Staking out the middle ground in these polarized times is not an easy thing to do. I know this from experience. For example, I’m pretty comfortable with what science tells us about climate change. To me, there’s a cumulative body of evidence that rises to the level of concern. But I also realize there is legitimate debate over how worried we should be and more critically, over how to go about reducing our carbon emissions.
So I’m comfortable with the nuances of the climate discourse, even though that puts me on the wrong side of people who would rather keep the debate very simple and stark.
Another highly contested landscape is the one where science and religion coexist uneasily. I don’t have a problem with this co-mingling, even though I’m an atheist. But here again, I find myself on the wrong side of people who take a more purist stand on the matter.
If there is a middle ground in the GMO debate, I’m not sure where it is or how it could be navigated. Read More
If you follow the public debate on genetically modified foods, you know it’s become unhinged from reality. This is because green groups and influential voices in the food movement have allowed the fringe to hijack the conversation. Now that those furies have been let loose, it’s going to be that much harder to have a civil dialogue about GMOs.
Kevin Folta, one scientist who often engages with biotech opponents, is finding this out. Now, owing to the ideological and emotional nature of the debate, I’m not surprised at its increasingly shrill tenor or the deepening fault lines that separate the pro and anti-GMO sides. The charged dynamics have come to resemble those of the climate debate.
But I am disappointed that some intelligent people seem unwilling to recognize this and even obfuscate matters more with inaccurate characterizations of the GMO debate. Read More
During any given week, most articles on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) follow a simplistic and/or sensationalistic storyline. For example, here’s last week’s cover story in The Village Voice:
The Monsanto-Is-Evil theme is a media staple, as is the GMO-Foods-Are-Dangerous theme, of which magazines like Details and Elle are piggybacking on. (I recently discussed the latter example). Too often urban myths are recycled credulously and coverage is botched altogether.
That’s why Amy Harmon’s absorbing New York Times story on GMO oranges has been widely praised by many scientists and science journalists. Her long feature is a breath of fresh air on a complex, politicized subject that has been frequently distorted in the media by agenda-driven activists and their influential enablers (who should know better).
Another much needed corrective to this sad state of affairs is the thoughtful (and ongoing) series of posts by Nathanael Johnson at Grist. This is uncharted (and probably uncomfortable) territory for Grist, given it’s prior coverage of GMOs, so it will be interesting to see where Johnson’s in-depth exploration of agricultural biotechnology leads him.
These are promising developments on the biotech beat–a welcome break from the canned GMO storylines playing out in the media on a daily basis.
A final note on Harmon’s story. Read More
There is so much to admire about this New York Times story by Amy Harmon I don’t know where to begin. [UPDATE: This insightful take by Maggie Koerth-Baker at Boing Boing--which I excerpt below--captures what is remarkable about the piece.] So let’s start with a tweet from National Geographic’s executive environment editor Dennis Dimick:
— Dennis Dimick (@ddimick) July 28, 2013
And Marc Gunther, who covers the business and sustainability intersection:
— Marc Gunther (@MarcGunther) July 28, 2013
Indeed, it’s an engrossing, meticulously reported piece on a really complex subject. It should also interest anyone who drinks orange juice. What I marvel at is that Harmon crafted a pitch-perfect narrative that avoids all the land mines of an emotionally and ideologically charged issue.
On Sunday, when the story appeared on the front page of the New York Times, many journalists and scientists praised it at social media sites. Of all the responses, Michael Pollan issued the most curious on Twitter: Read More
As I have previously observed, “the belief that GMO foods are deadly or potentially harmful” has come to dominate the public discourse on agricultural biotechnology. I suppose we can thank the whacky fringe elements for this (and their influential enablers).
At this point, scientists and science-based communicators who engage in the biotech realm should be fully cognizant of what they are dealing with, which is essentially the mainstreaming of GMO hysteria. The latest eye-popping example is this article in Elle, a popular women’s magazine. Here’s the subhead teaser:
With symptoms including headaches, nausea, rashes, and fatigue, Caitlin Shetterly visited doctor after doctor searching for a cure for what ailed her. What she found, after years of misery and bafflement, was as unlikely as it was utterly common.
The author of the piece reports that her symptoms disappeared once she eliminated “GMO corn” from her diet. Naturally, she concludes she is allergic to GMOs and that she is likely not the only one. After pounding his head against the wall (or so I’m imagining) an incredulous Kevin Folta shows up in the comments: Read More
Here’s the pitch:
If you thought that one way to cut GMOs from your diet was to avoid foods with high-risk GMO ingredients, think again.
Meat and dairy products, while not genetically modified themselves, are not immune to the insidious impacts of GMOs. In fact, your favorite yogurt brand may be made with “Monsanto Milk” – milk from cows that are fed GMO silage.
Let’s start with the opening sentence:
Ordinary Americans should not be forced to act as human guinea pigs for a real-time study on the long-term health impact of genetically engineered foods.
This human guinea pig trope pops up frequently in the anti-GMO discourse. (I’ll be returning to it in a moment.) Moving on, we come to this gem several paragraphs down (my emphasis):
Industrywide, no long-term studies on the side effects of these foods have been conducted, leaving us with little to no knowledge of the health effects of these foods that are rapidly invading dinner tables across America.
Hmm. There’s something odd about the way that is phrased. In any case, let’s assume the author is trying to say there is a lack of research on the safety of genetically modified foods. I suppose I could refer you to this nice round-up of authoritative statements on the safety issue by Ramez Naam, but it’s more fun to cite Grist:
Is there any evidence that genetically modified food is directly harmful to people who eat it? There’s a one-word answer to this: no.
To save time I’m going to skip over the sillier parts of the piece so we can get to where the author cites a highly criticized 2012 French study, which she says “underscores the need for more comprehensive safety studies into these [GMO] foods.”
Of course! That infamous rat study–no matter how much it’s been discredited– is the gift that keeps on giving to GMO opponents.
Now we come to the end of the column, which is my favorite: Read More
No doubt you saw the big, history-making news out of England yesterday. No, not this:
The great GM food hysteria: Do you believe eating genetically modified crops is like dining with the devil? No wonder- that’s exactly what apocalyptic eco-zealots want you to think.
Now this may be true (though I would substitute “greens” for “eco-zealots”), but it’s actually what the Daily Mail has wanted you to think, too.
I love this piece in the Guardian about GMOs, I really do. It’s so exquisitely disingenuous that you have to admire the writer’s chutzpah. Let’s start with this line (my emphasis):
Why is it that some politicians and prominent scientists and “communications” agencies are so exclusively preoccupied with GM [genetic modification]?
I can’t imagine that Andy Stirling, the author, wrote that with a straight face. Because when it comes to preoccupation with genetically modified food, nobody rivals anti-GMO campaigners, especially groups like Greenpeace, who have gone so far as to vandalize research beneficial to public health. Read More