The debate over genetically modified foods operates between two gradients: carnivalesque and politicized pseudoscience. When elements of the two poles cross, you get the freak show that has sprouted up in support of California's Proposition 37, a ballot initiative that, if approved by voters next month, will mandate that most foods be labeled if they contain any genetically modified ingredients.
It's hard to overstate the ass clown dimensions of the GMO debate in California. Last week on Twitter, Suzanne Somers, the 1970s sitcom star-turned-health and exercise guru, blurted out that "GMO's are the end of humanity." Somers appears to have been excited by a recent anti-GMO video featuring Hollywood celebrities, such as Bill Maher and Danny Devito, who use sarcasm (rather cleverly) to argue in favor of the labeling initiative. Maher, not exactly a sensible voice on matters of health and medicine, used his HBO show earlier in the year to rail against Monsanto ("the seat of evil") and other multinational corporations that he said want to keep secret the ingredients to "mutant chili" and other foods containing GMOs.
Maher, who has often forcefully defended evolution and rebutted climate change denialism, rejects (or willfully ignores) the scientific consensus on genetically modified crops—that they are safe to eat and pose no known health risks. His rejection of this science makes him the equivalent of a climate skeptic of the left, as I recently argued at Slate.
But what happens when the crazy makes it through peer review science and then gets disseminated widely by news outlets and social media? This was the case recently with a controversial French study that claimed rats fed a steady diet of GMO corn had become stricken with cancerous tumors. Never mind that the study was overwhelmingly panned in the scientific community and the scientist behind it was revealed to have a checkered history. (See here for an excellent recap of the affair.) What counts is that bad science and all, the study has apparently achieved its aim—at least in France.
As Reuters is reporting, the European agricultural company Vilmorin has canceled plans to conduct field tests of genetically modified crops in France, because of the country's highly charged debate over biotechnology. The timing of the decision is not coincidental. Reuters says, “A study published last month by French researchers that raised health concerns about a type of maize (corn) made by Monsanto Co reignited controversy in France, where opposition to the technology is fierce and commercial planting of GM crops is banned." It's too bad that Reuters neglected to mention the notoriety surrounding the study or that the European Food Safety Authority has just concluded that it was of "insufficient scientific quality to be considered for valid risk assessment." It’s yet another unfortunate example of shoddy reporting on GM-related issues.
Who cares that the scientific community spanked the study? It did exactly what it was supposed to do: warp an important public debate and muzzle legitimate scientific research.