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.

Bt-corn is a GMO (genetically modified organism) crop that offers growers an alternative.
Genetically modified corn harvested near Rockton, Ill.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

I used to think that nothing rivaled the misinformation spewed by climate change skeptics and spinmeisters.

Then I started paying attention to how anti-GMO campaigners have distorted the science on genetically modified foods. You might be surprised at how successful they've been and who has helped them pull it off.

I’ve found that fears are stoked by prominent environmental groups, supposed food-safety watchdogs, and influential food columnists; that dodgy science is laundered by well-respected scholars and propaganda is treated credulously by legendary journalists; and that progressive media outlets, which often decry the scurrilous rhetoric that warps the climate debate, serve up a comparable agitprop when it comes to GMOs.

In short, I’ve learned that the emotionally charged, politicized discourse on GMOs is mired in the kind of fever swamps that have polluted climate science beyond recognition.

The latest audacious example of scientific distortion came last week, in the form of a controversial (but peer reviewed!) study that generated worldwide headlines. A French research team purportedly found that GMO corn fed to rats caused them to develop giant tumors and die prematurely.

Within 24 hours, the study's credibility was shredded by scores of scientists. The consensus judgment was swift and damning: The study was riddled with errors—serious, blatantly obvious flaws that should have been caught by peer reviewers. Many critics pointed out that the researchers chose a strain of rodents extremely prone to tumors. Other key aspects of the study, such as its sample size and statistical analysis, have also been highly criticized. One University of Florida scientist suggests the study was "designed to frighten" the public.*

That's no stretch of the imagination, considering the history of the lead author, Gilles-Eric Seralini, who, as NPR reports, "has been campaigning against GM crops since 1997," and whose research methods have been "questioned before," according to the New York Times.

The circumstances surrounding Seralini's GMO rat-tumor study range from bizarre (as a French magazine breathlessly reports, it was conducted in clandestine conditions) to dubious (funding was provided by an anti-biotechnology organization whose scientific board Seralini heads).

Another big red flag: Seralini and his co-authors manipulated some members of the media to prevent outside scrutiny of their study. (The strategy appears to have worked like a charm in Europe.) Some reporters allowed themselves to be stenographers by signing nondisclosure agreements stipulating they not solicit independent expert opinion before the paper was released. That has riled up  science journalists such as Carl Zimmer, who wrote on his Discover magazine blog: "This is a rancid, corrupt way to report about science. It speaks badly for the scientists involved, but we journalists have to grant that it speaks badly to our profession, too. ... If someone hands you confidentiality agreements to sign, so that you will have no choice but to produce a one-sided article, WALK AWAY. Otherwise, you are being played."

Speaking of being played, have I mentioned yet that Seralini's book on GMOs, All Guinea Pigs! is being published (in French) this week? Oh, and there's also a documentary based on his book coming out simultaneously. You can get details on both at the website of the anti-biotetch organization that sponsored his study. The site features gross-out pictures of those GMO corn-fed rats with ping-pong-ball-size tumors.

It's all very convenient, isn't it?

None of this seems to bother Tom Philpott, the popular food blogger for Mother Jones, who writes that Seralini's results "shine a harsh light on the ag-biotech industry's mantra that GMOs have indisputably proven safe to eat."

Philpott often trumpets the ecological and public-health dangers posed by genetically modified crops. But such concerns about GMOs, which are regularly echoed at other left-leaning media outlets, have little merit. As Pamela Ronald, a UC-Davis plant geneticist, pointed out last year 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."

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.

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