One of the maddening aspects of the GMO discourse is the conflation of industry concerns with science. The biggest example, of course, is the way Monsanto has become a proxy for anti-GMO sentiment.
True, this dynamic is not unique to biotechnology. Debates on pharmaceuticals, energy, and agriculture revolve around multinational companies that are stand-ins for Big Pharma, Big Oil, and Big Ag, respectively.
The problem comes when bad science and fear-mongering get bundled with legitimate skepticism of industry. We’ve seen this play out notoriously with the anti-vaccine movement. Unfortunately, the same mashup has become a major feature of GMO debates. What’s infuriating is when people who should know better still perpetuate the science/industry conflation.
This goes to the heart of my beef with Michael Pollan, which was underscored recently with his infamous, back-handed compliment of Amy Harmon’s GMO orange story in the New York Times. If you’re just getting up to speed on that controversy, Pollan had tweeted that Harmon’s piece was important but also laden with too many industry talking points. Understandably, Harmon took issue with this, and so did a number of her peers in the science journalism fraternity.
Many people also asked Pollan to provide examples of industry talking points in her story. He has now done so in an interview with Nathanael Johnson at Grist. Here’s one of the talking points (italicized), according to Pollan:
What else? Oh, GM products have received extensive health and safety testing, including dozens of long-term feeding trials. I think that’s questionable. Federal regulation of new GM crops has been rigorous. I think that’s a point you could argue.
You could, but it’s not a strong argument. To his credit, Johnson calls Pollan on it:
Just to circle back to the issue of health and safety testing: there have been quite a few long-term feeding trials, and — sure — you can go through and pick them apart. But it was fairly convincing to me to see how many big groups of scientists, where they get all these disciplines together, have come to the same conclusions. The Swiss just finished this, for instance — and one after another they’ve come through and said, you know, we really don’t think that this is something that, on balance, we have to worry much about. What do you think about that?
Well, I don’t know what to think about it, because I haven’t looked at it as closely as you have, and I haven’t read the studies or these institutional sign-offs. But I do wonder how much industry lobbying has gone on with these groups and how much independent science has been done.
So Pollan doesn’t know what to think about it because he hasn’t bothered to look into what reputable scientific bodies and institutions say about this important aspect of the GMO debate. Never mind that crop biotechnology, as the website Genetic Literary puts it, has been declared safe by every “major scientific body and regulatory agency in the world.” To Pollan, this is categorized as an industry talking point. This conflation of science with industry distorts the debate and distracts from otherwise legitimate issues.
Harmon, in the same Grist piece, astutely observes:
I think it comes down to a feeling that Michael, as great a reporter as he is on food issues, he has not really dug into the science of genetic engineering, especially the health and safety issues. As a result he seems to let stand a lot of the beliefs that fly in the face of what is really a broad scientific consensus that there is nothing intrinsically dangerous about moving DNA from one organism to another…I really think he has an important critique, that these big companies are controlling the food system and that’s a cause for concern and, you know, I agree with that. But I don’t think you can figure out how to fix that problem if you haven’t identified its real source. And I think the idea that GMOs are scary — because they involve moving around genes and messing with the natural order of things — is an easy way to get people up in arms about a problem that is both misleading about the technology and also not the true source of the problem. So I think he does a disservice to his larger critique.