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
In the late 2000s, the notion that climate change could trigger wars and geopolitical instability gained currency in military and intelligence circles. Security scholars gave credence to the possibility, think tanks were debating it and the media had another angle into the climate story. (I covered this news at the time–see here, here, and here.) One book captured the zeitgeist.
As The Economist reported in 2010:
The forecast is close to becoming received wisdom. A flurry of new books with titles such as “Global Warring” and “Climate Conflict” offer near-apocalyptic visions. Cleo Paskal, at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, predicts that floods, storms, the failure of the Indian monsoon and agricultural collapse will bring “enormous, and specific, geopolitical, economic, and security consequences for all of us…the world of tomorrow looks chaotic and violent”. Jeffrey Mazo of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, also in London, calls climate change an “existential threat” and fears it could usher in “state failure and internal conflict” in exposed places, notably Africa.
[UPDATE: See below for note on Cleo Paskal] This piece, unlike most of the coverage at the time, was skeptical:
Yet surprisingly few facts support these alarming assertions. Widely touted forecasts such as for 200m climate refugees in the next few decades seem to have been plucked from the air. Little or no academic research has looked at questions such as whether Bangladeshis displaced by a rising sea would move a series of short distances over a long period, or (more disruptively) a greater distance immediately.
There were some respected scholars, such as Geoff Dabelko, trying to tamp down the hype. “Don’t oversell the link between climate change and violent conflict or terrorism,” he advised several years ago in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
But it was too late. A cottage industry was born and it built on the climate/conflict meme. In 2011, researchers published a study in Nature that got wide media play. Ed Carr, a geographer and development expert, wondered how it made it through peer review. He was blunt:
Look, the problem here is simple: the connection between conflict and the environment is shaky, at best…The simple fact is that for interstate conflict, there are more negative cases than positive case . . . that is, where a particular environmental stressor exists, conflict DOES NOT happen far more often than it does. Intrastate conflict is much, much more complex, though there are some indications that the environment does play a triggering/exacerbating role in conflict at this scale.
Carr goes on to lay out an extensive rebuttal to the Nature study and concludes:
This paper is a mess. But it got into print and made waves in a lot of popular outlets (for example, here and here). Why? Because it is reviving the long-dead corpse of environmental determinism…people really want the environment to in some way determine human behavior (we like simple explanations for complex events), even if that determination takes place via influences nuanced by local environmental variation, etc. Environmental determinism fell apart in the face of empirical evidence in the 1930s. But it makes for a good, simple narrative of explanation where we can just blame conflict on climate cycles that are beyond our control, and look past the things like colonialism that created the foundation for modern political economies of conflict. This absolves the Global North of responsibility for these conflicts, and obscures the many ways in which these conflicts could be addressed productively.
Well, it so happens that the same researchers are it again, and Carr will probably be none too pleased to see that they are still seemingly intent on reviving the long-dead corpse of environmental determinism. 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
I’m tempted to cut to the chase and tell you at the outset that conservationists have come a long away from the sense of urgency that in the mid-1980s gave birth to the field of conservation biology, which Michael Soule defined as a “crisis discipline.” True, for foot soldiers carrying the biodiversity flag the core mission of conservation biology remains intact, as Mark Burgman, the new editor-in-chief of the field’s flagship journal, has just reaffirmed:
In 2000, Ed Wilson described conservation biology candidly as “a discipline with a deadline” and an “intensive-care ward of ecology” (volume 14, issue 1, pp. 1–3). Not much has changed. Triage is topical, and translating science into policy recommendations and action remains a key theme in many papers.
At the ground level, however, where conservation managers must reconcile the needs of human and ecological communities, much has changed. This has been a bitter pill for purists and some of them refuse to swallow it. For pragmatists, well, they now live by the creed of a Rolling Stones classic. 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
When I was a boy growing up on suburban Long Island in the 1970s, my grandfather had a chicken coop enclosed behind a mesh wire fence in his West Babylon backyard. Like many of his generation seared by the 1930s depression, he developed a self-reliance and waste-not ethic (dare I leave food on my dinner plate) before it became fashionable to live off the land and reduce your carbon footprint.
When my brother and I would visit our grandparents we were sometimes recruited to help sweep the chicken coop. This disabused me of ever wanting to have a chicken coop of my own later in life. If you have not grown up on a farm and you have never worried about having enough food to eat, and you have cleaned a chicken coop just once in your life, then you know what I’m talking about. 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.