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?

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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.