I recently spoke at Cornell about the public GMO discourse--who has shaped it and how some commonly held perceptions have taken hold in the media. In one talk, I discussed the importance of thought leaders, such as Michael Pollan and Vandana Shiva. Pollan and Shiva are cultural icons who speak to (and on behalf of) people who share their values. Pollan has the ear of those who care deeply about the production of food. Shiva has the ear of those who care deeply about the environment. Their respective audiences overlap and often coalesce around larger sustainability, corporate influence and social justice concerns. Influential voices in this virtuous space are invested with moral authority. It also helps to be anointed by the media as a thought leader, which elevates one's standing. The role thought leaders play in the GMO debate is something I'll expand on in a future post. The other talk I gave (similar to this one) explored the Frankenfood meme that is still well represented in popular media, as I pointed out in the previous post. There, the role of self-appointed public advocates has been essential to the popular framing of GMOs. As the Washington Post has just noted in an editorial:
The GM-food debate is a classic example of activists overstating risk based on fear of what might be unknown and on a distrust of corporations.
The editorial, which is a forceful argument against mandatory GMO labeling, continues:
People have been inducing genetic mutations in crops all sorts of other ways for a long time — by, for example, bathing plants in chemicals or exposing them to radiation. There is also all sorts of genetic turbulence in traditional selective plant breeding and constant natural genetic variation. Yet products that result from selective gene splicing — which get scrutinized before coming to market — are being singled out as high threats. If they were threatening, one would expect experts to have identified unique harms to human health in the past two decades of GM-crop consumption. They haven’t. Unsurprisingly, institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization have concluded that GM food is no riskier than other food.
Which brings me to a recent post by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, who wondered how reporters should characterize the positions of political candidates who deny that man-made global warming is occurring. After all, as Rosen says:
Claims that climate science is a hoax, or that human action is not a factor are not defensible positions in a political debate.
You should read Rosen's post to see the options he lays out for the reporter faced with a Ted Cruz answer on climate change. (Cruz, in case you didn't know, denies global warming.) Rosen argues in favor of options #3 (calling out the denialism, citing the scientific consensus) and option #4 (confronting the denialism head-on). That got me thinking: What if reporters applied this same standard in their GMO coverage, particularly when faced with advocacy groups that deny a scientific consensus on the safety of genetically engineered foods? Remember, the same highly regarded scientific societies and bodies that declare global warming to be real also declare GMO foods to be safe. So when environmental and food consumer groups pressure restaurant chains to not use the new federally approved, genetically engineered apples and potatoes because they are "risky," how should reporters respond? When leading environmental and consumer watchdog NGOs insist there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs, as they have done again recently (when this is patently untrue), how should reporters respond? Probably not like this Reuters article, which, given the history of the reporter, is not surprising. With Congress now joining the fight over GMO labeling, reporters are going to have ample opportunity to clarify where the science stands on genetically modified foods. Pro-GMO labeling advocates argue this issue is all about transparency, but if they didn't feel that GMOs were inherently unsafe, they wouldn't be asking them to be labeled. That suggestion of health risk is implicit in every article about GMO labeling. Thus, it behooves reporters to cite the body of scientific evidence that speaks to this implied safety issue.