Who Will Elevate the Conversation on GMOs?

By Keith Kloor | October 24, 2012 12:24 pm

Yesterday, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now devoted her program to a discussion on California’s Proposition 37, a voter initiative that, if passed on November 6, would mandate the labeling of many foods in the state’s grocery stores (restaurants are exempted) if they contained genetically modified ingredients. One of the guests on the program was Michael Pollan, the best-selling author and a journalism professor at UC Berkley. At one point in his interview with Goodman, Pollan lauded Michelle Obama for “elevating the conversation” on food issues. (The First Lady has adopted healthy eating as her main cause.)

The debate on genetically modified foods (and the CA labeling initiative) is screaming out to be elevated by someone with prominence. Here’s what Pollan, who is in favor of labeling GM foods, said to Goodman on this issue:

Consumers would probably avoid genetically modified food if they were given a choice. Why would they do that? It’s perfectly rational to avoid genetically modified food so far. It offers the consumer nothing. To the consumer, all it offers is some uncertainty–the doubts [on safety] that have been raised by certain studies about it.

Pollan is no dummy. He knows that such studies are rubbish (I wonder which ones he’s referring to) and that there is no scientific evidence to support claims that GMO foods are potentially unsafe to eat. But he reinforces the fears that are fanned by anti-GMO campaigners.

In the next breath, he says this:

It [genetically modified crops] is also a type of agriculture that some consumers want to avoid: giant monocultures under a steady rain of herbicides, which is what most GM crops are. So faced with that risk/benefit analysis–some undetermined possible risk vs no benefit whatsoever, what is the smart thing to do? The smart thing to do is just to avoid it until we know more about it.

It’s incredible to me that someone so smart can make this argument with a straight face. As University of Wyoming agronomist Andrew Kniss tweeted today,

 Monoculture adoption is due to the increased efficiency, not due to any one technology.

Kniss also said this in a follow-up tweet:

Monoculture & GMO are often associated, but not cause-effect.

So Pollan, given an opportunity to elevate the debate on GM foods, instead plays the “uncertainty” card and repeats the “monoculture” trope. What a shame.

In her program, Goodman also interviewed the scare-mongering huckster Jeffrey Smith, who is Dr. Oz’s go-to source on GMO issues.

Is there any hope for a sensible public conversation on GMOs?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: agriculture, GMOs
  • Mary

    Sigh. I’ve also seen Amy Goodman flog the terminator seed lie too.

    It’s really hard to have quality conversations on this topic when the thought leaders and media are contributing to the falsehoods.

  • Eric Baumholder

    Hoping for a sensible public conversation on GMOs assumes that there needs to be one. They’re scientifically uncontroversial. Their arguable aspects are the products of fevered imaginations. Do we need a ‘sensible public conversation’ about Jeffrey Smith’s powers of levitation? Nope. Waste time on something more fun.

  • Adam

    Pollan’s argument seems to be that there are risks associated with the uncertainty of something new. It’s true that there are things we don’t fully understand about long-term health effects of GMOs (and many other foods). However, it strikes me as wrong to assume that these are all necessarily bad.

    Though I have no reason to believe this will happen, perhaps some day it will be shown that eating GMOs increase the chance of some disease. But (by the same reasoning) perhaps it will be found that GMOs decrease the likelihood of some condition.

    The sensible way to do risk assessment is to weigh possible harm against the possible benefits. Alas, Pollan seems to only look at the risks.

    Now, I’m not a scientist or a doctor, and I haven’t crunched the numbers, so maybe there’s a sensible reason to believe that unintended harms outweigh unexpected benefits. But Pollan’s word choice doesn’t convince me that he’s thought this through.

  • Jarmo

    Couple of weeks ago I had a discussion with a person who would like everybody to eat organic food. I pointed out that food supply would run out if all food was produced organically. She agreed and said that everybody knows organic farming requires more acreage.

    Then I asked, “What about all those people who would have no food? They’d starve.” Her reply:” Well, it’s a good thing because we are not living sustainably. If we used only organic farming, the excess people would die and the planet would be sustainable again”.

    She was logical, I give her that.

  • Kuze

    “Pollan is no dummy”
    Fact Checkâ„¢: Not true.

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

    Galileo tried to raise the conversation that the data indicated the earth was not in the center of the universe.  However, those that knew better and could not be swayed by elevated conversation decided it was not true. Next voting season, after prop37 passes, I hope other kook organizations get enough signatures on ballots to change law without evidence, by similar mob rule.  Maybe we’ll see teaching of hare-brained theories of natural climate change in public schools, as students have a right to know.  Maybe we’ll see teaching of intelligent design, because students have a right to know. 

    Eric nails it above. To scientists, there is no debate.  No debate on GMO, climate change, vaccination, evolution and our president’s birth certificate.  The public now realizes in CA that if they cry loud enough can influence public policy, regardless of what science says.

    We will only elevate the conversation when we start to teach our children science, reason and logic.  Without this ignorance and fear reign. 

  • Nullius in Verba

    #6,

    “To scientists, there is no debate.”

    Those aren’t scientists.

    To scientists, there is always debate. Science consists of debate: of challenging assumptions, testing claims, questioning authority, recognising no sacred boundaries to enquiry. Its openness to debate is science’s safeguard against corruption, it’s rational justification, the very reason it works. where authority does not.

    But teaching real science is hard, and there are targets to be met, so teachers substitute authority for critical testing. You believe it not because you have considered all the evidence and found it persuasive, but because the science teacher said so, because the textbook says so, because scientists say so. Because “everybody knows”. Because if you don’t, you won’t pass the exam and won’t get a good job.

    It’s a neat shortcut, and churns out a lot of kids who can recite facts and equations, but it leaves them vulnerable to anyone who can invoke the same sort of authority. Because they have no scientific debating skills with which to probe the evidence and the arguments – for them it simply comes down to who they trust. If you can persuade people that you are a trusted authority you can talk unlimited nonsense and be believed, because nobody has the mental tools any more to catch you out.

    People don’t trust GMOs (and pesticides and additives) because they don’t understand enough about biology and chemistry to be able to tell the difference. And the complaint you see is not that they don’t understand, but that they’re not trusting the experts. Or rather, that they’re trusting the wrong experts, who they can’t seem to tell from the real experts. Well, on what basis are they supposed to be able to tell?

  • Joshua

    NiV – #6

    I think that you hit on some good points, but that you also overemphasize the credence people place in authority – I think that people are often quite suspicious of authority and “experts.” But people do look for information from those sources, of that there is no doubt, and what they see are credible-sounding authorities who differ in opinion. And many times those authorities really are credible – but like everyone, they are subject to motivated reasoning and so even though they might hold completely contradictory points of view that can’t both be valid, they present what seem to be credible arguments. 

    This is why I am dismayed by the “outrage machine” aspect of these debates. People stake out their own partisan perspectives, select which authorities are correct on that basis, and then are “outraaged” by authorities who hold contrasting viewpoints. People categorically refuse to accept the complex nature of the debates (for example the multiple issues that get bundled into the GMO debate), the large amount of ambiguous data, the possibility that people might be using valid reasoning but basing their analysis on questionable premises, or that the application of motivated reasoning does not necessarily imply that someone is “lying” or an idiot – it just means that they are human and that they reason just like everyone else.

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    First of all Pollan knows a lot more about the subject than you do, going  back to his “Botany of Desire”.  Second, if you want to find out who is trying to big foot this debate take a look at the letters linked here

    Best
    Eli

  • EdG

    “Is there any hope for a sensible public conversation on GMOs?”No.But I’m surprised that nobody has pointed out the unequivocal fact that anyone and everyone who ingests even a morsel of these creations will die!!!  No exceptions. 100% eventual mortality.That kind of ‘thinking’ would seem to fit into the level of current public ‘conversations’ about many things these days, and would likely be uncritically embraced and breathlessly repeated by those whose MM (media modified) beliefs it fit. 

  • andrew adams

    I can’t say I’ve taken much interest in the arguments about GMOs but I don’t see why products containing GMOs shouldn’t be labelled if there is sufficient demand for it from consumers. If people want to make choices about what’s in the food they but then they should be able to, even if we don’t think those choices are particularly rational. 

  • andrew adams

    NiV,

    To scientists, there is always debate. Science consists of debate: of challenging assumptions, testing claims, questioning authority, recognising no sacred boundaries to enquiry. Its openness to debate is science’s safeguard against corruption, it’s rational justification, the very reason it works. where authority does not.

    Sure, but nevertheless there are surely still scientific questions which are sufficiently well understood to be beyond any reasonable doubt. I make no particular claim in respect of GMOs but do you really think that there are active debates going on in the scientific community about whether there is a link between HIV and AIDS, whether evolution is the best explanation for the development of life on earth or whether vaccination is a benefit to humanity? Of course scientists should be prepared to consider new evidence if it emerges on these issues and in principle all scientific knowledge is “provisional”, but at least for the purposes of informal discussions in forums such as this surely we can consider these questions “settled

  • BillC

    AA#11 – Absolutely. Let people label them if they want. If there starts to be a price difference then people will notice that too. Of course, then we’ll have ag companies artificially keeping GMO food prices lower than they should be for just long enough to overcome the initial hurdle (even if they ARE truly cheaper in the long run). Can’t win.

  • isaacschumann

    andrew adams,

    I agree with your point about debates in science, I would include gmo’s in there as well. From the six french science academies in response to the Seralini paper:”NK603 corn is harmless from the health point of view, as are, more
    generally, genetically modified plants that have been authorised for consumption by animals and humans.”

    My opposition to the labeling initiative in CA is not that I oppose labeling per se, it is the ideological motivation of the movement. It very much has the feel of watt’s effort to ‘re-check’ temperature station data. It sounds reasonable on its face, but his motives were always to attack climate science in general. The Yes on 37 people have promoted the seralini paper and claim that gmos cause cancer, an attempt at a ban is inevitable,.. heck, if I believed that Id want them banned too. Cheers

  • andrew adams

    isaacschumann,

    That’s a fair point, and I think the comparison with the surface stations project is an interesting one.

    I’m inclined to believe you on GMOs, I certainly haven’t seen any convincing evidence they are harmful, I just haven’t followed the arguments closely.

  • harrywr2

    #11 Andrew Adams,

    I don’t see why products containing GMOs shouldn’t be labelled if there is sufficient demand for it from consumers.

    88% of the corn in the US and 93% of the soybeans are ‘GE’ crops.http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/adoption-of-genetically-engineered-crops-in-the-us.aspxWhat happens when one morsel of GMO grain is left is a railcar/grain
    elevator and then eaten by a chicken,cow,pig? Do they need to be labeled as well?

  • andrew adams

    No, they don’t.

  • Nullius in Verba

    #8,

    Joshua, Agreed. While I do sometimes get slightly outraged on the politics, on the science it gets in the way, and I have a very tolerant attitude to people having different beliefs to me.

    #11,

    Absolutely agree. If manufacturers want to label their products, because they get more sales from customers who care, then they should definitely be allowed to do so. If they want to label them with the astrological star sign under which they germinated, that’s fine by me, too.

    But if manufacturers choose not to so label, nobody should be able to force them. They can pay the cost at the checkout, but it’s their choice. That’s what the fight is about. Manufacturers label or don’t label because of what the market wants, not because of what a bunch of interfering busybodies in some campaign think the market ought to want, (which of course always aligns perfectly with their own personal opinions). We don’t force vegetable farmers to label their products if they contain allyl cyanide, (although they can if they want to). I don’t see why it should be any different for GMOs.

    #12,

    Even if it’s beyond reasonable doubt (and few things are), it’s only beyond reasonable doubt because good answers to the questions are available – and the questions must therefore always be askable so that the answers can continue to be provided. It is like auditing a company’s accounts – you know the company is honest because the accounts have been audited. The argument that you don’t need to audit or publish an honest company’s accounts begs the question. You don’t expect to find anything wrong, but you still insist that the check is made and that the accountants cooperate because that’s how you can know, and that’s precisely why most companies are.

    Suppose there were two diseases with virtually identical symptoms, and the more common of the two was caused by AIDS. How could you find that out, if you wasn’t allowed to ask the question? How can you know that the prevailing theory is right, if nobody is allowed to check? Are there no alternative explanations because the evidence excludes the possibility, or because they’re not allowed to say? Worse, if somebody says there are valid counter-arguments that have been silenced, how do you prove them wrong?

    Of course people can still ask questions about GMOs. And scientists can answer those questions, and explain yet again exactly how and why we can know GMOs are as safe as any other food. It is precisely the fact that scientists have those answers ready that gives us assurance, not their expertise or reputation or authority.

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    NIV, all the people with allergies want to thank you for your opinions on labeling laws, that it is nonsense, that prior experience shows it is dangerous nonsense, well some, not Eli to be sure, might think that needs a label.Cemeteries are full of monuments to the absence of proper labeling, proper inspection and the resulting adulteration in the past, and some in the present.  Eli somehow does not have quite the same naive faith in the market that you do.  Or perhaps he remembers.

  • Nullius in Verba

    #19,

    People with allergies constitute a market for labelling, that the market will happily provide for at the appropriate premium.

    Adulteration is a different matter – that’s a case of mislabelling, and of poisoning people which is a bad thing to do anyway. I am firmly of the opinion that any labels have to be true, and that food sold for human consumption has to be reasonably safe. (Or at least, labelled as unsafe.)

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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, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and 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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