Why Leading Foodies Tolerate Junk Science

By Keith Kloor | November 8, 2012 7:51 am

Now that California voters have rejected the initiative to label genetically modified foods, the fight moves on to other states. Before we speculate on how those efforts might play out, let’s first be clear on what the fight is actually about. In a piece at Time, Bryan Walsh argues that

the battle over [California's] Prop 37 and GM food was never really about science or health. It’s about politics “” and who should control the U.S. food system.

This is true for people like Michael Pollan, but for those like Grist’s Susie Cagle, who want GM foods to be labeled with the “grinning face of genetically modified death,” something else is at work.

Cagle is a fan of the Label It Yourself campaign, which asserts:

While we do not know for sure the longterm impacts of GMO’s, increasing evidence connects  them with serious health risks (including infertility, birth defects, allergies, and digestive problems),  environmental damage (including water contamination, degraded soil health, die-off of beneficial insects, loss of biodiversity, and seed pollution) risks and violation of farmers’ and consumers’ rights.

But as Walsh writes in his piece,

there’s no getting around the fact that the majority of the science done so far indicates that GM food poses no known threat to consumers. That puts those warning about the threat of GM food in a very similar position to global-warming skeptics “” defying the mainstream scientific consensus, calling into question the quality of the studies that form that consensus and seeking out dissenters who share their doubts.

So yes, while politics (“who should control the food system”) is an underlying basis for much anti-GMO sentiment,  there’s also no getting around that fear of genetically modified crops is a big factor, too. And that fear is a palpable force driving the anti-GMO ranks within the food movement, which Pollan et al cynically exploit to advance a political agenda that aims to change the way food is produced and curb the power of agricultural giants like Monsanto.

As I wrote recently at Slate:

Without subtly stoking ignorant fears about GM food, there would be no way to mobilize the fight against Monsanto and what it stands for.

Going forward, as the GMO labeling battle spreads from California to other states, the big question for Pollan, Marion Nestle and other leading champions of the Food Movement is this: Do they believe that a campaign based on junk science and fear-mongering is the best way to achieve a political goal?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: food movement, GMOs
  • Mary

    I’ve tried to tell them more than once that product tampering is a federal crime. But that doesn’t seem to matter to them either.

    And if you are going to create an item like that label that encourages this, you ought to take your name off the word document.

  • Josh

    I have been fielding tons of questions about an article that I perceive to be junk but some other folks thought pretty highly of.  Any agronomist will agree that having a more diverse cropping rotation is a good thing.  However, to support their point the authors use metrics inappropriately, have multiple confounding factors, and refuse to acknowledge that if a diverse cropping rotation requires 30% more labor for the same gross profit, you essentially made LESS money. 

  • Keith Kloor

    Just want to note that commenter @2 is a different Josh than the regular commenter who goes by the same name.

  • http://www.r343l.com RachaelLudwick

    I’m not sure Pollan doesn’t believe in the scary stuff. He retweeted that Grist story. He either didn’t read the article carefully (to note the proposed DIY labeling was a skull and crossbones), did read the article carefully and thinks it’s fine to use fear to advance his position, or he himself thinks GMOs are so bad they need a warning label. Which is it?

  • http://www.fancybeans.com RachaelLudwick

    Josh-I don’t know if calling it junk science is quite fair or at least it’s no more junk than many other papers where authors play up their results despite issues like that. Papers have flaws but that doesn’t make them junk. But it’s clear even to this layman (who only skimmed it when it came out) that the labor cost and risk of complicated multi-year systems would make it harder for farmers to adopt it. That’s the main thing that’s being lost in reporting on it in favor of a simplistic notion that farmers are, without good reason, avoiding moving to an environmentally better farming system.

  • Josh

    Rachael, Junk is in the eye to the beholder.  That may be a overly strong term in the context of the Marsden farm, but the assertions that are made in the PLOS ONE article have some pretty big holes in them. Don’t get me wrong, I think that what was done at the Marsden farm is great, but that article was very marginal.

  • Joshua

    Why Leading Foodies Tolerate Junk Science

    Well, at least you’ve narrowed it down a bit from unqualified generalizations about liberals and environmentalists, Keith (I assume there are fewer foodies than environmentalists), but would it kill you to add qualifiers to your syntax?

  • Mary

    Josh: I hope you’ll comment over at the article. There are some good questions over there and the authors are responding.

  • Joshua

    Actually, now that I think about it, “leading” is a qualifier there – and certainly there are fewer “leading foodies” than environmentalists  :-)

  • Joshua

    Josh -

    Can you link to the evidence you use to categorically conclude that rotating crops is 30% more labor-intensive?

  • Keith Kloor

    Joshua (7 & 9):

    Environmentalists are just as awful on the GMO issue as foodies (see Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, NRDC, etc). Those that eagerly jump into the fray (including aforementioned), such as Union of Concerned Scientists, peddle disinformation that would make Anthony Watts proud.

    The reason I refer only to foodies in this post is that I’m speaking specifically to the representative, influential champions of food movement that tacitly wink at (or slyly endorse) the worst of the unscientific, fear mongering–such as Pollan, Bittman and Nestle.

    You’re welcome to parse my posts like a Talmudic scholar, just don’t expect me to respond every time to comments that you already know I regard as trollish.

  • Pdiff

    Josh, I concur with Mary.  Ask your questions over at PlosOne.  They were pretty responsive to my questions, although, I’m not sure I was convinced :-) .  At least you can raise some of your concerns there, unlike most publications.  I did ask about labor.  They indicated it was primarily tractor based, which I assume would then raise carbon neutral and future fuel cost questions.As for self labeling, let them do it and get arrested.  They will only make themselves look even more extremist.

  • http://www.fancybeans.com RachaelLudwick

    Joshua @ 10 — the other Josh is almost certainly not saying all crop rotations are intrinsically 30% labor intensive. But, IIRC, the referenced paper did find the most complicated rotation they studied required significantly more labor than the usual conventional corn/soy. It’s even mentioned in the <a href=”http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/10/big-smart-green-farming/”>Wired</a> piece about the study that the conventional took a third less labor.

  • Joshua

    Keith -

    just don’t expect me to respond every time to comments that you already know I regard as trollish.

    I never have any expectation that you (or anyone else)  respond to any of my comments. 

    I’m speaking specifically to the representative, influential champions
    of food movement that tacitly wink at (or slyly endorse) the worst of
    the unscientific, fear mongering”“such as Pollan, Bittman and Nestle.

    I think that engaging them in this conversation is a good thing. Reading your blog has helped to educate me on the related issues. But I am questioning whether you are doing so in the most effective manner, and whether the manner in which you go about that contributes more to the problem of tribalism related to GMOs than it contributes to the solution. I think that unqualified generalizations detract from the full value of your work.

  • Joshua

    Rachel – thanks.

  • Adam Merberg

    Keith, have you read Pollan’s In Defense of Food? Most of the book is just fluffy, but he mounts a few attacks on the field of nutritional science. For instance, he argues that science-based dietary advice “bears direct responsibility for creating the public health crisis that now confronts us” without mentioning just how little of that advice was really followed. Now that’s not identical to the phenomenon you’re describing here, but it did convince me that he’s somebody who doesn’t respect science, so I’m not terribly surprised by the recent developments.

  • Mary

    Michael Pollan is actually pretty cagey. In his talk to The Long Now gang (which includes Steward Brand and many techies), he was much more tolerant of GMOs and co-existence. Not in his main presentation–but when questioned at the end. But I’ve never heard him say that in settings aimed more at his flock or the general public.

    Similarly, I just saw this hilarious tweet:

    RT @joyrigel: @MarionNestle gave a great lecture last night but I was dismayed by her stance on #GMO safety. @Agtivists maybe send some info her way!

    Yes–too soft on GMO safety. Imagine. But again–we see someone saying it in small groups and sort of “off the record” or at least off the main + quotable form of the record.I know they know better. They need to come out of the closet and tamp down the hair flambé that they are actually stoking on other channels.

  • MarkB

    “the big question for Pollan, Marion Nestle
    and other leading champions of the Food Movement is this: Do they
    believe that a campaign based on junk science and fear-mongering is the
    best way to achieve a political goal?   
    That’s a rhetorical question, right? Of course they do. Dog bites man.

  • MarkB

    Keith – did Anthony Watts steal your girlfriend or something? If he’s your personification of evil, you’ve gone off the cliff. Compared to Pollan, Cagle and Nestle, Watts is the Voice of Reason. He may be wrong in any particular case, but he actually believes what he says – and backs it up as well as he can. And while Watts’ Surfacestation project humiliated the national weather service, Pollan and Nestle have stuck to lies and name-calling as their fundamental methods.

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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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