Biotechnology Industry Organization: It’s not too late to change the conversation on GMOs
That’s the equivalent of the IPCC saying, “It’s not too late to change the conversation on climate change.”
If you want to know the state of the GMO discourse, look at the event that has just attracted worldwide attention. As AP reports:
Organizers say two million people marched in protest against seed giant Monsanto in hundreds of rallies across the U.S. and in over 50 other countries on Saturday.
“March Against Monsanto” protesters say they wanted to call attention to the dangers posed by genetically modified food and the food giants that produce it. Founder and organizer Tami Canal said protests were held in 436 cities in 52 countries…The group plans to harness the success of the event to continue its anti-GMO cause. “We will continue until Monsanto complies with consumer demand. They are poisoning our children, poisoning our planet,” she said. “If we don’t act, who’s going to?”
No, the only thing that’s truly being poisoned is the biotech debate by such rhetoric. I’m also willing to bet that organizers are being as truthful about the number of marchers as they are about the science on genetically modified foods. (Kinda interesting that the Guardian headline for the AP story states the estimated protesters as fact, when it’s just a claim by the march organizers.)
Nonetheless, there does seem to be many people who buy the notion that dangerous GMOs are being foisted on the world by Monsanto. I suspect this owes to influentials like Vandana Shiva, the globe-trotting environmental activist who is held in high esteem by foodies and greens. In a video filmed several days ahead of the GMO protest, Shiva characterized Monsanto’s corporate power and its patenting of seeds as “a new form of fascism” and a “new form of dictatorship.” She elaborated: Read More
Mark Bittman, the popular food writer for the New York Times, has written a column that is almost beyond parody for its unintentional irony. The only way to fully appreciate his lack of self-awareness is to stop and marvel at numerous passages. Let’s start at the top:
Things are bad enough in the food world that we don’t need to resort to hyperbole to be worried or even alarmed.
This is some chutzpah. Here’s Bittman from September 15, 2012:
It’s not an exaggeration to say that almost everyone wants to see the labeling of genetically engineered materials contained in their food products.
Almost everyone? Same column:
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.
This is completely untrue. If Bittman had wanted to be factual he would have referred NYT readers to credible sources on the state of the science on biotech crops and foods, such as here or here. Instead, he links to a website called the Organic Authority and a post that explains why
GMOs are bad for your body, bad for the community, bad for farmers and bad for the environment.
This is what is known as laundering untruths. Read More
When the definitive history of the GMO debate is written, Jeffrey Smith is going to figure prominently in the section on pseudoscience. He is the equivalent of an anti-vaccine leader, someone who is quite successful in spreading fear and false information. (As David Gorski at the Science-based Medicine blog has noted, the anti-vaccine and anti-GMO movements are two birds of the same feather.) The Academics Review blog writes of Smith:
His self-published books Seeds of Deception and Genetic Roulette have built for him an online profile that has made Smith one of the most widely quoted opponents of biotech ag —despite his evident lack of scientific credentials or other formal training on the subject.
This passage from Smith’s Wikipedia bio seems a fair representation of him:
A variety of American organic food companies see Smith “as a champion for their interests”, and Smith’s supporters describe him as “arguably the world’s foremost expert on the topic of genetically modified foods”. Michael Specter, writing in The New Yorker, reported that Smith was presented as a “scientist” on The Dr. Oz Show although he lacks any scientific experience or relevant qualifications. Bruce Chassy, a molecular biologist and food scientist, wrote to the show arguing that Smith’s “only professional experience prior to taking up his crusade against biotechnology is as a ballroom-dance teacher, yogic flying instructor, and political candidate for the Maharishi cult’s natural-law party.” The director of the Organic Consumers Association says Smith is “respected as a public educator on GMOs” while “supporters of biotechnology” have described him as “misinformed and misleading” and as “an activist with no scientific or medical background” who is known for his “near-hysterical criticism of biotech foods.”
As Jon Entine wrote at Forbes, what galls scientists the most is that Smith has been presented as a GMO expert to millions of TV viewers. Liberals and environmentalists who put a premium on science should be equally galled that Smith is treated as a credible source.
There are two camps that favor labeling genetically modified [GM] foods:
1) The “Right to Know” people, who say they just want to know what’s in their food. This is a specious argument. The truth is they think there is something harmful about GMOs. Why else would they feel so strongly about labeling genetically modified foods? Yes, the Just Label it Campaign is couched as a consumer rights issue, but really it’s based on fear. Everybody knows this, so pretending otherwise is silly.
2) The other pro-label camp is comprised of a small minority of pro-biotech people who recognize that the battle for public opinion is lost. The GMO fear-mongers have won–they have successfully framed the argument as a consumer choice issue. So the only sensible thing to do at this point is to play along and join the labeling bandwagon. As Ramez Naam argued effectively in a recent guest post,
We should label them [GM foods] 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.
From a political and pragmatic standpoint, this makes sense. After all, winning an argument at all costs can be counterproductive, whatever the cause. (The climate concerned who insist on playing whack-a-mole with climate skeptics–instead of picking their battles carefully–have yet to learn this lesson.) Still, I suspect that many pro-biotech people stand on principle and object to GMO labeling because it implicitly concedes victory to the fear-mongers, which is what one commenter on Naam’s post said: Read More
If your concern is climate change, and you believe that slowing or preventing it is your fundamental priority, then nuclear power should be high up on the list for energy-production.
He was responding to a reader who castigated liberals for their dogmatic stance on nuclear power, fracking and genetically modified crops.
The exchange reminded me of Chris Mooney’s recent argument that conservatives are way more hostile to science than liberals. Mooney, being the author of a book called The Republican War on Science, is not exactly an impartial observer of this debate. Nor has his argument gone unchallenged. Read More
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
What drives opposition to genetically modified crops? Well, there are a bunch of enduring myths, which Dan Charles at NPR did a nice job of debunking. But I think the reasons mostly come down to unfounded fear (frankenfoods!) and distrust/hatred of multi-national corporations (Monsanto!).
One GMO critic has just revealed a reason I hadn’t yet heard: Read More
Adapted from the new book The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet by Ramez Naam
What if there was a way to farm that spared the rainforests, cut down on toxins in our soil and waters, and provided healthier, more nutritious food?
Sounds like organic farming, right? But actually, it’s GMOs.
The goals of organics – farms that cause less damage to the environment and grow food that’s better for you – are great. But organic isn’t living up to that potential. Read More
The biotech discourse is infected with a bugaboo spread by both fringe types and mainstream influentials. It is the belief that GMO foods are deadly or potentially harmful. Two illustrative examples of this mindset recently appeared on the same day. Read More