A Sideswipe on Ag Biotech

By Chris Mooney | August 22, 2011 3:56 am

Jonathan Adler, who writes much about science from a conservative perspective, doesn’t like anti-GMO yahoos on the left. Neither do I. Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, he writes:

It has been clear for decades that the means through which a crop strain is developed has no bearing on the health or environmental risks such a crop could pose. The scientific consensus here is broader and more stable than on climate change and other contentious environmental questions. The National Academy of Sciences, British Royal Society and EU have all concluded that modern biotech techniques are no more dangerous than traditional crop modification methods. Nevertheless, due to progressive environmental activism and fear campaigns, crops developed with modern biotechnology are subject to greater regulatory scrutiny. As Federoff notes, a reactive precautionary stance may have been justified years ago when biotechnology was new, but there is no scientific justification for such a position today. Yet progressive environmentalists continue to oppose modern agricultural biotechnology — and the supposed defenders of scientific integrity have little to say about it.

That last link, you’ll note, is to this blog.

Why is this a low blow? Because I don’t like anti-GMO advocacy or its scientific exaggerations, and I have spoken and written about this, and Adler knows it very well.

How does he know? I need only link to his own review of my book, 2005’s The Republican War on Science:

UPDATE: One of the best examples of the politicization of science by the “left” — and one of the few that Mooney acknowledges — is the treatment of agricultural biotechnology, and the decision to subject such products to more stringent regulatory review than those developed with other methods. This policy has no scientific basis, as the National Academy of Sciences has stated many times.

Yup, it’s right there in my book, where I ding Greenpeace for the whole “Frankenfoods” demagoguery.

Did Adler forget? Or does he merely sideswipe for no reason?

I don’t exactly write about GM foods or crops every day, but I’ve written about the topic, I’m aware of the state of the science is, etc. Of course.

Adler also has the politics of the issue wrong, incidentally. It’s precisely because the risks of ag biotech are overblown that the left is not mostly opposed to these foods, and consequently, resistance has largely failed to catch on United States. Europe may have more left extremes–and more issues with food in general. But over here, we liberals listen to our scientists and update our views accordingly–this is a core part of our political identities. Consequently, the issue really plays out much like nuclear power–some left activists are emotionally opposed, and hype the risks, but those who listen to the science and the scientists just can’t take that sort of a stance. And you don’t find mainstream liberals being either anti-nuclear, or anti-GM.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Conservatives and Science

Comments (22)

  1. GM Foods is a very frustrating topic for me. I’ve been trying to write a blog post defending the safety of GM Foods to convince my liberal friends to accept them; however, unlike Climate Change science, GM Food research is not well publicized on the internet, only anti-GM food information comes up in Google searches. Every time I argue with my brother about GM Foods, he can cite studies from organizations with fancy sounding names like the following:


    Where are all the studies supporting the safety of GM Foods and demonstrating that they have been rigorously tested? With Climate Change I can point to hundreds of online resources supporting the scientific consensus, but I don’t have that with GM Foods.

    Fedoroff’s NYT’s article infuriates because it doesn’t cite any evidence either, it just makes assertions. She asserts that GM Foods go through unfairly rigorous testing, she asserts the FDA has thoroughly researched and signed off on their safety, and she asserts the European Union has produced a report, but won’t provide a reference or a link to it. Meanwhile, I’m getting my ass kicked in debate after debate with my liberal friends over this who have amassed a mountain of (mostly questionable) online resources arguing that GM crops are causing allergies and illnesses, are not thoroughly tested by independent bodies, and are wiping out small farmers who can’t afford to pay for them.

    Can anyone point me to a well-referenced blog post or article arguing the safety of GM Foods with links to primary documents that I can send people to online? Even Wikipedia doesn’t have links to primary documents demonstrating the thorough testing of GM Foods for safety.

  2. Mary

    @Ryan: thank you for trying to do this. A lot of us who have been in this battle for a long time are lonely….

    Good sources: National Academy of Sciences. I like to use these because they are the weight of scientific evidence type of thing. I’m not going to link to each because I’ll be in spam filter hell, but try this:

    http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10977&page=R1 SAFETY OF GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOODS

    This shows that the risks from GMOs are not different from various other types of conventional breeding. It also has example of conventionally bred foods that had to be pulled (potatoes and celery are good ones). There are 2 more NAP texts that cover GMOs too.

    Pamela Ronald’s blogging is very helpful at Tomorrow’s Table (on Science Blogs) and before that she had a great post called “10 Things about GE crops to Scratch From Your Worry List”. http://pamelaronald.blogspot.com/2008/08/10-things-about-ge-crops-to-scratch.html I wish this would get updated with even more current references which we have now.

    She’s is also contributing to this awesome plant science blog: biofortified.org where you will find allies and people who can help you debunk most of the whack-a-mole arguments we find.

    Lately I’m also finding Mark Lynas is an ally (look for his blog and the recent Greenpeace destruction on wheat) and Keith Kloor (a climate blogger generally, but also see his GMO section).

  3. Chris, while you may have a good position for some of the GMO products. On the plus side, the introduction of a new strain of Golden Rice with additional vitamin A has been a very good health benefit in some countries. However, there arehat effects tat you carelessly ignore.

    The first is that, once release for public use, the genetic material is now free to become part of the overall ecology. Such was the case with roundup read rape seed (canola oil) and it’s spread by natural means to adjoining farms. Thus, once Monsanto has a single farmer using it’s seed, the no other farmer can maintain their own strain as it would be contaminated by the Monsanto genetics and, under patent law, Monsanto will sue to stop its use. The result is a monoculture (not good) and a monopoly for Monsanto.

    The 2nd is that we don’t know the long term effects of such manipulation, especially for the addition of BT to crops like corn. The purpose of this genetic modification is to have corn produce it’s own insecticidal toxins. This seems to rather odd to me, that we would take action against insecticides on products for human consumption… such as apples… but feel free to add the same insecticides to the corn we eat. And, once again, the BT modification spreads freely with corn pollen and thus eventually, all corn could be considered Bt .

    The examples I chose show the good and the bad. On the good side, it is possible to produce crops that are healthier to eat. The other two examples do not enhance the food value of the product, but rather are designed to increase yields for the farmer at the expense of food value.

    Then, consider some so called pharma crops, such as modifying a crops genetics to produce insulin. If that that modification were to be released so that it can spread via pollen, then we might be providing excess insulin to patients who need to have tight control of their intake.

    You come across as too self assured without doing enough analysis of the full range of factors.

    I would be happy to see more of the Golden Rice type food value enhancement of crops and a lot less of what looks like Monsanto’s attempt to gain a monopoly position for it’s seeds.

  4. Mary

    I have replied to Ryan with some resources, but it’s probably in spam hell. Check that Chris, please?

    But in addition–I want to note that most of the anti-science battles I encounter on the left are on GMOs. Sometimes vax, but less so. I battled for years at DailyKos against the prevailing sentiment there. All the standard “shill” and “working for Monsatan” and all the other stuff was hurled at me, and I was shunned in the enviro community there for the most part. I wish I could agree with you on this: “we liberals listen to our scientists and update our views accordingly”, but it has not been my experience on this topic.

  5. M.R.

    There’s “safety” and then there’s “safety”. I don’t think GM foods are toxic – except to pests (and maybe by extension ….?) but I DO think that there are dangers to the diversity of existing genomes, especially of plants. When GM grains escape and contaminate natural strains, they present a danger to the possibilities of plant survival, particularly in an age of changing climates. (They also pose a danger to farmers, who may be constrained to purchase new seed if their crops will no longer replicate themselves, or be called criminals if they do.) And now GM alfalfa has been shoved down the throats of formerly staunch organic businesses, resulting in purchasers no longer really knowing what they’re buying. At the very least, all GM foods should be clearly labeled. If they’re harmless and no one fears them, no one’s hurt. If we choose not to buy them – then agribusiness is hurt. Can’t have that, can we?

  6. Jay Fox

    You cannot find these “rigorous studies” because they do not exist. The GM food producers refuse to let their products be tested by reputable entities. Their own tests get buried and no one outside the organization gets to see the results. We have to take their word about the supposed safety.

    Some of us can actually taste the difference between GM and non-GM products. We also notice certain difficulties when those products are consumed. This is why we want those products labeled. If you do not think this is a problem, go ahead and stuff your face with them. Just don’t try to force me to. Label it and let the market decide.

    I find it interesting that the producers lobbied and got permission to dump all this stuff into the food supply without any warnings or even identification. Are they afraid that people will not buy it unless it’s hidden? Really? Like the Flavr-Savr tomatoes that everyone ran out and bought by the bushel?

    And leave the political labels out of it. No one ever accused me of being liberal, but I have plenty of liberal friends who feel the same way. Conservative ones, too.

    As far as Europeans are concerned, since we’re making comparisons, they, along with almost the entire rest of the world, do not see most of science the way most illiterate, uneducated, uninterested, and ignorant Americans do. So who’s right? I side with the rest of the world on this one.

  7. Justin Ma

    Ryan, great point. As the NYT article mentions, the assessments are done via the FDA, USDA, and EPA, plus any other international agencies at export markets. Unfortunately, that means they’re not available via the usual peer-reviewed searches. I took some time to look for the information, and the best way I found is to do a search on an insertion event-by-event basis. I had the same problems you did. But it appears there’s a few databases that collect this information. I’ve provided some links on the Monsanto 40-3-2 event, which is RR Soybeans. You should be able to find other examples yourself.


    Finally, I have to debate the assertions that mainstream liberals aren’t anti-GM. Anti-GM sentiment is widespread; it is so pervasive that I’ve met many mainstream conservatives and liberals that are anti-GM activists.

    Justin Ma
    MS Student Plant Breeding

  8. Matt McClure

    Ryan: here are 2 links for you


    If you can access the science literature there are multiple reports showing that GMO crops are healthy and there there are no nutritional advantages to organic vs conventional crops. One issue that bothers me is when people think that organic production is safer as it doesn’t use pesticides or other chemicals. Organic production does use chemicals, just organic chemical, many of them are the basis for ‘conventional chemicals’ .

  9. Chris —

    I’m sorry you thought it was a sideswipe, but I think the charge was justified. I ran a search on your blog for “biotechnology” on your blog and little of substance comes up. While you acknowledged the problem of anti-science anti-biotech activism in your book, you’ve had very little to say about it since. Why is this a problem? Because the anti-scientific anti-biotech view has very real consequences. You may like to think that liberals are open to science on this issue, but why do we see no evidence of this in actual policy? Why are GMOs subject to greater regulatory scrutiny than their non-GMO equivalents? Why has no “liberal” administration done anything about this? Sure, the anti-Greenpeace activism hasn’t prompted a broad social movement, but it hasn’t had to. As the article to which I linked discusses, the current regulatory process adopts the precise anti-GMO bias that the NAS and its foreign equivalents have warned against. Given this fact, I think it’s fair to find your relative quiet on this issue rather conspicuous.


    P.S. I suspect you’ll like this post a bit more

  10. Norman Johnson

    For background reading (and tons of references) on GMOs, I’d recommend John Avise’s The Hope, the Hype, and the Reality of Genetic Engineering.


  11. Chris Mooney


    There are lots of things that one could be writing about. Your argument is basically that I ought to write about what *you* want me to cover. That’s a very weak argument. You should search the blog for nuclear power, and look at how much I have upbraided the left about this–or vaccines.

  12. Mary

    @JHA: I think that’s unfair. I am heavily involved in discussions on this topic, and Chris’ focus is just not that–this is just not a blog I head to for discussions of GMOs. Bloggers are allowed to choose what they want to cover.

    I wish there were more places to have the discussion. It’s quite a niche topic, I’m afraid. And for the importance that farming and food security have on this planet, it’s especially sad that more people aren’t aware of the issues.

    That said, the current places it does come up are just the same whack-a-mole over and over. It’s quite a stalemate. There are few constructive discussions.

  13. Nullius in Verba

    “There are lots of things that one could be writing about. Your argument is basically that I ought to write about what *you* want me to cover.”

    If there are so many things to write about, then why are you almost always writing about global warming? Not that I’m objecting – I like it – but you do expend a vast amount of effort on a disproportionately narrow front, and I think that was the point.Things have shifted a bit lately towards evolution and economics, with the Democrat election campaign starting up, but for long periods of time, more than half of all the articles have been on global warming and topics closely related.

    The argument is not that you ought to write what other people want, but that you ought to be writing about the entire science-politics boundary more evenly.

    Of course, you write about what you care about – and you care about global warming far more than you care about GM foods. Or, for that matter, fears about pesticides, mobile phone radiation, vaccines, food additives, nutrition, the number of artificial chemicals in everyday life, road safety, species conservation, spending on “big” science versus small, biotechnology, biomedicine, nanotechnology, police forensics, information technology, open software, the computerisation of the markets, computer privacy/security/censorship, intellectual property and the information pirates, human augmentation, the changes in society brought about by the capabilities of mobile phones and social networks, search engines, surveillance, satellite location, space exploration, deep sea exploration, mineral resources, major engineering projects able to shift entire landscapes around like moving rivers and tunnels and land reclamation, and …, and so on. You get the idea.

    It’s not that you never write about any of it, but you don’t write about it nearly as much.

    You can, of course, write as you wish. But other people do notice, and comment.

  14. Chris, Since you mention nuclear as an example, let me divert onto that topic. I am a Green, and once was CoChair of the EcoAction Committee, Green Party US.

    In all of your background reading on nuclear power, have you bothered to read the study of the effects of uranium conducted by Stefanie Raymond-Whish at Northern Arizona University? Her findings were that uranium, in itself, is an estrogen mimic and causes or accelerates the development of breast cancer. Here is one link:

    So, let us consider the entire process of operating nuclear power from the mining of the uranium, through it’s process to the disposal of waste. Given the current safeguards in place, the operation of the reactor is probably the safest part of the chain of work.

    Those who proclaim the safety of nuclear, as you do, fail to consider the entire process as a system, and that is about as unscientific as can be… unless, of course, you don’t consider ecology a science.

  15. Nullius in Verba

    “Her findings were that uranium, in itself, is an estrogen mimic and causes or accelerates the development of breast cancer.”

    Lot’s of chemicals are estrogen mimics, and roughly half of all chemicals tested, natural or artificial, cause cancer at sufficiently high doses.

    So I can make exactly the same argument about peanut butter (aflatoxin, liver cancer), cabbage (indole-3-carbinol, 2-propenyl-glucosinolate, allyl isothiocyanate, chlorogenic acid, allyl cyanide, all mitogenic/carcinogenic), parsley and celery (methoxypsoralin), mushrooms (glutamyl p-hydrazinobenzoate), orange juice (limonene), basil (estragole), nutmeg (safrole), and coffee (loads of toxins – about 800 volatile chemicals of which 21 have been tested for safety and 16 of those found to be carcinogenic – but primarily caffeic acid, which is mutagenic, carcinogenic, clastogenic, and genotoxic to mammalian cells).

    ( – All the above is perfectly true – but you shouldn’t stop eating vegetables because of this. This is just an illustration of what would happen if you applied the same scare techniques the campaigners use to natural foods. The risks, while far higher than for artificial pesticides and additives, are still negligibly tiny. Probably. – )

    Modern life has changed things so much, there’s no telling what might have caused any changes in cancer rates. This sort of campaign science – aimed at claiming compensation based on spurious correlations, speculation, and logical fallacy – is something else Chris ought to be writing about, but rarely does. It causes needless anxiety and inconvenience, and discredits science generally. The endless stream of health scares in the media have become a running joke.

    In this case, it is any straw that is being clutched at to stop nuclear. But if you really believed that global warming meant the end of the world, then the problems of nuclear power would be seen as minor in comparison, and a price well worth paying to save the planet. You’d already be building several hundred nuclear power plants by now. That you don’t is a great comfort to me. It suggests that you don’t really believe in it either.

  16. Chris —

    My point is that you seem more interested in complaining about science politicization by the right than the left, as demonstrated by the relative lack of attention given to issues (like ag biotech) where the real-world consequences of such politicization are quite substantial. As I noted above, you may think liberals are open to GMOs — your OP says as much — but that’s not what we see adopted in the relevant regulatory regimes. That merely reinforces my point that you have a relative blind spot when it comes to science politicization on the left. Of course you’re free to write about what you want. I assume your choice of topics reflects your interests and concerns. But your readers are also free to draw conclusions about your priorities based on what you choose to cover.


  17. @Mary @Justin Ma @Matt McClure

    The Tomorrow’s Table, Delta Farm Press, USDA, and Oxford Press links are a very useful start. Thank you so much for sharing them.

    I would really like to get ahold of that European Union report surveying 700 peer-reviewed articles and decades of research to come to the conclusion that GM Foods are safe, but I still can’t find it anywhere. I’ll keep looking for it.

    Debating GM Foods is going to be difficult, because, as with Climate Change, the scientific position is nuanced, not 100% pro, but pro with alot of conditional statements. I think the best strategy is to focus on the benefits of GM Foods (massively reduced pesticide use, increase crop yields, economic benefits for farmers) and stress the positive developments that have come from them over the years.

  18. “Those liberals objecting to GM/nuclear power aren’t *real* liberals, because our real liberals don’t object to GM/nuclear power!”

    Do real liberals in the USA have any problems with vaccination?

  19. Chris Mooney

    Well duh, because it is far worse on the right, as I have shown convincingly and continue to show.

    But for precisely that reason, I always probe left examples, to try to make sure I’m taking in the range of variability that’s out there.

    I haven’t probed GMOs as much as nuclear and vaccines because, frankly, I think it’s less of a big issue in the U.S. It has seemed to almost fall off the map.

    Now, perhaps I was wrong about that perception, based on the new claims you’re making. But that does not prove that I have a blind spot to what’s happening on the left.

    Just consider: Which subject involving left wing science abuse is most likely to come up in a presidential debate? Nuclear, vaccines, or GMOs?

  20. Mary

    @Ryan: Is this the one you are seeking?


    At the bottom you can link to a pdf that might be the one. But I’m not certain.

  21. Considering the widespread use of GMOs in the US, I think JHA has little to complain about.

    The right, and some liberals, also make a mistake in the assertion that because some GMO risks are untrue or grossly exaggerated, all GMO risks are fictional. It deserves some extra regulatory hurdles, especially now that we’re seeing GMO genes in weeds. It’s not the same as traditional plant breeding.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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