When Our Friends Lie

Last night I woke up in a fog, face down on the couch, fully dressed with my work clothes on.  It was 3:44 AM and the artifacts around me described the scene.  A partially eaten salad, my glasses crooked on my head, a laptop with an exhausted battery and the television running an infomercial led me to the conclusion that I closed my eyes for a minute while eating dinner and drifted off to sleep.

Fumbling with the remote, I clicked through a few middle-of-the-night stations.  There’s a vibrating weight to firm womens’ arms.  Click. A guy with a tie on a news station says that climate change is a hoax. Click. A woman on the next channel lost fifty pounds in a month eating just cookies. Click. A former playboy playmate says that vaccines are dangerous. Another channel has a person claiming evidence that the terrorist attack on 9-11 was an inside job.

I turn off the television, put on my jammies and head off to bed, my dog Stinkie following behind.  The claims of kooks go in one ear, rattle around for a moment and then leave out the other.

We are bombarded with junk science, all the time, every day.  I don’t get mad, I consider the source and let it go.  They have an agenda, they have to appeal to viewers, and if subscribing to anti-science or abject untruth is their method then so be it.  Financial and political gains are there to be had if you can fool enough people.

Later that day I was writing in my blog and my eyes were attracted to an active link in the browser.  It said something about anti-GMO, and being an educator specializing in plant biotechnology I clicked the link.  It took me to the website of an organic farm, an organic farm that has substantial market share and products in every supermarket.  I’ll leave out the name because I don’t paint them in a favorable light from this point. What’s the anti-GMO link all about?

I was really disappointed. Reading along in their website reminds me that they too are just another brand of sales pitch, using lies, fear and deceit to sell a product.  Their website says:

“there is evidence that GM foods have an increased risk of causing allergic reactions, and uncontrollable cross-pollination depletes crop diversity which has resulted in resistant “super-weeds” and “super-pests.” It’s clear that the primary benefits of GM seeds are to the seed and pesticide companies, not to growers or consumers. And many risks are as of yet unknown.”

Wow. Scary huh?  Either someone drank the Kool-Aid (undoubtedly Organic Red flavor) or I missed a whole bunch of critical science reports.   The same website goes on to say that it is in the mission of the company to fight the use of GMO foods.  Just like the goofballs on mid-night television and syndicated radio, they resort to stretching and bending the truth to advance their cause.  Rather than rest on the merits of their product, they attack a proven science with bogus assertions to increase sales.

This makes me really sad.  I like organic farms and their mission to raise healthy food with fewer agricultural inputs.  I’m all about the environment and worker health.  No problem.  There’s a great place for that and its niche is growing. So why taint a good idea by perpetuating boldface lies, attacking science?

For contrast, White Wave, makers of Silk soy products simply states that their products are non-GMO and that they are rigorously screened to ensure NOP standards.  That’s fine.  They don’t attack the sound science of GMO crops, they just say that they don’t use them.  Sure, the implication is that GMO’s are evil and substandard, but they don’t come out and say it.  Like non-alcoholic beer or decaf, there is a market for products lacking certain ingredients and I think that it is fine to state it that way.

My objection is when a company that wants to do the right thing falls victim to using lies, distortion and hyperbole to sell their products.  They don’t want to inform the consumer, they want to scare the consumer.  It is like when someone doesn’t buy the extra ten minutes at the psychic and she says, “I can’t be responsible if anything bad happens because you left too soon”.  Those inclined to believe the psychic plunk down ten bucks.  The same with the people that don’t want to take that GMO chance because “many risks are yet unknown”.   Jenny McCarthy says the same thing about vaccines.

If I sat down with the owners of the organic farm that employs these methods, we’d likely find that we have more similarities than differences.  We’d probably listen to the same radio stations, vote in similar patterns and subscribe to similar social philosophies.  We’d share similar concerns about the environment and sustainable food production.  We’d probably trade some CD’s and compliment each other on our sandals.

So as their friend, shouldn’t I hold them extra accountable for their misgivings?  I think so.  I can write climate science letters to Glenn Beck all day and never get an answer, but will the kinder, gentler organic farmers want to start a real scientific dialogue? I decided to write a letter to the company.  I asked them to substantiate their claim with peer-reviewed science.

To their credit, I received a polite reply from their customer service person, but geez, was she ever duped.  She provided non-refereed opinions on the harm of GMO, links to the Huffington Post and at best non-replicated studies in poor-quality journals.  Anything she gave me from a legitimate journal was cherry picked and it  was clear that she never read the actual article.

We traded emails for a few days (me being gentle and scholarly always) before she stopped responding.  Clearly she had made up her mind and didn’t want to be bothered by evidence.  Certainly evidence stands counter to their non-scientific claims that pander to their consumer, and if they come clean and halt the anti-GMO rhetoric they can lose market share to someone that will.  Lies are a part of their advertising.

I’m going to continue to monitor websites, parse labels, and hold them accountable for facts.  I urge you to do so too.  These folks are on my side, I want to support them, and as their ally I owe them the input of my expertise. “He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help”, it was once said.

Like the late night huckster that sees dollars when he spews half truth, this company too will probably defend their use of distorted facts and lies if it means scaring concerned people into buying their products. Funny, I just buy them because I appreciate their quality and like to support small farms and low-input ag.

You don’t have to be a dupe of the anti-GMO machine to share that opinion.

Follow Kevin Folta:

Kevin is a public scientist that enjoys illuminating hot-button scientific issues for non-scientists using an evidence-based approach. Kevin is always uncomfortable referring to himself in the third person.