Is Grist Joining the Science-Based World on Biotechnology?

By Keith Kloor | July 9, 2013 8:15 am

Several years ago, well before Mark Lynas made his famous public apology for being an anti-GMO activist, I asked him in an interview to explain his change of mind. What prompted it, I wondered. His response:

There was no “Road to Damascus” conversion, where there’s a sudden blinding flash and you go, “Oh, my God, I’ve got this wrong.” There are processes of gradually opening one’s mind and beginning to take seriously alternative viewpoints, and then looking more closely at the weight of the evidence.

If you want some insight into what set the stage for Lynas’s turnabout on GMOs, read this Observer profile on him. The short version is that he had a worldview that was governed by ideology, not science. His mind only gradually opened after he began questioning the behavior and worldview of the group of greens he had belonged to. That, in turn, led to a rethinking of his own environmental mindset, which today is science-based.

Ideally, more greens would follow suit and let science, not ideology (or ideology disguised as pseudo-academic babble), guide them. Unfortunately, this is not the case with GMOs. It’s also not the case in progressive, green-friendly media circles, where GMO commentary is as absurdly slanted as anything written about climate change on the Wall Street Journal editorial page. And no site has personified this ideologically blinkered worldview on biotechnology more than Grist. It’s just been flat out embarrassing. Someone over there must have finally realized it, because it looks like they want to start fresh with a new food writer, Nathanael Johnson, who says he wants to

get past the rhetoric, fully understand the science, and take the high ground in this debate — in the same way that greens have taken the high ground in talking about climate. It’s hard to make the case that we should trust science and act to stem global warming, while at the same time we are scoffing at the statements [PDF] of *snort* scientists on genetic modification.

Ah yes, I too have noticed this double standard in what I have called a tale of two sciences. Johnson’s approach is a breath of fresh air for Grist:

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing a series of pieces, attempting to highlight legitimate concerns and identify the arguments that should be taken out back and … retired. In the courtroom, a judge will often work with both sides to determine a set of facts that all can agree upon, before moving on to argue about how the law should apply to those facts. I’d like to do something similar here: sort out established facts, and gain a sense for what the bulk of the science indicates.

This is a laudable goal. It’s also one he should be able to achieve, for as Michael Specter observed in the New Yorker earlier in the year, it would “not have been hard” for Mark Lynas to previously discover the facts on GMOs, had he bothered to look. “Many people have written about them,” Specter drily noted.

And now so too will Grist, it seems.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized
MORE ABOUT: biotechnology, GMOs, Grist
  • mem_somerville

    Yesterday was very strange. First the Mail piece, then the Grist thing. I really almost did fall off my chair when I saw the Grist one.

    And there was even a piece in the Guardian where John Vidal didn’t seethe and sneer when he had to use the phrase “genetic modification”.

    But I still feel sorta like a guy has turned up with candy and flowers after a domestic incident–I don’t really trust that these are long-term alterations of the status quo.

  • Robert Wilson

    Interesting that Grist is maybe becoming more enlightened. I reserve judgement of course. I had hoped something similar might have happened with the Guardian’s environment blogging network. Maybe some nu-enviro voices could have been let in. But alas.

    As for “academic pseudo-babble,” yes the Guardian now seem to have got a lot of that now. A nice shiny blog dedicated to it, from the science policy folk. People who spend half their time criticizing scientists for how they communicate, but seem incapable of stringing together a meaningful sentence, if you’ll me exaggerate for a minute.

    It seems to be a new approach though. Instead of health and environmental concerns string out some babble about power. Anytime you see people tweet something about GM crops and corporate always check if they tweeted it on an Apple device.

  • Colleen L. Young

    I really wonder why?….if they’re safe, fine. Of course, they don’t ALLOW outside testing, so, just trust companies that have told us things like DDT was perfectly safe to use in abundance, everywhere. You know what really bothers me? A handful of giant ChemCorps owning all the seed crops for their profit. Farmers can’t legally save the seed anymore. Then they have to buy seed yearly & have to use this same company’s fertilizer, herbicide, fungicide & pesticides & buy more every year. We now have depleted soil, & super weeds & super pests……now they need STRONGER chemicals……HHHHMMMMmmmmmm, makes me wonder why some people are now embracing GMO’s?

    • Kevin Bonham

      Colleen, GMO is not the reason that farmers don’t save their seeds. Even conventional breeders produce seeds through hybridization, so in order to get the traits farmers want, they have to buy new seed every year. And there’s a reason farmers buy that seed – they’re not legally required to… it’s better.

      See Myth 4: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/10/18/163034053/top-five-myths-of-genetically-modified-seeds-busted

      Also, GMOs *can* and *are* independently tested for safety (http://gmopundit.blogspot.com/p/450-published-safety-assessments.html)

      There are legitimate concerns about current agricultural practices – the rise of herbicide resistance, monoculture, unsustainable farming etc. Let’s have a conversation about that rather than continuing to parrot the myths of anti-GMO hysteria.

    • Tom Scharf

      The way product testing works with the FDA is the companies producing the products are required to perform standardized required testing and show the results to the FDA before they are allowed to sell the product.

      The companies fund this testing themselves so that the US taxpayer does not have to pay for it, not due to some inferred mysterious conspiracy you are referring to.

      If you want to test any commercially available product, go buy it, and pay for the testing yourself. You can present your test data to the FDA and maybe they will take action.

      Outside testing has resulted in the withdrawal of products from the markets on many occasions, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry where product effectiveness is shown to be lacking, or for previously undiscovered side effects.

  • jh

    “in the same way that greens have taken the high ground in talking about climate.”

    *snort*

  • jh

    Keith, I’m still baffled by your idea that reporters should just accept and report everything that “science” tells them without question or criticism. Do political reporters do that? :) When did the idea emerge that reporters simply pass on and simplify information for the public?

    Reporters should be actively challenging everything that both science and science’s critics claim. I don’t see that happening at all, not even here. You challenge only the basic question of “acceptance” or “denial” of science, or perhaps the hypocrisy of “accepting” science on one issue and “denying” science on another issue. Really, what you’re doing has nothing at all to do with science. Your approach treats science as a set of beliefs that must be accepted or rejected as a group.

    But science isn’t like that. On some issues, the science is clear. On other issues, the science ain’t so clear. The “best science” may be decisive in one case and worthless in another. Today’s best science is sometimes tomorrow’s embarrassment. It’s silly to talk about – and silly to claim to – “accept” or “reject” science as a whole. There is no whole and no two cases are the same.

    The hypocrisy issue is amusing, but not because it has anything to do with the “proper” approach to science. It’s amusing because it’s a fun and easy way to needle people who claim to be riding the Moral high horse of Science.

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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