Over the past decade, the story of hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers being driven to suicide because of the failure of their genetically modified cotton crops has circulated widely in the media and of course, in anti-GMO circles. An acclaimed 2011 documentary called Bitter Seeds chronicled the phenomenon. The film’s tagline is from a 2011 New York University think tank report.
Others have also documented this story with heartrending imagery. The tragedies of the suicides shown in the films and reported in all of the media accounts are real. The reasons often given, however, are false, as I have previously discussed. But the GMO/suicide narrative has persisted because leading environmentalists and influential writers and journalists continue to repeat it. They do this despite evidence to the contrary that has been reported in the Guardian, BBC, Canada’s National Post, and elsewhere.
Several years ago, Cornell political scientist Ron Herring gave an illuminating talk on this issue, in which he said:
Information flows through what I call authoritative brokers. Where do we get information we trust, especially with the Internet, and with the explosion of sources of information? None of us can incorporate all the possible sources of information and adjudicate them. Even if we could, we don’t have time. Most people don’t have the kind of expertise that’s required to understand what’s involved with genetic engineering of a crop. So we are dependent on brokers– all of us are.
Here’s a paper by Herring that elaborates on how “epistemic brokers” have sown global opposition to agricultural biotechnology. The successful propagation of the GMO/Indian farmer suicide narrative is a case study that is as fascinating as it is abhorrent. Nobody has unpacked it better than Herring. Here’s another paper of his from 2006 that reveals how the “suicide seeds” myth originated and why it failed to convince Indian farmers.
There’s a reason why journalism and writing professors implore their students to “show, don’t tell.” Stories are more deeply felt when they play out with action and dialogue crafted around a narrative. Showing is also a more effective means for imparting the essence of a controversial issue, news event, or research finding.
Some journalists have transferred this skill really well to their blogs (like Ed Yong and Deborah Blum). I haven’t been able to pull that off here, or in my issue-oriented pieces elsewhere. I tend to activate my story-telling brain only when I’m working on magazine feature stories, where I have a main character or two to draw out.
So for example, I did a lot of telling in this 2012 Slate piece entitled, “GMO Opponents are the Climate Skeptics of the Left.” (It rankled many people I normally agree with on most political issues.) Others, such as Michael Specter, have made similar comparisons, pointing out the characteristics and commonalties of science denialism. For progressives, this has become a touchy subject, especially as it relates to agricultural biotechnology. Amy Harmon’s latest feature on GMOs in the New York Times mentions this tension:
Scientists, who have come to rely on liberals in political battles over stem-cell research, climate change and the teaching of evolution, have been dismayed to find themselves at odds with their traditional allies on this issue. Some compare the hostility to G.M.O.s to the rejection of climate-change science, except with liberal opponents instead of conservative ones.
Like her biotech-related orange story last year, this latest one about a conflict over GMOs in Hawaii is a masterpiece. Both are riveting stories that illuminate important aspects of the GMO debate. I thought this tweet best described Harmon’s latest work: Read More
Imagine if National Review, a long-established U.S. conservative publication, assigned a writer to investigate all the facts on climate change, from soup to nuts. But instead of this being a politically and ideologically-driven exercise, the writer would do it in a judicious, non-partisan, fair-minded manner. Of course, given National Review’s slant on climate issues, such an endeavor is unlikely.
But should it or any publication decide to challenge its own ideological biases and undertake a fact-finding mission on a controversial subject, Nathanael Johnson at Grist has provided an excellent model with his six-month foray into the GMO thicket. Recently he’s distilled all that he’s learned into a round-up post.
The overwhelming consensus judgement of science journalists is that Johnson has done a spectacular job of sifting through all the claims and counterclaims and the technical density of a complex field of science to render clear-headed assessments. And he’s done this while buffeted by the great sound and fury of the quarrelsome GMO debate. It really is an impressive feat.
When Johnson started out, I was dubious, since Grist had previously covered agricultural biotechnology the way National Review covers climate change: Reflexively, selectively (always reinforcing its own assumptions about a science) and as a means to score political points.
It didn’t take long for Johnson to win over cynics–myself included–who thought that such a rigorous deep dive couldn’t be done by an unabashedly snarky outlet with a pronounced political worldview. But Johnson pulled it off and in doing so he has performed a great service.
What I wonder, though, is if his sober exploration of GMOs has made a difference with progressives and environmentalists (Grist’s audience). Have these readers–many who are predisposed to believe that GMO = Frankenfoods–been moved to rethink their own assumptions and biases? Perhaps more importantly, has Johnson’s dilligent work influenced anti-GMO thought leaders? Yes, I’m looking at you, Michael Pollan.
It helps that Johnson is a member of good standing in the same tribe as Pollan and Grist readers. That makes him trustworthy. Still, anyone familiar with the psychology of risk perception on the GMO issue knows that even a credible messenger bearing facts will make only so much headway. It is hard, for example, to shake mental constructs that inform the way we process information. As Maria Konnikova wrote last year in the New Yorker: Read More
I recently saw the new movie American Hustle, which is loosely based on an infamous 1970s FBI sting operation that ensnared members of the U.S. Congress. There are more than a few very funny moments of highbrow farce in the film, such as when one of the characters (played by Christian Bale) receives a microwave oven as a gift from a politician and brings it home to his wife on Long Island.
He calls it a “science oven” (the first countertop microwave ovens were introduced in the late 1960s). At the time, this was a relatively new consumer-oriented technology that inspired awe and trepidation. This is the scene in the movie where the wife accidentally blows up the microwave.
She is unapologetic, telling her husband that she read in a magazine that microwave ovens take all the nutrition out of food. She then names the author of the article–Paul Brodeur, who was a crusading New Yorker writer from the 1960s until the early 1990s. The article she is probably referring to is this one, which would lead to a book by Brodeur called, The Zapping of America: Microwaves, Their Deadly Risk, and the Cover-Up.
The larger theme of these technological fears would then be expanded on in a later book by Brodeur published in 2000.
I wrote about Brodeur’s role in the amplification of these unwarranted fears in this post. I find it interesting that the maker of American Hustle–a movie in part about noble intentions gone amok–explicitly refers to Brodeur in the “science oven” scene.
Last week an expert panel of physicians advised Americans to “stop wasting money” on multivitamins:
We believe that the case is closed— supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful. These vitamins should not be used for chronic disease prevention. Enough is enough.
Good luck with that. As the New York Times notes,
Demand for vitamin and mineral supplements has grown markedly in recent years, with domestic sales totaling some $30 billion in 2011.
(It’s a big business in the UK, too.)
Naturally (pun intended), the Natural Products Association, the industry trade group for this modern-day snake oil, was none too happy, insisting that dietary supplements “are overwhelmingly safe.” Not that they would know, of course, since the vast majority of the products are unregulated. As for their safety, the Times ran a front page piece on this issue yesterday: Read More
If you are a regular consumer of environmental news and commentary, you are familiar with the narrative of humanity’s downfall. The story, we are told, looks like this.
If we continue to ignore the danger signs while exceeding the planet’s carrying capacity, the future may get ugly.
For the time being, we are on a precipice.
But that may be asking too much. Once someone starts down this civilization-is-collapsing road, like Guardian blogger Nafeez Ahmed, it’s hard to stop. If you want a tour guide to the apocalypse, Ahmed is your guy. He is the erudite version of this fringe chararacter.
I must admit that I find the collapse junkies entertaining. I’m sure they believe the world is headed for a crash and their sincerity and eloquence is enough to scare some of us senseless. Who knows how many people built a bunker in Montana after seeing this film. Read More
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) describes itself as America’s “most effective environmental health research and advocacy organization.”
Like many green groups (and health-conscious foodies), EWG has an organic fetish. Michael Specter has a great chapter on this syndrome in his 2009 book, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives. The organic fetish is particularly interesting in the context of the GMO debate. For example, here’s EWG President Ken Cook today: Read More
Over a year ago I wrote a piece for Slate entitled, “GMO opponents are the climate skeptics of the left.” I pointed out that, when it came to biotechnology, certain environmentalists and supposed food safety advocates acted similar to those who denied the scientific consensus on global warming. Mark Lynas recently tweeted a good example of this:
— Mark Lynas (@mark_lynas) November 27, 2013
My Slate piece gave anti-GMO greens heartburn. It also didn’t please climate skeptics. So I can well imagine how both groups will react to a new editorial in The Economist, which carries this subhead: Read More
after a decade in which Americans are listening to you less and less, these warnings have to get more shrill just to have an impact — which, of course, only undercuts the reputation and credibility of those speaking so shrilly.
I know who and what you think this is in reference to. Actually, it’s an observation on neoconservative communication, from the always-astute Daniel Drezner, at his Foreign Policy blog.
But it sure can apply to other political and policy realms, where a similar communication pattern has played out. Along those lines, it’s worth revisiting a piece of advice from this excellent 2010 paper: Read More
The business journalist Marc Gunther has a really good article at the Guardian on yet another battle brewing on the GMO front. It’s about a food advocacy group’s campaign to stop McDonald’s from using new strains of a genetically modified potato, which as Gunther writes,
are designed to deliver both environmental and health benefits. They reduce black spots from bruising, which cause a portion of each year’s potato crop to go to waste as unmarketable. They are also intended to make fried potatoes safer by lowering levels of asparagine, a naturally occurring amino acid that reacts with sugars at high temperatures to produce acrylamide, a potential carcinogen.
I kinda doubt that the self-appointed consumer watchdogs who oppose this potato eat at McDonald’s, much less care about improving the quality of fast food.
So this is surely part of the broader anti-GMO campaign, which the food movement has hitched its wagon to.
In his discussion of this latest battle, Gunther makes an important point about a main facet of the GMO debate: Read More