For GMO opponents, it’s been a good news/bad news week. The good news: Vermont became the first state to mandate the labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients. (More about that in a minute.) The bad news: New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, a darling of the food movement, wrote a column that called on his compadres to stop obsessing about GMOs, particularly the labeling issue, which “plays on irrational fears.”
The battle over GMOs, Bittman said, was not important to the larger goal of sustainable agriculture. What’s more, “the technology [involving genetically modified foods] itself has not been found to be harmful,” he wrote, and its “underlying science could well be useful.” How do you suppose this went over in organic food co-ops across the United States, where GMOs are about as welcome as disposable plastic bags?
Bittman’s column was baffling and disconcerting to leading food warriors. I can understand why they might feel that way. For in previous columns dating back the last few years, Bittman was singing a different tune.
From a 2012 column urging that genetically modified foods be labeled:
G.M.O.’s, to date, have neither become a panacea — far from it — nor created Frankenfoods, though by most estimates the evidence is far more damning than it is supportive.
From one of his columns last year:
When I read a news story like this one, which claims that G.M.O.s are linked to leukemia, I might be scared out of my wits — Americans can’t avoid genetically modified food without a huge effort, and even then there are no guarantees. So are we doomed to years of chemo? Perhaps not: If I sit down and do my homework all I can really say with intelligence is that it’s premature to conclude that ingesting food with genetically engineered ingredients is safe.
As I noted at the time, Bittman’s expert sources for such statements were beyond parody. It was also obvious that he was scare-mongering about GMOs while trying to appear reasonable. Now, in his latest column, he’s chiding those who sound the same frightful notes he once did:
Let’s be clear: Biotech in agriculture has been overrated both in its benefits and in its dangers. And by overrating its dangers, the otherwise generally rational “food movement” allows itself to be framed as “anti-science.”
No wonder anti-GMO foodies feels betrayed. It wasn’t that long ago he was egging them on and feeding into their greatest fears. Perhaps Bittman has learned from the example of Mark Lynas, who, in a widely discussed 2013 speech, said he had “discovered science”–with respect to crop biotechnology. Lynas accepted the scientific consensus on climate change but had previously disregarded the same consensus on GMOs. The inconsistency troubled him, especially after he shed his prior assumptions and looked closely at the science. It appears that Bittman is now following the same path.
As I have said to Lynas, this kind of turnabout owes not so much to discovering science but more to unshackling oneself from a fixed ideological and political mindset. You can’t discover science–or honestly assess it–until you are open to it. The problem for celebrity food writers like Bittman and Michael Pollan, who is also struggling to reconcile the actual science on biotechnology with his worldview, is that their personal brands are closely identified with a food movement that has gone off the rails on GMOs. The labeling campaign is driven by manufactured fear of genetically modified foods, a fear that both Pollan and Bittman and like-minded allies have enabled.
It’s hard to rein in hysteria once it’s been encouraged and winked at by thought leaders. Pollan, for example, seems to know in his heart of hearts that genetically engineered foods are safe to eat. They aren’t going to make you infertile or give you cancerous tumors or autism. But guess what? The person who makes those claims–Jeffrey Smith–appears on national TV, speaks at biotech forums around the world, and is the go-to source for Vermont legislators who ushered in the state’s GMO labeling law. In fact, one of them recently said to Smith that his books (on supposed GMO dangers) were instrumental to their success:
Of course, Smith is not the only one to spread fear and false information on biotechnology, but he is the most relentless and effective anti-GMO merchant. His college campus talks, books, TV appearances, testimony to state legislatures helps fuel the kind of GMO labeling campaigns that finally bore fruit in Vermont.
Now that this train has left the station, there is no calling it back, as Bittman seems to be suggesting in his NYT column. (And let’s not forget that Pollan was cheering on the train a few years ago.) In his mea culpa last January, Lynas rued his own role as an instigator of irrational GMO fears:
What we didn’t realize at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it.
This is something that America’s influential food writers are just starting to reckon with.
UPDATE: See this Economist article entitled, “Vermont v Science,” which notes:
Food scares are easy to start but hard to stop.