The Atlantic Serves Up Alarmism & Jumbled Science

I’m making a decree: Food columnists should no longer be writing about anything other than recipes and restaurants. When they stray from their area of expertise, what results is too often ugly and harmful to the public interest.

For example, I’ve previously pointed out where some food writers go badly off the tracks. The latest example is this piece by Ari LeVaux published online by The Atlantic, titled:

The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Foods

That scare-mongering headline alone is inexcusable. (Atlantic editors, why?) But then what follows, as Emily Willingham amply shows in her blog, The Biology Files, “is a remarkably confusing article.” She thoroughly deconstructs the muddled mess that Levaux makes of this recent study. In fact, LeVaux makes such a car wreck of his article that you have to wonder how it happened (no fact-checking by The Atlantic for online pieces, I’m guessing), and why they would let a food columnist make mincemeat of science this way.

Willingham and LeVaux had an interesting exchange at The Atlantic site (in the comment thread of his article), where he dismissed her critique as “nitpicking” and she responded by saying:

Your presentation of the science leaves not only a lot of room for “nitpicking” but also about an office building’s worth of room for correction. If you are aware of your lack of knowledge, it would have been a good idea to have run your information by someone with greater insight and experience so that you could have avoided embarrassing yourself in this way.
I’d say The Atlantic should feel equally embarrassed, and might want to consider applying some of the print magazine’s quality control standards to its online content.
UPDATE: On Twitter,  LeVaux thanks Willingham and says he’s “re-writing the piece with corrections.”
UPDATE: Charlie Petit, writing at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, says The Atlantic story “has the smell of inflammatory nonsense.”

Category: GMOs, Journalism, science

Genetically Modified AG Saves Lives. Imagine That.

Bt cotton now helps to avoid several million cases of pesticide poisoning in India every year, which also entails sizeable health cost savings.

This is not the sort of news you’re liable to hear about in anti-GMO quarters, where the concerns of the small farmer are righteously defended.

Category: GMOs, India

Are They Crazy & Heartless?

Never mind that East Africa is reeling from drought and famine, if you’re with Greenpeace and you have an anti-GMO tic, this is what you worry about:

Olivia Langhof of Greenpeace Africa, based in Johannesburg, echoes the concerns of other critics in saying that even in the face of a dire need to feed human beings, GM is not an adequate answer. She says in addition to being unnecessary, it doesn’t address the underlying causes of the devastating humanitarian crisis.

‘What completely falls in the gap in the current discussion—because so many people are dying—is how we stop this [kind of drought] from happening again’, Langhof says. ‘No government in Africa should fall into the trap into the agri-busniess industry because that is really selling out their food security and farmers’.

First of all, good luck with stopping drought from happening in a drought-prone region (did she really mean that, or did the reporter misinterpret?). Secondly, is there no end to this madness?

H/T: Mark Lynas

Category: East Africa, GMOs, Greenpeace

Contaminated by Irrational Fears

Europe’s latest bout of GMO phobia is captured in this Guardian headline:

 EU bans GM-contaminated honey from general sale

In case you didn’t catch the tilt of the article, here’s the subhead:

Bavarian beekeepers forced to declare their honey as genetically modified because of contamination from nearby Monsanto crops

The thrust of this mind boggling story:

The European Union’s highest court on Tuesday ruled that honey which contains trace amounts of pollen from genetically modified (GM) corn must be labelled as GM produce and undergo full safety authorisation before it can be sold as food.

In what green groups are calling a “groundbreaking” ruling, the decision could force the EU to strengthen its already near-zero tolerance policy on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The Guardian story’s bias is quite obvious, as it is frontloaded with cheerleading greens and anti-GMO voices. The scientists get their say after that. Just for kicks, I waded into the comment thread (which is quite a smackdown between the pro and anti camps) and plucked out a few notables.

Here’s a wry, nicely understated observation:

Greenpeace is becoming more annoying than some religions; worrying indeed.

From someone who sounds exasperated:

Madness. This madness has to stop. There isn’t even the slightest hint of any chance of any potential harm to human health here yet the nutters want to ban science and modernity for their silly obsessions.

This is going beyond a mere ideological obsession and becoming religious in its rejection of fact, reason and science.

As if on cue:

good, they should ban GMOs

sick to death of them sneaking in dodgy ingredients into food. In the long run GMO will kill wildlife, degrade soil, impact human health. Goodness knows where it will end.

The egg heads will say, this is not proven by science, trust us.

This one gets points for its audacious idiocy:

There have been hundreds of studies done by professional laboratories around the world and every one shows GMs to be dangerous. The only exception is the rigged studies and results from Monsanto who are not just allowed but helped by the US government to sell extremely dangerous products.

There is no evidence at all of any benefits from GMOs other than Monsanto’s propaganda. Their intent is to control the world’s food supply. Gullible people are helping them along with politicians and scientists paid by Monsanto.

And finally, my favorite, a plea from an apparent environmentalist:

This thread is even better than the anti-nuclear / pro-coal ravings of the neo-green climate change deniers.

I don’t think I’ve ever read more baseless anti-science, fundamentalist, conspiracy theory paranoia in CIF. Some of you greens are nothing less than a psychotic lynch-mob.

Environmentalism is a SCIENCE. The ‘Green” movement has turned into some kind of twisted religion and will destroy the credibility of the Environmental Movement if this new-age, voodoo-brain crap doesn’t stop.

Stay off my side.


Category: Europe, GMOs

A Tragically Warped View

[UPDATE: In the comments, Kate Sheppard has responded to this post, saying that I (and William Connolley) have "grossly misconstrued" what she wrote in her Guardian article. Here is my explanation and apology to Kate.]

In an article about the nuclear implications of this week’s East Coast earthquake, Kate Sheppard writes:

We had a pretty good warning earlier this year, when the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan caused an even bigger tragedy when the Fukushima nuclear power plant suffered a meltdown.

Anybody spot the problem? William Connolley did and he’s all over it:

The tsunami killed 20k people, or whatever. Fukushima killed no-one, directly, though it wouldn’t be surprising if it kills a few eventually. So why was Fukushima an “even bigger tragedy”?

Because nuclear power is still a bogeyman to progressives. Many also break out into a cold sweat over genetically modified foods. Nothing anti-science about these positions, right?

Category: climate change, GMOs, nuclear power

When Irrational Fear Gives Way to Hunger

Kenya’s government has made a controversial move to allow the import of genetically modified (GM) maize from South Africa to fight hunger and starvation, even though GM crops cannot yet be legally grown in the country.

Or, put another way, this news prompts Charlie Petit at The Tracker to remark:

When people are starving, genetically modified food starts to look better…

Charlie did some digging and found a few recent stories from the Kenya press that debated the “controversial move” before it became official. The mind reels at this one from last month:

Forced to survive on wild fruits in the face of drought and food insecurity, hungry Kenyans could soon face the dilemma of eating genetically modified food.

As the Government readies to bring in genetically modified maize to bridge the growing food deficit, scientists warn the planned importation of genetically engineered alternatives could be unsafe.

Charlie, again at the Tracker, says it best:

This story reads like a visit to upside down world.

Category: GMOs

The Case for GMO’s

When you can grow more food using the same inputs of land, water and fertilizer, everyone — farmers, consumers, hungry people and anyone who cares about CO2 concentrations in the earth’s atmosphere — is better off.

From a profile of an environmentally-minded owner of a California-based R & D biotech company, who says he wants to

use the the tools of plant biotechnology, and point them at saving the environment.

I guess that makes him an enemy of Greenpeace and all the other anti-GMO fanatics who call themselves environmentalists.

Category: biotechnology, climate change, GMOs

The Reality Challenged

If you want to know why the old school, inflexible wing of environmentalism is rotting from within, look no further than this gem of a comment at Dot Earth:

Keith Kloor, Mark Lynas, Steve Nordhaus, and Roger Pielke Jr. share several characteristics: rudimentary knowledge of climate change (absent any scientific discipline), a way with words, and, worst of all, rank careerism. Each has tried to carve out a niche by covering the middle ground, thinking that this will gain them credibility. The problem is that each time they try to do so they betray their glaring weakness, which is knowledge of the actual science.

They deserve zero respect, and should be ignored. The world is careening toward a crisis on an unimaginable scale. Their petty and ill thought out solutions gain nothing except ceding ground to the oil, coal, and gas companies. These corporate horror shows will seize that ground and launch giant tanks from it.

The funny thing about this comment is that it doesn’t even speak to the issue of GMO’s, which is the topic of Andy Revkin’s post. It’s just an absurdist rant. I mean, as Revkin responds:

How in the world can you possibly place Mark Lynas in the climate “middle ground”? Because he’s okay with nuclear power, or…? Have you read anything by him?

Heck, has the commenter read anything by me, other than what appears in this blog?

Anyway, as nutso as this comment is, it’s not the most disturbing one on this particular Dot Earth thread. I’m still trying to comprehend this response from NYT food columnist Mark Bittman, who wrote:

The one thing you might have left out is “does this GM stuff do anyone any good?”

I agree there’s no reason to attack the stuff. I agree the fears are likely unfounded. I think the GM boom is likely unfounded also – what has it done so far, besides produce herbicide resistant seeds that have spawned herbicide resistant weeds?

Does this GM stuff do anyone any good? What has it done so far…?

This has to be a statement borne of willful ignorance. But for anyone who wonders the same, here’s some good answers.

Category: environmentalism, GMOs

The Biotech Bugaboo

A scientist lays it out in the Guardian:

The term “genetic modification” provokes widespread fears about the corporate control of agriculture, and of the unknown. However, results from 25 years of EU-funded research show that there is “no scientific evidence associating GM plants with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms”. This of course does not prove GM methods are 100% safe, but makes clear there is no evidence to the contrary.

As Ronald Baily has observed, some environmentalists who regularly invoke the scientific consensus on climate change have a different standard when it comes to GMO’s.

So it’s worth pointing out an essay (paywalled) in this week’s Nature by Jason Clay, a senior vice president with the World Wildlife Fund, who writes:

I’m an environmentalist and am convinced that to increase [global food] production, we can’t afford to ignore genetics, as long as it is applied in a responsible way. There has been a lot of debate over genetic modification, but there is in fact huge potential in using genetics through traditional plant breeding to select traits — techniques which humans have been using for more than 6,000 years.

Now we have twenty-first century technology that allows even faster selection. In Africa, staple food crops such as yams, plantains and cassava have been relatively neglected by plant breeders. The genomes of these crops should be mapped as a first step towards solutions to doubling or even tripling productivity, and improving drought tolerance, disease resistance and overall nutrient content. Genetic mapping would allow researchers to identify specific traits and markers within a species, and eventually breed plants displaying them. There are plant breeders in Africa prepared to do this.

Environmental groups that let ideology trump science on genetically enhanced crops forfeit the high ground on issues like climate change. I wish that some of these groups would listen to people like Pamela Ronald, a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis, who charts an inclusive path:

Both organic farming and biotechnology have a seat at this table. Organic farming began as a response to the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers, and relies on integrated management to control pests and disease. And while organic production practices can be an important component of sustainable agriculture, they cannot address every constraint faced by farmers, including some diseases and pests, challenges posed by climate change, and the need for adequate nutrition.

Category: agriculture, biotechnology, GMOs

When Green Groups Go Mad

Greenpeace continues its descent into anti-science oblivion.

Last Thursday, the environmental group carried out a destructive anti-GMO stunt that has outraged scientists in Australia. Over at Sustainablog, agricultural scientist Steve Savage describes what happened:

On July, 14, three Greenpeace activists dressed in hazmat suits scaled a fence, and used weed whips to destroy a GMO wheat experiment in Canberra, Australia.  The experiment was being conducted by CSIRO (the USDA equivalent for Australia).  The activists posted video of the attack on You Tube.  They also posted “explanations” by activists who could be easily identified.  Although this is technically a criminal activity, it was more likely about publicity.  Greenpeace has been at the forefront of the anti-GMO movement since the late 1990s, and it has claimed victory for stopping the development of GMO wheat varieties.   Those heady days are fading for Greenpeace. 15 years and billions of acres into the GMO revolution, Greenpeace may just be attempting to defend conquered ground.

So why is this stunt damaging, nonetheless? Christopher Preston, an agricultural scientist at the University of Adelaide, explains:

These trials are not just about the development of genetically modified crops that may at some future time be developed commercially, but frequently provide spin-off information that is of use in our understanding of gene action in the environment. This important information is also lost.

This particular act of eco-vandalism by Greenpeace seems to have struck a nerve in Australia’s scientific community and among some science journalists. Here’s a biting response from Wilson da Silva, the editor of Cosmos:

GREENPEACE WAS ONCE a friend of science, helping bring attention to important but ignored environmental research. These days, it’s a ratbag rabble of intellectual cowards intent on peddling an agenda, whatever the scientific evidence.

It was once the most active, independent and inspiring civilian group for the environment. Whether riding zodiacs alongside boats carrying barrels of toxic waste to be dumped in the open sea, or campaigning against CFCs and HFCs that were depleting the ozone layer, Greenpeace did admirable work.

But in the last decade or so, Greenpeace abandoned the rigour of science. When the science has been inconvenient, Greenpeace chooses dogma. Which is why it has a zero-tolerance policy on nuclear energy, no matter how imperative the need to remove coal and gas from electricity production. Or why it is adamant organic farming is the only way forward for agriculture, when organic could not feed the world’s population today.

In his must-read post, Steve Savage at Sustainablog explores the bigger picture:

…this argument about GMO wheat is a mere sub-set of something bigger than even agriculture.  It is really about the choice between risk management based on sound science or risk avoidance based on the “Precautionary Principle.”  The same is true of the Climate Change and Vaccine/Autism debates, as well as many more.

As for a certain leading group of the environmental movement, Silva in Cosmos ends his piece with withering contempt:

Greenpeace has lost its way. Its former glory rested on the righteousness of its actions in support of real evidence of how humanity was failing to care for the environment. Now it is a sad, dogmatic, reactionary phalanx of anti-science zealots who care not for evidence, but for publicity.

Category: environmentalism, GMOs