Thursday, May 28, 2015

Musings: Imaginary Crisis

All of a sudden, I'm seeing a lot of pro-biotech media coverage.

Like the USA Today editorial that asserted GMO food bans, like the one adopted by the Chipotle chain, are “validating ignorance and hysteria.” In discussing the consumer call for labeling, it notes:

Much of this is a result of anti-GMO crusaders' exploitation of mistrust about how foods are genetically modified.

And businesses, including Chipotle, have been quick to capitalize on that sentiment for marketing purposes, even when it's stretched to a ludicrous degree. I'm frequently astounded to see products like canned anchovies labeled “No GMOs.” If people aren't akamai enough to know that anchovies never were genetically modified, should we really indulge their unfounded fears with more labeling?
Then there was the Newsweek cover story, which focused on CRISPR-Cas9, a new tool for genetic modification, and hopes that it will fuel a second Green Revolution. Its virtues appear to be specificity and speed. Developing a new variety of wheat, say, previously took two decades through traditional selection methods. With CRISPR-Cas9, that process can be compressed to a few days or weeks.

Obviously this has tremendous implications for a timely response to rapidly changing climatic conditions. It can also dramatically cut costs, which could allow smaller companies and public sector institutions to successfully compete with the multinational corporations. And isn't that a good thing?

Other coverage has been more oblique. I'm thinking of an editorial in the ultra liberal Santa Fe New Mexican that discussed the President's plan to help honeybees and the concurrent debate over neonicotinoid pesticides, before concluding:

In the end, that balance might be best achieved with new biotechnology: compounds and plants that target unwanted species while leaving others alone. As with many vexing environmental and resource challenges, governments and the public must be open to the promise of these sorts of innovations to improve both the environment and human welfare.

As an aside here, I was interested to read a USDA report on Hawaii honey production:

Hawaii’s 2014 honey production of 1.4 million pounds was roughly 29% higher than 2013. There were 15,000 honey producing colonies in 2014, 2,000 more than in 2013 and the most since at least 1987. The yield per colony averaged 93.0 pounds per colony, an increase of 12% from last year’s 83.0 pounds per colony and the highest yield since 2009. Hawaii’s yield is the second-highest in the country behind only Mississippi. Hawaii’s value of production of $3.18 million exceeds last year’s value of $2.13 million and is the highest value of production since at least 1987. This is due primarily to an increased yield and a price per pound of $2.28, an increase from last year’s $1.97 per pound.

Not bad for a state that activists like to describe as “ground zero” for pesticide use and GMOs.

Returning to the biotech-friendly coverage, much of it also has touched on the disconnect between science and society. While a recent Pew study found that 88 percent of U.S. scientists think GMO technology is harmless, only 33 percent of the public agrees.

Perhaps that desire to embrace science explains why some of these media outlets have begun giving biotech better play.

Of course, the anti-GMO movement has its own take on why these articles and editorials are seeing the light of day: The all-powerful biotech companies have manipulated mainstream media into doing their bidding.

Typical responses include the one by Ronnie Cummins, international director of the Organic Consumers Association:

The mainstream media's complicity is a failure of the institution of journalism.

In short, it's another version of the “shill” charge that is invariably levied against anyone who is't a die-hard anti-GMOer.

Meanwhile, the anti-GMO folks are busy doing their own shilling. Most recently I saw a piece by Mike Ludwig on the Truthout website — as in, the truth is so often left out of these pieces — about Hawaiian activists venturing into the “belly of the beast” — Basel, Switzerland — to “confront Syngenta on its home turf.”

This is one of many pieces — we also saw articles in the Cascadian Times and Earth Island Journal — funded by the Food Integrity Campaign and Media Consortium. These two anti-biotech organizations launched a two-year project to swamp “progressive” publications and websites with stories about the Hawaii pesticide/GMO debate.

Though the articles have been short on facts and quick to report the discredited claims of people like Gary Hooser and Fern Rosenstiel, they've been quite effective in defining the discussion. I've seen bogus stats on seed company pesticide use from the Cascadian Times reprinted in Acres USA and other publications, even though the article's speculative figures were disproven when the seed companies disclosed their actual pesticide use.

And that's how it works when you're peddling propaganda and fear. Which brings to mind this strip from the Non Sequitur cartoon:


Manawai said...

Another sensible post! Mahalo, Joan!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

As to the disconnect between science and society...... sorta reminds of the same frustration scientists have getting the public to accept climate change.

Anonymous said...

I don't any aware person doubts the climate is changing. The issue is over the degree by which human activity is causing it.

Chuck Lasker said...

The only difference between the comic and reality is, in reality it would be a Facebook meme saying "Big Primate" is creating a monkey stampede for PROFIT!

Anonymous said...

Great work, Joan! Never thought KE & USA Today would align so closely! Bio tech will save the world if we let it!

Anonymous said...

yeah, it would be far easier to label the relatively few GMO food products than having others have to label as NOT having them, so that the buying public had an informed choice....

Anonymous said...

In the name of Capitalism, why should the public be informed?

The cigarette companies made Trillions and are still making Trillions in the name of Capitalism.

Whether the public is informed or uniformed is doesn't really matter. Does it???

Anonymous said...

Good post. But I gotta tell you Global Warming falls in the same hysterical pattern of misinformation and money. Fraud sells.

Anonymous said...

Anyone ever see that painting of an American root cellar in 1700 ? Purple carrots over two pounds each. Huge parsnips.Small misshapen apples, etc.
What ever happened to those vegetables.

Robin Clark said...

Note to commenter 1:51 pm: "relatively few GMO food products"?? It is estimated that over 90% of processed food products contain GMO ingredients. Just read the label and look for any ingredient related to corn, soy or canola and you are almost certainly getting a GMO ingredient. This is why the push to label GMO foods is such a farce- the information is already on the label!

Interesting that General Mills spent millions so they could label Cheerios as "not made with GMO ingredients*" (disclaimer *trace amounts of GMO material may be present). Sales of Cheerios subsequently went down which led General Mills to state that they will never again reformulate a product to eliminate GMO ingredients.

Note to 3:41 pm: no one ever underestimated the intelligence of the general public.