William Saletan on GMO myths in Slate

GMO Labels, by Slate staff
GMO Labels, by Slate staff

On Wednesday, Slate published a long, in-depth feature article on GMO labeling by William Saletan called Unhealthy Fixation. It has been the talk of the week in the social media discussion about genetically engineered crops and the arguments and tactics of the organizations and individuals who oppose their use. The subtitle of the article says it all: “The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud. Labeling them will not make you safer.” If you have not yet had a chance to read this article, you owe it to yourself to read the whole thing – twice.

Saletan frames the issue around the perennial political topic of GMO labeling, but the important focus is on how many groups that campaign against genetically engineered crops, such as Greenpeace, have been consistent only in their opposition to the technology. Their arguments however have been duplicitous and inconsistent with any form of rational or scientific justification. For instance, Saletan highlights how organizations that argued against Golden Rice, an engineered variety of rice that could supply the undernourished poor with pro-vitamin A, first said that the rice was a bad idea because it didn’t provide enough nutrients, but when a version did provide enough nutrients it was attacked for providing too much.

In 2001, Friends of the Earth had scoffed that Golden Rice would “do little to ameliorate VAD [vitamin A deficiency] because it produces so little beta-carotene.” By November 2004 the group had changed its tune. Crops that yielded beta carotene could “cause direct toxicity or abnormal embryonic development,” it asserted.

Indeed, Saletan also highlights an issue that is often overlooked – how organizations that argue against genetically engineered crops on the basis of protecting the ‘market’ are themselves trying to create the market harms that they claim they are saving the farmers from.

In reality, the source of farmers’ troubles was Greenpeace itself. The organization was working to block regulatory approval and sales of the GE papaya—and then blaming the papaya for farmers’ financial woes.

Saletan’s piece is not only an entertaining and a well-researched tour de force of the history of mythmaking about biotech crops, his defense of the piece on social media is just as skillful. Follow him on twitter to see him deftly fend off the insults of ankle-biting critics.

There has been a recent uptick in critical reporting from mainstream media sources on genetically engineered crops. The conversation is indeed changing – and it is in part due to the work that many scientist-communicators have done separating myth from fact. Saletan cites scientific studies to support his arguments as well as blog posts by Kevin Folta, and Anastasia Bodnar, and David Tribe right here on the Biofortified Blog. Currently still the number one read article this week on Slate, Saletan’s sacrificial bonfire of pernicious GMO myths was lit in part by the candles that we’ve been keeping aflame here for years. I can’t think of a more rewarding reason than that to keep turning on lights and opening minds.

What do you think about the direction that the debate over genetically engineered crops is going? How can we help it grow further and focus more on the facts and important human stories that are going on around the world?

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:

Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.

  • mem_somerville

    Seriously. Saletan’s twitter feed has kept me more entertained over the last couple of days than Netflix has in years. And I pay for Netflix.

    I definitely think things have changed. And as I noted in the forum (which I can’t find anymore), I think the Pew poll mattered very much in giving media outlets a defensible place to stand on this.

    But I think we have to keep slogging at all the individual crankery that’s out there. I was just noticing Food Democracy Now! running a campaign on a super crappy article that they apparently completely fail to understand. I think it’s time to really focus on major misinformers like them.

    • First Officer

      If early exchanges are any indication, i think the Beach vet has met her match.

      Do you mean this “study”?

      http://www.scirp.org/journal/PaperInformation.aspx?PaperID=57871&#abstract

      As far as i can tell, it’s just a computer simulation. (Does nM/s mean nano-moles per second?) It’s an interesting idea to model organisms in computers but did they ever actually check to see if their results have any bearing on reality? I guess not, according to their last paragraph. But, i’ve noticed it’s being slung around as a foregone conclusion that GMO’s are oozing formaldehyde.

      • Jim

        Come on now if you cant trust an open source journal with a Google Impact factor of .73 what can you trust? I mean how awful of a journal do you have to be where your made up impact factor still has you at .73?

    • mem_somerville

      I found the thread with my theory on the recent change in the media. But it’s now in a teeny font with all the text centered. http://www.biofortified.org/community/forum/genetic-engineering-group3/news-forum12/has-the-gmo-chatter-really-turned-a-corner-and-why-thread518/#postid-2961

      • Sorry about that. The forum is the last thing getting switched over to a new style and will be wonky for a bit longer. We anticipate the new forum will be much better. Thank you for your patience!

  • Urban Pink

    I think the importance of that article is that it shows the bumbling, inconsistent, and ethically questionable path of engineered food isn’t fully understood until decades after people are eating it. He’s too busy fending off informative consumer labeling (inexplicable to me) to strongly advocate for the best solution of more community farms that free us from the mono farming practices GMO crops _support_. That’s a big problem…I’m also worried that pushing people to agree with GMOs or be considered “anti-science” is toxic to our culture. We need better, more, and ethically responsible science.

    • That is a strange way to read the article. If anything, it shows the bumbling inconsistent path that advocacy against GMO crops has taken. The science has been consistent, but the only thing that has been consistent from activists is “No GMO no matter what.” It’s the “no matter what” part that leads to the inconsistencies and istoxic to dialog.

      • Dave Pennington

        I agree some people are “no GMO no matter what” but there are also industry people who never seem to question the wisdom of allowing GMOs from all over the world to flood into our food supply without requiring them to pass long term independent safety tests.

        Now, if you really want us to “focus more on the facts” please give us some actual facts to focus on. I have requested links to long term independent safety studies, because you claim they exist and I have (so far) been unable to locate any. Some people say they do not exist, I am reserving that judgement. Since you are the pro-GMO expert with the study database, and you obviously want to put this issue to bed, please find a few minutes and supply direct links to two or more such studies which fit these (your own) criteria.

    • Charles Rader

      Urban Pink, I’d like to take issue with your characterization of the ” informative consumer labeling” wanted for GMO food.

      I’ve read just about all of the bills I could find which call for mandatory GMO labeling. They all essentially call for a prominent “GMO” label, but none of them calls for identifying the ingredient which would trigger that GMO label. The assumption seems to be that the only consumers who care about GMO food consider all GMO food to be identical, or at least uniformly bad. None make any distinction between a herbicide tolerant crop, an insect resisting crop, a virus resisting crop, or an nutritional enhancement.

      None of them make any distinction GMO/non-GMO versions of ingredients that are molecularly identical, e.g. a sugar, starch, oil, vitamin, etc.

      A consumer who was interested enough to inform himself about the various different GMO crops could conceivably want to avoid some but not others. That sort of labeling gives him no help at all.

      Meanwhile, various food processors have used the GMO-free label to imply a false distinction between their product and another. For example, this spring the Manischewitz company put a big GMO-free icon on their matzoh packages, but matzoh has only two ingredients, wheat and water and no brand of matzoh would have any GMO content. Would you consider that an “informative” label?

      • Captain Moonlight

        I think Urban Pink is the kind of consumer who buys sugar that is labeled “100% Salt Free” and salt that is labeled “100% sugar free”. Sadly, these types of labels impress some folk.

  • About that golden rice…