The Entrenched GMO Narrative

By Keith Kloor | May 22, 2014 2:46 pm

Regular readers of Collide-a-Scape know that I’m interested in popular narratives that shape public discourse. I’m specifically interested in how science and environment-related topics are covered in the media, and how this coverage tends to create dominant narratives.

Along these lines, I’ve explored the genesis and amplification of varied media narratives, from Jared Diamond’s collapse meme and Paul Brodeur’s power lines/cancer connection reportage to Vandana Shiva’s GMO/Indian farmer suicide storyline.

One interesting pattern, as these cases suggest, is that sometimes the emergence and staying power of a particular narrative owes to an influential science writer, well-placed journalist, or popular activist.

In other cases, a narrative coalesces around a stock villain, such as Monsanto as the great Satan, or a phrase like the “new normal,” a term that associates severe weather events with man-made climate change.

I like to explore how these memes originate and what sustains them. I have the feeling that not everybody shares this interest. So when another journalist researches the archives for a story on how agricultural biotechnology became so controversial, it’s worth noting. Here’s the opening scene Brooke Borel sets for her piece recently published at Modern Farmer:

In the spring of 1987 in Tulelake, a tiny California farming town four miles from the Oregon border, a small band of scientists wearing yellow Tyvek suits and respirators paced across a field spraying potato plants from handheld dispensers. Representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency perched on ladders above and checked air monitors to make sure the contents of the dispensers weren’t spreading beyond the field’s boundaries. Dressed in billowy white safety jumpers and peaked caps, the EPA agents looked like apocalyptic bakers.

Nearby, journalists eagerly took notes and snapped photos of this eerie scene, which would become national news — this was the world’s first field experiment of a controversial new technology: genetically modified organisms.

Borel goes on explain:

The organism in the Tulelake test was a modified version of the bacterium Pseudomonas syringae, or ice-minus. In its natural state, P. syringae is a common pathogen to many plants. In the mid-seventies a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin named Steven Lindow discovered that the bacteria caused plants to freeze at higher temperatures than normal. A few years later, Lindow moved to the University of California, Berkeley, and he and his new team began to peer inside the bacteria for the gene that promoted frost in plants – something that cost farmers $1.5 billion a year in crop damage.

They found and deleted that gene, creating modified bacteria that didn’t encourage frost. If the modified bacteria were released in a field, the reasoning went, they might outcompete native bacteria and keep crops from freezing in a cold snap. By 1982, the scientists were busy planning field tests to see if their genetically engineered bacteria could help crops fight frost.

I recommend you read the rest of the story to learn how the response to this field research by environmentalists set the tone for how GMOs would be perceived and discussed in the media over the next two decades.

But before you do that, let’s revisit a chapter from Dorothy Nelkin’s classic 1987 book (1995 updated edition), Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology.

She discusses the initial coverage of GMOs in the late 1980s and early 1990s:

Biotechnology applications have inspired futuristic risk reporting–speculations about the possible harm of bioengineered products yet to appear. One of the earliest disputes over biotechnology applications focused on the field testing of Ice Minus, genetically altered microbes intended to inhibit water crystallization and protect strawberries from frost injury. Environmental groups, concerned about health hazards, opposed these tests. Newspaper coverage highlighted the activities of Jeremy Rifkin, who has been a persistent critic of biotechnology since the recombinant DNA controversy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1976. News reports on the Ice Minus field tests included  striking and provocative photographs of the workers who were spraying the fields, wearing protective clothing that resembled the moon suits associated with the cleanup of toxic chemicals and nuclear wastes.

Opposition to the bioengineered Flavr Savr tomato gained substantial media attention–as much it seemed, on account of its irresistible potential for puns as for real evidence of risk. The genetically engineered tomato, introduced by the biotechnology firm Calgene in late 1991, was initially welcomed in the press as a fruit that would not rot on the way to the market. The product generated media stories on the “wonders” of high-tech foods–leaner meat, celery sticks without strings, crisper and sweeter vegetables–and the press supported Calgene’s effort to classify its product as a food rather than a drug that would be subject to FDA regulations. But then, as critics of biotechnology moved in, skepticism became fashionable, and journalists began to write about the tomato as a “frankenfood,” a “killer tomato.” There was a “tomato war” and a “tomatogate.” The idea of injecting mouse genes into food, the spectacle of chefs boycotting a tomato, the concern about “safe soup,” attracted reporters who covered this product as an example of the risks that were bound to emerge from biotechnology.

Nelkin goes on to note that the images pervading media coverage of biotechnology became “remarkably similar to those that had been projected during the nuclear power controversy–the synthetic monsters, the mutant animals, the mad scientists, and an industry out of control.”

It is hard to undo a narrative once it becomes entrenched.

  • J M

    It is even harder when there are commercial interests involved. GMO fear-mongering plays directly into the pockets of organic food industry.

  • mem_somerville

    So, are we saying the “moon suits” are the duck-and-cover of the subsequent generation?

    Strangely–both of those were for safety (supposedly). How ironic that those ended up causing actual trauma.

    • Viva La Evolucion

      While staying at my parents avocado farm in north San Diego area, I would regularly wake up to a weird chemical smell and look out my bedroom window to see our flower-farming neighbor’s workers out in their moon-suits, or with tractor sprayer spraying their flowers with some sort of pesticide/fungicide less than 20 feet from my bedroom window. There’s nothing like the smell of pesticides in the morning.

      • Joseph Jarosak

        That explains a lot. :)

        • Viva La Evolucion

          What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…Well, most of the time…unless it gives you Parkinson’s :-)

      • mem_somerville

        See, I found avocados much scarier. God, I hate those things.

        • Viva La Evolucion

          Yea, actually I’m a little scared of them now too. I used to regularly eat 3-5 avocados a day and sometimes more in guacamole and in salads, and on just about everything, but I noticed that when I eat too many of them I would sometimes wake up at night with kidney pain. I think it is maybe from getting too much potassium. Now, I try not to eat more than 1 a day.

  • JH

    I often hear that megacorp advertisers are in effect forcing us to buy things that we don’t want by manipulating us through advertising. If that’s the case, how come we can’t be “sold” on science? How come Monsanto can’t “sell” us on GMO’s?

    The problem with “selling” science is that if you use the techniques that advertisers use, which almost always misrepresent the product in some way, you’ve destroyed the one thing that science has to offer: credibility.

    • bobito

      Credibility is the word. The people fighting against science don’t have a need for, or care about, credibility. They just need to “sell” a compelling narrative to those that don’t wish to look into the issue further.
      .

      • JH

        Right. So you’re back to the question: does it make any sense to “sell” science?

        Methinks that a key reason why scare narratives sell is that people, in the US at any rate, are scared overall, so the scare narrative fits right into the times. Times aren’t good for most people, and there doesn’t seem to be an optimistic looking corner up the way to look around.

        • bobito

          Raw science is difficult to sell, not as sexy as a good scare mongering story…

  • Lumen

    My personal fascination with this narrative is the imagery that goes along with much of the coverage. It’s actually a little tricky to do a good scary visual of the actual food, because fruits and vegetables are just not that scary. A lot of the “frankenfood” style mash ups wind up looking more delicious than frightening. Which is why the photo editors constantly return to the good old “syringe injecting a tomato” image. Of course that gets old after a while. Lately though I’ve been very amused by the amping up of visual rhetoric.
    MOAR SYRINGES!!!!1!!!11

    http://wakeup-world.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/genetically-modified-food.jpg

    • JH

      Hilarious. Keith had a good one a while back too.

      But you have to admit it’s a brilliant image. Syringes are scary! I wonder how you could develop the theme of “crack addict” foods – veggies trying to score some fertilizer or pesticide? That would be hilarious too.

    • Viva La Evolucion

      attack of the killer tomatoes

    • mem_somerville

      Yeah, I’ve been watching the number of syringes get amplified. There’s also a lot of cross-over with anti-vaxxers on this, so it’s also a way to get them scared.

      But one of the stranger graphics I’ve seen is this one. I cannot fathom it’s relationship to the issues, but apparently some people do:
      https://twitter.com/OrgEarthMarket/status/470219158081138689

  • http://cleanenergymaui.com chrismaui
  • Novagene

    The Right to Know meme is not a recent clever marketing phrase. The pretext has a root.

    It is reference to Rachael Carson’s advocacy against “biocides” that became Silent Spring:

    The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts. In the words of Jean Rostand, “The obligation to endure gives us the right to know.”

    Implicit in the message of Right to Know is harm, so don’t allow pro-label advocates to pretend their campaign isn’t about claiming that GMOs are dangerous.

    I’ve read many analysis of Right to Know and GMO-labeling, and this crucial history has been overlooked.

  • Alex Heartnet

    GMO’s can never truly be considered ‘safe’ no matter how sound the science behind it is simply because of the nature of the technology. While it certainly has massive potential for good, it also has massive potential for abuse. I can accept it’s use, certainly, but for that I’d have to be able to TRUST the current practitioners.

    The current practitioners have to earn my trust for me to accept this tech. This hasn’t happened yet for me. Monsanto certainly isn’t trustworthy, good grief. And I think this is where the debate started, but at some point it got morphed into “should we be using this tech at all? y/n”

    The debate might be dying down, but the crux of the issue hasn’t been resolved. No doubt we will see more and more examples of the good this can but, but we’ll start seeing “abuse of GMO” cases as well – a lot of them. Then both sides will feel like idiots for not realizing what the fight was actually over.

  • Loren Eaton

    ‘because of the nature of the technology..’ This has NOTHING to do with whether the product of that technology is safe. You are flat out wrong. And if it were true, should you not trust the use of manure (composted or not) in organic ag.

  • Jerome

    I am very disturbed by the anti-science of the environmental movement. I want to be part of an organization that preserves natural spaces and works to preserve endangered species. What environmental organisation can i support/donate too? Which one take a scientific approach to preserving the environment? I’m thinking maybe Audubon society or earthjustice?

    • Cairenn Day

      The Nature Conservatory seems to be the most reasonable. They want to find ways for man to coexist with nature.

      Some of the others seem to consider man to be a pest that should be eradicated,

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Collide-a-Scape

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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