A Brilliant GMO Story

By Keith Kloor | January 6, 2014 2:59 pm

There’s a reason why journalism and writing professors implore their students to “show, don’t tell.” Stories are more deeply felt when they play out with action and dialogue crafted around a narrative. Showing is also a more effective means for imparting the essence of a controversial issue, news event, or research finding.

Some journalists have transferred this skill really well to their blogs (like Ed Yong and Deborah Blum). I haven’t been able to pull that off here, or in my issue-oriented pieces elsewhere. I tend to activate my story-telling brain only when I’m working on magazine feature stories, where I have a main character or two to draw out.

So for example, I did a lot of telling in this 2012 Slate piece entitled, “GMO Opponents are the Climate Skeptics of the Left.” (It rankled many people I normally agree with on most political issues.) Others, such as Michael Specter, have made similar comparisons, pointing out the characteristics and commonalties of science denialism.  For progressives, this has become a touchy subject, especially as it relates to agricultural biotechnology. Amy Harmon’s latest feature on GMOs in the New York Times mentions this tension:

Scientists, who have come to rely on liberals in political battles over stem-cell research, climate change and the teaching of evolution, have been dismayed to find themselves at odds with their traditional allies on this issue. Some compare the hostility to G.M.O.s to the rejection of climate-change science, except with liberal opponents instead of conservative ones.

Like her biotech-related orange story last year, this latest one about a conflict over GMOs in Hawaii is a masterpiece. Both are riveting stories that illuminate important aspects of the GMO debate. I thought this tweet best described Harmon’s latest work: 

It’s brilliant because Harmon shows us not just one man’s struggle to sort out facts from fear-mongering, but also the mindset of those that he comes up against.

  • Malia Obama

    I think in all of these scientific debates there’s a real problem with not just money buying facts, but money buying both sides of the reaction.

    Take climate change. Back in the day an exchange for buying and selling carbon credits was proposed by Al Gore and others. Some guys from Goldman Sachs were going to run it and presumably make a lot of money from it. It doesn’t make me not believe in global warming, but it really makes me question the solutions as well as the initial problem because I think a lot of the solutions to these issues aren’t designed to solve…just make someone money.

    • jh

      ” a lot of the solutions to these issues aren’t designed to solve…just make someone money.”

      badabing. That is politics.

      Can you imagine, for example, the Washington State congressional delegation supporting a bill that would take work away from Boeing? Never happen, never in a million years, even if the proposal saves the taxpayer billions and gives the military better planes. It’s not a question of which proposal is better. It’s a question of which proposal benefits me the most?

    • FosterBoondoggle

      “there’s a real problem with not just money buying facts, but money buying both sides of the reaction”

      Nevertheless, there’s fact and there’s fiction. There are people asserting each, but it’s not that hard to tell one from the other. You just have to want to. The difficulty is with the worldview that starts from a belief, then finds “reasons” to dismiss all counterarguments (e.g., the “shill” gambit, the “Monsanto controls the regulators” gambit, etc.).

  • mem_somerville

    It is such an excellent piece. I was riveted, and I had followed a lot of that game. *And* I knew the final score.

    But I’ve been thinking a lot today about why this particular piece has so shaken the lefties. How they are suddenly all distancing themselves from the climate debate parallels. I will admit I’ve been enjoying watching them squirm over this.

    I’m thinking now it’s because this guy is who the think they are, or would be–someone that looks at the facts by finding credible science sources–and then voting on the policy. For it to turn out that they’ve been listening to charlatans must be very crushing to learn. And to have to look the cherry-picking, myths, fringy “experts” and the bag of mixed nuts that are carrying the water has got to be hard.

    • scientist

      I think you hit the nail on the head. Acknowledging you’ve been wrong can be very difficult, no matter what the situation. Absent any other consideration, it’s psychologically easier to continue believing what you believe.

    • KayakMomma

      I believe the problem is the kind of science being used to ‘prove’ the safety of GMOs. I call them 90 day wonders. I am awaiting research based on complex systems. Such as this: http://phys.org/news/2013-11-methods-quantifying-uncertainty-sensitivity-complex.html#nRlv

      • mem_somerville

        Oh? Can you tell me more about your science background and how much reading you’ve done on the animal studies? I’ve read a lot of them and I’m surprised at what you seem to have missed.

        But I would say I’m not as keen as you on mathematical models. Because of physiscists and horses:

        ….The head physicist reported, “We have made several simplifying assumptions: first, let each horse be a perfect rolling sphere… “

  • Buddy199

    Organic farmers worried that their crops would be contaminated also made an impression on the councilman, though he felt that the actress Roseanne Barr, who owns an organic macadamia nut farm here, could have been kinder to the papaya farmers in the room.

    “Everybody here is very giving,” she had told them. “They will bend over backwards to help you burn those papayas and grow something decent.”

    ————-
    How appropriate that Rosanne owns a nut farm.

    • Loren Eaton

      Is this the same wing nut who thought Papaya Ringspot Virus was introduced BECAUSE of the GM plants? Just plain ignorant.

  • Tom Scharf

    This was a good piece of work. I did find this quote a bit revealing though:

    “These are my people, they’re lefties, I’m with them on almost everything,” said Michael Shintaku, a plant pathologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who testified several times against the bill. “It hurts.”

    For those of us who are already leaning to the belief that some science areas have become overtly politicized, this only reinforces that belief. For those who believe that most scientists can separate their politics and science, you have to ask yourself why Shintaku brought this up at all, why would he think this is relevant? Why the emotional reaction?

    • scientist

      That’s interesting, I liked that quote (because I feel the same way). In my small sphere of science, politics, outside of science funding, is really very marginal. Occasionally someone brings something up, but it’s considered uncouth.
      I think he was trying to make the point that not everyone who is liberal thinks the same way on this issue- which I think is good.

    • Mike

      It was because I associate with liberal politics. I support same-sex marriage and single payer health care. I think climate change is real and caused by human activity. Perhaps wrongly, I thought that liberals are generally supportive of science as well. I was asked to provide expert testimony at one of the sessions and was dismayed by the proponents of the bill. Especially with regards to how they managed time so about 90% of the testimony was anti-gmo, and the reasoning behind their arguments.

  • alykatma

    You have a problem when you engineer crops to resist ever increasing amounts of herbicides, or engineer a pink pineapple or an apple that does not turn brown, instead of increasing crop yields and drought resistance. How does this help world hunger?

    • Benjamin Edge

      The initial cost of the research dictated that the first products had to be economically sustainable, that is why herbicide resistance was the first GMO plant product. It did not mean ever-increasing amounts of herbicide, but a shift toward more environmentally benign herbicides. Resistance developed and the anti-GMO crowd cried foul.

      So work was begun on other types of herbicide resistance and it is now coming available (which should reduce the rate of weed resistance developing), but activists say there is no consumer benefit. So a consortium develops Golden rice to address malnutrition problems, which activists delay, saying there is no hunger problem, just a distribution and waste problem.

      Okanagan Specialty Fruits develops the Arctic apple, which would help to reduce waste, but the antis say it is unwanted.

      Monsanto is accused of restricting research that might show problems with GMOs, but get no acknowledgement when they relax restriction on independent research.

      This just looks like a continuous series of “moving the goalposts.” Nothing that the industry does and no amount of research will quell the objections of those opposed to GM technology, if for no other reason than “because Monsanto.”

      As for the arguments that they control the food supply, Monsanto is responsible for less than 1/3 of global seed sales. They use patents just like any other company or individual with intellectual property to protect. They only sue farmers for violations of the grower contracts, or those who obtain seed illegally.

      • MrsGriswold

        This is who owns the global seed market. Over 50% controlled by biotech:

        http://www.gmwatch.org/gm-firms/10558-the-worlds-top-ten-seed-companies-who-owns-nature

        And your former employer, DuPont, owns about 15%. I guess you forgot to mention that you were a former DuPont wheat breeder when writing your comment:

        http://www.biofortified.org/community/user/edgeben/

        • FosterBoondoggle

          Obviously someone with expertise in the area should automatically by distrusted. Only those who have no knowledge of the science can be trusted. Flying yogic graduates of Maharishi U., for example.

          • MrsGriswold

            He was trying to downplay how much of the global seed market is controlled by biotech. I went and found the facts. What’s wrong with that? And then I Googled his name and found out that he was a DuPont employee, which I thought would be enlightening to readers so I included that in my post. Oh and P.S. I hate yoga.

          • Dwight Kashrut

            He was explicitly talking about Monsanto, and how you got “biotech” from that is beyond me.

        • Benjamin Edge

          Yes, I worked for DuPont/Pioneer, for one year. The previous 13 years of my employment were with Pioneer alone, before the merger, and none of it involved biotech (not that that matters). How long did that take you, 2 seconds on Google– you win the Internet! My employment record is out there for anyone to see. Did you fail to find my nearly as long record of employment with universities or colleges, or did you just fail to mention it?

          Back in the 90s many small seed companies were acquired by pharmaceutical or chemical companies, not because they were forced to, but because the aging owners of the small companies saw a chance to cash out, or they didn’t feel like they could compete.

          It’s funny how two people can see the same information and come to completely different conclusions. I can use the same source as you to show that Monsanto controls less than 25% of the seed market, Pioneer less than 15%, and the top three seed companies together control less than half the total market, yet you see that as market dominance. I challenge anyone to show how that is a monopoly by any definition of the term. Yes, the biotech industry controls the seeds, because that is where the seed industry is. But no one company controls the market, and that will be even more the case when Monsanto’s patents start expiring.

          I also consider myself to be a lefty, who supports nuclear power, vaccination, and responsible use of GMO crops and other agricultural technology. Full disclosure, I am listed as the coinventor on 6 plant variety patents.

          By the way, I posted under my own name. What have you got to hide?

  • Harlan Harris

    Well said, and great insight into why that was such a great article. What I learned is that to the extent that there are real problems with GMOs, they’re business problems, and maybe in some cases ecosystem problems, but not health problems.

  • MrsGriswold

    Do you think the UC-Davis plant geneticist who said that “There is broad scientific consensus that genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat” was the recipient of a UC-Davis Monsanto fellowship? I wonder…..

    http://biosci.ucdavis.edu/students/graduate/monsanto_fellowship.html

    • FosterBoondoggle

      I think that if you actually want to check on what the “broad scientific consensus” is, you can look at what the AAAS, the WHO, the EFSA, the AMA and any number of other scientific bodies have said. You don’t have to rely on Prof. Ronald’s say-so. Of course, if you believe that, along with Prof. Ronald, all of these entities have been bought off by Monsanto (a company whose revenues are about the same as those of Whole Foods), then there’s not much hope for rational discussion.

      • MrsGriswold

        You’re speaking for the entire AMA? I know several doctors who are extremely anti-GMO. I have every right, as a food-eating citizen, to remain skeptical of any industry answerable to shareholders. I’m also extremely skeptical of a journalist who refers to anyone as “lefties.” That’s the language of a pundit, not a responsible journalist.

        • FosterBoondoggle

          I’m not speaking for anyone. I’m simply observing that you don’t have to take the word of someone you seem ready to dismiss as shill. You can go to the source. Google “AMA GMO” and you’ll get their statement as the first hit. Or try the first hit from “WHO GMO” and look down to Q8. Or the first hit for “AAAS GMO”. But if your friend the doctor says otherwise, of course they know better.

          • MrsGriswold

            If you can point me to the results of a long-term independent study showing that GMO foods are safe, I’d love to see those results. And by independent study, I mean a study not funded in any way, however small, by the biotech industry. Until I see those results, I will remain skeptical. And I don’t think that is a radical or “lefty” viewpoint, simply an intelligent one. When I eat corn on the cob, it’s going to be certified organic until I have definitive proof that GM corn on the cob is just as safe. And the only proof I will accept is a long-term independent study of GM foods where I can actually see numbers showing that there is no cancer risk, that there is no toxicity risk, etc. That’s all I want: clear, well-researched side-by-side numbers showing that GM foods are exactly as safe as organic ones. So go ahead and keep calling me irrational and alarmist if you want to, but I know that when I sit down to eat, I feel good about what I’m putting into my body. I hope you feel the same when you sit down to eat.

          • scientist

            Do you have proof that organic corn on the cob is safe?

          • MrsGriswold

            Now I’m just going to stop commenting, because 1) That is a ridiculous question, and 2) I can tell that most of the commenters on this page are in some way tied to Big Ag and/or biotech, mainly because of how badly and obviously you write your praise of the article. But I will say, in closing, that I’m proud of being what both of those industries hate more than anything else: an intelligent, informed and
            questioning consumer. God bless what’s left of America!

          • scientist

            That was a serious question. Many plants are toxic. I just wondered if you are aware of any long term study showing that organic corn on the cob is safe. If not, then how do you know it’s safe? Do you have some other independent way to measure its safety? If so, why can’t we use the same measure on GMO corn?

        • Benjamin Edge

          Which journalist are you referring to? Ms. Harmon did not use the term, except in a direct quote.

          “These are my people, they’re lefties, I’m with them on almost
          everything,” said Michael Shintaku, a plant pathologist at the
          University of Hawaii at Hilo, who testified several times against the
          bill. “It hurts.”

        • Mike

          That was not Ms. Harmon calling anyone lefties. That was an accurate quote from me. I associate with liberal issues, but this was an eye-opening and ultimately frustrating experience for me.

  • JRLatham

    Interesting that Amy Harmon should choose a narrative: “Good man reconciles himself to Monsanto” that is identical to Michael Specters New Yorker article a month earlier: “Good man reconciles himself to Monsanto”: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/11/why-the-climate-corporation-sold-itself-to-monsanto.html
    They couldn’t possibly have been tutored at the same school?
    Readers wanting quality journalism about GMOs can find out that the NYTimes is the last place to go, and that the idea that Times journalists shill for biotech companies is not so much preposterous as routine:
    http://www.independentsciencenews.org/science-media/fakethrough-gmos-and-the-capitulation-of-science-journalism/

    • mem_somerville

      Couldn’t possibly be that sane people look at the facts and draw valid conclusions.

      Something you’d be unfamiliar with.

  • KayakMomma

    The climate change research is based on complex systems. GMO science is not.

  • Andy Dinh

    If you’d like to learn more about GMOs in general, check out the link!

    http://thenebula.org/the-usage-of-gmos/

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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, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and 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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