Michael Pollan as GMO ‘denialist’ dupes credulous New York Times

| October 22, 2013 |
Image via New York Times. Image via New York Times.

This title is stark. Stay with me. This is not a hit piece on Michael Pollan. This is a disturbing story about the misuse of the power of journalism by one of the most, if not the most, influential food writers in the world.

Michael Pollan is a big deal, arguably more influential on agriculture policy than the Secretary of Agriculture and certainly one of the most powerful figures in journalism. He is the author of five books, all best sellers, professor of journalism at the University of California-Berkeley and one of the most cited and quoted commentators on food and the farm in the world, with more than 330,000 followers on Twitter, many of whom consider him a hero. Although the public perception of him is just the opposite, he is not a reputable science journalist or—by his own admission—an objective reporter—on organics or agriculture.

Why? Because Pollan dissimulates when it comes to discussing agricultural genetic engineering—GMOs. He fiercely rejects the characterization that he is a “dyed-in-the-wool opponent of genetic engineering,” as he has put it, and in judiciously selected interviews, he presents himself as a moderate on the controversy.

“I haven’t seen any evidence that’s persuaded me that there’s any danger to health [from GMOs],” he said on National Public Radio just last week.

When fielding tough questions, he tries to present himself as Solomonic. “… I don’t think the technology itself is intrinsically evil,” he told Nathanael Johnson in an August interview in Grist. “I can imagine applications I would support….I actually think my position on GM is somewhat nuanced. Being skeptical about science and technology is very much in the scientific spirit…..You can accept that GM is safe—the narrow scientific issue—without accepting that it’s a good idea for the American food system, or has contributed much of value.”

GMOs are not harmful, Pollan appears to be saying in these interviews, but he believes that its current uses promote large-scale agriculture, which he abhors. Fair enough. If that were the essence of his views, he’d be a welcome contributor to a necessary public discussion about the future of farming and food.

But what is the real world according to Pollan? What does he say and write when he is not among friends at Grist or participating in fawning PDAs with a fellow foodie for Smithsonian magazine. The reality is that Pollan regularly, and increasingly, talks out of both sides of his mouth—there, I wrote it—and because of his influence he is inflaming a discussion about crop biotechnology that has already gone off the rails.

Being Michael Pollan

We caught a glimpse of the true Michael Pollan this week, and it wasn’t pretty. On Monday, an organization known as the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER), issued a statement declaring, there is “No scientific consensus on GMO safety.” To those familiar with the science of GMOs and the safety testing record, the full statement reads like farce. It has 93 signators, not one considered a mainstream scientist—a ‘Who’s Who’ of anti-biotechnology campaigners.

A recent paper by independent Italian scientists noted there have been 1783 studies on safety and health issues related to GMOs over the last ten years alone, including many publicly funded studies, confirming the safety of GMOs. The literal avalanche of GMO safety studies, short term and long, have prompted more than 100 of the world’s independent science bodies to conclude that foods made from genetically modified crops are as safe or safer than conventional or organic varieties.

So who is behind this bizarre declaration? ENSSER, for those not familiar with it, is an organization with a mission. Its members believe—this is faith and not science— that the debate over GMOs is over, that the technology is harmful and should be banned or restricted out of existence. Its members are among the most high profile anti-GMO activists in Europe. Remember the pictures of rats supposedly twisted into cancerous monsters after eating GMO corn that were blasted across cyberspace and onto ‘laugh-out-loud’ pop shows like Dr. Oz? The rats were props for humans, according to the notorious 2012 Gilles-Erich Séralini study that stands as one of the most discredited experiments in scientific history. Séralini is a signee of this statement, along with co-author Nicolas Defarge, who is ENSSER’s Deputy Chairman.

What did mainstream scientists—those without a precooked position on crop biotechnology, whose judgments are shaped by the evolving empirical evidence—have to say about the Séralini study? Six French national academies (Agriculture, Medicine, Pharmacy, Science, Technology and Veterinarians) issued an extraordinary joint statement condemning the study and the journal that published it. The paper was reviewed and refuted by the most prominent independent international science organizations and every food standards agency of note, including French HCB and the National Agency for Food Safety, the Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie, Technical University of Denmark, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, Brazilian National Technical Commission on Biosafety and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Quoting the EFSA: “The study as reported by Séralini et al. was found to be inadequately designed, analysed and reported…. Taking into consideration Member States’ assessments and the authors’ answer to critics, EFSA finds that the study as reported by Séralini et al. is of insufficient scientific quality for safety assessments.”

To mainstream scientists and science journalists, saying that GMOs pose any serious or unusual health threats is akin to climate change denialism or pretending that creationism should be discussed in the same breath as evolution. The only well known dissenters from this consensus are groups like ENSSER—and Michael Pollan, it appears.

Here is what Pollan, always prepared to diss crop biotechnology, tweeted on the release of the report:

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Does Pollan really believe that the opinions of activist scientists with avowed opposition to GMOs match the scientific weight of 100+ independent organizations? Considering Pollan’s influence, tweets like this are the journalistic equivalent of a prominent science journalist disseminating a study by creationists that suggests there is no science consensus on evolution. It’s a disturbing example of how Pollan views empirical evidence.

Last year, without even reading the Séralini study (or just as likely and even more discouraging, being unable to critically interpret it) he jumped on the Séralini anti-GMO crusade bandwagon.

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While other left critics of crop biotechnology smelled a rat in the rat study right from the get go—thank you New York University’s Marion Nestle—it took Pollan more than three weeks before he acknowledge just how far out on the anti-GMO limb he had clambered, issuing a tweet inching away from that study. “Good article on the problems with the Seralini GMO-rat tumor study in NATURE,” he wrote. But three days later, Pollan flipped again, hyping a pro-Séralini apologia from the Orwellian named Independent Science News, a well-known pro-organic and anti-GMO front:

pollan 3

Pollan’s challenged journalistic ethics

Pollan has a history of promoting discredited studies and alarmist claims about GMOs—more evidence in a moment. Equally disturbing, however, are his views about the responsibility of journalists to be objective truth tellers. Consider the telling interview Pollan gave last April to vegan alternative lifestyle promoter John Robbins. Robbins is co-hosting the upcoming anti-GMO online summit with Jeffrey Smith, the former flying yogic instructor, who has self-published two anti-GMO books and campaigns around the world as a crop biotechnology expert.

Early in the interview, Pollan reveals his bias against GMOs. Apparently his guard is down—he is talking to a fellow activist and not a journalist. “I think there is no good reason to eat this stuff right now,” he says. “All they offer is an unquantifiable potential risk”—directly contradicting his far more measured statements to NPR and Grist. Pollan goes on to admit, and almost boast, how he misrepresented himself to get inside Monsanto, claiming to be just a “garden writer.”

Pollan is then asked about a highly publicized meta-study by independent Stanford University scientists drawing into question the claimed health benefits of organic meat and produce. The study was well received by scientists and in the mainstream science press and praised for its comprehensiveness, but it provoked a stream of savage challenges by organic activists, Pollan among them.

I will dump on the press, the press did a really sloppy job covering this study… This study had all kinds of problems… This is not a new study, it is a meta-analysis… It was a phony thing… and some studies show food grown in organic environment do produce more nutrients…

Pollan then segued into a discussion about writing about food and agriculture, where he admits he is not an objective science journalist but an advocate for the industry that has made him a millionaire. He candidly says he manipulated the credulous editors at the New York Times, where he writes regularly, by presenting only one side of food and agriculture stories.

Pollan made it clear he did not believe he had to accurately report on organics or crop biotechnology:

The media has really been on our side for the most part. I know this from writing for the New York Times where I’ve written about a lot of other topics. But when I wrote about food I never had to give equal time to the other side. I could say whatever I thought and offer my own conclusions. Say you should buy grass feed beef and organic is better, and these editors in New York didn’t realize there is anyone who disagrees with that point of view. So I felt like I got a free ride for a long time.

No reputable journalist would boast about getting a “free ride” from editors who, in these cases, apparently encouraged him to present propaganda pieces that readers naively assumed had been edited and vetted. Pollan then bemoans the fact that because of science and industry pushback over his signature pro-organic and anti-GMO reporting, he now finds it increasingly difficult to present only one side of the story:

And then about two years ago maybe three years ago the industry decided they had to fight back and since then they’ve organized a very well-funded PR campaign that sometimes you’ve seen some evidence of… There is something called the Food Dialogues presented in various places to talk about how food is produced and greater transparency and I found this. … And, they are lobbying newspapers and editorial boards saying you have to give equal time and so you see all these kind of anti-locavore pieces and pro-GM pieces on the op-ed page everywhere. So I think they have kind of spooked the newspapers into realizing they need to give equal time on this issue and it is an issue with two sides.

OMG. What a terrible turn of events. Apparently the media has been “spooked” into realizing that they cannot just present Pollan’s anti-GMO propaganda—they have a public responsibility to present “two sides.”

Pollan’s social media trail

For those who follow social media, the sharp dichotomy between Pollan’s crafted image as intellectual diplomat and his actual actions as anti-GMO pit bull are well known. In August, in a tweet that prompted his redemptive interview with Johnson at Grist, Pollan flippantly attacked New York Times’ science reporter, Amy Harmon, who had written a remarkable piece—many in the science journalism community are convinced it will scoop up numerous awards for its clarity and thoughtfulness—about the potential use of genetic modification to save the bacteria-threatened Florida orange crop.

As journalist and Discover magazine blogger Keith Kloor wrote, “… 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”:

pollan 4

“This perplexed and angered numerous people,” Kloor added, “including heavyweights in science journalism”:

zimmer

mnookin

dobbs

As the distinguished University of California-Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen wrote, this was a new low, even for Pollan:

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Rachael Ludwick, a science geek and avid follower of the Twitter GMO debate scene, has cataloged many of Pollan’s recent, one-sided tweets. Pollan often serves as a vessel for the views of organizations scandalously known for their anti-science activism. In this tweet, he promotes GMOWatch, a notorious NGO dedicated to undermining public support for vitamin A enhanced rice, which is potentially crop biotechnology’s ‘killer app’, as its success would directly challenge a central activist claim often voiced by Pollan that consumers reap no benefits from GMOs.

pollan 5

Time and again, Pollan plugs the latest anti-GMO scare study without ever reading it—an unheard of practice for a serious journalist. In April, a junk study, falsely promoted as a product of MIT, alleging that glyphosate, recognized by the EPA and mainstream science as among the mildest and most effective herbicides on the market, was responsible for dozens of health problems, made its way through anti-GMO cyberspace. The junk science “study” in a third rate ‘pay for play’ journal was immediately and roundly dissected and discarded by the mainstream science press. But there was predictable Pollan, tweeting away, provoking the disgust of serious journalists, such as Seth Mnookin, co-director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing:

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Pollan was also one of the first anti-GMO activists, along with other ‘reputable’ media sources like NaturalNews.com, to promote the notorious findings by Australian researcher Judy Carman that alleged, in contradiction to numerous mainstream studies, that GMO corn caused irritation in pigs—claims since dismembered by a slew of scientists and journalists.

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These are not isolated examples. Almost weekly, Pollan can be found hawking one anti-GMO study or alarmist NGO claim.

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Pollan will undoubtedly try to reframe these tweets as caricatures of his true beliefs, that he was just noting a study or article or anti-GMO alert and not promoting it. That was his defense of his backhanded tweet on Harmon’s piece.

“Carl Zimmer wrote me and said Twitter is a social medium and you have an obligation to respond,” he said in the Grist interview. “I actually don’t accept that. There are different ways to use Twitter. … I use it as a clipping service for my readers: … I end up reading things I don’t agree with because I’m on Twitter, and I’m sure that happens with my feed.”

In the world according to Pollan, he’s a dedicated public journalist, sending email alerts about anti-GMO stories that he doesn’t really believe in. He’s just pro dialogue. But the evidence trail outside of Twitter contradicts him.

Here Pollan praises the notoriously anti-science Center for Food Safety for being honest on the issue of GMO safety, contrasting it with Monsanto, and repeating the discredited anti-GMO talking point that GMOs do not raise yields or help feed the world.

Here he accuses the agriculture industry of being immoral for discussing the role that next generation GM innovations, such as Golden Rice, with its established benefits for children, could play in encouraging a more balanced view of the technology.

Here he credits education for making GMO-free foods the fastest growing sector of the food industry while claiming that GMO foods, apparently including Golden Rice, offer consumers “nothing.”

Post-Pollan dialogue: An appeal for honest, responsible journalism

So what should we make of all this?

The U.N. International Panel on Climate Change recently issued a document that is considered the benchmark on climate science, concluding that human-induced global warming poses a serious threat. The report included more than 800 authors and 50 editors from dozens of countries took part in its creation.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the internationally accepted authority on the subject, concludes that scientists are 95 percent to 100 percent sure human influence has been the dominant cause of global warming. A total of 209 lead authors and 50 review editors from 39 countries and more than 600 contributing authors from 32 countries contributed to the preparation of that report.

In other words, the broad mainstream consensus of the science community is that the planet is warming and humans are threatened. (What we should do about this threat is another issue, of course.) Sure, there are skeptical scientists. Just go to PetitionProject.org and read the statement supposedly debunking the consensus, with more than 31,000 signatures. But by now, responsible journalists recognize the difference between skeptics and denialists, and have adjusted their reporting accordingly. No ‘false equivalency.’ No attempts at fake balance.

The encyclicals issued by science deniers are the functional equivalent of the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility’s “no consensus” statement. And Michael Pollan is a denialist. Worse, he has acknowledged that, when he can get away with it (and the New York Times is his forum of choice) he has no compunction about shaving the facts to present only one side of the GMO story—the denialist side.

Scientists and activists at NGOs and journalists who decry the consensus on the safety of GMOs should not be featured in prominent newspapers; they should not be granted obsequious interviews to propagate their views.

Where are the science reporters who vocally stand up for climate science but remain eerily quiet when junk science purveyors like Michael Pollan command the media and cyberspace? Anti-science denialists have no ethical right to promote their views on mainstream science sites—and that should include GMO denialists.

Pollan is in a unique position, not unlike the situation that presented itself a few years ago to Mark Lynas, the British climate change journalist who professed to be driven by science on the issue of GMOs but often just echoed the clichés of the anti-technology left. He risked his career and environmentalist brand image by breaking with anti-GMO activists and declaring he was going to stand with the empirical evidence. There is now no more respected straight talker in the world on crop biotechnology.

Pollan has built an empire of sorts and accumulated a small fortune by vividly chronicling the excesses of industrial agriculture—and the public should be grateful that he has stirred a healthy debate. But he’s lost his ethical barometer. Now it’s time for him to take a risk, and, like Lynas, stand up for science. It would mean not acting as a pass through for the latest junk claim. It would mean vocally distinguishing between fake issues and genuine risks. It would mean no more talking out of both sides of one’s mouth on the safety of GMOS, which only emboldens the most reckless anti-science activists. And yes, it would mean potentially alienating some of his adoring fans who have are attracted to the flame-throwing side of his argument.

Because of his international prominence, Pollan has an opportunity to be a transformative figure and not provide cover for the anti-science wing of GMO critics. Call them out! As Dan Fagin, director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University writes in a guest blog at Scientific American, “It’s long past time…for those of us who see ourselves as environmentalists and technologists to start making some crucial distinctions—and to broadcast those distinctions loudly and proudly.” But not everyone has the guts enough to risk their fame and fortune to do the right thing. It’s Pollan’s future to choose. He could end up, as viewed through the prism of history, as a tattered icon of an era when hysteria about GMOs trumped the empirical evidence—or he could emerge as a leader for positive engagement on crop biotechnology. He could be a teacher or demagogue. It may sound hyperbolic, but Pollan literally ccould save lives, if he has the courage to do so. Stand up for science, Michael.

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.

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  • Bernie Mooney

    Too bad. I liked him better when he was with Monty Python. ;-)

  • Dennis Goos

    Rats around the world have been eating GMO foods for decades without observable harm. They have been studied continuously by pest control experts throughout the period. There is nothing to report from this informal but largest ever feeding ‘experiment’ . Millions of citizens are witness to the outcomes of this test of GMO. I would love to know how Séralini study managed to find cancer. I have rats that need that treatment.

  • Colin James Bettles

    Pollan has 333,000+ Twitter followers and only following back 212 – now does that really sound like someone who believes in balance, and the give and take of things, even cyberspace?

    • Bob_Phelps

      Pro-GM warrior, journalist Colin Bettles of Fairfax Rural Media Australia, can’t seriously criticise others for a lack of balance in GM discussions.

    • Madeleine Love

      He can’t control who follows him, but imagine the task of following 333,000 people (needs staff) and what his home page would look like! Anyone can of course send him a mention.

    • Benjamin Edge

      I believe Pollan prefers to pontificate. By his own admission he seldom responds to feedback on Twitter.

  • ceebeefour

    Interesting Entine uses AGW as a parallel example of those who accept
    the science versus those who don’t, when the looming climate crisis is
    the most compelling argument against the continued widespread use of GMO
    crops. As we’ve witnessed now for decades, agricultural biotechnology
    encourages monoculture, fewer farmers, and a reliance on fossil fuels.
    Modern agriculture accounts for a huge portion of the GHG’s humans
    release into the atmosphere. The solution would be to gradually
    reintroduce earlier methods of food production more in line with natural
    systems, particularly to move carbon back into the soil through the use
    of natural fertilizers like manure, compost, and charcoal (not a
    nutrient, I know, but acts as a host for beneficial micro-organisms.)
    Many argue that it’s not possible to produce as much food naturally as
    with modern GMO crops. But this is actually the anti-science stance.
    Numerous studies in recent years have demonstrated that organic methods
    produce at least as much food, and in some cases more, per acre than
    standard crop production. Yes, it takes a lot more work, but more
    farmers working the soil would produce a healthier global landscape. Bottom line, the disquieting truth for those who relish attacking the
    “anti-science left” is this: the promotion of the widespread use of GMO’s based on the clear science that eating such food does not pose health risks to individuals
    is at odds with the clear science that 9-10 billion eaters by
    mid-century will place tremendous pressure on our global habitat, and
    seriously risk a livable planet for everybody.

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

      Your concern–the sustainability impact of GMOs v conventional v organic crops–is an important. You make a number of claims here, but I’m a data/empirical evidence guy and most of them do not comport with the data. For example you write that organic farming is more productive per acre–and that’s just flat out not true–not in any independent large scale or meta study. You might be able to cherry pick one or two oddly constructed ones, but on the whole the disparities are huge. For example, in one of hundreds of studies, a Nature published analysis in 2012 (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v485/n7397/full/nature11069.html) , found that organic farms grow only around two thirds of the same amount of food, per acre, as conventional farms, meaning that they need one and a half times the land of conventional crops.

      In 2008, the USDA surveyed every organic farm in the US, asking about their yields. Plant pathologist Steve Savage compared those yield numbers to yield from conventional farms in the same years. Here’s an excerpt from his summary:

      “In the vast majority of cases national organic average yields are moderately to substantially below those of the overall,
      national average. Examples for row crops include Winter Wheat 60% of overall average, Corn 71%, Soybeans 66%, Spring Wheat 47% and Rice 59%.”

      The goals of organic are noble, but there’s simply no way to feed theworld with yields so low, unless we’re willing to chop down all the forest that remains. Sparing forest means growing more food per acre, not less. Organic agriculture, because of its lower yields, would be a sustanability/environmental disaster if it became a majority template–it would literally turn back the clock 50 years to a pre-Green Revolution state, meaning mass deaths and malnutrition. Ramez Naam, who is very liberal, addresed this issues very cogently and in depth in his recent book The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.

      The GLP carried a two part series on his book…the first, with links to the second, is here: http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/04/22/greener-than-green-biotech-and-the-future-of-agriculture/#.UmfXXiSv-uM

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

        You also raise the issue of greenhouse gases and monoculture, suggesting that modern ag technology is exacerbating the carbon problem. Clearly, all ag is, but most sophisticated cost/benefit analysis suggest that GMOs is by far the most carbon lowering alternative when you look at the entire life cycle of ag production.

        For one, many GMO crops, such as Bt cotton and corn, require fewer pesticide applications and employ no till farming techniques. That results in less fossil fuel consumption than even organic farmers. Because organic farmers struggle so mightily to control posts (organic fertilizers are about 40% less effective than targeted synthetics), they end up tilling far, far more than GMO farmers. So the little savings from using organic fertilizer (which is only sometimes…organic farmers also use “approved” synthetic fertilizers–check with USDA, they have a long list) is offset by the savings from no till.

        No till ag…which is rarely done by organic farmers..it remains mostly a dream at this…is the single most important advance in lowering carbon release. The impact of carbon release in farming is a HUGE issue. What does the independent (eg: not connected to Big Ag or the Rodale Institute/organic special interests) conclude?

        In one of dozen of studies, a three-year, federally funded Purdue University study looked at the amount of nitrous oxide released by no-till fields compared to plowed fields. No-till farmers don’t plow under their fields between crops and disrupt the soil surface as little as possible, although they do cut into it to plant seeds and inject fertilizers.

        The study found no-till fields released 57 percent less nitrous oxide than chisel tilling, in which plants are plowed back into the soil after harvest, said Purdue agronomist Tony Vyn, who led the research. They also produced 40 percent less gas than fields tilled with moldboard plows, which turn the dirt over onto itself.

        Also youf claims about monoculture, a familiar anti-GMO talking point, are just not correct. Almost everyone acknowledges that the Green Revolution has substantially increased the yield and supply of cereals in the developing world during the past 30 years. However, some critics–like you–maintain that these improvements in productivity perversely encouraged farmers to
        specialize in growing cereals at the expense of other, more nutritious crops. The Green Revolution, they say, worsened the nutritional status of people living in developing countries by creating monoculture
        agriculture.

        Let’s take rice as an example. While the availability of modern rice varieties may have encouraged some farmers to specialize in growing conventional varieties of rice, there is no evidence that such specialization has been widespread. Rice harvested area (hectares under rice multiplied by the number of croppings per year) has declined as a percentage of total crop harvested area in nearly all Asian rice-growing economies since 1970. Thus, if some farmers increasingly specialized in
        rice, others must have diversified into other crops — and done so over a larger harvested area. Despite a near doubling of the total rice harvest, rice is now less dominant in Asian agriculture than it was before the Green Revolution.

        The monoculture argument, as presented by organic activists, is a simplistic characterization perpetrated
        by Michael Pollan (in the Botany of Desire) and others…he’s well meaning but wrong on this issue. Theoretically, it would be useful to maintain crop populations with diverse resistance genes as Pollan
        argues, as a way to prevent what he thinks is the trend toward monoculture production. The industrial application of this (multilines) involves breeding many different versions of a favorite crop variety that are identical except for their resistance genes. As appealing as this idea may seem to you (and Pollan), it hasn’t really worked out in the real world. The alternate approach (pyramiding), which is used in conventional and GMO ag, seems to be more effective. Here, many
        different resistance genes are combined into a single crop variety.

        Pests and pathogens may be able to overcome a single gene at a time, but it’s usually almost impossible to simultaneously overcome several. So there is actually more diversity bred into many GMO crops than in some
        organic varieties. The monoculture issue is addressed by crop rotation, which is the mainstay of modern agriculture in the US, and one of the key reasons why we have the highest yields per acre in the world. One of the most wise and basic farming practices is to “rotate crops.” If a farmer plants a grass crop one year, a broadleaf crop the next, a different grass the next, etc. it tends to break pest cycles and to put different nutritional pressures on the soil. Actually, most of what people imagine as “Big Ag” or “Industrial Farming” actually involves rotated crops on family farms. The rotation differs by geography. In the heart of the Corn Belt there is usually a soybean/corn rotation with winter wheat in some areas. In the Southeast, cotton, peanuts and wheat tend to be mixed in with the corn and soyrotation. North and West of the Corn Belt wheat, sunflowers, sugar beets, canola are common rotation options. These traditional rotations are employed on hundreds of millions of acres of US farmland.

        In sum, most of your premises, while appealing as talking points, don’t really provide a basis to ipso facto reject GMOs.

      • First Officer

        I’m not so sure all organic and, especially, anti-gmo supporters are noble in intent. I brought this point up in biofortified.org in the comments section:

        http://www.biofortified.org/2013/10/hamstrung-by-ideology/#comments

        Their seems to be a large overlap between the anti-gmo, anti-flouride and anti-vaccine groups, like Mercola and Smith. If all three were banned, very large numbers of people will die.

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

      There is a thoughtful piece just out in Grist that addresses the “organic myth” that GMOs are bad for the farming environment…the facts suggest just the opposite because of no till and conservation tillage (some of which but not all is being attempted, less efficiently, by organic farmers).

      The piece is titled “Do GMOs promote dirt conservation?” and can be found here: http://grist.org/food/soil-proprietor-do-gmos-promote-dirt-conservation/

      Here is a key excerpt:

      “Farmers burn a lot less diesel when they aren’t plowing, and the residue provides habitat for wildlife. Finally, instead of dirt forming into big clots of compacted soil, farmers who minimize tillage find that their dirt is looser, aerated by billion of tiny passageways: When the tractors stop plowing, the earthworms and microbes start plowing. The tradeoff, of course, is that most of these farmers also use herbicide. But then, conventional farmers tend to use herbicide anyway. “Does conservation tillage automatically increase your herbicide inputs? Overwhelmingly, the answer is no,” said Jeff Mitchell, a U.C. Davis Cooperative Extension specialist who works on conservation agriculture.”

  • Madeleine Love

    You’re sounding emotional, and I’m concerned this might be affecting your objectivity. Have you read the “No Consensus” statement?

    Also, have you read the Nicolia et al study which contains the supplementary list of ‘1783’ studies? Nicolia only claimed consensus on two points – one being the use of PCR for detection and quantification, the other being a claim on the acceptance of substantial equivalence for assessing GM crops, a claim I think would be disputed. The Nicolia study does not contradict the statement made by the 80+ PhD’s on no consensus on GMO safety.

    • Benjamin Edge

      Consensus on substantial equivalence is the same thing as consensus on safety. Currently approved GM crops are AS SAFE AS currently grown conventional crops.

  • mem_somerville

    I’ve been watching the two faces of Pollan get swapped out for a long time. When he’s facing techie audiences, he snuggles up to them and says it’s not so bad. The discussion part of his Long Now talk was very interesting when they got him to say stuff about biotech.

    When he’s facing his acolytes, it’s another story entirely.

    I will give him credit for calling Seralini a “fringy French scientist” though. http://www.biofortified.org/wp-content/uploads//2013/03/i77qg-pollan_seralini2.jpg

  • Bob_Phelps

    Thanks to these brave and independent experts for denouncing false claims that GM crops and foods are safe, sustainable anfd higher yielding when much evidence shows they are not. A small cartel of agribusiness and food corporations – Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont, Bayer and BASF – now owns most global seed and agrichemical supply chains, controlling industrial food production. This domination and their disinformation about genetic manipulation are not in the public interest. As oil and phosphates deplete over the next 50 years, arable land and water become scarcer, and the climate changes, a transition to agro-ecology is necessary. That should be the focus of public policy, not GM crops to prop up present production models which cannot survive resource depletion and environmental change. The United Nations’ models for a transition to agro-ecological systems should be incorporated into government policy and implemented everywhere. The reports include the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). See: http://www.unep.org/dewa/Assessments/Ecosystems/IAASTD/tabid/105853/Default.aspx
    and the UNCTAD Trade and Environment Review 2013, “Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing climate” See: http://unctad.org/en/pages/PublicationWebflyer.aspx?publicationid=666)

  • ceebeefour

    Wow. Thanks for taking the time to lay out all that evidence. Glad to have given you the opportunity to expand your case.

    You may be right. I’m no expert. Just an ag/food enthusiast and aspiring small-scale farmer. So I’m relying on the expertise of others I’ve read who argue that natural methods produce comparable yields on small-scales. Striking examples of farmers who rely on the very kinds of techniques you reference (no-till, rotation, bio-diversity) are Eliot Coleman and Joel Salatin. They claim to produce yields comparable (even better) to conventional methods while reducing inputs and improving the farm environment by working with natural systems.

    But the question is whether we can ramp such systems up to support billions of eaters. I suppose even if we could in some ideal planetary experiment, it’s obvious we’re not likely to try. To do so would require we voluntarily undergo a radical revolution of the global mindset that resulted in localism, agrarianism, and peaceful depopulation.

    Instead, we’re going to rely on biotech, monocultures, and fewer farmers as a percentage of the population than we ever had before. The Green Revolution WAS a success, and we’re likely to continue to ride its benefits into the future for as long as possible. But remember, even Norman Borlaug, who never wavered in his criticism of the organic proponents’ claim they could feed the world, warned that his revolution would be a double-edged sword if we simply took it for granted and did not find ways to curb our inclinations toward luxury, travel, meals higher up the food chain, and unchecked population growth.

    I imagine humans will eventually develop a hybrid system of agriculture, one that takes advantage of the remarkable advances in biotechnology but also realizes that more sustainable agricultural practices work with natural systems rather than control them. Unfortunately, I also think those future humans will occupy a much smaller global footprint in newly temperate areas like Greenland, Canada, and Siberia. My bottom line, you may be right that conventional agricultural methods are the only options we have to feed the billions of us on the planet while preserving as much of our forests as possible and slowing the rate of GHG concentration. But such thinking also lulls us into a false sense of security that we’re buying time to fix the rapidly advancing climate change problem. We’re not. We’re just supporting more of us who will eventually have to struggle with a drastically different habitat than the one modern humans have adapted to. And many in those future generations will experience crisis depopulation because we’re not willing, or able, to change voluntarily.

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

      You are absolutely write in quoting Borlaug on the double edged sword issue. Lots of real and potential problems with large-scale industrial agriculture. Frankly, farming is a bitch to the environment no matter what process is used. Large scale farming cannot work in certain situations, which is why we need all options on the table, with frequent evaluations of what works where and when and what are unintended consequences. This debate is necessary and healthy. I argue, and believe strongly, that organic farming can work closely with conventional farming–and in fact most of the scientists I know researching GMOs are sustainability advocates.

      • ceebeefour

        Thanks for the civil discourse. I learned some things and may have to re-evaluate some assumptions. Nice to know, ultimately, we may not be that far apart.

      • First Officer

        I ask this thought experiment to those who insist small farms are much more efficient than large farms in most situations:

        Consider 4 small farms, just small enough to be considered as such, bordering each other so as to form one contiguous piece of land. Consider also that all that separates these 4 small farms are barbed wire fences. Each farm grows the same crops. What if, one day the 4 farmers meet at their common point and come to the conclusion that, being such nice neighbors, they can tear down the barbed wire fences between them. Then one suggests that, since they all grow the same crops, they can pool their equipment and purchases. Then one farmer says, you know, we don’t have to stop the tractors at our borders but consolidate our planting, weeding, fertilizing,etc.

        Question: By doing the above, and by doing so, become 1 not small farm in practice, how does that reduce the farms’ efficiencies? How do the fields and plants know that, suddenly, they are now under common management?

        What is the largest size a farm can be and still enjoy that small farm efficiency?

        • Benjamin Edge

          And a similar question, how does having 4 tractors, planters, harvesters, etc increase the efficiency of farming the same amount of land ‘combined’ as ‘separate’? Having four of each seems redundant, but having more than 1 of some offers flexibility.

          A question I have had for quite some time is, how large can a farm get before additional people are required to give an adequate level of management?

          I ask this as someone who has seen efficiencies and inefficiencies at both sizes of farms.

  • Chuck Benbrook

    Pollan’s views and thoughts re GMOs are clearly too nuanced for a true believer like Entine. That is Entine’s problem, not the fault of Pollan. The problem in public discourse re this technology is people who see it as black and white, and try to force that view on others.

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

      Good try Chuck. You have not read any of my seven books, including three on genetics. You know NOTHING about me. My research and writings on genetics have been widely praised from all across the ideological spectrum, in science journals and in the popular press. For Pollan, the issue is not his nuance; I have no doubt he is a smart man. But facts are facts. I don’t believe much in trying to discern people’s motives. What one says and does are who they are…not their “beliefs.” Pollan is just not particularly ethical. He’s two faced. Anyone who would promote the work of Seralini and Shiva and Carman and the like–and he does that frequently–is what we call in journalism a “hack.” People have to make choices, Chuck, and that defines who they are. He’s made very telling choices. It’s clear he puts his brand and image ahead of integrity, science and empirical evidence. He is the antithesis of nuance. An any point, if you’d like to have a genuine discussion or debate–either privately, on the GLP or in a public forum–I would welcome that. If you really believe in nuance and dialogue, then let’s do it. Until then, please refrain from hit and run jobs. You, who has cooked the books on studies on pesticides use, are in no position to weigh in on nuance or ethics.

    • mem_somerville

      Yeah, like people who equate POUNDS of an herbicide with impact of it to make their data look black, when it’s actually much more gray.

  • Mike Bendzela

    Jon, you’ve done a tremendous service for exposing this flake for who he is. I inherited his book “In Defense of Food” for a freshman seminar I took over for another professor, and I simply couldn’t believe how confused he sounds about science, conflating the terms “nutritionism,” “reductionist science,” and “food science.” Throughout his career, he has shifted his position and moved goal posts. One minute, he’s praising a single study purporting to show the health benefits of organic, the next–after the Stanford study–he’s saying health benefits “was never the issue.”

    I’m sick of him and his wild-eyed acolytes. Keep fighting the good fight.

  • Brandon

    I’m glad the science journalistic community is coming around to calling out Pollan on his anti-science position regarding genetic engineering.

    I’ve been less than enamored with his anti-science writing in the first place and it’s annoying that he’s received the public prominence for works like The Omnivores Dilemma. It doesn’t contain good science, accurate history, or logical reasoning.

    “But he writes so well!” is the constant defense.

    It not adhering to facts makes for good journalistic writing, then we have a real problem.

    • First Officer

      And Hitler spoke so well !

  • Eisenhower303

    You are a national treasure

  • Christopher Keane

    The issue that most disturbs me is one that disturbs so many others when products are released without due process in terns of side-effects. With GMO’s, I worry that evidence of harmful effects leaks out in such troubling numbers that I wish that GMO’s manufacturers and other advocates would answer the question: What’s the rush? The need to feed a growing population whose numbers are already overstuffed before famine takes command? At what cost? I would welcome additional comments.