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:
Important NYT story on GM oranges; 2 many industry talking pts, but poses questions: is prob tech? reg? or Monsanto? http://t.co/fKjvYi9N0t— Michael Pollan (@michaelpollan) July 28, 2013
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, naïve? (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.