Who’s Polarizing the GMO Debate?

By Keith Kloor | June 30, 2013 9:16 am

I love this piece in the Guardian about GMOs, I really do. It’s so exquisitely disingenuous that you have to admire the writer’s chutzpah. Let’s start with this line (my emphasis):

Why is it that some politicians and prominent scientists and “communications” agencies are so exclusively preoccupied with GM [genetic modification]?

I can’t imagine that Andy Stirling, the author, wrote that with a straight face. Because when it comes to preoccupation with genetically modified food, nobody rivals anti-GMO campaigners, especially groups like Greenpeace, who have gone so far as to vandalize research beneficial to public health.

Oh, did I mention this part of Stirling’s bio:

Working in between as a field archaeologist and ecology and peace activist in the 80’s, I later co-ordinated nuclear, disarmament and energy campaigns for Greenpeace International, serving on their Board of Directors in the 90’s (and currently that of Greenpeace UK).

Just so we’re clear: I have no problem with anyone working for an environmental organization. (I used to work for an environmental magazine and am quite proud of it.) I only raise his affiliation because no green group has done more to demonize biotechnology and spread misinformation about GMOs than Greenpeace.

Which leads me to this uproarious line in Stirling’s piece:

the problem is not so much the measured, well-reasoned concerns over GM uncertainties and economic effects.

I wonder if he was referring to the measured, well-reasoned argument expressed here by Greenpeace:

  • mem_somerville

    That piece was so ridiculous on so many levels–and some people have actually been fooled by it. They keep pretending marker-assisted selection solves all problems, while refusing to actually explain how it will save bananas or citrus. I’ve asked.

    And then grousing about the power thing. Well, they’ve set this up to be a power scenario by making sure academics can’t play in the field. And I dare Stirling to go to the next Greenpeace board meeting and ask if open-source GMOs will make any difference to them. That’s completely laughable.

    This is the second anti-GMO piece by a Greenpeace rep this week at that site. Did they just turn the place over to them?

  • jh

    Regardless of one’s opinions on GMOs, one must marvel at the creative imagery used in the effort to undermine them. The corn in the image above is great, but too much obvious paste-up to be really effective – even I could do better than that. But the expression of the person is fantastic. Words could never communicate what that expression says. And the Green Pepper Ghoul image you showed a while back was a champion. Evil lurks!

    Hilarious.

    It’s interesting how oblivious some groups are to effective marketing. The pro-GMO people could go a long way with the same kind of imagery. And what about the climate debate? They are either way over the top (green orgs) or or so intensely bitter (RealClimate, Heartland) that most of what they do is counterproductive.

  • Psyclic

    Not entirely off topic, but relevant: Why would Monsanto advocate through legislation written by Blunt (literally at the last minute before voting) to be IMMUNE from any legal actions based on ANY issues related to their GM-products?

    • Buddy199

      To avoid the endless blizzard of nuisance
      lawsuits launched by Greenpeace and others.

      • Psyclic

        How about this: Here’s what we know for sure. Here’s what we think is happening but really aren’t sure yet. Here’s what might happen, but we need to do a lot more work to be really be ertain on the details. Intelligence, seriousness, humility and ideology-free. …
        Ideology free! Now there’s an oxymoron in this context buddy

        • Buddy199

          You asked a question, that’s the answer.

    • Aaaarrrggh

      If you are talking about the so-called “Monsanto Protection Act” then you might actually want to read and understand the act before posting about it.

      • Psyclic

        1. Fact: Blount penned the addition without notification of the Senate of this addition.

        2. Fact: It was entered JUST before the vote, the prior night.

        3. Fact: It negates the rule of the court IF the USDA has followed procedure on deregulation of GM-crop.

        4. Fact: Some contested USDA decisions have been found to be “incorrectly determined” and overturned.

        5. Fact: Allowing lawsuits does reduce the effectiveness of the USDA and efficiency of Biotech industries to have new GMO placed on the public’s table. Is this necessarily a bad thing? (Courts CAN dismiss “frivolous lawsuits” – and often do.)

        Would you prefer a highly efficient doctor operating on you who has had pending malpractice suits nullified, or do you believe that your life is worth the consideration of quality?

        You certainly can read section 735 of the “Farmers Assurance Provision” as saving poor Monsanto from a flood of frivolous lawsuits – Or you can read it as a heavy-handed way of keeping profits growing.

        • anonymousse

          Has “Fact” gotten a new meaning? I am no native english speaker but i always thought it meant something that is verifiably true. I have found the following link: http://appropriations.house.gov/uploadedfiles/bills-112hr-fc-ap-fy13-agriculture.pdf

          A Draft from June 2012 which under section 733, page 86 pretty much states the same thing as section 735 of the passed bill.

          But the evil cabal of biotech firms probably just forged it to make you look incompetent, to perform a simple google search.

          Don’t let them discourage you!
          The truth is out there (X-Files music).

          • Psyclic

            AnyMousse – I appreciate your challenge and it has caused me to dig a little deeper, but the end result is that I stand by my statement – as does Blunt, himself:

            “In the case of the Monsanto rider, Blunt said he worked
            with the company …
            “What it says is if you plant a crop that is legal to
            plant when you plant it, you get to harvest it,” Blunt said. “But it is only a
            one year protection in that bill.”

            http://www.politico.com/story/2013/03/big-agriculture-tom-vilsack-monsanto-89268_Page2.html

            The comes from a reference in the StLouis-Post Dispatch, the paper of Blunt and Monsanto’s home state.

            The key here is that:

            1. It was drafted with the help of Monsanto Lobbyists,

            2. Blunt has received over $100,000 in “campaign funds” from Monsanto,

            3. The original June 2012 version to which your referred, died without ever seeing the light of day and WAS NOT DEBATED in the Senate. Since it was tied to an “emergency” Federal funding bill, there was basically no debate on the over 600 pages of set-asides, attachments, exceptions and exemptions.

            4. The bill DOES one-up the Federal findings of FDA or USDA or EPA in that any finding of impropriety or error in assigning the un-regulated status to a crop CANNOT be controlled by that finding if requested by a grower or producer upon UNTIL a thorough finding is ruled upon.

          • anonymousse

            I objected to your parroting of the tiresome trope that this section was secretly inserted into the bill at the last minute by Dr. Evil,… sorry i meant Blunt.

            If i could find the draft with minimal research, i think any concerned citizen is also able to use google.

            For the rest:
            I don’t think it is a bad idea if affected party’s are consulted by the legislation.
            These bills have consequences for an hole economic sector.
            Getting feedback on which provisions are troublesome, unpragmatic or just counterproductive is, i think, essential for efficient lawmaking.

            And the previous situation was untenable.
            It encouraged the filing of frivolous law suits in the hope of finding a gullible judge that will grant an injunction.

            The party that is affected by that isn’t your evil bogeyman monsanto, but the farmers that planted a crop (that went through the whole regulatory process) in the expectation that they can, you know, actually sell it.

            This is where our worldviews drift apart.

            I don’t think the scientists and decision makers are mere henchmen from biotech company’s.

            I also don’t think that science should be settled by judges that at best have a rudimentary understanding of this area.

  • Tom Scharf

    Are you denying that GMO’s “could be” a threat to human health? Clearly if we cleverly genetically modified corn with sarin nerve gas and fed it to the world (especially the children, more for smaller ones) the results “could be” catastrophic. Don’t be so deluded.

    We just need to employ the precautionary principle here and make sure things like this never happen. Ever. The blood will be on your hands. Especially from the puppies and kittens.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Gerald Hodge

      Pandora’s box has already been opened, or should I say that the gene(y) is already out of the bottle. GMO techniques have been incorporated as standard experiments in both high school and college biology lab work throughout the U. S.

      Most new technological developments have the potential for both good and evil, and GMOs are no different. Once genetic engineering was developed, there is no way to prevent a rogue terrorist group from creating an genetically engineered pathogen that might carry novel toxin genes as well as resistance to antibiotics. The Soviet Union did just this many years ago, but I will not mention the details.

      This potential for evil use is not an argument against using GMO techniques for increasing agricultural productivity, or for reduction in the use of pesticides that have negative impacts on the environment.

    • theLaplaceDemon

      That’s like saying “We shouldn’t cook food ever, because someone could slip poison into it.”

    • Aaaarrrggh

      Please explain how genetically engineering corn with sarin nerve gas would make it through the review conducted by the USDA or EFSA.

      And while you are at it please tell me which gene encodes sarin. I am unfamiliar with its genetic code.

      • anonymousse

        I think his post was meant to be sarcastic. The last sentence should have given it away but considering the silliness of some comments from the anti-crowd, one can never be sure i guess. Poes law strikes again ;)

  • proteos

    The most laughable in this piece is maybe the bit about how we should “let the market decide” (§6) when growing GM crops is essentially forbidden in Europe. Elsewhere the market has had its say, and GM crops have been idely adopted.

    But the madness can go further. Here, in France there has been vandalism against “hidden GMOs” i.e. mutagenesis (a sunflower field has been vandalised). Thus, the talk about how marker assisted selection is a promissing technology sounded hollow to me.

  • David Malchevsky

    the truth is that there is a lot of questions whether GMO’s is safe for human health, for ex. here http://blog.pulawy.com/en/are-gmos-the-best-solution/ and according to me we shouldn’t risk if we don’t know the effects of using GMO’s methods

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Ariel Poliandri

    I don’t know what is more annoying about Guardian science
    journalist. The fact that their knowledge comes from blogs and press releases instead of scientific papers or that they cannot admit that their opposition to GM-food comes only from their urbanite upper-middle class aesthetic prejudices.

  • Clyde Davies

    The problem with a polarized debate like this is that you end up with two entrenched groups shouting at each other and the mild middle gets drowned out by the invective. Those that might have legitimate concerns about specific applications, or who are promoting independent research with few commercial overtones, we generally don’t get to hear about.

    But I agree, Stirling has really got more front than Brighton.

  • Alex Muir

    It’s ironic that you complain they have “gone so far as to vandalize research beneficial to public health.” when they were destroying GMO wheat crop, as if we don’t have enough bread non gmo or as if the GMO wheat isn’t causing farmers in the USA a headache at the moment. Most farmers in Canada would support vandalizing GMO wheat, certainly they didn’t want the stuff being grown because. GMO wheat won’t benefit anyone other than monsanto’s profits,

    • anonymousse

      The high-amylose wheat in question has a lower glycemic index.

      Considering the obesity epidemic in the developed world this is a worthy goal i think.

      Not only was the destruction idiotic in and of itself but it was also pointless.

      They haven’t stopped the research, only forced them to repeat the trial.

      So instead of one trial, they had to conduct two.

      By the way the only reason farmers have a headache is because of the efficient FUD campaign conducted by Greenpeace and other environmental groups in Europe (a big wheat importer) and other areas.

      Not because they have scientifically backed concerns, but because the first thing joe public thinks about when he hears gmo are pictures like these:http://www.colourbox.com/preview/2084543-820051-filed-syringes-and-green-tomatoes-genetically-modified-objects-concept.jpg

      Its a pity because this campaign that appeals to emotion drowns out any rational discourse one could have of legitimate problems of this topic (intellectual property rights,etc).

  • Dr. Nicola J. Rolfe

    What got me was the fact that his link to ‘no shortage of alternatives’ didn’t actually give any alternatives!

  • Aaaarrrggh

    Don’t be so hard on Greenpeace – in Australia they are great supporters of GM studies. After all, last year they “donated” $280,000 to repeat the study into GM wheat that they vandalized.That was money collected from their supporters! They must be so proud that Greenpeace is using their donations for such a worth cause.

  • Psyclic

    Good review of Kloor’s approach to environmental awareness: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/12/13/kloor/

    • mem_somerville

      PZ is a fan of GMOs too. Are you with him on that Psyclic?http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/06/03/whos-afraid-of-the-big-bad-gmo/

      • Psyclic

        mem_somerville: Thank you for reading the reference; I hope you got further than PZ Myers’ picture – that blog was written by Chris Clarke.
        I have never stated that I was against GMO – only that I had concerns about WHO runs the trials and HOW and WHAT ecological impacts are discovered.
        While Bt may be completely harmless to humans, bugs and weeds are growing resistant to GM crops (and methods), requiring additional levels of insecticides and herbicides – the potential costs of this have NOT been evaluated – unless Monsanto knew at the outset that this “addictive” process would further increase their own sales.
        I do have concerns that the “discussion” on Kloor’s blog tends to become very emotional and biased – and I suspect that this is by design.
        Science does not grow by disdain and bigotry.

        • Loren Eaton

          Psyclic,
          First of all, resistance to Bt in insects has been developing for far longer than GMO’s have been around. The Diamondback Moth has populations resistanct to Cry1Ac due to overuse of the powder by both conventional and organic growers on such things as cabbage. Resistance development AND work on chemistry to combat it, is now and has always been, a moving target. The notion that Monsanto or any other company WANTS their products to fail sooner rather than later is ludicrous given the development costs for any new compound.

  • Loren Eaton

    I suggest we replace the words ‘genetic engineering’ on the GP poster to ‘Organic Agriculture.’ Maybe dress it up with some E. coli cells and people on kidney dialysis.

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Collide-a-Scape

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, 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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