The Anguished GMO Debate

By Keith Kloor | August 26, 2013 8:45 am

Just for kicks, take a guess when Michael Specter wrote this in the New Yorker:

If the politics of genetically modified food has never been so anguished, the scientific prospects have never seemed more promising.

The answer and his superb piece can be found here.

Consider: Since his article appeared, the angry politics of genetically modified food has turned even uglier and the scientific prospects continue to tantalize us.

I got to thinking about this after reading Amy Harmon’s article on Golden Rice in yesterday’s New York Times. Not surprisingly, GMO opponents responded scornfully. Some thought leaders and journalists were taken aback.

golden rice

Photo by Shutterstock/Alan49

 

Ah, but the unhinged fulminations are, as Ramez Naam observes, “Par for the course in GMO discussions, sadly.”

In my own efforts to understand the larger socio-historical context to this debate, I’ve just started reading Alan Mazur’s 2004 book, “True Warnings and False Alarms: Evaluating Fears About the Health Risks of Technology, 1948-1971.”

He writes:

My search for hallmarks of true-versus-false warnings is guided by four hypotheses. Each suggests a potential clue to the validity of an early alarm.

* True warnings are more likely than false alarms to reach the news media from reputable scientific sources operating in conventional scientific ways.

* False alarms are more likely than true warnings to have sponsors with biases against the producer of the alleged hazard.

* Hyped media coverage is more likely to indicate a false alarm than a true warning.

* A “derivative warning”–one arising from a popular issue–is more likely to indicate a false alarm than a true warning.

Any thoughts?

 

  • mem_somerville

    Oh–I want to read that book. That’s kinda like the one I said I always wished someone would do: look at a new tech and the drama, and see which ones really panned out. It struck me during the anniversary of the test-tube baby stuff when they were reviewing some of that media and the claims of teh horrorz. I must go to the library now.

    Recently this also cracked me up: In Our Time: The Invention of Radio

    ….after the radio came out, crank letters came in from people
    claiming that the radio was responsible for hurting their legs, or that
    it might blow up any adjacent gunpowder.

    I kinda giggled, I’ll admit.

    But again–what I want most: is a broom to clean up this problem. Does he give any hints on how to short-circuit the falsehoods?

    • Loren Eaton

      That sort of reminds me of post to a blog I saw several years where someone appeared to be going off on GMO’s and biotech. It turned out to be someone criticizing Luther Burbank for one of the new fruit trees he developed through wide crosses. I wish I could find that post.

  • Tom Fuller

    I don’t want to think about this too much. It makes me too angry. I would accuse those opposing this crop of complicity in mass murder if I had the power to do so.

    Those opposing this particular crop because of concerns about the politics of GMO are playing games with peoples’ lives. The people are losing.

    Those who actually believe GMOs to be harmful are in my mind the same as those who prefer astrology to astronomy.

    Keith, I haven’t commented much on your GMO posts in part because it seems so clear that the factions and their motivations are so clearly delineated that there just isn’t much to talk about. But the other reason is that it makes me want to go all Bruce Willis on those who are willing to let millions die. In my mind that is the accurate casting of this situation. Scientists versus callous worshippers of some cult belief.

    • Mena Berg

      GMO HAS PROBLEMS BECAUSE GMO COMPANIES HAVE DONE EVERYTHING THEY CAN TO INSTILL DISTRUST IN THE PEOPLE THEY ARE SUPERPOSED TO BE HELPING –FROM PASSING MONSANTO PROTECTION LAWS TO INFILTRATING THE PRES ADMISTRATIONS-TO —TRYING TO GM BEES TO WHO KNOWS WHAT ELSE–IT IS THEIR OWN FAULT.
      GMO CROPS DONE PROPERLY COULD HAVE BEEN SO WONDERFUL TO THE PLANET—- THATS ALL SCREWED NOW. I DONT SEE HOW ANYONE CAN FIX IT.

    • Mena Berg

      AND THOSE WHO RANT ABOUT THE ABSOLUTE BENEFITS OF GMO –RANTING FOOLISHNESS LIKE SOME GMO SHILL —-ARE NO BETTER THAN THE ONES WHO ARE BLINDED TO THE POTENTIAL BENEFITS OF GMO –WHEN DONE PROPERLY.

  • RogerSweeny

    It is not difficult to understand the opposition to GMOs if you remember the words of Jesus, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” We are constantly tempted to sin because it will bring us some immediate benefits, like saving some people’s sight, even though it is morally wrong. Besides, in the long run it will destroy us, because it is transgressing Nature’s bounds. People who push GMOs (or fracking) are unwitting agents of a secular devil, clever and seductive, leading us where we have no right to go.

    • wendell151

      It could be said that the greatest evil man has ever created was the arrangement of stories designed to control the ignorant masses, which has lead to countless wars and deaths. I doubt that any GMO will ever do as much damage as the bible, and it’s many twisted offshoots, have caused throughout our history. Countless deaths and cultures destroyed… it’s very sad.

      • Buddy199

        The Bible? How about Das Kapital? NOT following the New Testamant’s clear instructions has caused countless deaths and cultures destroyed. But exactly following Marx’s prescription and its many twisted offshoots has resulted in just that.

        • wendell151

          The New Testament… it must be nice to just re-write religious doctrine when it becomes inconvenient. “Hey look, I really want to eat pig and celebrate pagan holidays, lets write a NEW version of our most holy doctrine!” “Is it okay if we still hate gay people and treat women like dirt?” “Sure!”

          • Buddy199

            Enjoy your bigotry, the only one that negativity really hurts is yourself. As the man said, forgive since they know not what they do.

          • wendell151

            Bigotry: intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself.

            That sums up the views that Christians have towards every other set of beliefs out there. Intolerance and entitlement are the basis for Christianity.

          • Buddy199

            As my 12 year old nephew would say, whatever dude. Hope you find a way out of your anger one of these days. Pax.

        • deetz100

          I know. Like mixing fabrics, right?

    • mem_somerville

      I’ve heard the same thing about computers and the internet. How exactly did you get here?

    • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

      “transgressing Nature’s bounds”
      [Looks for bounds]. Nope, can’t see any outside the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology.

  • Shadeburst

    For the last 30 years, diabetic insulin has come from GM yeast instead of the pancreases of slaughtered pigs, thus enabling vegans and members of certain religions to live longer and healthier lives. So far, no reports of ill effects.

    • Mena Berg

      THAT INSULIN IS PRODUCED IN ISOLATION TO THE REST OF THE LARGER ENVIRONMENT… YOU CANNOT COMPARE INSULIN PRODUCTION TO GMO CROPS THAT PRODUCE NATURAL PESTICIDES INTRODUCED TO THE BROADER ENVIRONMENT —- REALLY?? GIVE ME A BREAK.

      • deetz100

        Please stop shouting.

        • CallMeBlixx

          oops the caps were stuck on ;-)

          not shouting

          • deetz100

            No worries : )

  • Buddy199

    “@NickKristof Leftist hostility to Golden Rice is so frustrating! It wld reduce # of kids dying of Vit A deficiency”

    Boy, is this guy going to get un-invited to a lot of Upper West Side cocktail parties. Sure, Golden Rice would help millions of kids, but ideological purity trumps actual human need for these people. The same for killing any industry related to carbon. The thought of how many working class people would lose their jobs with the incredible misery that entails doesn’t even figure into their equation. It’s about creating their Brave New World and if you have to break a few eggs, or doom millions of children to blindness, or keep billions in poverty well, that’s the price you gotta pay. Is my GMO-free latte ready yet?

  • Justin Bilyj

    GMO is used to poison us and the world for profit while maintaining the guise of charity. Depopulation is their plan. No wonder most of the world has banned these harmful foods. To see the Discover magazine pimping gmo’s goes to show who owns this rag mag….

    • star-lord

      How’s the tinfoil hat mate?

    • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

      [citation needed].

      • Loren Eaton

        [citation needed].
        Apparently not when addressing ‘fully grown mountain trolls’…like us;)

    • wendell151

      Hahaha, and I thought I was trolling. I’m confused as to how changing a single gene in a plant or animal equates to “depopulation”. There are valid scientific concerns, but they are pretty obvious. There isn’t any need to assume some big conspiracy when the potential problems are right out in the open.

      Such as: what happens if the plant becomes more desirable to insects/pests. Does that mean even more pesticides are needed? Will a more desirable wheat lead to less desirable versions not being planted, which would lead to that variety being wiped out for a gmo? …come up with some valid arguments…

    • mem_somerville

      Oh, yeah–depopulation is exactly how to increase your market share. I think that’s what they teach in MBA 101.

    • Mena Berg

      –IF YA WANT DEPOPULATION AGENT –LOOK TO bpa –NOT GMO —BPA IS ESTROGENIC CMPD AND SO DECREASES FERTILITY AND SPERM COUNTS ALOT–AND ALMOST EVERY ONE ON THE PLANET HAS DETECTABLE BISPHENOL-A LEVELS…… IF YOU ARE TRYING TO PREVENT DEPOPULATION PROGRAM
      –SORRY YA MISSED THE BOAT CHAMP.—
      AT THIS POINT IT CANNOT BE STOPPED.

  • Justin Bilyj

    Reading the comments the pro-gmo trolls are out and in full force,

    • Joe Olden

      The anti-GMO trolls are out and in full force also…

      • Paul Shipley

        The genetic modifications that nature makes are flukes. Some good some bad. Nature does not have the testing that mankind can do thus making genetic modifications safer than those that occur in nature. Who needs vitamin A rich rice that is capable of growing in saline rich water. Most of the starving world. Yet we have the righteous west saying you are not allowed this life saving crop.

  • jh

    Two thoughts:

    ALARMS: No rules are possible to determine “true alarms” from false alarms. But there are some guidelines. Hysterical screaming is a good indication that an alarm is false.

    GMO DEBATE:
    Don’t overlook the larger social context in which the GMO, climate, obesity, and other hysterical debates are occurring.

    1) A crappy economy and a growing divergence between the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy. People aren’t doing well and are just plain in bitchy mood.

    2) America has lost it’s religion. The atheists are looking for a god replacement, and these causes suit the bill perfectly. They allow the a-religious to justify their existence by doing something “morally right”. And what could be more immoral than a corporation that CONTROLS OUR FOOD SUPPLY!!!! FOR DIRTY PROFITS!!!!!!!!!!

    So there you go. Look outside the debate if you want the answers.

  • jh

    Keith,

    Better to look to society than to the issues themselves:

    ONE: The economy is lame. The larger mass of the population in the US has been losing ground for decades. People are unhappy. When they’re unhappy, they’re looking for reasons why they’re unhappy.

    TWO: The West has lost it’s religion, but not the desire for, shall we say, “moral fulfillment.” The a-religious masses are looking for ways to sate that desire. Issues like climate change, GMOs, Obesity, etc, help people fill that desire. So, they aren’t really scientific issues in the mind of the public – they are moral issues. And of course, one can’t compromise one’s morals, right?

    THREE: and most obvious, MONEY.

    A) The 1% have scads of money to throw at whatever little pet issue takes their fancy. Bill Gates likes teaching and world health. Others are on about environmental issues. Still others are concerned with social justice issues. The 1% donate heavily to these issues, and there’s no reason per se that any of these people should pay attention to science or its conclusions. They have their own ideas and are interested in seeing those ideas expressed in society. In part, this overlaps with #2 above.

    B) The media is having a rough time of it, and hyping anything that will increase page views or sell newspapers is worth a try. Hyping issues is good for both writers and media companies. Both capitalize on ONE and TWO above to increase their shaky bottom line.

    I think these factors are far more important than anything that has to do with science.

    And I think it’s interesting how the increased competition in the media environment is actually a negative for society. Competition is good, but too much competition – competition to the point where everyone is worried about their ability to compete and earn a living – is a negative.

  • Mena Berg

    IF THE GMO COMPANIES HAD BEEN HONORABLE FROM THE START –THINGS COULD HAVE BEEN SO DIFFERENT . MANY PEOPLE HAVE NO TRUST IN THE GMO COMPAINES NOW. MANY THINK THE GMO COMPANIES ARE WIPING THE NATURAL BEE POPULATIONS SO THEY CAN THEN INTRODUCE GMO BEES —FOR A PRICE .. MANY THINK THE NEW BEES WILL HAVE TERMINATOR GENES SO NEED TO BUY NEW ONE EACH YEAR WITH THE SEEDS…. MANY THINK THIS WILL BE DISASTROUS TO MULTIPLE ECOSYSTEMS. FEW PEOPLE TRUST THE JOURNALISTS ANYMORE BECAUSE JOURNALISTS CAN BE BOUGHT AND MANY THINK ALOT OF JOURNALISTS HAVE BEEN BOUGHT BY THE GMO COMPANIES TO SPOUT GMO PROPAGANDA… MANY ALSO THINK THE GMO COMPANIES ARE BUYING UP ALL THE OTHER FOOD COMPANIES TO MONOPOLIZE THE FOOD INDUSTRY…THOSE ARE THE PROBLEMS —-AND IT IS DOUBTFUL THOSE WILL EVER BE RESOLVED AFTER SO MUCH HAS HAPPENED. GMO COMPANIES HAVE WRECKED GMO STUFF THRU THEIR OWN BAD BEHAVIOR.

    • Paul Shipley

      Hmmmm I wear a tin foil cap to keep them reading my thoughts.

  • Angela

    Glyphosate and Neocontinoids.
    Blind! You see the truth and ignore it.
    Check this out:
    http://www.cibus.com/rtds.php

    See? I present you a solution while I am destroying harmful GMO.
    Monsanto is going down.

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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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