An NYU Panel Debate on GMO Labeling

By Keith Kloor | April 6, 2013 8:07 am

Bernie Mooney, who writes the excellent Contrary to popular Belief blog, has contributed a guest post:

Last Thursday, the NYU Global Center for Academic & Spiritual Life,  in conjunction with GMO Free New York held a panel debate called GMO Labeling: Do We  Need It? It was a civilized discussion, but the deck was stacked.

The panel included moderator/journalist Frederick Kaufman, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, Dr. Carolyn Dimitri of NYU Steinhardt, Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and two representatives from anti-GMO lobbying groups, Jean Halloran of the Consumers Union and Patty Lovera from Food & Water Watch.

The lone scientist on the panel was Dr. Walter S. De Jong from the Cornell University, Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics. This affable potato breeder gets the award for willingly walking into the belly of the beast.

The hour-long discussion touched on all the familiar anti-GMO talking points complete with the usual misinformation such as Halloran’s claim that GMOs have not increased yields. Thankfully the night was Seralini and Genetic Roulette free. Well, almost Seralini and Genetic Roulette free, but that happened after the event.

Halloran brought up the increased allergen risk of GM salmon, failing to note that it doesn’t matter whether GM salmon is 2 times or 100 times more allergenic than conventional salmon. People who are allergic to salmon can’t eat salmon whether it is genetically modified or not.

She also raised the issue that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) relies on industry testing when deciding to approve or deny approval. She didn’t consider the millions of dollars it would take to do their own testing of every product that comes up for approval. Where does she suggest that money come from?

Overall, nothing new was learned and everybody went away still believing what they believed before they attended the event. Well, almost.

I managed to barge into a few of the conversations among attendees and found that rather than being met with scorn and derision, people actually wanted to hear what I had to say. I wasn’t once called a Monsanto shill. I found that encouraging. I had been remiss in that I didn’t make a better effort to challenge some of the statements made by the panelists, but I think correcting the misinformation I heard in conversations afterward was more fruitful.

While talking with Dr. De Jong, a woman came up and said she respected him for willingly participating in an event where he was odd man out. Then she qualified it by saying, “I didn’t agree with anything you said, but I respect you.” Huh?

I went all deGrasse Tyson on her: “The science is true whether you believe it or not.” She looked at me confused and left.

Taking my leave, I went in search of Kathleen Furey of GMO Free NY. I asked her why, in their events around the state they gave credibility to Jeffrey Smith by screening Genetic Roulette. She asked why they shouldn’t screen it. I said because Smith is “fraud and charlatan; a yogic flying dance teacher with no scientific or agricultural credentials.” (That’s my how to win friends and influence people style.)

She asked, “Who doesn’t think he is credible?”

“The scientific community,” I replied.

“Well, I can show you scientists who do find him credible,” she said.

Me: “Like who? Seralini?”

Her: “Oh, so you don’t find him credible?”

Not surprisingly, the conversation degenerated from there. But once more I missed another opportunity when during our exchange, Furey, in defense of Smith’s non-scientific credentials, told me that she wasn’t a politician but she was able to write legislation. I was so focused on her defense of Smith that I missed a shocking revelation.

Anti-GMO activists have recently been howling about how Monsanto helped craft the so-called “Monsanto Protection Act.” Yet, here was an activist who admitted to not just helping write the GMO labeling bills now in front of the New York State Senate and Assembly, she wrote them.  How does this differ from corporations doing the same thing?

In the end, I found it encouraging that in my private discussions most people were willing to listen. This could be due to the fact that the event was held in NYC, but it’s encouraging nonetheless. With better outreach, the biotech community could help dispel public fears and make the scare mongering of the anti-GMO activists less effective.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: biotechnology, GMOs
MORE ABOUT: biotechnology, GMOs
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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

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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