A Refreshing, Freshly Squeezed GMO Story in the NYT

By Keith Kloor | July 29, 2013 9:29 am

There is so much to admire about this New York Times story by Amy Harmon I don’t know where to begin. [UPDATE: This insightful take by Maggie Koerth-Baker at Boing Boing--which I excerpt below–captures what is remarkable about the piece.] So let’s start with a tweet from National Geographic’s executive environment editor Dennis Dimick:

And Marc Gunther, who covers the business and sustainability intersection:

Indeed, it’s an engrossing, meticulously reported piece on a really complex subject. It should also interest anyone who drinks orange juice. What I marvel at is that Harmon crafted a pitch-perfect narrative that avoids all the land mines of an emotionally and ideologically charged issue.

On Sunday, when the story appeared on the front page of the New York Times, many journalists and scientists praised it at social media sites. Of all the responses, Michael Pollan issued the most curious on Twitter:

This perplexed and angered numerous people, including heavyweights in science journalism such as Carl Zimmer, who said this was “a harsh accusation from one journalist to another. ” Zimmer, like Bora Zivkovic and Seth Mnookin and David Dobbs, bristled at Pollan’s charge, as did Berkley scientist Michael Eisen:

Anastasia Bodnar, a geneticist who contributes to the essential Biofortified site, politely asked:

 

As of this writing, Pollan hasn’t responded to the mini-squall he triggered (he never engages on Twitter). But he left the same comment at his FB page, which led Andy Revkin to try and get his attention over there:

A batch of science journalists are discussing the “industry talking points” criticism on Twitter

Still no luck. If a reputable journalist accused  Michael Pollan of packing one of his magazine articles with too many organic food industry or anti-GMO “talking points,” I bet he’d chafe at the charge. Perhaps he would even ask for an elaboration.

UPDATE: If Michael Pollan’s drive-by hit on Twitter rankled some of science journalism’s finest, then his continuing non-response to criticism of it more than a day later has them shaking their heads:

Pollan has a very distinguished career and is someone who has scaled the heights of journalism with his best-selling books and many cover stories for the New York Times magazine. So while he may be acting as if he’s impervious to criticism, I’m guessing that he also finds it discomfiting to have pissed off more than a few of science journalism’s illustrious standard bearers. I can’t understand why he at least doesn’t post a series of tweets elaborating on his initial vague critique.

UPDATE: I’m late to this excellent write-up of Harmon’s piece by Maggie Koerth-Baker at Boing Boing. It captures why Harmon’s story does not get ensnared in the usual politics of GMO debates (and to my mind, further underscores why many are bewildered by Pollan’s criticism):

I think this is a particularly great lens to examine the science and risk/reward perspective on GMO foods, because it takes us beyond some of the particularly volatile points in the debate — points that often have nothing to do with the actual safety or benefits of GMOs. Monsanto is not involved in the development of these GMO oranges. And what the growers and scientists are trying to do has nothing to do with increasing pesticide use. In fact, if they succeed, they’ll be able to reduce the amount of pesticides used on oranges. It’s a long read, but a worthwhile one.

  • mem_somerville

    I’ve been following the citrus story for years now, and I was really pleased to see it covered in depth by Amy. She did a great job.

    And it’s fine with me if purists stop drinking orange juice, or having margaritas with limes, or lemonade. But trying to prevent the rest of us from having access to these things is really going to cause people who have been on the sidelines to look at anti-GMO activists in a new way. I’m looking forward to that.

  • Mike Bendzela

    Pollan is a disgrace to journalism, always has been.

    The NYT story is beautifully done, in my opinion.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      Mike,
      IMO, that is too harsh a judgement on Pollan. He has a POV, sure, but there’s plenty of room for that in journalism.

      • Mike Bendzela

        Keith, I see his effect at farmers markets, where people shun “conventional” produce out of the fears stoked by writers like Pollan. Example from one of his latest:

        “Yet advising people not to thoroughly wash their produce is probably unwise in a world of pesticide residues.”

        Someone who whips up pesticides hysteria is not doing anyone any good.

        • jh

          Well, not washing one’s produce isn’t very smart.

          The interesting thing is that food-borne illness that results from not washing produce is rarely associated with pesticides. Removing the yak dung should be a far higher priority.

          • Mike Bendzela

            Well, yes, I agree with you totally, but the point concerned Pollan’s fear-mongering around pesticides. In 2011 food-borne illnesses hospitalized 128,000 people and killed over 3,000. Pesticides? Zero deaths, most injuries caused by exposures to household materials.

          • jh

            That’s why cancer scares are a must in the pesticide war. Without cancer, nobody is dying from pesticides.

      • jh

        I have a hard time thinking of Pollen as a “journalist”. “Food writer” would be most appropriate.

        He plays up just about any aspect of the modern food production chain he can find to make mass-produced food sound evil. His story about following a single cow from farm to hamburger in Omnivore’s Dilemma is so riddled with dramatic overtones and emotional invocations that it elicited howls of laughter on my part time and time again.

        His approach is to play to hysteria as much as possible, but to spice it up with just enough references to science to maintain a little cred and stay just on the sane side of the foody lunatic fringe.

      • jh

        Incidentally, would be interested to know where you draw the line between “writer” and “journalist”.

        Wikipedia notes that “objectivity and a lack of bias are often considered important” in journalism, but that “advocacy
        journalism, intentionally adopt[s] a non-objective viewpoint.”

        The former fits my idea of “journalism.” Michael Pollen wouldn’t fall into that category.

      • JonFrum

        What ever happened to ‘you can have your own opinion, but you can’t have your own facts?’ Bald-faced lying is not covered by ‘POV.’

  • jh

    It’s so funny when the environmental crowd defends production crops in the name of attacking GMOs. Many production crops are so far removed from their natural predecessors that they’re hardly recognizable. And what has caused this deviation? A very unsophisticated form of genetic engineering.

    Whew.

  • Diggerjohn111

    We’ve been enhancing the genetics of food products for 10,000 years, try eating a wild banana. The knee-jerk reactions of some people would be comical, if they didn’t attempt to ruin careers like Amy Harmon’s.

  • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

    NYT recently did one about saving the walnut tree by means of genetic modification but you probably already saw that.

  • jh

    FYI, Keith, NPRs 13.7 has a post today claiming there is “mounting evidence” for farmer suicides related to BT cotton.

    I don’t follow this story, but I know you’ve addressed this issue before. Perhaps you’ll address it again?

  • Chad

    Pollan’s arguments reflect the blind and knee-jerk reaction typical of those opposed to GMOs, in particular the accusation of “industry talking-points”. It is a standard red herring of this crowd to try and divert the argument to one of anti-corporate sentiment rather than the science of genetic engineering. Typical of this, he later tweeted on Grist’s piece trying to attack GMOs on the basis of monocultures, another red herring. The realities of farming and biology seem to be utterly lost and masked by a blind hatred of large corporations.

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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, 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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