When Losing Opens the Mind

By Keith Kloor | November 12, 2012 8:19 am

Last week, I wondered what lessons the food movement would learn from the defeat of California’s GMO labeling measure. I also asked (since pro-labeling efforts are moving ahead in other states) if leading foodies

believe that a campaign based on junk science and fear-mongering is the best way to achieve a political goal?

It’s still too early to tell how the food movement, as a whole, will respond, but one of their biggest champions, Mark Bittman has signaled that a change in tactics is necessary. In a weekend NYT column, he wrote:

Labeling is important not so much because G.M.O.’s are “bad” “” they have not introduced harmful ingredients into the food chain, and those who argue that they have are taking a position that is difficult to defend “” but because once we know what’s in food we can better influence how it is produced.

Sensibly or not, many consumers are predisposed against G.M.O.’s; but G.M.O.’s are not exactly evil. A better choice might be a broader discussion about animal welfare. After all, Americans are also predisposed to treat animals fairly, and it could be that a struggle for transparency in livestock production would be more successful: mistreatment of animals is easy to prove, as are the many, many downsides of industrial livestock production.

Anyone who has been following Bittman’s writing on the GMO issue knows this is a significant departure for him.  A year ago he was suggesting that GM foods posed “real dangers” to human health. Just last month, Bittman wrote:

G.M.O.’s, to date, have neither become a panacea “” far from it “” nor created Frankenfoods, though by most estimates the evidence is far more damning than it is supportive.

The evidence he cites takes you to this article by a website called Organic Authority. It is a ridiculous piece of GMO-fear-mongering propaganda that has no place in intelligent debate on GM crops.

So Bittman’s sudden change of tone on GMOs (which translates to, never mind about everything I said before) is as notable as Sean Hannity’s newly “evolved” position on illegal immigration. Will other influential pundits follow suit and have a change of heart on these respective issues? Time will tell.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: food movement, GMOs
  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Hey now, let’s not make it any more difficult to change someone’s position than it already is… 

  • Mary

    I realized even more how similar their positions were as I thought about the grasp of biology of the Prop37 proponents and the GOP. As I wrote in my comment at NYT:

    By the way, science fiction cranks and conspiracy theorists make terrible allies. See the GOP for another example of this. Their grasp of biology matches the level I have seen from some of the Prop37 team. PS: there are no terminator seeds that just shut that thing down. It’s just as false as the GOP’s reproduction tales.

    And yet last night I saw at HuffPo one of the Prop37 activists decide that they weren’t fringy enough, and needed to make more outlandish health claims to make their case. And more Jeffrey Smith. I think his step 1-4 all = more crazzee!!1!My guess: some people move like Bittman, but the major tide moves the other way and it fractures this gang. Civil war. 

  • Tom Scharf

    This statement here reeks of a hidden agenda that was there all along?

    but because once we know what’s in food we can better influence how it is produced.

    So it wasn’t about GMO’s all along?  Is it really just yet another variant of an anti-capitalist screed?  What influence do they want exactly?  Color me confused.  They seem to be attempting to solve a non-existent problem.

  • John F. Pittman

    I always wondered who the IPCC and alarmists were taking their lessons from. It appears I was wrong to assume the tobacco companies. It was MONSANTO! ;)

  • http://timberati.com Norm

    “Labeling is important not so much because G.M.O.’s are ‘bad’ “” they have
    not introduced harmful ingredients into the food chain, and those who
    argue that they have are taking a position that is difficult to defend “”
    but because once we know what’s in food we can better influence how it
    is produced.” And so we should label GMOs out to keep GMOs out because they are not bad, but we find them kind of ‘icky’? I’m lost in that logic. Bittman’s “change” strikes me still as “Argumentum ad Monsantium.”Why not label the watering regime, pesticides used, fertilization regime, number of laborers used per bushel, and the income statements of all the producers if we think it’s a good idea to “influence” how our food is produced?As Ron Bailey pointed out in 2002, “Food today is cheap, nutritious, and safe….Consider that as recently as 1933-35, a U.S Public Health Service survey found that 5,458 children between the ages of 1 and 15 died from diarrhea and enteritis, most caused by food-borne pathogens….But there is something wrong with the puritanical notion that it’s a sin to live in blithe ignorance of the ultimate sources of your nourishment. Life is too short for most people to learn how to fix their computers and cars, and too short for most to learn about food production. And that’s just fine. Eating shouldn’t be a moral duty; it should be a pleasure.”

  • BillC

    But Nature is pure and messing around with it, either accidentally or on purpose, is just flying in the face of Providence!

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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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