Talking Points

By Keith Kloor | August 29, 2013 10:21 am

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?

Pollan:

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.

Indeed.

  • mem_somerville

    I find it incredibly maddening that they say “oh, I don’t know if…” which somehow exempts them from reading the actual papers and studies. It’s just more “doubt is our product”.

    Happened quite a bit this week with golden rice too. Oh, I don’t know if little gardens full of carrots for families in slums wouldn’t work…. And Why don’t people who don’t have money or refrigerators in hot climates eat more spinach?.

    STFU or show me the data. We have the data on the rice (and other safety issues). Your ignorance of it is not the same as it not existing.

    • Dylan

      I have no idea what you’re talking about, mem.

      ]”The I.R.R.I. person in Amy Harmon’s piece said to get fresh vegetables to these people — which would solve the problem — would be a logistical nightmare. And yet for the beta carotene to be absorbed and turned into vitamin A, it has to be ingested in the company of fats. Is getting fat to these children any less logistically challenging?”

      • Odin Matanguihan

        Some of them are lucky to share a piece of dried fish no larger than a strip of bacon(on most meals they only have rice and salt). And you expect them to eat carrots and spinach? (FYI, some of my friends are from such communities where many suffer from effects of vit. A deficiency).

        • First Officer

          It’s a, let them eat supplements, mentality, with inane suppositions that golden rice may not hold all it’s beta-carotene if stored for months. Yet, they have no qualms about these poor folk trying to store those carrots and spinach that long without refrigeration.

      • mem_somerville

        Ha! Exactly! People make that claim about fats having absolutely no idea that it has been looked at and has been published.

        Perfectly done. I giggled.

        But for someone who wasn’t familiar with that work–just like Michael Pollan–the evidence-based smackdown in this piece was awesome: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/27/from-mark-lynas-to-michael-pollan-agreement-that-golden-rice-trials-should-proceed/?smid=tw-share&_r=0

  • lngtrm1

    Trying to say as much on Revkin’s blog comments as well. But have to add, if big Ag corporations aren’t allowed to address any and all forms of crop efficiencies to feed the world, then who is?

    There isn’t a great big R&D non-profit out there solving these problems.

  • lngtrm1

    Oh, and Pollan’s issue, deep down is his well respected view on all “processed” foods. Its hard to be anti industry on all processed foods and then turn around and embrace “engineered” food.

    • DrDenim

      Does he have an accurate definition of “processed food”? In my (engineer) mind cooking over a fire is a “process”, so anything other than raw food is processed. Their distinction seems arbitrary. (shocking i know..)

      • Odin Matanguihan

        salt it, dry it, smoke it, pickle it, cook it… all processed foods.

        Oh… and beer don’t grow on trees.

        • First Officer

          It doesn’t?
          NOOOOOOOOOOOO
          OOOOOooo
          ooooo !!!!!

  • NYFarmer

    Here in NY, the GMO issue has been used to drive a wedge between NYC food groups and farmers working the 7.2 million acres of land Upstate. Fully 1/3 of NY’s farmland is devoted to forests and perennial pastures. We have millions of acres of grazing lands with a dairy sector that is producing some $2.2 billion dollars worth of milk at farmgate, with only $60 million of that being organic certified. Rural NY is rich in farm ecosystem services provided.
    Unfortunately, the GMO question is often posed as a “farmer litmus test.” Give the wrong answer, and the conversation is over. Some urban food groups venerate the 597 New York farms certified as organic as of 2011. These farms are a small percentage of the roughly 35,000 farmers of NY. Nationally, the USDA 2011 Organic Production Survey counted 9,140 certified organic farms operating 3.6 million acres. These figures are small in comparison to the larger number of farmers. Today’s Modern Farmer magazine cited some 1,000,000 women farmers alone operating in the US. Generally, the figure of some 2.2 million total US farms is cited in farm literature.
    Its a problem when a farmer cannot carry on a conversation with members of some food interested people whose nostrils flare in hate if the farmer states they are “conventional.” Even feeding a grazing cow a 5 pound scoop of corn in the winter causes some to rail that the farm is now “contaminated.” How can it be that the 99% of the farmers are no good?

    • jh

      Like I said in the previous post:

      Climate change, GMO and many other modern “scientific” controversies are about religion, not about science. People select what they believe is “morally right”, then seek justification for their beliefs.

      Since people that don’t share their beliefs are supposedly morally wrong, the religious fanatics have a license to hate them.

  • First Officer

    Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Yadayada….
    There’s one more now with the likes of Mercola and NaturalNews:
    Big Homeo !

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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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