Look Beyond the Scientific Veneer of a GMO Report

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJun 20, 2012 6:25 PM


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In the science blogosphere, medical falsehoods and pseudoscience are routinely called out. The watchdogging is done by a mix of scientists and journalists, who are constantly rebutting a never-ending stream of misinformation about vaccines, autism, and other public health-related subjects. For example, the indefatigable blogger known as Orac (he is a medical doctor and cancer researcher) regularly debunks proponents of alternative medicine and leaders of the anti-vaccine movement. Numerous science writers have been similarly dogged, such as Emily Willingham and Seth Mnookin, author of the acclaimed book, The Panic Virus. In contrast, the highly charged issue of genetically modified foods doesn't receive the same level of attention from the science blogosphere and mainstream media. This puzzles me. (A notable exception did occur recently when anti-GMO campaigners threatened to destroy field research in the UK. Many science journalists and bloggers--mostly in the UK--leapt into the fray and defended the besieged plant scientists.) Last week, for instance, I wondered why a recent study that demonstrated environmental benefits of GMOs didn't get more press. In fact, some of the supposedly pro-science media (at least when it comes to climate change) on the progressive political spectrum , such as the environmental website Grist, have often published dubious coverage of GMOs. I was, however, pleasantly surprised to see this well-reported piece just appear at the Mother Jones site. So did a number of commenters, one who wrote:

That scaremongering--which is a staple at Grist--evidently flows from A) numerous misconceptions about biotechnology in general; B) anti-corporatist sentiments; and C) a litany of unfounded health and environmental concerns. It so happens that the worst offenders of GMO alarmism and misinformation are environmental groups, such as Greenpeace and the Union of Concerned Scientists. No, wait, I take that back. The absolute worst purveyors of falsehoods about GMOs are the same folks who preach against vaccines and tout all manner of unproven alternative health remedies. People like self-appointed health guru Joseph Mercola whose popular website is a "horrible chimera of tabloid journalism" and "uncommonly efficient at spreading misinformation," according to the the Science-Based Medicine blog. What underlies the propaganda that Mercola (and those like him) disseminate about autism, vaccines, cancer, GMOs, etc., is a "natural health" philosophy. A similar in-harmony-with-nature mindset explains much of the environmentalist squeamishness towards genetically modified foods. Greenpeace, for instance, warns that GMOs

Thanks for an article that talks about science and not the gm scaremongering that we see most of the time on MJ (my only pet peeve about Mother Jones).

can spread through nature and interbreed with natural organisms, thereby contaminating non 'GE' environments and future generations in an unforeseeable and uncontrollable way.

In truth, the uncontrollable spread of disinformation about GMOs is what's really contaminating the environment. The latest, most egregious example is a report with an Orwellian title, "GMO Myths and Truths" that purports to be science-based. It was done by a UK-based nonprofit group called Earth Open Source, which

challenges the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture on the grounds of the scientifically proven hazards that they pose to health and the environment and on the grounds of the negative social and economic impacts of these technologies.

Here's how their clever press release opens:

Aren't critics of genetically engineered food anti-science? Isn't the debate over GMOs (genetically modified organisms) a spat between emotional but ignorant activists on one hand and rational GM-supporting scientists on the other? A new report released today, "GMO Myths and Truths," challenges these claims. The report presents a large body of peer-reviewed scientific and other authoritative evidence of the hazards to health and the environment posed by genetically engineered crops and organisms (GMOs).

In actuality, it's an extended Gish Gallop that twists science in the most cynical fashion to advance an ideological agenda. If the writers of this report were smarter--if they weren't so blinded by their own biases--they would have tried to give it an even greater sheen of credibility by not stacking the deck the way they did. That was the giveaway to me. The authors, (one who is a founding editor of an anti-GMO website) pretend to be authoritative but their skewed review of the scientific evidence leads them to conclude that GMOs are dangerous, have no redeeming value, and no utility whatsoever as an agricultural tool. I have to think that any self-respecting scientist or academic--even one who is no fan of GMOs--would be given pause by such a sweeping verdict. So it surprises me that NYU's Marion Nestle, the renowned food studies scholar and health advocate, heaps such unqualified praise on the report. In a blog post at her site (which is where I first learned of it), she writes:

Whether or not you agree with these conclusions, the authors have put a great deal of time and effort into reviewing the evidence for the claims. This is the best-researched and most comprehensive review I've seen of the criticisms of GM foods. Can the pro-GM advocates produce something equally well researched, comprehensive, and compelling? I doubt it but I'd like to see them try. In the meantime, this report provides plenty of justification for the need to label GM foods. Consumers have the right to choose. To do that, we need to know.

The first thing I thought: did Nestle spend any time reading the report, or did she just scan the summary and dazzle at the voluminous citations? The second thing I thought: did she bother to check the author bios and if so, did she notice that they have obvious biases and conflicts of interest that might have compromised their ability to choose and assess the evidence cited in their report? The third thing I thought: did Nestle, as the plant scientist Karl Haro von Mogel pointed out in one comment at her site, know that "very detailed reviews of evidence" from the National Academies of Science [in 2004 and 2010] have previously been done? (It's worth reading through the comments at Nestle's blog post, many of them from plant scientists who are miffed at her credulity.) Nobody should misread my skeptical take on this GMO report or my criticism of Nestle for her unquestioning acceptance of it, as a boosterish embrace of GMOs. By all means, let's keep studying the impacts and efficacy of genetically modified crops--on a case by case basis.

But it would be nice if we could go about this as rationally and clear-eyed as possible. That is made harder by the sewage of disinformation that flows on the internet, as discussed above. It's made even more difficult when influential scholars like Nestle lend their gravitas to a skewed report on GMOs that disguises itself with a scientific veneer.

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