The David Rose Award For GMO Reporting

By Keith Kloor | February 24, 2014 2:54 pm

The fundamentally flawed and distorted climate reporting by David Rose in the UK’s Daily Mail is often called out by science journalists and bloggers. His repeated misrepresentation of climate scientists has prompted the UK’s Met office to publicly respond on numerous occasions. It’s unfortunate that one reporter continues to flout basic journalistic principles on an important scientific issue, but at least he does not go unchallenged.

The same cannot be said for John Vidal, the Guardian’s environment editor, who is the David Rose of GMO reporting. Vidal’s coverage of genetically modified (GM) crops is not as outlandish as Rose’s climate coverage, but it is just as slanted. Both have an obvious bias that colors their articles.

For example, look at Vidal’s 2012 story on the discredited rat tumor study by Gilles-Eric Séralini. Respectable science journalists blanched at the circumstances surrounding the study and examined it critically. Vidal, on the other hand, went out of his way to take it seriously.

Last year, Vidal reported on an Indian village where farmers were supposedly producing record crop yields without herbicides and GM technology. One of the soil scientists quoted by Vidal wrote an interesting commentary on the piece, including this bit:

I was quoted with a personal statement in The Guardian article (and re-quoted subsequently by many other outlets). Interestingly, I have never spoken with Mr. Vidal. Instead, the words ascribed to me in his article appear to have been extracted from a phone interview I gave to World Bank staff in 2008, which you can find here. You will notice that I spoke at great length about SRI (for about 10 minutes), explaining a lot more than what was quoted by Mr. Vidal and others. Journalistic standards should be followed. It would have been nice to see at least a reference to the full interview or to talk with me in person.

Perhaps Vidal needs a refresher on proper attribution. He might want to sit in on Guardian colleague James Randerson’s science journalism class.

When Vidal wants to fully air his anti-GMO opinions he uses a soapbox at Guardian’s Poverty Matters and Global Development blog sites. His latest offering at the latter is a marvel, for reasons Robert Wilson concisely explains at his blog, Carbon Counter.

There is also this odd statement from Vidal in his piece:

The talks take place as industry data shows the planting of GM crops has practically halted in the US…

That prompted this puzzled tweet from Benjamin Edge:

The sentence was soon changed–without any formal correction–to read (my bold):

The talks take place as industry data shows the increade in the planting of GM crops has practically halted in the US…

Let’s presume there is a typo and that the correct word is increase. This is a bit more accurate, even if the sentence is awkwardly constructed. Still, there is the matter of context, as Andrew Kniss points out:

In 2010, George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian:

The only hope journalists have of retaining any kind of self-respect is to question themselves repeatedly, ask whether they are being manipulated and whether they are seeing the whole story.

He was referring to David Rose. But it could just as easily apply to John Vidal for the way he reports and writes on GMOs.

*The headline of this post marks the creation of a new award. Send in your nominees when you come across an egregiously reported story in the mainstream media pertaining to GMOs.

  • Karl Haro von Mogel

    Thanks to articles such as this, I’m seeing an increade in awareness about bias in reporting about GMOs. :)

  • mem_somerville

    Heh. I was also irked by the headline on the Environment page: “Food Companies target Africa” here: http://screencast.com/t/ziRqUj91

    Ok, so I go read the piece. It’s not about food companies at all. It’s about an upcoming conference of the EU science societies: EASAC. I had to look them up, had never heard about what “company” this is. Here’s the list http://www.easac.eu/home/member-academies.html

    Um, so–companies? Such as?

    But yeah–the part about halted GMOs in the US made me laugh the hardest. I saw it before the update.

  • Robert Wilson

    The more interesting question might be why there are so few potential nominees. At least in the UK environment journalists have largely taken GM off the beat. The obvious exception is John Vidal, who keeps going. My hypothesis, one with some validity I think, is that it largely comes down to what the NGOs are talking about. Currently they are saying very little about GM crops, in fact they have stayed essentially silent about Mark Lynas’s speech last year, which seemed odd.

    So, it’s probable that with the NGOs not there to feed journalists stories the stories just aren’t appearing.

  • David Skurnick

    The Met Offices “correction” of David Rose was deceptive. It is true that Rose’s claim was not quite right. Rose wrote that Matt Collins of the Met Office said, “…global warming did NOT cause the [UK] storms”. A more accurate statement would be that Collins said that one cannot assert that GW did cause these storms. However, contra the Met Office, there was a contradiction. Julia Slingo did assert that GW caused these storms — a claim that was contradicted by Collins.

  • Tom Scharf

    From the link…”The [Dave Rose article] Mail on Sunday triggered intense political and scientific debate by revealing that global warming has ‘paused’ since the beginning of 1997—”

    This was apparently controversial a year ago for some reason, but climate science has now been debating the source of the pause/hiatus/slowdown. It has been addressed in recent editorials in Nature, the IPCC’s recent AR5 release, and a number of recent papers have been released professing to pin the blame on Chinese power plant aerosols, ENSO, ocean heat content, poor Arctic temperature coverage, stadium waves, southern Pacific anomalies and most recently a series of small volcanoes.

    The jury is out on the cause, but few people are now “denying” the pause exists, except for some flat earthers, ha ha.

    I know Keith only wants “the truth” to be written, and that would be nice, but I have a hard time figuring out how we elect the arbiters of truth. I would prefer a system where everyone gets to speak, even if they are crazy. It’s up to us whether we listen.

  • Mike Fons

    While I agree that there is an anti-GMO bias in some reporting about GMOs, there is also a pro-GMO bias in others, (like everything written by Keith Kloor). I do not like how all GMOs are lumped together, as I believe they have potential for both good and bad. For instance, I love the thought of genetically modifying crops for drought tolerance, pest resistance, and for use of less pesticide. But, I am not a fan of genetically modifying crops to be resistant to herbicides, so they can be drenched in herbicide. I would love to hear Keith Kloor’s thoughts on 3 issues.1. Problems with overuse of herbicides. 2. Glyphosate (RoundUp) persistence in seawater and effects on coral reefs. 3. Problems with doing safety studies on active ingredients of herbicides vs the actual formulation (recent studies have shown actual formations of common herbicides like Roundup are far more toxic than active ingredient alone.) Until Keith Kloor addresses these legitimate problems with herbicide resistant GMOs he is just as bad as a climate science denier in my book.

    • Tom

      “Drenched”? Hardly. Herbicides are used in conventional ag as well and the amount per acre does not increase significantly because of herbicide resistance.

      “recent studies” – Would this be Seralini’s latest masterpiece where he pours Round-Up (which contains detergent) on top of cell cultures and then acts all surprised when they go “pop”? If that worries you then stop using detergent-containing products like washing up liquid, shampoo and tooth paste. Oh, and distilled water would also make cells in a dish go “pop”.

      • Mike Fons

        I am opposed to overuse of herbicide in all agriculture, be it on GMOs or not. I am more concerned about herbicide runoff into oceans and effect on coral reefs than I am of weeds evolving resistance to herbicides (I noticed you didn’t have comeback to that problem of glphosate persistence in seawater). My point regarding the safety studies on active ingredient vs actual formulation, is that it is simply bad science to do a safety study on the active ingredient only, and not the actual formulation used. I am not opposed to GMOs, just herbicide resistant GMOs, as they do nothing to reduce herbicide overuse problem. I prefer alternative methods of weed control such as soil steaming, mechanical weeding, cover crops, hydroponics, aquaponics, etc.

        • Tom

          Fair enough. Please provide peer-reviewed literature on the persistence of glyphosate in sea water and the effect it has on coral reefs.

          • http://www.vivalaevolucion.com/ Michael Fons

            Please do google search for “Glyphosate persistence in seawater”. It is on the sciencedirect website. I also uploaded it to my site for you. http://www.vivalaevolucion.com/glyphosate-persistence-in-seawater/

          • Tom

            (First off I should point out that I’m a molecular biologist/microbiologist who works on how microorganisms break down compounds in the environment – both natural and synthetic ones.) Ok, I had a quick browse and from what I can tell this was a lab study rather than a field study. And from what I can tell no-one has yet shown actual effects on coral reefs due to glyphosate. What also needs to be considered is that they kept their cultures bottled up while in nature the glyphosate would quickly get diluted in sea water to minuscule concentrations. The slow microbial degradation seen in sea water vs soil is likely due to the lack of nutrients so there are simply not enough microbes around to quickly break it down. There are plenty of known microbes in soil that have no great difficulty in completely assimilating glyphosate as a combined source of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous (here’s one example http://jb.asm.org/content/168/2/702.long ). If glyphosate run-off into the ocean would turn out to be a problem, what one could do is simply isolate one or more marine bacteria also capable of degrading glyphosate and then add concentrated bacterial formulations at estuaries to accelerate the break down of herbicides. All of the above applies to the surfactants used in RoundUp as well.

          • http://www.vivalaevolucion.com/ Michael Fons

            Yes, I think in addition to the low level of microbes in sea water that the amount of sunlight also has an effect on the persistence of glyphosate, as it appears it persist longer in lower level of sunlight. I believe that may have to do with there being less microbes in water that receives less sunlight or that the sunlight itself speeds up breakdown, or possibly both.. I do like your idea of adding marine bacteria to runnoff sites to accelerate the break down of the herbicides, but of course I think there should be safety/environmental studies done on possible negative side effects of doing that before it done on a large scale. And, in the mean time I don’t think it is the best idea to continue our large scale global science experiment on our oceans and coral reefs,to see what long term effects of dumping millions of gallons of herbicide aka runoff. In regards to the potential for increased toxicity in actual formulations of herbicide, as opposed to active ingredient alone, I am curious do you happen to know where I could find peer reviewed safety studies for the dozens of formulations of Glyphosate currently being used? Also, does the EPA or FDA conduct safety studies of their own on all of the formulations in use, or do they automatically approve new formulation of product with previously approved active ingredient?

          • Tom

            I’m not very familiar with how the FDA and EPA go about their approval process. I would guess that formulations and active ingredients need to be approved individually but perhaps not in new combinations. You should post that question on the Biofortified forum (http://www.biofortified.org/community/forum/ ), there are several herbicide experts in residence (not sure about people who actually work at FDA or EPA but there are few from USDA).

          • Benjamin Edge

            You seem not to take into consideration the considerable time glyphosate is exposed to microbes in the soil before it would ever reach seawater. Exposing it to seawater directly in the lab shows the same flawed methodology that exposing cells in tissue culture to herbicides does.

            Why concentrate on glyphosate when the major contributors to dead zones from eutrophication tend to be nitrates and phosphates that cause algal blooms? “Nitrogen and phosphorous from agricultural runoff are the primary culprits, but sewage, vehicular and industrial emissions and even natural factors also play a role in the development of dead zones.”

            http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ocean-dead-zones/

            Despite herbicide resistance technology allowing the replacement of more toxic herbicides by herbicides such as glyphosate, by encouraging no-till, it also helps REDUCE runoff of fertilizer, a major source of N and P. So it is quite possible that glyphosate and glyphosate resistant crops may help reduce dead zones.

          • http://www.vivalaevolucion.com/ Michael Fons

            Actually Benjamin, you seem to not take into consideration the fact that much of the Roundup Ready Corn and Soy crops are grown in developing countries that receive a lot of regular rainfall and have little if any runoff regulations. So, there is potential for glyphosate to be applied to crops shortly before heavy rainfall and runoff into ocean without much time in soil with exposure to microbes. You obviously did not even read the study, as the scientist used very little concentration of glyphosate in the seawater flask test. I realize that there are other bigger problems effecting coral reefs besides herbicide runoff, but it is definitely not helping the issue. I also agree that that glyphosate is less toxic than many older herbicides, similar to how “clean coal” technology is better than older coal power plants. Nevertheless, there are far more sustainable methods of controlling weeds and creating energy currently availabe. If one is concerned about reducing fertilizer run-off, then they would not choose glyphosate as solution, as you are implying. They would use other more effective solutions, like cover crops, which also happen to control weeds.

        • JonFrum

          Here we go again – file this one under ‘ignorance is bliss.’ The whole point of using Round-Up Ready seed is to be able to use LESS of a LESS TOXIC herbicide. What is there about this that is difficult to understand?

          • http://www.vivalaevolucion.com/ Michael Fons

            Yes, Roundup is less toxic than many other herbicides, just as “clean coal” technology is better for the environment than older coal power plants. My point is I would rather see the money being spent to develop herbicide resistant GMOs being put to better use, like in development of more environmentally friendly sustainable weed control methods that don’t involve use of herbicide; like soil steaming, mechanical weed control, cover crops, hydroponics, aquaponics, etc. Similar to how I think the money being spent to develop clean coal would be better spent to develop improved solar, wind, tidal energy. I believe that overuse of herbicide is similar to overuse of antibiotics, and that within a couple hundred years herbicides use will be, for the most part, replaced by cleaner alternative weed control methods, and that fossil fuels will be replaced with cleaner alliterative energy sources. I believe GMOs have a lot of potential for good, but I just don’t think that herbicide resistant GMOs are putting this valuable technology to the best use.

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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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