps on Farm Sustainability in the United States”. You can read it here for free  http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12804Figures 2-1 and 2-2 reiterate Dr. Ronald’s point about glyposate replacing more toxic herbicides, as glyphosate has much lower environmental impact. FIgures 2-7 and 2-8 show that in opposition to what Benbrook reports, glyphosate use is down 70-80%.  Those are not new numbers, so maybe there’s an uptick, but clearly not a “backfire”.

    Benbrook also claims that GMO crops cause allergies, ADHD, autism, auto-immune disease and asthma.  @21 min, of course, no evidence presented, just out to scare.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_6ciWeNpRU

    In the same video he extols the virtues of Pusztai’s long discredited work. The best part is that this is now part of the fabric of GMO anti-science, a paper tiger that keeps getting fatter. 

  • RachaelL

    I had no idea Benbrook had ever said things like GMO crops causing that kind of BS. I assumed that stuff was limited to the more, shall we say, radical folks like GM Watch or Organic Consumers Association.Recently he also got involved in rebutting the Stanford organic study. See the PDF linked from Philpott’s post. So it’s pretty clear he has a dog in the game. Honestly I don’t have a philosophical objection to scientists having positions and movements they are a part of  …. as long as their results are rigorous.

  • http://www.biofortified.org Karl Haro von Mogel

    Incredible. I had not known that Benbrook had made the claims that he did in that video until now – talking about “new science” demonstrating this but not providing any references. Consequently, I have downloaded a copy in case it disappears. Later, I would like to ask him to provide the evidence.

    I think that Chuck Benbrook needs to first of all take his estimates of herbicide and insecticide use and run them through to see what differences in Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ) you get, because as he knows – and has said to me personally – glyphosate is not equivalent to the other herbicides and insecticides that are displaced. He acknowledges that glyphosate is safer and has a lower environmental impact than what it replaced, and much lower than the insecticides that were reduced due to the use of Bt.

    A note of caution when talking about pesticide use and GE crops. It is easy to say “reduced” or “increased” pesticides, and either side makes each claim frequently. But it is not really about the number of pounds of active ingredient, but what are the environmental and human health impacts are, and the best system we have for comparing different types of pesticides is the EIQ, for now. Therefore, to even begin to address what the impacts of GE crops (or any technology or practice) is on the impacts of pesticides, we have to compare what the impacts are, and not how much they weigh.

    So for those who are in favor of GE crops, it is better and more accurate to talk about reduced impacts, and for those opposed to GE crops – stop trying to respond to a shorthand way to describe this impact and let’s talk about the actual impacts themselves.

  • Mary

    Oh my. I had no idea he had joined “teh GMOz cause teh autisms” brigade. That’s truly sad. I actually thought he was more attached to reality than some in this arena.

  • Jeff Norris

    KeithI think you give the reporter too much of a pass.Carey Gillam is well aware of the subject and  reported on the 2009 study that you note in your post had serious concerns..http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/11/17/us-agriculture-biotech-idUSTRE5AG0QY20091117

  • http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com willard

    From Kniss’ post:

    USDA (presumably due to budget cuts) does not collect pesticide use data very often anymore. They had completely stopped for a while, and I believe are now starting again, but in a limited capacity (not all crops in all years).

    We can almost hear the army of citizen scientists rushing into USDA’s headquarters with FOIAs to verify this presumption.

  • Tony Broomfield

    For an in dept look at many aspects of GM and RR crops as well as Round up itself you would be advised to read “The world accoring to Monsanto by Mlle Robin.Plenty of references to follow there too

  • MarkB

    To do science, one has to be a scientist. Charles Benbrook isn’t a bad scientist – he isn’t a scientist at all. He is a publicist.

  • Pingback: GMOs, pesticides, and the new scientific deadlock | Grist

  • http://www.earthlab.net Brandon Keim

    So Benbrook is criticized — very rightly — for being careless, even disingenuous, in lumping together all GM crops when his criticism was really about glyphosate resistance. Then, just a few paragraphs down, a Pam Ronald quote does exactly the same thing, only in the other direction: she refers specifically to benefits shown in two studies of Bt cotton, but they’re described broadly as “GE cotton.”

  • RachaelL

    Brandon, I think you’re being unfair. Saying GE cotton in that email is at worst just using slightly inaccurate terminology — in an email. She wasn’t writing a scientific paper. In context, it’s clear she’s talking specifically about Bt cotton — the benefits given only apply to Bt cotton and don’t make sense for an herbicide-tolerant cotton. Also, as far as I know the studies on benefits of GE cotton are studying Bt cotton not RR cotton (is it widely used, especially in China and India which have seen the highest benefits?) In any case, Ronald has in the past talked about the problems with some uses of GE tech. This is in stark contrast to many who oppose all GM varieties and routinely lump Ringspot Virus resistant papaya, Bt cotton, RR soy, golden rice and a host of crops together as if they all have the same properties and use patterns.

  • Eric Adler

    Keith,Thanks for this post. I saw the news item broadcast on  TV, with a  example of a huge weed in a cornfield, and heard that this is due to GMO crops. It made it seem like GMO crops are a plot by Monsanto to make farmers use more chemicals. I was appalled. Now I am appalled that I seem to have been misinformed.

  • stan

    Oh no! Science journalism –it’s even worse than we thought!;-)

  • Michael

    Thanks for talking to scientists before covering science, Keith. 

  • MarkB

    Bad news sells is certainly part of the problem. Another factor is that the media knows that there is an audience for this particular bad news. The same audience certainly doesn’t want to hear that the banning of DDT in the Third World caused untold deaths. In this case, it’s more accurate to say that feeding prejudices sells. There is a particular paranoid hypochondria in the Western world that eats this stuff up. Ask yourself where that comes from. Who made peole believe that they are surrounded by nefarious forces who are out to poison their precious bodily fluids?

  • http://twitter.com/AgBioEye Andrew Apel

    Benbrook has such a lengthy history of failed attempts at credible science that his name alone is needed to evoke the requisite degree of skepticism.

  • Martin Spacek

    Oh my, that’s an easy false analogy to spot. I don’t even have to read the Reuters article you linked to on global warming deaths. The very first line contains the phrase “a report commissioned by 20 governments”. That carries just a tiny bit more weight than the crappy paper by a lone crackpot in a low rate journal discussed here.

  • Martin Spacek

    Seems some the posters near the end of these comments are bad at arithmetic, and apt to make inverted analogies:

    “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature”
    http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/2/024024/article

    Also:

    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2013/may/28/global-warming-consensus-climate-denialism-characteristics

    The summary: 97% of climate scientist agree that global warming is anthropogenic. Yet only 45% of the American public believes there is consensus. Unfortunately, some of the recent posters here seem to fall within the 55% that believe there is no consensus.

    Going back to the paper reviewed here, it’s pretty clear that the lone author, Charles Benbrook, is an outlier in his field.

    So really, the analogy to AGW would be a good one, but only if one were to make an analogy between the views of the vast majority of climate scientists on AGW with the views of the vast majority of plant biologists on glyphosate.

    To do otherwise is a sign of a broken baloney detection kit.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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