Is there really a science-based GMO controversy? False balance captures Discover magazine

| March 11, 2013 |
(Credit: Karen Robinson/David Hoffman Library/Alamy via Discover) (Credit: Karen Robinson/David Hoffman Library/Alamy via Discover)

Discover magazine features a troubling cover story on the anti-agricultural biotechnology movement in its April issue (which you can read for free after registering at its site). Simply said, Discover gives unwarranted weight to anti-GM activists and in the process raises questions about the ability of even the most credible of science publications to avoid the perils of false balance when covering agricultural biotech.

As Keith Kloor pointed out in his sharply worded Collide-A-Scape blog (coincidentally hosted by the Discover website, where he is a respected blogger—points for Discover for encouraging this debate), the cover story focuses on the antics of GM protestors but ignores the recent push back from pro-science advocates in the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States.

Discover actually carries two reports: the cover piece profiles the GMO debate in Europe and a sidebar looks at what is happening in the U.S. Both set off shocked reactions in the Twittersphere from scientists and the science-minded.

The articles offer up a laundry list of familiar criticisms: biotech crops are untested; they hasten environmental degradation; they result in unstoppable superweeds; they pose health threats; they increase ‘dangerous’ pesticide usage; they could unleash unpredictable Frankenstein-like creatures into the world ecosystem; and so on.

These allegations—all of which are either demonstrably untrue or exaggerations of problems that are present in all of agriculture (including organic farming)—are the currency of such groups as the Environmental Working Group and the Union of Concerned Scientists, which make no pretense of their ideological rather than scientific opposition to GMOs.

Kloor quoted respected science blogger and commentator Rachael Ludwick, who pointed out that the sidebar merely rehashed anti-GMO talking points.  Charles Benbrook, she noted, is prominently quoted and identified as an “agricultural policy expert.” He’s nothing of the sort. Benbrook is an activist researcher with a long history of biased reporting about the ‘pesticide footprint’ associated with GM crops. He has few admirers in the mainstream science community and has deep financial ties to the organics

As Ludwick noted: “GMO foods are … subject to repeated studies by scientists after they come on the market for toxicity and other risks. Overwhelmingly, these studies show no problems for human health. You wouldn’t know that from the Discover piece, since it chose to mention problems found by a small minority of researchers, often heavily criticized. The piece wiggles around this issue by noting it’s hard to prove a causal link in humans. The reality is that links aren’t even proved in animals.”

Discover allows Benbrook to assert, unchallenged, that the “science just hasn’t been done” on GMO crops. This is just poor reporting. “There are hundreds upon hundreds of studies … on the EPA’s website” evaluating the safety of GMOs, far more than has been done on conventionally grown foods, where some genuine health-related problems in fact have been found, Ludwick noted.

Ludwick provided the example of the kiwi fruit, which was introduced to the U.S. without testing and has since been found to be allergenic. More recently, new celery varieties and potato varieties have been introduced that were found to have natural toxicants that are harmful to some people, including farm workers who handle the crops on a daily basis. There are no comparable examples of any GMO crop or food presenting such health challenges.

By focusing on anti-GMO demonstrators in Germany, the cover piece also ignored the evolving views in Europe, illustrated most dramatically by the public conversion of former anti-GMO campaigner Mark Lynas. Lynas, who was part of an eco-terrorist group linked to Greenpeace during the 1990s, has been open about his conversion from ideologue to empiricist—a change of heart and mind that has outraged the hard left. (Will Storr wrote more about Lynas’s travails in a fascinating profile that appeared in The Observer over the weekend.)

As Kloor noted, there are numerous signs that progressives are reassessing their once dogmatic anti-GMO stance—although Discover missed this trend entirely. It did not even mention the turnabout in public opinion that began in the UK last summer when scientists decided to mount a public campaign to dissuade anti-GMO Green Party protesters from destroying their research. The clash played out for weeks, made headlines around the world and led to a public reexamination of the anti-biotech cause. Even The Guardian, a great newspaper but congenitally anti-GMO, called the counter protest a turning point of sorts in the public discourse over GMOs—not unlike the international uproar the greeted the Séralini fiasco last fall.

Kloor remains one of the few progressive journalists worthy of the “progressive” label when it comes to straight talk on GMOs. The media, by and large, seem willing to engage in a false balancing exercise between sober scientists and anti-GMO campaigners whenever the issue is discussed. It’s what media experts call “false equivalence”—the strong tendency to give equal time and credence to varying “sides” of a story, even if only one side’s views are grounded in empirically verifiable research.

Mainstream scientists—almost all of whom are politically liberal—are finally beginning to speak out about the false equivalency problem that has plagued the media’s coverage of the genetics revolution and global food security challenges. The latest to go public is molecular biologist Alan McHughen, who wrote a comprehensive take down of the junk science profiteers in the anti-GMO movement in an article last week in Canada’s Troy Media chain of newspapers.

The media, he wrote, often mis-frames “controversies” as merely differences between two equally valid positions. When a scientist reports something later proven wrong, he or she is held accountable by peer review and the sharp opinions of competing researchers. But activists elude that accountability, he wrote, because they are judged by a media that often lacks scientific expertise and can be swayed by passionate rhetoric and anecdotal “evidence” in lieu of empirical studies.

“[T]he junk scientist, when called out on an incorrect prediction, simply moves on to the next issue or the next book,” McHughen wrote. “No accountability, no defending past statements when they are shown to be false. Social media fuel the fire, as anyone can publish any outlandish junk science claim on the Internet. But when a plant breeder develops a strain of rice that is enhanced to help overcome vitamin A deficiency, rampant in poor tropical countries, the media interview (and give prominence to) pseudoscientific scaremongers like [Jeffrey] Smith instead of authentic experts in nutrition or agronomy, people who might actually bring legitimate questions and concerns to the discussion.”

We are in deep trouble, McHughen noted, when the media and the public are willing to equate the views of Jeffrey Smith or Jeremy Rifkin with those of Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Laureate and one of the pioneers behind the green revolution that has saved tens of millions of lives. Borlaug, it happens, is an ardent proponent of GM technology.

“Overcoming junk science and allowing a truly informed public debate on both the risks and benefits of GMO crops and foods require supporting legitimate research into GMO safety and providing the results to the public in a transparent manner,” McHughen  wrote. “Until this occurs, the junk scientists will continue to solicit donations by invoking the Big Bad GMO in order to strike fear into the hearts of the unsuspecting populace.”

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and STATS (Statistical Assessment Service) at George Mason University.

  • Jonsey

    I love the hypocrisy. They’re wrong and anti-science about GMO.

    Yet the same idiots got it all right and the debate is over for anthropomorphic climate change.

    We used to call them useful idiots. They just made science clearer.
    Now they’re just idiots.

    • palmvos

      I suspect that there is a fancy name for this. whats happening is that they find that science is backing their feelings on a subject so they are YAH Science! but then the scinece doesnt back another… so now its biased, corporate corrupted, etc. etc.
      the specific combination is based on an erronious feeling that somehow we need to get back to ‘nature’ nevermind than many (me for example) would be dead in such a world. it is a thread running though western thought. ‘their lives were nasty brutish and short’ was a comment about the issues with the back to ‘nature’ people.

  • tg

    Great article. It is refreshing to see an unbiased point of view on this issue. Thank you.

  • hmrhonda
    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jon-Entine/547229912 Jon Entine

      Apparently you did not read the study. It shows an association, that’s it, at levels thousands of times higher than what humans are exposed to. If you are at all familiar with chemicals, glyphosates are among the mildest pesticides….hundreds of time milder than, say, atrazine, which itself profiles as entirely benign. So unless your argument is that we should end the use of chemicals in agriculture, there’s not much there there to your comment. We need chemicals to feed the world–that’s what launched the green revolution. The combination of GE crops and mild pesticides is a boon–to people and the environment.

      • hmrhonda

        An association is good enough for me to want to have my food labeled and the right to ingest or not ingest food as I decide for myself. If you think it is so safe, I challenge you to drink a glass of glyphosate. In the tons we are using (not just in agriculture) the ground water is becoming more and more polluted in addition to the direct spraying on the plants. OK, if it is so mild and it is only “sprayed” on the field and then the produce is harvested, don’t drink a glass, spray it on your tongue instead. I don’t mean to be vulgar. I am presenting you a challenge if you are convinced that it is harmless.

        • Rick

          OK — are you willing to directly ingest the pesticides that are approved for organic farming. Organic does not mean pesticide free, it just means only non-synthetic pesticides are allowed. Some of these are more both more toxic to humans and less effective than synthetic alternatives, so organic producers have to spray more often to have less success.

          • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

            Actually, organic farmers can and so use dozens of synthetic pesticides as well as hundreds of non-synthetic ones, many of which are far more toxic than synthetic ones that have been evaluated for toxicity. Here’s a link to USDA approved chemicals for organic farming: http://tinyurl.com/mrpljpd

          • Reynard Vulpes

            and why I refuse to even suggest I garden organically. The name has been corrupted.

            Many of us garden with NO insecticides. We use crop interplanting of repelling plants, we remay sensitive crops (usually less then two weeks needed on emergent crops), We deep compost to be ride of pests, burn some plants that don’t die easily in composting and other non chemical means.

            And we use only natural rock soil amendments and composted manures. I’m 80, and have gardened this way since I was 7 years old. Mom would not put things on the garden that didn’t belong there.

            If it can kill a bug, enough of it can at least damage you Rey Rey.

            We easily produced more than three families could eat on a quarter acre, year around practices as well.

            The problem is we have moved away from farmer and gardener based crop science. In some parts of the world, outside of a few luxuries the entire diet is locally grown by the families that eat it. And they have time for art, music, story telling and napping in the hammock.

            Where this doesn’t happen is where mono culture is practiced, and that or the profits others derive, little goes to the farmer. Rice is typical. Two years failure of rice crop and farmers children are dying and there is no seed stock left…they had to feed it to family.

            And GMO crops fail too.

      • hmrhonda

        And PS. How did you quantify how much “humans are exposed to”?

  • Nathan

    I’ve not found a study that accounts for long term effects of genetic hybridization, or that has done a fair comparison with organic food. There are a lot of ethical questions about the companies that sponsor GMO science as well, which calls into question the sponsored science.

    The right to challenge farmers on the natural spread of pollen, hitting them with huge anti-patent lawsuits, may be legal, but not ethically sound. Practices that force poor countries into exclusive use of hybrid seed cycles rather than re-sowing is also questionable. There were former environment controversies also associated with these companies. These issues call the people generating them into question on all fronts. The law should match the ethical ground on this.

    I’ve been looking for valid science on both fronts and have only found that scientists have been avoiding being associated with the anti GMO “radicals”. The labeling of these people has gotten in the way of true science, which has to be unbiased by nature, and test likely consequences. The issues raised by anti-GMO groups may be suspicious on the front end, as they are not scientists and are reacting emotionally to a clearly controversial topic; but they are right in the fact that further study needs done.

    Labeling would be a good thing, too, because allergies to things like fish means that using fish genes to alter a vegetable may result in a potentially lethal allergic reaction in some individuals. Science must consider everything. Has that actually been done on this very complex issue? Are the studies done perhaps somewhat redundant in the issues that they address?

    • Michael Wojahn

      Genetic Hybridization is a fact of nature, and mankind has been choosing the winners for thousands of years.
      No one has been forced into using GMO’s. They have been embraced whole heartedly by the farm community. Farmers in Italy would love to get their hands on GMO corn varieties with the european corn borer devastating their crops, but the government is holding them back.
      GMO’s have had more study done on them than any food crop. Conversely many dangerous “organic” crops are accepted without comment as in the case of some celery and potato varieties.
      In most cases trading genetics between species is not what happens. More often genetic modification is promoting or strengthening the already existing gene. When trans-genetic transfer is done, new doors are opened and much more testing must be done.
      The studies are being done, and science being science, it takes years to be sure. Years which the fear mongers exploit.

  • Clinton Carroll

    http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/20516-in-depth-journal-retracts-independent-study-linking-monsanto-gmo-corn-to-cancer-in-ratsthis article has nothing in it that supports the claim of anti GMO just another word play and miss direction however here I an independent study that they are trying to discredit with the usual buzz words like “inconclusive” however it was industry standard and has not been disproven, however I’m sure they will soon do a tainted study to rebuke it, if you don’t understand how works by now then your a fool and eat up! There is a huge media misinformation campaign going on right now to combat the gmo labeling legislation and they are not afraid to outright lie, in the end, if it’s so safe then just label it and let us decide!