Michael Pollan and Amy Harmon ‘talk’ it out

The talking points that launched a thousand tweets

Amy Harmon’s work is so particular her job title is pretty much synonymous with her name. Though technically Harmon reports for the The New York Times’ national desk, the two-time Pulitzer winner writes almost exclusively long features that explore the human experience of science and technology. The Times invests in Harmon’s brand of journalism: She spends many months reporting her pieces and when they do run, it’s not just news—it is an event.

A few weeks ago her latest event—a 5,500 word feature on the challenges of an orange grower who is developing a new strain of fruit that has been genetically engineered to resist a pathogen afflicting the nation’s citrus trees—spurred a particularly heated discussion. One tweeted response, in particular, stirred the pot:

With that, Pollan vanished, leaving five little words—“2 many industry talking pts” — echoing through the Internet, enraging a roster of prominent science writers, Harmon fans, and scientists. Was he calling Harmon a shill for Monsanto? Or even worse, na├»ve? (The entire Twitter conversation is archived here.)

By exiting the conversation before fully explaining himself, dozens of writers argued that Pollan was not only depriving Harmon of a chance to respond, but also stunting the conversation surrounding genetic modification. “It’s a serious charge,” explained Carl Zimmer, a science writer and Times columnist, who took to Pollan’s Facebook page Twitter to demand that the writer respond. “I don’t think it’s good enough to just say that and leave it.”

Though Pollan never publicly responded to Zimmer and crew, the Internet weighed in on Harmon’s latest and the response was largely positive—a number of prominent writers and reporters have lauded the piece for working against the grain of GMO reporting. By profiling a character who is using genetic modification to solve a specific problem, they said, Harmon advanced the conversation of the possibilities of the technology beyond the typical Monsanto bashing, pesticide resistance, and Frankenfood fare.

But Pollan had his supporters, too, who agreed that Harmon had, by focusing on a specific, positive use of genetic modification and dispensing with the pseudoscience in paraphrase, skewed her piece in favor of genetic modification.

I emailed Pollan shortly after the article appeared, and he called a few weeks later. He says he left for vacation after tweeting about Harmon’s article, and by the time he got back online the conversation was “ferocious,” and his point had been somewhat misinterpreted. “I meant to highlight her article because it was a good piece,” he says. “But 140 characters is not the way to settle a debate like this, so I called you instead.”

So, without further ado, here is an attempt to, if not settle this debate, at least unpack the industry talking points that Pollan believes made their way to Harmon’s piece:

Talking Point 1 The idea that GM products have received extensive safety testing—including long-term feeding trials—is a common industry talking point. The truth is American regulators haven’t required any feeding trials; Europeans have, but they’re not long, only 90 days.

Here are the two phrases from Harmon’s piece that he’s talking about:

Leading scientific organizations have concluded that shuttling DNA between species carries no intrinsic risk to human health or the environment, and that such alterations can be reliably tested.
Dozens of long-term animal feeding studies had concluded that existing G.M.O.’s were as safe as other crops, and the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization and others had issued statements to the same effect.

Harmon’s absolutely right here, as she documents in a series of tweets responding to the concerns of Mother Jones blogger Tom Philpott, who cited the same section in a post—while Pollan was on holiday—that speculated about the talking points Pollan refers to. Despite the criticism, Philpott, a vocal GMO skeptic, titles the post, “In Which I Actually Endorse One Use of GMOs.”

“Spent long time reporting this. Clear consensus GM safe w/testing,” reads one of Harmon’s tweets. It’s true: Scientific authorities from American Association for the Advancement of Science to the World Health Organization have vouched for the safety of GM crops, and argued for the validity of current testing regimens.

But Pollan’s not necessarily wrong. He has made clear his disagreement with the consensus among federal agencies that GMOs should be generally recognized as safe; he’s skeptical of the validity of American testing standards, and believes that organizations should require a higher burden of proof before releasing modified crops to market. Pollan readily admits that his opinion on this is outside the mainstream. “I don’t know of a lot of prominent scientists who are out there saying we shouldn’t be using these crops,” he says. “Science journalists are in a funny spot. On what authority do they say, ‘This is bad science.’?” The issue here isn’t that Harmon is parroting industry rhetoric, but mostly that she disagrees with Pollan on what constitutes adequate testing.

Talking Point 2 The reason you have pest problems is you have monocultures: You’re growing too many genetically identical plants which makes them. If you grow them in mixed fields, alternating varieties, you can control for these types of problems. My point, in the end, was [orange modification] is just another Band-Aid to keep monocultures going, not unlike a new pesticide.

Harmon does devote a large chunk of the piece to chronicling the breeding history of the orange, and the subsequent vulnerabilities that arise from the lack of genetic variation. But Pollan hits at the very structure of Harmon’s article; examining the foundations of American agriculture is difficult in a character-driven piece about a guy trying to save oranges. It’s a broad ideological chasm: Pollan has become the world’s most famous food writer by arguing for fundamental change in how we raise and process food. Harmon’s piece begins with the agricultural system we have.

Mother Jones’s Philpott takes Pollan’s point a step further, suggesting that by focusing on a character who was so singularly set on a transgenic solution, Harmon ignored other ways of building disease resistance. Plant scientists are working on developing, not full immunity, but disease resistance through conventional breeding methods—a process Harmon omits from her piece. But the model may not arrive in time for the oranges, Philpott explains, settling on the words of Ed Stover, a USDA scientist who fact-checked Harmon’s story: “At this point it appears that transgenics may be our best hope of true immunity.”

“Yes, conventional breeding MAY yield a resistant orange tree,” Harmon wrote in an email. “But as Stover says, it will take a long time and may well not be sufficiently resistant to stamp out the disease…A transgenic tree is most likely the only way to achieve immunity.”

Talking Point 3 A wonderful talking point that you hear about all the time, and I’ve seen very little evidence of its truth, is that it’s criticism of the industry that explains why we haven’t seen lots of terrific GM products in the marketplace. The fact is GM has taken over mainstream corn-belt agriculture with Roundup Ready products. And criticism in this country has been quite muted.

“Honestly, the arch of my story was [Ricke] Kress, my character, starting out a little bit cocky about this project,” explains Harmon. “Like—‘I know there are these activists that don’t like GMOs, but we’re going to explain it to them and it’ll be fine,’—and what he faced along the way was this rising opposition of the food movement.” In the piece, the opposition takes the form of wary comments and advice from the growers and researchers that Kress collaborates with, and a single moment of illumination when he looks up the public documents for a GMO called the “Arctic Apple” and finds hundreds of negative comments.

Is Harmon suggesting that a generalized fear of so-called Frankenfood may kill Kress’s chances for success with consumers? Sure. (It’s worth noting that Kress doesn’t face many policy-level obstacles; his concern about the market comes from the “icky” reactions his project receives and public opinion polls that indicate consumers are wary of eating GMOs.) She also specifies that Kress’ PR problem arises from the talking points surrounding the primordial fruit. “This isn’t like a bag of Doritos,” a grower warns Kress at a conference. “We’re talking about a raw product, the essence of orange.” Consumers have been eating modified corn for years, Harmon acknowledges, largely unaware. But oranges are not used as an ingredient in an already processed jumble; they are served whole or juiced, and consumed by the sort of conscious eaters who might read Pollan’s books. Will orange lovers accept a transgenic fruit? Pollan thinks they will, that the gap between corn and orange is not so wide and the power of consumer fear is not so great.

Harmon, or at least Kress, is less sure.

Talking Point 4 Amy Harmon quoted a lot of critics of GM, but they were all saying idiotic stuff, like that quote from the Environmental Working Group. [The quote in question: “Pink slime, deadly melons, tainted turkeys and BPA in our soup.”] There were kind of more levelheaded voices she could’ve talked too.

Over at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, Paul Raeburn lodged a similar complaint against Harmon’s piece. “The problem with the story is that we see far too much through Kress’s eyes,” he wrote. “Only a handful of others are quoted, and then only briefly. I don’t understand why Harmon didn’t identify these folks.”

It’s true that Harmon doesn’t quote many GMO skeptics, or many people at all outside of those who interact with Kress. She also uses a number of anonymous quotes, probably for narrative purposes. Identifying a researcher as “John Frederick Smith, an associate professor of biology at the University of Miami studying genetic modifications to rice,” allows the reader to Google a name, ferret out industry ties, and put the paradigm behind the comment in context. It does not, however, roll off the tongue.

In order for Harmon’s stories to read like fiction, she can’t show her work in the way that typically protects reporters from accusations of bias. “Bloomberg [News] is fantastic at showing the sourcing of everything in the piece, but when you’re trying to tell a story there are narrative reasons that you can’t do that,” says Matthew Herper, Forbes’ biotech blogger, who also weighed in on the initial Twitter debate.

That doesn’t mean that Harmon’s sentences aren’t backed by extensive research and fact. You can see her process clearly in three outlines she posted on the science-writing site The Open Notebook, for her last big Times piece, about an autistic teen’s transition to the adult work force. Between the rough outline and the final draft, she whittled dense sections that chronicle decades of research, and are full of quotes from prominent scientists, down to succinct, elegant sentences—almost entirely in unattributed paraphrase.

Though the orange story contains more explicit quoting and research-chronicling than a typical Harmon piece, the same issues arise. “This was not a news feature where you’re sort of gonna say, ‘This guy said this and this guy said this,” says Harmon. “My story was not about the biotechnology industry: I didn’t talk to Monsanto or anyone in the biotechnology industry because my story was about oranges. It’s not that I didn’t know the debate.”

In other words, because Harmon follows her characters’ internal lives so closely, reading one of her stories requires a leap of faith from the reader: You just have to trust her.

So the question is less about industry talking points than whether it’s inherently manipulative to do what Harmon does: follow a single character, with an individualistic experience and viewpoint, in an effort to produce a visceral understanding of a debate.

Talking Point 5 What if we had lots of public breeding going on using GM to solve real problems? That’s what we haven’t had. We’ve had Monsanto designing crops that are very profitable because they are resistant to pesticides. This is what the business model is: 90 percent Roundup Ready products. This orange is a story you could conceivably tell the consumer. But there have been others and they largely haven’t made it to market. I think the piece could’ve been edited to reflect more sensitivity of larger contexts. I think if I had been editing I would’ve encouraged her to pay attention to that.

“I was trying to tell a narrative story about the development of one particular GMO,” says Harmon. “This isn’t the kind of a GMO that you typically think of when you think of GMOs, so maybe it should challenge your idea of what you think of when you think of genetically modified crops.” Focusing attention on a single story of genetic modification was purposeful, she continues, to make a broader point about our generalized GMO debate, challenging the perception that we can “lump all GMOs together. “You should evaluate on a case by case basis,” she says.

The controversy isn’t entirely rooted in story format, though: Harmon has used these singular character studies to examine controversial topics before—the ethics of genetic testing, the hurdles to employing the autistic—and drawn far less criticism over her narrow frame. But perhaps the GMO debate is more polarized, and an inanimate object more difficult to render individualistically. In other words, it’s more of a stretch to identify with an orange than, say, the plight of an autistic teen animator. And Kress, who as a true believer aims to essentially change citrus production, is less easily separated from the larger debate of GMOs than a character who is simply trying to navigate the system they have been dealt.

“[The debate] was bound to happen with a topic like this,” says Maggie Koerth-Baker, who weighed in on the piece at Boing Boing. “The kind of storytelling that she does is a really valuable way to understand what’s happening in the world in a different way rather than going through every single detail. I think you have to have the detail stuff, but there aren’t a lot of people doing that who are also trying to tell a story the way she does.”

In many ways this is less a clash of journalistic ethics than of journalistic styles. Pollan would like Harmon to use more of the history and economics of crop modification to give a picture of Monsanto’s cornering of the market. Harmon explicitly chose to leave out such scope to focus on the narrative at hand. “I didn’t consider it my responsibility to put in 20 years of the GMO debate,” she says.

But without a fact-driven chronicling of GMO’s lineage, Harmon’s story of innovation lacks what Pollan considers crucial context. “Should we be debating what GM might do to feed the 9 billion, or should we debate what, after 15 years in the market, it can and has done,” he says. “They’re always trying to get us to focus on these wonders to come. And I’m looking forward to the wonders to come too. I just haven’t seen them yet.”

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Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. Tags: , , ,