September 07, 2015

Big #Organic vs. Big #GMO — facts vs myths and #antivaxxer and #SJW parallels

A story by Eric Lipton, about how Monsanto et al (mainly Monsanto) "buys off" academics in support of ... what he seems to imply is its "GMO agenda."

(Addendum and note: Meanwhile, I can only, by his willful silence, conclude that Lipton is an anti-GMOer. On Sunday, he retweeted multiple Tweets mentioning me, both before and after I had tweeted him asking for his stance on GMO safety. He had yet to respond. Between that, and the fact that he tagged along on email trolling/leaking by Gary Ruskin and US Right to Know, a group that promotes junk science on artificial sweeteners (the weasel word "may" covers a lot of things in "consumerism") and, on its website, seems to ignore how corporatized Big Organic is, and elsewhere, shows it will use the same tactics as climate change denialists did against Michael Mann et al, Lipton leaves himself open to other questions, which he is also refusing to answer. [This follows on NYT pieces by other reporters about Hillary Clinton and Amazon whose impartiality has also been questioned.] In light of this, I have contacted NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan; to the degree Lipton's piece started with email hacking and leaks by a junk science outfit, and one that may not critique the even worse lobbying of the organic industry, he leaves himself open to questioning.)

First, it's easy to demonize Monsanto, especially when you fail to report its market capitalization is smaller than that of Starbucks. About one-third smaller.

Second, given that his own newspaper reported three years ago about how the modern organic farming business is Big Business, largely owned by companies such as Kraft, General Foods, Coke and Pepsi, with market caps far bigger than Monsanto, the demonization doesn't ring true on the business side. Per the link just above, by market cap, Coke is more than 3x the size of Monsanto.

(That link also notes that, in general, without disaggregating GMO sales, Monsanto isn't even as much a behemoth within the seeds business as some would claim.)

Surely, as part of their lobbying, Coke, Pepsi, et al, probably "bought off" academics to get stuff like carrageenan and DHA added to the organic approved list, as Stephanie Strom reported in that 2012 piece. They've clearly, as part of this, as Strom notes, "bought off" the National Organic Standards Board. Lipton does briefly talk about big organic farming, but never raises the issue of possible parallels.

(I suppose US Right to Know thinks family farmers and families discussing how to discuss their farms' use of GMO crops means they're on the take too. See page 8 of this PDF.)

Lipton's failure to note either of these is why, despite some retweeters, it is NOT "excellent reporting." It's good, maybe very good, but no more.

More talking points below the fold.

Third, Charles Benbrook, cited heavily and disapprovingly, is allegedly funded by Big Organic, and also not an agronomist, etc.; he's an economist. Kevin Folta, hit hard by Lipton, has also responded. And again.

(These and other issues are coming from a "Eric Lipton" + "GMOs" Google search. I was trying to find more background on his writing in this area, and references to the current piece, to tell if this was more realistic, realistic with bias, or outright hit job. My take? It's fairly realistic, but there's a fair bias level, too. Sidebar: Genetic Literacy Project DID have a story with my ideas, but it's now been hauled down. Links don't break in 24 hours. I've Tweeted GLP to inquire; let's see if it answers, and if so, how. They've got a new story now, talking about Folta.)

Fourth, as I've linked before, Grist, the quite respectable, quite liberal environmental magazine, in its series "Panic-free GMOs," has debunked much pseudoscience surrounding the safety, and investigation, of genetically modified foods. I wish "Frankenfooders" would actually read it, rather than simply dismissing it. (Will Saletan has more, and more intemperately, firing a bazooka.)

Fifth, as I've also noted before, beyond the issue that humans have been modifying genes since the dawn of agriculture, we've done accelerated modification of genes — with RADIATION! — since the 1950s. The results include the tasty Texas Rio Star grapefruit that I venture many a GMO hater loves to eat, along with much modern basmati rice.


(I now ask anti-GMOers a largely rhetorical question. If you eat Rio/Ruby Star, will you stop? If you eat basmati rice (or use canola oil to cook, and other things at that link), will you stop, at least until you can prove a non-mutagenic provenance?

It's a largely rhetorical question, because I'm already guessing your answer will be to deny the parallels.)

Frankly, blanket anti-GMOers, as I note in my header, are approaching antivaxxer territory.

They blatantly get science wrong. They pretend a vast financial conspiracy exists. And, they refuse to read well-written refutations, whether written kindly, and by "friendly sources" such as Grist, or coming out of shotgun barrels, like Saletan.

That said, who will convince anti-GMOers of their errors?

Here, there's no parallel with antivaxxers I can think of.

There, a consensus has developed that well-informed, emotionally empathetic pediatricians are the front line.

On GMOs, I don't think there IS a front line. Conventional food isn't going to kill anybody. Organic food, in its current Big Ag state, can have outbreaks of things like salmonella just like "conventional" food. There's thus not a lot to be empathic about. That's especially true if anti-GMOers go even further and are anti-gluten zealots or something.

What's really at stake, as I agree with a Grist commenter, is "narratives." And regular readers of this blog know how I feel about the narratives of "social justice warriors." That said, they, even more than antivaxxers, may be a good comparison to anti-GMOers. Hence the SJW in the header.

Beyond that, as I've blogged before, what will GMOers think if/when test-tube meat becomes a reality?

Otherwise, as Isaac Asimov noted decades ago, you generally can't put the gears of progress in "reverse" without bad consequences. If organic farming and more sane anti-GMOers lite can inspire us to better soil practices in convenntional farming, less "waste" of crops on feeding meat (especially after we get that test-tube meat), and get Big Farming to be less depersonalized, all while accepting GMOs as a way to help raise standards in the developing world, that's all well and good.

And, like Will Saletan, I'm not holding my breath.

1 comment:

Old Gator said...

I think the "parallel" with the anti-vaccine paranoids is their mutual eagerness to embrace invalid and unvalidated information, and to accept uncritically any new dribbets of misinformation that support their paranoia as soon as it enters circulation. Self-enforced ignorance is a common ground they share. Of course, you could say the same thing about Islamophobics, homophobics - it's the very malleability of ignorance, the ease with which an ignoramous can shape it to suit his or her particular obsession - that makes it such a jouissant joy with which to work.