There are two kinds of people who write about genetically modified foods: Those who believe that GMOs are bad and those who don’t. In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m in the latter group.
Unfortunately, the simplistic debate between these two camps has devolved into a Three Stooges slapfest:
More specifically, one group shrieks about “seeds of death” and Monsanto’s evil plot to sterilize humanity while the other group (the one I belong to) responds with alternating mockery and sober rebuttals. Personally, I try to avoid writing much about the deranged wing of the anti-GMO movement. It’s like taking on Lord Monckton and James Delingpole in the deranged wing of the climate skeptic sphere. What they say is so absurd that you can’t treat them seriously, so you end up lampooning them.
Unfortunately, the anti-GMO hysterics are, like the climate science is a fraud shouters, the face of their respective movements. Marc Morano goes on CNN and Jeffrey Smith goes on Dr. Oz. Both persons are likable, media-savvy, indefatigable spokesmen for their causes. As such, they help shape the tone and content of public debate.
What bothers me most about this dynamic, especially with respect to the GMO issue, is that thought leaders enable the worst tendencies of the anti-GMO movement, instead of trying to elevate the conversation. Thus, after I really started paying attention to the GMO debate, I wrote in Slate:
I’ve found that fears are stoked by prominent environmental groups, supposed food-safety watchdogs, and influential food columnists; that dodgy science is laundered by well-respected scholars and propaganda is treated credulously by legendary journalists; and that progressive media outlets, which often decry the scurrilous rhetoric that warps the climate debate, serve up a comparable agitprop when it comes to GMOs.
I wrote that last September and it is just as true today. [UPDATE: On a related note, see this Mark Hoofnagle post at his Denialism blog.] For example, take Grist, a popular environmental media site. They would never bend over backwards to legitimize outlier climate studies that have no credibility with mainstream climate scientists. But if there’s an outlier study that suggests GMOs are poisoning animals, no matter how dubious the research, Grist will be all over it. And if judicious mainstream biotech experts criticize that study, Grist will shrug them off as “GMO lovers.”
When you have one of the most widely read and admired environmental websites regularly promoting GMO fear-mongering and twisting itself into a pretzel to put a positive spin on faulty (and clearly biased) studies, that is as telling as the slanted climate change coverage at Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. [
When you point out this double standard at places like Grist, when you challenge thought leaders and some reporters on their credulousness, as I have been doing of late, or when you highlight the utter zaniness of the main anti-GMO assertions, you get accused of being a shill for Monsanto. This is not an experience unique to me. Anyone who is even gently critical of arguments advanced by anti-GMO activists has heard this. Every geneticist and plant scientist working in the biotech field has been accused of being in Monsanto's pocket. It is an oft-repeated charge that appears in every comment thread of every article and blog post.
When Canadian agricultural researcher Cami Ryan recently published a guest piece in this space on the appeal of GMO myths, some readers predictably accused her of being a cheerleader for Monsanto.
My own all time favorite he's a shill comment was hurled at me several weeks ago:
Wow, Keith Kloor is so rabidly PRO-GMO it wouldn't surprise me if he's receiving kickbacks. Freelance journalist and adjunct professor don't pay too good, and NY has a pretty high cost of living.
As adjuncts and freelancers who live in NYC can attest, there is some truth to this. There's also my two kids (and their massive Lego collection), the $9.00 beers at Yankee Stadium, my Caramel Frappuccino habit at Starbucks, and my summer house in East Hampton.
Now I've grown tired of fending off this "tool of Monsanto" charge. So has Cami. Thus, in the interest of full disclosure, we want to reveal the truth about ourselves.