If you follow the public debate on genetically modified foods, you know it's become unhinged from reality. This is because green groups and influential voices in the food movement have allowed the fringe to hijack the conversation. Now that those furies have been let loose, it's going to be that much harder to have a civil dialogue about GMOs. Kevin Folta, one scientist who often engages with biotech opponents, is finding this out. Now, owing to the ideological and emotional nature of the debate, I'm not surprised at its increasingly shrill tenor or the deepening fault lines that separate the pro and anti-GMO sides. The charged dynamics have come to resemble those of the climate debate. But I am disappointed that some intelligent people seem unwilling to recognize this and even obfuscate matters more with inaccurate characterizations of the GMO debate. For example, in a recent piece for the Guardian, Alice Bell wrote (my emphasis):
It’s also a lot easier for the GM lobby to play a game of “you are wrong on science” rather than acknowledging that the bulk of the critique against them is economic and political.
This really irks me because it's patently false. Indeed, as Kevin Bonham puts it in his blog:
It’s simply not true that the bulk of objections to GMO are economic and political, and this is a huge problem. There *are* very reasonable political and economic arguments about the problems with modern agriculture, like industrial farming, monoculture and sustainability. But anti-GMO activists rail against “frankenfoods” as the boogyman for everything that ails agriculture, when most of these problems are not unique to genetically modified crops. If my experience with people on the internet, family members, friends and acquaintances that oppose or are skeptical of GMOs is at all representative, the main objection is a vague feeling that GMO is unnatural, and therefore unsafe. For those that rise to the level of activism, economics and politics are almost never brought up, except as a last resort after I’ve addressed their other concerns.
I have had the same experience and I believe that anyone paying attention to the debate will see that he's pretty much captured the representative anti-GMO sentiments. (To be fair to Alice Bell, she somewhat walked back that "bulk of the critique" statement in the comments section of her piece.) I think it's pretty difficult to have a constructive dialogue so long as the bulk of the anti-GMO argument is dominated by two words: Frankenfood and Monsanto. I also think it's hard to engage with biotech skeptics in the media when they make sleazy accusations. For example, numerous highly regarded science journalists (and scientists) took issue with how Michael Pollan characterized Amy Harmon's recent GMO orange story in the New York Times. (Pollan couldn't be bothered to engage with the criticism.) Tom Philpott, at his Mother Jones perch, came to Pollan's defense this way:
That first link will take you to my related post, which is an appreciation of Harmon's story and a round-up of responses to Pollan's criticism of it. I'm not sure how this makes me (or all those reputable science journalists that took Pollan to task) "industry defenders." But essentially calling someone an industry shill (oh wait, I mean "industry defender") is a reflexive and commonly used tactic in GMO debates, which Philpott knows from firsthand experience. On Twitter, Philpott tells me that "defender doesn't equal shill. You defend the industry. Own it." I would ask Philpott or anyone to point to an instance where I'm specifically defending the biotech industry. My response to him:
Think about his logic, which extended elsewhere prompts a question like this: Is someone who rebuts anti-vaccine propaganda a defender of the pharmaceutical industry?