Are GMO foods safe? Opponents are skewing the science to scare people.

How Anti-GMO Activists Are Polluting Science Communication

How Anti-GMO Activists Are Polluting Science Communication

The state of the universe.
Sept. 26 2012 5:15 AM

GMO Opponents Are the Climate Skeptics of the Left

Don’t worry. Genetically modified corn isn’t going to give you cancer.

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So what explains the lingering suspicions that some people (even those who aren’t Monsanto-hating, organic-food-only eaters) still harbor? Some of these folks are worried about new genes being introduced into plant and animal species. But humans have been selectively breeding plants and animals pretty much since we moved out of caves, manipulating their genes all the while. The process was just slower before biotechnology came along.

Still, being uneasy about a powerful, new technology doesn’t make you a wild-eyed paranoid. The precautionary principle is a worthy one to live by. But people should know that GMOs are tightly regulated (some scientists say in an overly burdensome manner).

Many environmentalists are concerned that genetically modified animals such as “Franken-salmon” could get loose in the wild and out-compete their nonengineered cousins, or lead to breeding problems for the wild members of the species. But even the scientist on whose research the “Trojan gene” hypothesis is based says the risk to wild salmon is “low” and that his work has been misrepresented by GMO opponents.


Another big concern that has been widely reported is the “rapid growth of tenacious super weeds” that now defy Monsanto’s trademark Roundup herbicide. That has led farmers to spray their fields with an increasing amount of the chemical weed-killer. Additionally, some research suggests that other pests are evolving a resistance to GMO crops. But these problems are not unique to genetic engineering. The history of agriculture is one of a never-ending battle between humans and pests.

On balance, the positives of GM crops seem to vastly outweigh the negatives. A recent 20-year study published in Nature found that GM crops helped a beneficial insect ecosystem to thrive and migrate into surrounding fields. For an overview of the benefits (and enduring concerns) of GM crops, see this recent post by Pamela Ronald.

The bottom line for people worried about GMO ingredients in their food is that there is no credible scientific evidence that GMOs pose a health risk.

Even Philpott, in his charitable take on the Seralini study, admits that, "no one has ever dropped dead from drinking, say, a Coke sweetened with high-fructose syrup from GMO corn." In the next breath, though, he wonders: "But what about 'chronic' effects, ones that come on gradually and can't be easily tied to any one thing? Here we are eating in the dark." Despite the study being a train wreck, Philpott's takeaway is that it "provides a disturbing hint that all might not be right with our food—and shows beyond a doubt that further study is needed." What's beyond a doubt here is Philpott's unwillingness to call bullshit when it's staring him in the face.

I single out Philpott not to pick on him, but because he represents the most reasonable, level-headed voice of the anti-GMO brigade (whose most extreme adherents don white hazmat suits and destroy research plots). The same goes for Grist, which calls the French study "important" and says "it's worth paying attention to what Seralini has done.”

Such acceptance by lefties of what everyone else in the reality-based science community derides as patently bad science is “just plain depressing,” writes a medical researcher who blogs under the name Orac. He compares the misuse of science and scare tactics by GMO opponents to the behavior of the anti-vaccine movement.

The anti-GM bias also reveals a glaring intellectual inconsistency of the eco-concerned media. When it comes to climate science, for example, Grist and Mother Jones are quick to call out the denialism of pundits and politicians. But when it comes to the science of genetic engineering, writers at these same outlets are quick to seize on pseudoscientific claims, based on the flimsiest of evidence, of cancer-causing, endocrine-disrupting, ecosystem-killing GMOs.

This brand of fear-mongering is what I've come to expect from environmental groups, anti-GMO activists, and their most shamelessly exploitive soul travelers. This is what agenda-driven ideologues do. The Seralini study has already been seized on by supporters of California's Proposition 37, a voter initiative that, if successful in November, would require most foods containing genetically modified ingredients to be labeled as such in the state.

What's disconcerting is when big media outlets and influential thought leaders legitimize pseudoscience and perpetuate some of the most outrageous tabloid myths, which have been given fresh currency by a slanted 2011 documentary that is taken at face value at places like the Huffington Post.

In a recent commentary for Nature, Yale University's Dan Kahan lamented the "polluted science communication environment" that has deeply polarized the climate debate. He writes: “People acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand.” This means that lefties in the media and prominent scholars and food advocates who truly care about the planet are information brokers. So they have a choice to make: On the GMO issue, they can be scrupulous in their analysis of facts and risks, or they can continue to pollute the science communication environment.

Correction, Sept. 26, 2012: This article originally misidentified the affiliation of the scientist who suggests that the study was “designed to frighten” the public. He is with the University of Florida, not UC-Berkley.

Keith Kloor is a journalist based in New York. You can find him on twitter here. He is a former editor at Audubon magazine and often writes about environmental issues.