Environment

A Refreshing, Freshly Squeezed GMO Story in the NYT

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJul 29, 2013 1:29 PM

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There is so much to admire about this New York Times story by Amy Harmon I don't know where to begin. [UPDATE: This insightful take by Maggie Koerth-Baker at Boing Boing--which I excerpt below--captures what is remarkable about the piece.] So let's start with a tweet from National Geographic's executive environment editor Dennis Dimick:

Must Read: A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its #DNAhttp://t.co/b2JZ5On1OR (@nytimes@amy_harmon) #GMO#foodsecurity — Dennis Dimick (@ddimick) July 28, 2013

And Marc Gunther, who covers the business and sustainability intersection:

Can genetic engineering save the orange? Terrific story on #GMOs by @amy_harmonhttp://t.co/v7xVNImBXq — Marc Gunther (@MarcGunther) July 28, 2013

Indeed, it's an engrossing, meticulously reported piece on a really complex subject. It should also interest anyone who drinks orange juice. What I marvel at is that Harmon crafted a pitch-perfect narrative that avoids all the land mines of an emotionally and ideologically charged issue. On Sunday, 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:

Important NYT story on GM oranges; 2 many industry talking pts, but poses questions: is prob tech? reg? or Monsanto? http://t.co/fKjvYi9N0t — Michael Pollan (@michaelpollan) July 28, 2013

This perplexed and angered numerous people, including heavyweights in science journalism such as Carl Zimmer, who said this was "a harsh accusation from one journalist to another. " Zimmer, like Bora Zivkovic and Seth Mnookin and David Dobbs, bristled at Pollan's charge, as did Berkley scientist Michael Eisen:

calling @amy_harmon, as fair a sciece writer as there is, a shill for her GMO oranges story is new low in @michaelpollan's anti-GMO crusade — Michael Eisen (@mbeisen) July 29, 2013

Anastasia Bodnar, a geneticist who contributes to the essential Biofortified site, politely asked:

@amy_harmon I'd love to see @michaelpollan share some examples of "industry talking points" in the orange story.

As of this writing, Pollan hasn't responded to the mini-squall he triggered (he never engages on Twitter). But he left the same comment at his FB page, which led Andy Revkin to try and get his attention over there:

@amy_harmon I'd love to see @michaelpollan share some examples of "industry talking points" in the orange story. — Anastasia Bodnar (@geneticmaize) July 29, 2013

A batch of science journalists are discussing the "industry talking points" criticism on Twitter

Still no luck. If a reputable journalist accused Michael Pollan of packing one of his magazine articles with too many organic food industry or anti-GMO "talking points," I bet he'd chafe at the charge. Perhaps he would even ask for an elaboration. UPDATE: If Michael Pollan's drive-by hit on Twitter rankled some of science journalism's finest, then his continuing non-response to criticism of it more than a day later has them shaking their heads:

So, @michaelpollan fires a cheap shot at @amy_harmon's thorough, nuanced reporting on GMOs, then won't even engage w/ criticism? Oy. — Ed Yong (@edyong209) July 29, 2013

Pollan has a very distinguished career and is someone who has scaled the heights of journalism with his best-selling books and many cover stories for the New York Times magazine. So while he may be acting as if he's impervious to criticism, I'm guessing that he also finds it discomfiting to have pissed off more than a few of science journalism's illustrious standard bearers. I can't understand why he at least doesn't post a series of tweets elaborating on his initial vague critique. UPDATE: I'm late to this excellent write-up of Harmon's piece by Maggie Koerth-Baker at Boing Boing. It captures why Harmon's story does not get ensnared in the usual politics of GMO debates (and to my mind, further underscores why many are bewildered by Pollan's criticism):

I think this is a particularly great lens to examine the science and risk/reward perspective on GMO foods, because it takes us beyond some of the particularly volatile points in the debate — points that often have nothing to do with the actual safety or benefits of GMOs. Monsanto is not involved in the development of these GMO oranges. And what the growers and scientists are trying to do has nothing to do with increasing pesticide use. In fact, if they succeed, they'll be able to reduce the amount of pesticides used on oranges. It's a long read, but a worthwhile one.

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