By now it has become clear, as British environmental writer Mark Lynas said in a speech this week at Cornell University, that controversy over GMOs
represents one of the greatest science communications failures of the past half-century. Millions, possibly billions, of people have come to believe what is essentially a conspiracy theory, generating fear and misunderstanding about a whole class of technologies on an unprecedentedly global scale.
What’s been most disconcerting to me is that smart environmentalists, food writers, and scholars perpetuate this fear and misunderstanding. Some of them are finally getting called out for this irresponsibility.
It is this group of media influentials, such as Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Marion Nestle, who I hope take the time to read Nature’s special issue on genetically modified (GM) crops, which, as the introduction puts it, “explores the messy middle ground.” Read More
Guest post by Ramez Naam.
Keith Kloor has graciously given me the opportunity to guest post here again. So let me cut to the chase:
I support GMOs. And we should label them. We should label them because that is the very best thing we can do for public acceptance of agricultural biotech. And we should label them because there’s absolutely nothing to hide.
Let me explain. First, so you don’t mistake me for a GMO-basher, let me introduce myself. I’m a computer scientist by training. I’m also the author of three books, all of which endorse the use of biotechnology to improve the human condition.
In the most recent of these, The Infinite Resource, I talk about the power of innovation to save the world. In between chapters on climate change and fresh water depletion, solar power and desalination, I make a forceful argument that genetically engineered crops and animals can help us grow more food, with better nutrition, and less impact on the planet.
I believe that. In the last two weeks I’ve written about the scientific consensus that GMOs are safe and the many reasons that advocates of organic food should love GMOs. And recently I went on MSNBC to make that case on national television.
In short, I believe in science, and I believe that science tells us that our currently approved GMOs are safe for humans and good for the planet, and that next generation GMOs will be even better.
So why label them?
The short answer is this: by fighting labeling, we’re feeding energy to the opponents of GMOs. We’re inducing more fear and paranoia of the technology, rather than less. We’re persuading those who might otherwise have no opinion on GMOs that there must be something to hide, otherwise, why would we fight so hard to avoid labeling? Read More
Once upon a time, long before a recent wave of ideological zealotry drove the Republican party to cleanse itself of moderates, appeals for GOP comity were often couched in Ronald Reagan’s eleventh commandment:
Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican
In liberal and environmental circles, a similar dictate seems to now hold, with respect to those who are perceived as tireless defenders of nature and champions of social justice. If someone meets that criteria and is also credited with taking on evil, greedy corporations, a one-dimensional portrait of the hero is often painted by admiring media. This is the case with Vandana Shiva, the internationally famous activist and author. Her deified status is such that I can’t imagine any of my colleagues working at progressive media outlets ever speaking ill of her. Besides, to do so would only undermine her message–her larger cause to save the earth from profit-hungry plunderers. That is likely the rationale of those who might not buy into everything she says. But I doubt that most progressive or eco-minded writers are even inclined to be skeptical of Shiva. She is the green world’s Mother Teresa. Read More
In October, Dan Charles, NPR’s food and agriculture correspondent, wrote an excellent piece headlined:
Top Five Myths of Genetically Modified Seeds, Busted
There is one myth, however, that should have been included because of its widespread dissemination and emotive power. It is the one GMO myth that exploits real human tragedy and for that reason, I find it so offensive. It is a myth that, in 2008, Prince Charles fueled and the UK’s Daily Mail blew up, tabloid style. It is a myth that has since become part of the GMO discourse, largely unchallenged in the media. It is a myth that Vandana Shiva, a celebrated environmentalist, feminist hero, and globe-trotting icon, repeats every chance she gets, as she did on Friday, in an interview with Democracy Now: Read More
It’s been almost a month since UK environmental writer Mark Lynas apologized for his prior anti-GMO activism. His speech, let’s recall, was an internet sensation. Many applauded Lynas’s change of heart (he is now firmly pro-GMO), plenty others jeered it, and more than a few rolled their eyes.
And everyone has moved on except anti-GMO campaigners. They remain quite angered by Lynas’s speech, which is understandable, since they were singled out by him for being irrationally zealous and anti-science. Maybe they feel their cause took a big hit, too, along with their credibility. Then there’s the sense of betrayal. Lynas was one of them. True, he had already made his conversion several years earlier, but this was different. Lynas’s speech was a moment of high drama in which he publicly renounced his own history and his former comrades. It was compelling. The story received worldwide attention.
But was it all true? Read More
Journalists today are pretty mindful about the terms they use to describe a group of people, especially when referencing ethnicity or religion. In mainstream media, outright slurs are forbidden (though not everyone abides) and anything that smells pejorative is called out.
Euphemisms are another matter, as the tortured debate over torture (I mean “enhanced interrogation”) attests.
The same goes for loaded terms commonly seen in science and technology stories. Take the use of “frankenfish,” for example. Last week, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) moved one step closer to approving genetically engineered salmon, many outlets, from the Daily Mail to the Associated Press, used the moniker in their headlines, and nearly all that reported on the news mentioned “frankenfish” somewhere in their stories.
In his discussion of the coverage that followed the FDA’s announcement, science journalist Paul Raeburn notes (with disapproval) the ubiquity of the “frankenfish” term. Though he praises one Los Angeles Times story by Rosie Mestel for its reporting, he also chides:
My only concern with Mestel’s story is her use of the loaded and irrelevant term “Frankenfish” to describe the genetically engineered salmon. She doesn’t use it herself; she says that’s what opponents of genetically modified foods call it. But she shouldn’t let them say it. It is meaningless. Frankenfish were not assembled from body parts and brought back to life with a bolt of lightning. The intent of the term is to make the fish sound frightening, which they might or might not be–but calling them Frankenfish does not advance the debate.
He’s right. I also share Raeburn’s discomfit with the lazy and sensationalistic way editors and reporters have come to rely on “frankenfish” as shorthand to convey multiple meanings in the debate.
Still, it’s a tricky conundrum for reporters when some terms become part of a discourse’s parlance. Read More
Get ready for another wave of anti-GMO mania. This one is about to rise up with the news that genetically modified salmon are on the verge of being approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
There is quite an interesting backstory to this development, which Jon Entine revealed at Slate several days ago. The short version is that regulatory hurdles had already been cleared last April, after completion of an environmental review. But then the White House stepped in and apparently blocked the approval.
That final hurdle has now been lifted. What comes next is the outpouring of predictable GMO hysteria (frankenfish!), such as that already being exhibited by Grist. No doubt, this will owe to GM-salmon being the first transgenic animal cleared for dinner plates.
For as the Washington Post observes, the move reignites
a long-running debate over whether a nation that already grows and consumes genetically modified plants such as corn and soybeans is prepared to make a similar leap when it comes to animals.
Food-safety activists, environmental groups and traditional salmon fishing industries are staunchly opposed to such a step and are part of a broader global struggle over the use of genetically modified foods.
On election day tomorrow, the food movement will learn if it has curdled before living up to its hype.
That would be a shame, for its future holds much promise. The growing popularity of farmers’ markets, the ballooning consumer appetite for organic everything, and the increasing attention paid to healthy diets (thanks Michelle Obama!) have fomented a legitimate social movement. People have come to care deeply about they eat and how it’s made. That’s a good thing.
What’s not such a good thing is the food movement betting its rising stock on anti-GMO zealotry. I have a new piece at Slate laying out why. Here’s a short excerpt to whet your taste:
Managing our global food supply in a sustainable, efficient manner necessarily involves allowing for both organic and conventional agriculture. But a simplistic, down-with-industrial-farming chant rings loudly throughout the food movement. Sure, there are legitimate grievances about the corporate conduct of multinational food and agricultural companies. But since when is that unique to big business of any nature? For example, there are compelling social justice issues related to the making of cell phones and sneakers, but I don’t see people demonizing Apple’s or Nike’s technological innovations.
So why is Big Ag different from Big Smartphone or Big Sneaker? And why has concern over how the world’s food is grown become so strongly identified with concern over genetically modified crops?
Have a read and let me know what you think.
I have a piece up at Slate called, “GMO Opponents are the Climate Skeptics of the Left.” It’s generated a fair amount of discussion at Slate and on twitter.
So far, of all the people I lay into, only Tom Philpott of Mother Jones has engaged me (on twitter). I would love it if prestigious anti-GMO players like Marion Nestle and Marc Bittman joined in, but I’m not holding my breath. Then again, liberals are supposed to be an open-minded lot, so who knows…
I found this lament by NYT columnist Timothy Egan tough to swallow, in part because his enbrace of the “frankenfish” label demonizes the complex issue of genetically engineered salmon. Additionally, Egan makes his case by juxtaposing fraught concerns over biotechnology with Japan’s nuclear disaster, which I found problematic. Indeed, one Times reader wondered if it was silly
to try to draw an analogy between two very different technologies, nuclear power and genetic engineering?
Egan, in his column, strains to explain the connection:
The fate of wild salmon and a panic over power plants that no longer answer to human commands would not seem to be interlinked. But they are, in the belief that the parts of the world that have been fouled, or found lacking, can be engineered to our standards “” without consequence. You see this attitude in the denial caucus of Congress, perhaps now a majority of Republicans in power, who say, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that climate change is a hoax.
That last bit about the GOP position on global warming is true, but I don’t see what it has to do with Egan’s larger point about human hubris and technology. A better example would have been to invoke the belief by some that the climate, like many ecosystems, is so messed up that the only way to fix it will be through geoengineering.
One final note: The headline for Egan’s column (“Frankenfish Phobia”) is oddly discordant with his message. I wonder if an editor slapped it on there to tweak Egan, of if Egan chose it himself to acknowledge that he was making a fear-based argument. Either way, it’s a curious choice.