The media have stoked irrational distrust of science in many fields over the years, from vaccines to climate change. But today, such fear mongering is most evident in the coverage of genetically modified foods, with many journalists turning people against them, according to freelance journalist Keith Kloor.
At Collide-a-Scape, his blog for Discover magazine, and elsewhere, Kloor has made a beat out of policing bad journalism related to GMOs. In the last couple of months alone, he’s taken on some of the biggest names in the media for spouting nonsense about their alleged dangers despite the fact that scientific authorities from AAAS to the World Health Organization have vouched for their safety. [Clarification: The WHO has vouched only for the safety of the GM foods already on the market, and emphasizes that “it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.”]
Kloor’s latest salvo was directed at Michael Moss, an investigative reporter for The New York Times who was interviewed by his colleague Marcus Mabry following protests against the biotech company Monsanto and the discovery of unapproved GM wheat in an Oregon field at the end of May. Asked why Americans haven’t shown much concern until recently, Moss said:
I think it’s been under the radar a bit. In increasing mood, people are concerned about it. Those [anti-Monsanto] rallies over the weekend were amazing. So many people hit the streets and I think part of the thing happening here is people are realizing, this is really scary stuff. I mean, Just consider the name, right. Genetically modified organisms. This isn’t like taking one apple and crossing it with another and getting a redder, shinier apple. This is extracting genetic material from one living creature and putting it another. And that’s really disturbing to people.
Kloor’s incredulous response was spot on:
Is Moss for real? Instead of perhaps educating the public about genetic modification and why it isn’t scary at all, he’s reinforcing the biggest bogeyman fear of all, the one that inspires every Frankenfood headline.
Just a few days before skewering Moss, Kloor went after CNN’s Jake Tapper for his coverage of the Monsanto protests, which quoted the organizers’ assertion that 2 million people participated and cited a paper published last fall that claimed that a diet of GM corn and/or a widely used weed killer increased the likelihood of premature death in rats. While Tapper noted that CNN couldn’t confirm the count and that scientists widely criticized the paper, Kloor argued that those caveats would likely be lost on most viewers. He also faulted Tapper for quoting Monsanto, rather than independent authorities, attesting to the safety of GMOs.
A couple weeks before that, Kloor censured New York Times food writer Mark Bittman for serving up “bad science” by citing advocacy organizations instead of scientists while arguing that GMOs present a danger to human health (last fall, Kloor leveled the same charges against Michael Pollan).
A few weeks before that, Kloor was on the heels of Reuters for its uncritical coverage of a paper that made the sweeping claim that Roundup, Monsanto’s popular herbicide, “can remarkably explain a great number of the diseases and conditions that are prevalent in the modern industrialized world,” such as “inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, depression, ADHD, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, multiple sclerosis, cancer, cachexia, infertility, and developmental malformations.” The paper, Kloor wrote, was “such a mashup of pseudoscience and gibberish that actual scientists have been unable to make sense of it.”
A month before that, it was The Guardian that found itself in Kloor’s crosshairs after posting an anti-GMO video advertorial from the advocacy group Friends of the Earth without labeling where it came from and explaining what it was. Kloor called it “propaganda dressed up as journalism,” and the The Guardian soon took it down.
The list goes on and on, and journalists haven’t been the only recipients of Kloor’s ire. He’s also lambasted environmental activist Vandana Shiva for comparing the planting of GMOs to rape, and pilloried alternative health guru and talk radio host Gary Null for portraying GMOs as “seeds of death.”
In areas like evolution, vaccines, and climate change, the media have slowly cut back the amount of time and space they give to such irrational voices, and it’s time they do the same in their coverage of GMOs, Kloor says. But part of the problem, he has suggested, is that journalists “play favorites.” Skeptics of evolution, vaccines, and climate change tend to be on the political right, he points out, whereas many opponents of GMOs are liberals and progressives for whom reporters have greater sympathy and affinity.
Whatever the case may be, none of this is to suggest that people should take it for granted that GMOs are totally benign, that scientists shouldn’t scrutinize their impact on human health and the environment, or that they are a panacea for problems like world hunger and malnutrition. And Kloor has his fair share of detractors, to be sure. But there are rational ways to cover the concerns about GMOs, and irrational ways, and the latter have been far too common.