Nathanael Johnson lets the anti-GMO movement off the hook

For the last six months, Nathanael Johnson has been writing about GMOs for the lefty environmental magazine Grist. The goal of his ultimately 26 part series was to try and bring some journalistic sanity to a topic that has gotten nasty in recent years. As Grist editor Scott Rosenberg is quoted on Dan Charles’ blog:

GMOs “were a unique problem for us,” says Rosenberg. On the one hand, most of Grist’s readers and supporters despise GMOs, seeing them as a tool of corporate agribusiness and chemical-dependent farming.

On the other hand, says Rosenberg, he’d been struck by the passion of people who defended this technology, especially scientists. It convinced him that the issue deserved a fresh look.

I’ve enjoyed reading the series. Johnson has investigated a wide range of issues related to GMOs with a generally empirical eye – trying to find data to help answer questions, while avoiding the polemicism that dominates discussions of the topic. Although I don’t think everything he has written is right, the series is a very useful starting point for people trying to wrap the heads around what can be a complex topic. He has clearly tried to delve deeply into every topic, and to not let dogma or propaganda from either side affect his conclusions.

Unfortunately, if the series has had an effect on what I presume is its target audience – the anti-GMO readers of Grist – it hasn’t shown up in online debates about GMOs. When I and others have pointed to Johnson’s series in response to outrageous statements from anti-GMO campaigners, he is dismissed as either a naive fool or just another Monsanto tool.

So I was surprised to read his concluding piece in the series, “What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters“.

It’s a little awkward to admit this, after devoting so much time to this project, but I think Beth was right. The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs is that the stakes are so low.

His basic point is that a lot of hot air and political energy is spent trying to decide between two alternative futures that aren’t all that different.

In the GMO-free future, farming still looks pretty much the same. Without insect-resistant crops, farmers spray more broad-spectrum insecticides, which do some collateral damage to surrounding food webs. Without herbicide-resistant crops, farmers spray less glyphosate, which slows the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds and perhaps leads to healthier soil biota. Farmers also till their fields more often, which kills soil biota, and releases a lot more greenhouse gases. The banning of GMOs hasn’t led to a transformation of agriculture because GM seed was never a linchpin supporting the conventional food system: Farmers could always do fine without it. Eaters no longer worry about the small potential threat of GMO health hazards, but they are subject to new risks: GMOs were neither the first, nor have they been the last, agricultural innovation, and each of these technologies comes with its own potential hazards. Plant scientists will have increased their use of mutagenesis and epigenetic manipulation, perhaps. We no longer have biotech patents, but we still have traditional seed-breeding patents. Life goes on.

In the other alternate future, where the pro-GMO side wins, we see less insecticide, more herbicide, and less tillage. In this world, with regulations lifted, a surge of small business and garage-biotechnologists got to work on creative solutions for the problems of agriculture. Perhaps these tinkerers would come up with some fresh ideas to usher out the era of petroleum-dependent food. But the odds are low, I think, that any of their inventions would prove transformative. Genetic engineering is just one tool in the tinkerer’s belt. Newer tools are already available, and scientists continue to make breakthroughs with traditional breeding. So in this future, a few more genetically engineered plants and animals get their chance to compete. Some make the world a little better, while others cause unexpected problems. But the science has moved beyond basic genetic engineering, and most of the risks and benefits of progress are coming from other technologies. Life goes on.

In many ways he’s right. GMOs on the market today – and most of the ones planned – are about making agriculture more efficient and profitable for farmers and seed providers. This is not a trivial thing, but would global agriculture collapse without these GMOs? Of course not.

But Johnson makes several key assumption in arguing that the stakes are low.

First, he says that “the odds are low, I think, that any of their inventions [GMOs] would prove transformative”. The obvious response is “How do you know?”. We rarely see transformative technologies coming. And remember that we are still in the very early days of genetic engineering of crops and animals. I suspect that you could go back and look at the early days of almost any new technology and convincingly downplay its transformative potential. That is not to say that genetic modification will definitely transform agriculture in a good way. Most new technologies ultimately fail to deliver. But the proper stance to take is to say that we just don’t know. What we do know is that there are many pressing and complex problems facing the future of agriculture. And, given that there is no compelling reason not to allow GM techniques to proceed, why take this tool out of the hands of scientists?

Second, Johnson cites “newer tools” are coming along that will render GMOs in the way we view them today somewhat less important. It’s not clear what these tools are – but I’ll assume that they are genome editing and things like marker assisted breeding – both tools that allow for highly efficient creation or selection of traits without crossing the dreaded “species barrier”. But given the vitriolic opposition to GMOs that exists today, does Johnson think these new technologies are going to get a free pass? After all, these tools are being wielded by the companies (Monsanto, Syngenta, etc…) who anti-GMO campaigners see as the root of all evil. Does anyone really think that the future of these technologies is not linked to how the debate of todays GMOs gets resolved?

And this, to me, if the big issue. Yes, as Johnson argues, the fate of the world does not rest on whether or not farmers can grow and sell glyphosate resistant soybeans. And it is also probably true that the world will neither be destroyed nor saved by transferring traits from one species to another. But that is not the right question to be asking.

Johnson tries to frame this question as a question about the role of technology:

People care about GMOs because they symbolize corporate control of the food system, or unsustainable agriculture, or the basic unhealthiness of our modern diet. On the other side, people care about GMOs because they symbolize the victory of human ingenuity over hunger and suffering, or the triumph of market forces, or the wonder of science. These larger stories are so compelling that they often obscure the ground truth.

But that isn’t it either. What is infuriating about the anti-GMO movement to me – and I suspect most other scientists – is not that people are disputing the wonder of science. And it’s not that people are somehow rejecting technology – because they’re not (the same people who hate GMOs are happy to tweet about it from their iPhones while using satellite wifi on a 787). Or that they’re attacking corporations, industrial agriculture or the free market economy. No. That’s not it.

What is most disturbing about the GMO debate – and why it matters – is that the anti-GMO movement at almost every turn rejects empiricism as a means of understanding the world and making decisions about it. The reason GMO opponents have largely rejected Johnson and his series is not solely because they disagree with his conclusion that GMOs are not an existential threat to our existence – but because they reject his methods. They do not appear to believe that the kind of questions that Johnson asks – “Does insect resistant corn reduce the amount of insecticide used on farms?” – can even be asked. They already know the answer, and are completely unmoved by evidence.

The anti-GMO movement is an anti-empirical movement. It relies on the rejection of evidence about the risks and benefits of extant GMOs. And it relies on the rejection of an understanding about molecular biology. And it’s triumph would be a disaster not just because we would miss out on future innovations in agriculture – but because the rejection of GMOs would all but banish the last vestige of empiricism from political life. The world faces so many challenges now, and we can only solve them if we believe that the world can be understood by studying it, that we can think up and generate possible solutions to the challenges we face, and that we can make rational decisions about which ones to use or not to use. The anti-GMO movement rejects each piece of this – it rejects decades of research aimed at understanding molecular biology, it rejects technology as a way to solve problems and more than anything it rejects our ability to make rational assessments of risk and value.

So when Johnson – who has spend considerable time and energy defending the role of empiricism in the GMO debate – throws up his hands and the end and says “Meh – none of this really matters” – he is letting opponents of GMOs off the hook. He is giving them permission to continue demanding that voters and politicians reject reason and evidence and ban a technology based on ill-founded fears and bad evidence – to continue thinking that they are saving the planet while, in reality, they are bringing us closer to its destruction.

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30 Comments

  1. Posted January 10, 2014 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Twitter isn’t really the best place to have a discussion like this. I thought I would lay out my position in more than 140 characters. Feel free to respond in either venue, or by email. :-)

    I think you, me, and Johnson all recognize the point of his post: the GMO controversy is largely a proxy for really big social, political, and environmental issues — to try to put in a phrase, what kind of food system we’re going to have. I’d add that, for deep institutional reasons (that are the major focus of my research as an academic right now), we can’t have a public discussion about these big issues, but we can have a discussion about health and safety. So the content of the GMO controversy is often about health and safety, despite the fact that the balance of evidence indicates that they’re probably fine.

    All this suggests that the right way to deal with GMO critics is to say “you’re probably wrong about the health and safety issues — but what you really care about is stuff like corporate power and pesticides and intellectual property, so let’s talk about that instead.” My problem with this post is that you don’t make that move. Instead, after recognizing that the controversy is really about corporate power and so on, you fall back in the health and safety risks frame, and dismiss GMO critics for being anti-scientific.

    There are two basic problems here. First, from a science communications perspective, you’re failing to address the concerns that motivate your audience. Indeed, you’re unnecessarily antagonizing them by calling them “anti-scientific.” Second, from a logical perspective, you’re committing a non sequitur. Evidence about health and safety risks, logically speaking, have nothing to do with whether Monsanto et al. have too much power over the food system. You’re accusing your interlocutors of being irrational for ignoring evidence that isn’t actually logically relevant to their position.

    Now, it’s true that GMO critics often represent themselves as being concerned with health and safety risks, and to some extent some critics do mishandle evidence relevant to their health and safety concerns. But I’d suggest your responsibility, as a science communicator who understands what’s actually at stake, is to help shift the frame of discussion off of health and safety and back to the real issue.

    Thanks for taking the time to read this unusually long comment.

    • Posted January 10, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

      I think anybody who knows me or reads my writing knows that I am as militant an opponent of intellectual property and the corporatization of life as there is. And I get that there are some in the anti-GMO movement (though in my experience this is a small fraction) who are more concerned with issues about the how agriculture works and with restoring some kind of public sphere in these discussion. However, I also think template around which to have these discussions, since the implication is that things people seem not to like – an overly industrialized food system, control by a limited number of companies, etc… – are the product of GMOs, which isn’t true. At best, GMOs grease the wheels of industrial agriculture a bit. But do you really think that if we banned GMOs that it would put a real dent in the system? I don’t. There are grand economic and political forces at play here.

      So I just don’t get the parry from opposition to contemporary corporatism to the health and safety of GMOs. It’s not just wrong scientifically. It makes no sense tactically. My sense is that, to the extent that it’s a tactic (and I think it’s equal, of not more, about some weird kind of self-identity amongst the affluent left), it’s a tactic of opportunism rather than design. People have sense that it’s relatively easy to scare people with GMOs, because they don’t understand the technology and because the involve things that in a superficial way sound scary (moving genes between species – oh my!) – and that a lot of people on the left have irresponsibly moved in to capitalize on this opportunity.

      But I also take your point, and will do my best to shift the discussion to where I think it needs to go (though I’m not sure we’d agree as to where that is).

      • Posted January 26, 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

        Given that Monsanto, on RoundupReady crops, rejected warnings about increased weed resistance to Roundup, isn’t it at least a bit selective in its own pro-science stance?

        I think in part, the GMO issue illustrates the difference between science and technology. And, from there, illustrates the idea of what I call salvific technologism — the idea that some new technology advance will always be the cavalry ready to ride over the hill and rescue us.

        In reality? Whether its GMOs, or smartphones and the Internet, technology offers no such easy answers.

        And, beyond the corporatism that peddles such technology nostrums, I think *that* needs to be part of the debate on a lot of issues.

    • Mary
      Posted January 10, 2014 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      This is the second time this week (on this same topic) that I hear this: “we can’t have a public discussion about these big issues, but we can have a discussion about health and safety”. Can you give me a link that fleshes that out? I seem to remember a little thing called “Occupy” that raised other issues supposedly, nobody was imprisoned for merely having that discussion. Whether it was sustainable in its own way is another issue.

      But the rest of comment seems to be another case of “ur doin it rong” on scicomm. I’m getting mighty tired of people who keep telling scientists they are doing it wrong–by responding to the actual claims that are being hurled. Is anyone telling GMO opponents that they are doin it rong?

      Have you ever seen what happens when you tell people with health concerns that they ought to talk about other stuff? Yeah, that goes really well.

      And if you try to explain to them that banning GMOs would have no impact on the things they claim to care about–herbicides, patents, and monoculture–they look at you very blankly.

      I’ve thought a number of times that the fear fog generated by this strategy has actually harmed their case. Because not only is it fairly easy to dismiss the BS, it actively deflects attention from the other issues. They actually don’t understand what lies beneath the fog. Like Michael says, it looks like a tactical blunder to me.

      But look–I’m open to some evidence. Can you show me an example of how deflecting health concerns in favor of other topics has been successful in reaching people? Show me a comment thread, or blog post, or twitter chat, where that happened.

  2. Dr. Ena Valikov
    Posted January 10, 2014 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Are you ready to discuss some empirical evidence in the form of statutory feeding trials designed to assure us of safety that do no such thing, Michael?
    https://plus.google.com/106528425932936429331/posts/7AW1c7bYkkj

    • Dan J. Andrews
      Posted January 11, 2014 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      Your link doesn’t actually back up what you say….or at least the abstract doesn’t. I’ll try again when I get to a computer as perhaps my mobile device can’t ‘see’ the relevant continuation links.

      • Dr. Ena Valikov
        Posted January 11, 2014 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

        The Hammond safety assurance study assures me, someone who interprets blood panels, biochemistries and biopsy reports, of absolutely nothing. I will find the time to do a written analysis and post it here when I have a chance. Do read the actual article–real scientists do not form conclusions by reading abstracts.
        Thanks.

      • Julian Irwin
        Posted January 11, 2014 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

        From the conclusion of the paper:

        “However, it is important to remark that for the first time, a certain equilibrium in the number of research groups suggesting, on the basis of their studies, that a number of varieties of GM products (mainly maize and soybeans) are as safe and nutritious as the respective conventional non-GM plant, and those raising still serious concerns, was observed.”

  3. Gaythia Weis
    Posted January 10, 2014 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    In starting with your conclusion: ” to continue thinking that they are saving the planet while, in reality, they are bringing us closer to its destruction”, I think it is crucial to recognize that it is not only the anti- GMO movement that is being left off the hook by Nathaniel Johnson’s conclusion that it doesn’t matter. The practices of “Big Ag” also need to be held to account, and can also be planet threatening. Science is neutral. But the applications of scientifically based technologies generally offer both promise and perils.

    I agree with Dan Hicks above that to reach the real target audience, the general public, their real concerns must be addressed. First, while voluntary regulation has been farily effective so far, it really is true that such things as “Frankenfood” or rampantly infectious microbes are certainly possible to develop by GMO methods. Thus “its perfectly safe” doesn’t play well with the public, nor should it. We need to make it clear that appropriate regulation (not voluntary) is in place.

    As a chemist, I think that this is similar to strategies used to combat concerns by those who desire items to be “chemical free”. The first step is to start with common ground: “Yes, there is reason to be concerned about certain synthetic chemicals”. But then, once it is established that I think is actually perfectly reasonable for the public to raise concerns, I can proceed with a reminder that natural products contain chemicals and one needs to be concerned about those also. (I am, after all talking with someone who is inclined to be worried). Then I can proceed with reassurance, examples of synthetic chemicals that are quite useful. And a plug for the idea that chemists in particular, can do much to help others recognize and distinguish between good and bad applications of chemicals and chemical based processes, and help humans navigate successfully in harmony with their environment. By conducting research, using sound manufacturing practices, monitoring, developing and using appropriate regulations, and other means.

    Here in Washington State, the recent election season brought a GMO labeling campaign in which the two extremes got about a 30 Million dollar stage to frame GMO technology to their personal benefit. Big Ag and Big Food got to portray their opponents as nut case extremists and to present themselves as if science were unequivocally on their side. Their opponents got to present themselves as if they were purveyors of all that was environmentally wholesome and pure. None of this elevated the cause of science, or furthered public support for future scientific research.

    I agree that the stakes are high. The public is not, “antiscientific” they are, to the best of their abilities trying to address real concerns. It is very true, as you state above, that ” GMOs on the market today – and most of the ones planned – are about making agriculture more efficient and profitable for farmers and seed providers. ” But that is actually a big problem. GMOs, “RoundUp Ready” and Bt in particular, do “grease the wheels”. The current system would not work at this point without them. Poor regulation will lead to obsolesce of the current products. And the ones waiting in the wings (2, 4, D ready” for example) should create serious concerns regarding escalation of poorly thought out and badly regulated tactics. Recognizing that problem goes a long way in establishing credibility with the public.

    Dealing with genuine agricultural activists would involve actually forming an alliance with them in providing real support for methods of Big Ag control that did not involve “pulling the GMO” plug. Which means that public statements and support for work to carefully regulate the excesses of current or possible GMO development would go further towards gaining general support for the actual science of genomics than attacking the anti-science would. Much of our “Big Ag” agricultural system is unsustainable and most people realize that at some level. Much of our “Big Food” production is not particularly nutritious. We could proceed from there to recognize the many other products on the market that could benefit from greater sourcing disclosure. I don’t think that you get there by jousting with, and thus amplifying the media attention for, the most outrageous extremists out there. I believe that it is possible to make progress by listening to and responding to honestly expressed concerns of actual everyday citizens.

    Now, before another election season starts, would be a great time to seek a better alternative to the GMO/not GMO labeling efforts of elections past. In my opinion, an expansion of publicly accessible databases food sourcing information, beginning with, but certainly not limited to GMO information would be a great way to enhance real conversations with the public regarding the science of agriculture and foodstuffs. Making it clear that science is not in lockstep with corporatist goals is also very important. As with other open source efforts, science is linked to liberty and freedom of information is key to enhancing the democratic process.

    • Posted January 10, 2014 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

      I agree with you. I don’t try to joust with extremists. What frustrates me is that there really are precious few people who come at this issue from an agriculture reform agenda who haven’t fully gotten on board the anti-GMO crusade (e.g. Michael Pollen, who in most ways is a pretty smart and reasonable person, but who sees things like GMO labeling as a major battleground in the “Food Wars”).

  4. Posted January 11, 2014 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    “The anti-GMO movement is an anti-empirical movement.” I think you nail it there. I sense that they believe, as Romantics do, that the world is simply unknowable. That by studying we learn some thing but the true workings of the studied thing and its meaning are hidden. Therefore, math and sciences are not only useless but counter-productive; only magic explains the world and its workings.

    • Todd
      Posted January 14, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      “The anti-GMO movement is an anti-empirical movement.”

      There is an element of truth there. But it is equally true for the pro-GMO crowd. Anything that attacks GMOs from an empirical standpoint is pushed into a corner, dismissed, or ignored. Additionally, all the elements of GMOs and their implications, sadly, tend to get lumped into one bucket, which makes it a complicated beast: business, ethics, patents, ecology, sustainability, safety, etc.

      Reactionary sentiment abounds on all sides of this topic. But so does reasoned, intellectual dialogue.

      • Robert Wager
        Posted August 21, 2014 at 7:38 am | Permalink

        I have been ‘in the trenches” in the GMO debate for a long time now. Two things come to mind about your comment.

        Very few “pro-GMO’ people attack during their discussions (and virtually none that use their real names). We most use sound science and reason and the result is often exactly as Michael states.

        Secondly the public is very receptive to the anyone who can give the real science about GM crop technology. They particularly appreciate when context with all of agriculture is part of the discussion. I think this is because most people are one ot two generations removed from primary food production and therefore have little knowledge of the realities of growing food for more than their family (the average farmer grows enough food for >100 people).

        We need more farmers telling their stories of why they overwhelmingly adopt this technology. We need more scientists involvement in the debate. For too long the debate has been framed by those with poor understanding of this technology and its place in global agriculture.

  5. Posted January 11, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Hi Michael,

    I enjoyed this article, and I understand that your blog focuses primarily on biology and science issues, so perhaps that explains why you assert that “the rejection of GMOs would all but banish the last vestige of empiricism from political life.”

    Our politics are completely inundated with those who would obscure and deny scientific consensus in order to advance their political goals — climate change deniers, those who would remove evolution from public schools (and the subsequent advancement of “intelligent design” in the name of “balance”), by the anti-vaccine movement and, yes, also by the anti-GMO crowd. Those who scream so loudly against GMOs are troubling because, as you so deftly note, they infiltrate parts of the Left that are traditionally sympathetic and supportive of science. (Mother Jones has been particularly embarrassing in their promotion of GMO stories.) But I feel like it’s extraordinarily dishonest to act like the anti-GMO movement is going to single-handedly “banish the last vestige of empiricism from political life.”

    Unfortunately, the anti-GMO set have a lot of help in that regard, and from both sides of the political aisle.

  6. Ann
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Actually, I think the fear that the anti-GMO forces could banish the last vestiges of empiricism might be well founded because many of these voices are traditional leftists. No one expects the right wing to be rational any more, but after listening to my left of center friends rail against GMOs during the recent WA debate, I do feel a sense of despair about the loss of rationality on the left.

  7. Susan
    Posted January 12, 2014 at 2:24 am | Permalink

    Saying that opposing GMOs will “bring us closer to the planet’s destruction” may be intentionally hyperbolic, but certainly doesn’t help the debate or sound more rational to me. It sounds like you are saying we have no choice. But is this true, and why is it true? Many on the left point out that monoculture itself has led to a lot of these problems with pest species. Many would like to see science and agriculture invest more in experiments like developing perennial grasses and re-incorporating old fashioned ideas like hedgerows and other structures to attract predator and herbivore species back to fields, growing multiple species in the same plots, etc. Yet they are told it’s impossible, too late to turn back now, that would be too expensive and we have to many people to feed. Case closed. It’s frustrating.

    Science has continually made promises that have brought dangers (the whole reason we got into this situation in the first place with pesticides!) and people are unsurprisingly wary at this point. They assume the insects will become resistant and we will have to keep designing new crops and so on and things may escalate and we may find ourselves in some new quagmire. And there really are dangers as even scientists admit. In a sense it seems you are frustrated that people are not as naive as they used to be when they cheerfully accepted “better living through chemistry” and so on. Personally, I am not afraid to eat GMO foods but I am not convinced the world will end if we don’t have them, that we have no other solutions.

    And finally, your scornful dismissal of queasiness over combining species makes me want to ask, doesn’t it make you a tiny bit queasy also? I’m not sure I am so ready to dismiss that discomfort myself. Even as a scientist I understand it. It really is different in a number of ways from artificial selection or hybridization of closely related species. We have (or had) so much already – we are creating these new entities, while thousands of traditional varieties have been lost to big agricultural methods. There is a real, justified, widespread bitterness over these losses and we will never go back to the former trust – I think it is just something we have to deal with now.

    • Posted January 12, 2014 at 6:54 am | Permalink

      I tried to be clear that it wasn’t opposition to GMOs per se that was brining us closer to destruction, but the anti-empiricism that underlies the anti-GMO movement that. As Johnson correctly points out, in many ways this is a proxy battle for something bigger. He thinks it’s about the role of technology, which is partially true. But I think it is also – and more importantly – about how we try to understand the world and how we evaluate potential solutions to the problems that face us.

      I am not trying to defend every aspect of modern agriculture. Widespread monoculture is a bad idea for all sorts of reasons – to me primarily because it leaves us exposed to pathogens. I agree that there are likely ways to make farming highly efficient, less environmentally destructive and better for consumers that involve some form of polyculture. But we’re not going to get to this by, as many on the left seem to believe, by banning GMOs and thinking happy thoughts. Optimizing farming practices is hard, and it will, more than anything else, require that we view the problem empirically.

      And yes, I have literally zero problem with making and eating transgenic foods. Of course it’s different in a mechanical sense than selection under breeding, and I certainly wouldn’t eat ANY transgenic plant (it’s possible to do something dangerous – like cloning in the biosynthetic pathway for a human toxin). But the process itself doesn’t bother me in the slightest. And on the last point – we were losing agriculture variety long before GMOs came onto the scene – look at the potato for example. It is the victim of modern, large-scale farming, not biotechnology.

      • Susan
        Posted January 12, 2014 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        “And on the last point – we were losing agriculture variety long before GMOs came onto the scene – look at the potato for example. It is the victim of modern, large-scale farming, not biotechnology”

        If you reread my comment that was my point. That history is the inescapable context we are dealing with. I sense that there is an element of “oh great here we go again” to the objections to GMOs. And I have never heard any objections to empirical investigations into polyculture, have you? There are experimental farms in the midwest – any protests?

  8. Samuel Decker
    Posted January 14, 2014 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Reminder: The most important level of the GMO discussion, is a simple one. This is not a scientific issue, it’s a moral one.

    The moms and dads of America aren’t so much concerned with empirical scientific evidence, or the corporate takeover of our political system so much as what to feed their kids. And if there are studies where GMO fed rodents are growing huge tumors that’s enough for them to error on the side of caution and refuse to feed that stuff to their children.

    But if GMO food were labeled as such, nobody would buy it. So the powers that be will continue to deceive the public and test GMOs on them. That’s the immoral part.

    Don’t ignorant people get to have their opinion? They don’t have the right to choose? To them, all the intellectual discussion is like so much GMO chaff in the wind.

    • Posted January 14, 2014 at 7:04 am | Permalink

      I understand why people feel this way. Ignorant people can have their opinions. But isn’t it our responsibility in making political decisions not to give in to ignorance? People wouldn’t buy food if they had a big label on the front that said “Contains Chemicals”. Most people see freezing temperatures in the midwest and say “Global warming must not be real”. So should we just abandon efforts to control CO2 emissions? This was my whole point. If we’re going to base our politics on peoples’ instincts and have-baked opinions, we’re screwed.

  9. Dr. Ena Valikov
    Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Sorry. I had a hospital inspection and had some corrections to make this week. Here is my analysis of Hammond.
    http://beachvethospital.blogspot.com/2014/01/dear-food-and-chemical-toxicology.html

  10. Posted January 21, 2014 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    I tend to agree with Nathaniel Johnson “that the stakes are so low,” but with a GIANT CAVEAT: that the stakes are low in the first world. At least with respect to current technology, the dogfight about GMOs is clearly a proxy battle, since most of the big stuff that is wrong with the American/European food system is unrelated to genetic modification. This becomes evident to me every time you get anti-GMO folks listing their grievances (corporatism, pesticides, antibiotic resistance, hubris, patenting life, etc.).

    HOWEVER, there are lots of indications that GMOs do matter in the developing world (e.g. work of Martin Qaim and David Zilberman on BT cotton) where genetically modified seeds can deliver insecticides that are too expensive to buy separately and dramatically increase yields per acre, for example. I often struggle with this issue when I talk about GMOs to friends because, on the one hand, I think the whole thing is way overblown in the US and we should be thinking about other stuff, but, on the other hand, it seems like the vitriol swirling on this issue may be preventing us from developing more technologies that would help the world’s poor (e.g. the insanity surrounding Golden Rice).

  11. Posted January 26, 2014 at 1:39 am | Permalink

    I did read the whole Nathaneal Johnson’s series, and I do agree that generally speaking most of arguments stand. I would just like to point out that several major issues were not even touched. For instance, the major question is, how the whole negative connotation was given particularly to GMO crops in the first place. Why exactly regulators (the system was completely invented in US) did decide, that varieties bred by gene insertion need so very special treatment compared to already existing variety release procedure. I thins you will agree that it is not generally known, that biotech companies actually demanded stricter regulation and pushed agencies to do so. It is well documented in an article “Bootleggers and Biotechs” authored by Henry I Miller and Gregory Conco back in 2003, clearly stating that these excessive demands were actually lobbied by giant biotech industry. The obvious reason was to push out many small innovative firms and academic researchers. They succeeded very well, as we know today. There is another missing point in Nathaneal Johnson’s series – lack of giving information on hundreds of existing GMO lines, already done and published but never released for cultivation. To mention just one field, of all scare stories about allergenic properties of GM food no word about existing plants with well known allergenic traits eliminated, although such lines exist for a decade, starting with peanuts of Japanese cedar for example. Another missed point is, that major companies do not promote any single product as GM and favorable to consumer. The excuse- we do not work with “small plants” or with “consumer friendly traits” because deregulation is too expensive is simply pathetic. Spending millions in pro-GM anti – labeling campaign is OK, spending a million for let say osteoporosis preventing carrot is too much??? C’mon, the same story again. In fact, the major companies already have the market and why to share it with others. And also no word about seed prices. As we can read even today http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2014/01/21/view-from-an-iowa-farm-in-choosing-seeds-im-no-pawn-of-monsanto/?utm_content=buffer78376&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer
    That farmers actually believe, that it is normal to pay more for a single trait added. They simply do not take in account, that company is already awarded by choosing their seed and not the competitors. For such deviations the only solution is of course an open market. This means deregulation of the release procedure at first place. The fact that GM seed prices can drop dramatically was clearly demonstrated in India, when a Chinese competitor arrived to marker (see Nature Biotechnology note about that). So finally, no mention about existing efforts to deregulate procedures, although such calls were widely discussed. For instance, a call from Swedish colleagues can be find http://blogg.slu.se/forskarbloggen/quasi-science-prevents-an-environmentally-friendly-agriculture-and-forestry/.

  12. Posted January 26, 2014 at 1:41 am | Permalink

    I did read the whole Nathaneal Johnson’s series, and I do agree that generally speaking most of arguments stand. I would just like to point out that several major issues were not even touched. For instance, the major question is, how the whole negative connotation was given particularly to GMO crops in the first place. Why exactly regulators (the system was completely invented in US) did decide, that varieties bred by gene insertion need so very special treatment compared to already existing variety release procedure. I thins you will agree that it is not generally known, that biotech companies actually demanded stricter regulation and pushed agencies to do so. It is well documented in an article “Bootleggers and Biotechs” authored by Henry I Miller and Gregory Conco back in 2003, clearly stating that these excessive demands were actually lobbied by giant biotech industry. The obvious reason was to push out many small innovative firms and academic researchers. They succeeded very well, as we know today. There is another missing point in Nathaneal Johnson’s series – lack of giving information on hundreds of existing GMO lines, already done and published but never released for cultivation. To mention just one field, of all scare stories about allergenic properties of GM food no word about existing plants with well known allergenic traits eliminated, although such lines exist for a decade, starting with peanuts of Japanese cedar for example. Another missed point is, that major companies do not promote any single product as GM and favorable to consumer. The excuse- we do not work with “small plants” or with “consumer friendly traits” because deregulation is too expensive is simply pathetic. Spending millions in pro-GM anti – labeling campaign is OK, spending a million for let say osteoporosis preventing carrot is too much??? C’mon, the same story again. In fact, the major companies already have the market and why to share it with others. And also no word about seed prices. As we can read even today http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2014/01/21/view-from-an-iowa-farm-in-choosing-seeds-im-no-pawn-of-monsanto/?utm_content=buffer78376&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer
    That farmers actually believe, that it is normal to pay more for a single trait added. They simply do not take in account, that company is already awarded by choosing their seed and not the competitors. For such deviations the only solution is of course an open market. This means deregulation of the release procedure at first place. The fact that GM seed prices can drop dramatically was clearly demonstrated in India, when a Chinese competitor arrived to marker (see Nature Biotechnology note about that). So finally, no mention about existing efforts to deregulate procedures, although such calls were widely discussed. For instance, a call from Swedish colleagues can be find http://blogg.slu.se/forskarbloggen/quasi-science-prevents-an-environmentally-friendly-agriculture-and-forestry/.
    So, there is much more to discuss.

  13. Posted January 26, 2014 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Love this article, thanks Michael! I like what you said about empiricism.

    I see the anti-GMO movement as a special consequence of the appeal to nature fallacy.

    We humans have a strong instinct to avoid impure food. This sense of impurity is easily triggered by words like “synthetic”, “cancer”, and “pesticides”.

    In reality, 99.99% of the cancer-causing pesticides in food (by weight) are natural.
    http://www.pnas.org/content/87/19/7777.full

    Empiricism means trusting in observation or experience. Anti-empiricism means rejecting the same, which is exactly what happens to someone who just *knows* all GMO food is poison, because their gut tells them so.

  14. Brenden Hurley
    Posted January 28, 2014 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    I would posit the stakes are not low at all, with two prime examples. Both centre around decreasing our dependence on natural aquatic production.

    1) AquAdvantage Salmon
    Salmon with upregulated growth hormone receptors. It’s capable of growth in a wider range of conditions, and goes to market faster than non-GMO salmon. It stands to greatly increase the viability of inland aquaculture while increasing efficiency of raising a high trophic level protein source of high market desirability. It means literally more fish for less input. This product is ready for market, but pending final approval from the FDA
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AquAdvantage_salmon (n.b. this wiki link is likely a front for the salmon company, but has also caught the eye of Nature’s editorial staff)

    2) High yield production of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in terrestrial plants.
    Recently, a British crop improvement centre reported producing a economically relevant flax relative that produced omega-3/6 FAs at yields similar to anchovy and salmon by-products
    press release: http://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/news/crop-plants-green-factories-fish-oils
    paper: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/tpj.12378/abstract;jsessionid=E4B228787C29F0F6BFBDD08C35B7C535.f03t03

    Bringing this product to market could greatly decrease our dependence on fishing of pelagic mid-trophic fish for animal feed. It literally has the ability to save our oceans, or more realistically, decrease the need for overfishing and our dependence on natural fish stocks.

    Even in first-world agriculture the stakes are high.

  15. DRRD
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    “In the GMO-free future, farming still looks pretty much the same. Without insect-resistant crops, farmers spray more broad-spectrum insecticides, which do some collateral damage to surrounding food webs. Without herbicide-resistant crops, farmers spray less glyphosate, which slows the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds and perhaps leads to healthier soil biota.”

    This is a stunning statement.
    Stunning in the way that after all his research he still understands so little about ag.

    There are pests which can’t be dealt with by pesticides. More will continue to evolve.

    “Farming still looks pretty much the same”, except that you might lose major crops to pests because we were unable to develop resisting crops without biotech (which is a rather fast process, too).

  16. McNamara
    Posted February 6, 2014 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    The Grist Series brought back memories of the movie Promise Land, where you had a “supposed environmentalist” acting like he was working in behalf of the townspeople; however in the end its revealed all the while he was working to manipulate the people for the fracking company itself.

    The Grist GM series was packaged to give the appearance of open discussion however became nothing more than avenue for all the industry types from Monsanto/Dow to have a forum for their message and attack and discredit any poster with a cautionary view of GM.

  17. Ryan Wright
    Posted February 22, 2014 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Some people are just confused about the information. They don’t really know what the truth is about GMOs. Blogs like these are really helpful. I think the government needs to take action rather than just pushing of the issue. This link is to a series I found, they give a thorough and detailed information about GMOs. http://thenebula.org/what-are-gmos/

  18. theLaplaceDemon
    Posted August 11, 2014 at 5:03 am | Permalink

    Great post. I agree with you about the low stakes and proxy battle. The way I think about it is this: The anti-GMO movement scares me because of how much it reminds me of the anti-vaccine movement.