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Environment

When Journalists Say Really Stupid Stuff About GMOs

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I've been arguing that the worst misinformation and myths about genetically modified foods has spread from the anti-GMO fringes to the mainstream. A jaw-dropping example of this is provided by Michael Moss, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, who was recently interviewed by Marcus Mabry, a NYT colleague about the Monsanto protests that took place last weekend. The interview lasts only a few minutes. Listen to the whole thing to fully appreciate its inanity. I've transcribed the exchanges that will blow your mind. MABRY: In Europe, genetically modified organisms are actually banned. In the United States, quite decidedly they are not. Why that difference? MOSS: I have family in Europe. They've been talking to me about GMOs for years and years. I think they decided that even though there is no hard science showing long-term health problems with GMOs, they also point out that the research really hasn't been done. So for them the glass is half empty, rather than half full. They're saying, 'look, until proven safe, we're gonna, like, avoid this stuff.' You gotta love it when an investigative reporter listens more to his family than to what scientists say. As I've done before, I'll quote from University of California plant geneticist Pam Ronald's article in Scientific American:

There is broad scientific consensus that genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat. After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops (Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, Committee on Environmental Impacts Associated with Commercialization of Transgenic Plants, National Research Council and Division on Earth and Life Studies 2002). Both the U.S. National Research Council and the Joint Research Centre (the European Union’s scientific and technical research laboratory and an integral part of the European Commission) have concluded that there is a comprehensive body of knowledge that adequately addresses the food safety issue of genetically engineered crops (Committee on Identifying and Assessing Unintended Effects of Genetically Engineered Foods on Human Health and National Research Council 2004; European Commission Joint Research Centre 2008).

Or to put it more succinctly, as Christy Wilcox, my Discover blogging colleague says:

The simple fact is that there is no evidence that GMOs, as a blanket group, are dangerous.

Let's move on to the next exchange, where Moss sounds more like an anti-GMO activist than a reporter. MABRY: Until recently, there hasn't been much concern from the public in the U.S. at all though [about GMOs]. Is that because we're not so worried about it, or because we just don't know. MOSS: 

I think it's been under the radar a bit. In increasing mood, people are concerned about it. Those [anti-Monsanto] rallies over the weekend were amazing. So many people hit the streets and I think part of the thing happening here is people are realizing, this is really scary stuff. I mean, Just consider the name, right. Genetically modified organisms. This isn't like taking one apple and crossing it with another and gettting a redder, shinier apple. This is extracting genetic material from one living creature and putting it another. And that's really disturbing to people.

There is much to to take issue with there, but I bolded the part that to me, is truly scary coming from an investigative reporter at the New York Times. Is Moss for real? Instead of perhaps educating the public about genetic modification and why it isn't scary at all, he's reinforcing the biggest bogeyman fear of all, the one that inspires every Frankenfood headline. In a lecture last year, Michael Pollan, who, like Mark Bittman, plays footsie with the fringe elements of the anti-GMO crowd, acknowledged that science did not support the concerns people had about genetically modified foods. He also said:

Fear is not a basis to rally people against GMOs.

Maybe he's wrong. Fear seems to be the greatest motivator. When a NYT investigative reporter reinforces the biggest myths and fears pushed by the anti-GMO movement, I don't see how it's possible to have a constructive, science-based discourse about genetically modified foods.

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[Many people exhibit a potato head understanding of GMOs. Source for image.]

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