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3Oct 2012

A Cautionary Note on Anti-GMO Journalism

Weeds killed by herbicide/Wikimedia Commons

I wanted to give a shout out to science journalist Keith Kloor's post today on his blog Collide-a-Scape which takes  a serious look at the subject of reporting on GM crops. Or perhaps I should call it a critical look as the post is titled, "When Bad News Stories Help Bad Science Go Viral."

I'm an admirer of Kloor's work as a science writer. He's a former editor at Audubon magazine and a freelancer for publications ranging from Science to Slate. He's also an adjunct journalism instructor at New York University. He's smart, thoughtful and thorough. And his blog, where he occasionally muses on issues in science reporting, exemplifies those same qualities as well.

This particular piece focuses on a recent study in Environmental Sciences Europe which suggests that the use of herbicide-resistant GM crops has led to an increase in the use of agricultural chemicals - rather than the predicted decrease - because it has also fostered the development of herbicide-resistant weeds.  The study was first reported by Carey Gillam at Reuters and widely circulated, as Kloor notes.

But as he also notes, the only scientist interviewed happens to be the author of the study (Monsanto was contacted and declined to comment as without seeing the data). No other researchers are cited in the piece. Further, the story fails to mention that said author, Charles Benbrook of Washington State University is also chief scientist for a Colorado center that promotes organic food. Or that Benbrook has been previously criticized for being biased against GM crops.

"Just so we’re clear," Kloor writes. "A story making this kind of claim should not hinge entirely on the word of the scientist whose study is being reported on. It’s not good journalism."  

I'm repeating this because, yes, I happen to agree with it. I've done a series of posts of my own here at the Tracker recently on the risks of single study reporting. And I do want to acknowledge that the news-event-single-study story is a fundamental part of what science journalists do. That I believe that we should report science as news. And I want to also acknowledge that journalists don't always have the time to put every story into its full scientific context.

But I would like single-study journalism so much better if we approached this work with a little caution, avoided writing a story that sounds like press release, did our best not to become mouthpieces for a single point of view. And in the digital age, it doesn't that long to add a little context or do enough homework to know when your own source may be talking with an agenda in mind.

That basic amount of homework would would have made this story - and by extension, its readers - a lot smarter on the subject of GM crops, not to mention on the subject of scientists at work.

Comments

Brandon - I appreciate you writing, especially because this is such a fair-minded and smart overview of some of the issues in research involving genetically modified organisms. It is complicated and - and this I think I probably didn't acknowledge fully because of the fairly narrow focus of my commentary - there are legitimate concerns, that as you say, deserve to be far better covered regarding GM crops and their commercially driven uses.

The bigger issues of journalism coverage that you've raised - and that Claudio has raised so eloquently here - are ones that continue to trouble me and are ones that I think we need to continue to wrestle with as science journalists. Using Benbow's paper again as an example, my problem is not with the fact it was covered. Or even with the fact that it was covered as a single study - realistically that's always going to part of the ebb and flow of science journalism. But I think in contentious areas like this especially we have a responsibility as science journalists do provide more complete background and a better understanding of the study and the study authors than was seen in this case.

I'm getting tired of the argument that we don't have time to do this and I'd like to make the case that we don't have to knee-jerk spit out every study and that both our publications and our readers would be better served if we took the extra hour or day even to do it right. This kind of superficial yo-yo effect serves no one in the end.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the study showing evil effects is more likely, given the principles of the news cycle, to get more attention that the one that shows, for instance, a minimal effect.  And partly because of that and partly because - as you point out - because we haven't explored the issues with any real depth in a consistent manner, I think many, many people do not understand the science or its implications. And as a consequence fear it without any real sense of where it is actually risky - or not. Of course, this is true in many areas of science.

But until we - and candidly the scientists themselves - do a better job with this than answering the kind of questions that Claudio raises so well, such as how to do an intelligent job of labeling or limiting, remains a very tangled path. Although that may not be entirely a bad thing.

 

I'd like to suggest a cautionary note on cautionary notes about anti-GMO journalism. It's very easy to reduce complicated issues into two-sided debates, then interpret issues through that lens. The habit is even embedded in the title of this post: Stories about a paper critical of herbicide use following from the widespread of adoption of glyphosate-resistant crops, are "anti-GMO journalism." They weren't anti-GMO. They were just bad.

This pro-vs-anti framing makes it easy to seize upon one particular viewpoint or argument, make it emblematic of the whole,* and interpret its dismissal or promotion as an end in itself.** The Benbrook paper's conclusions were poorly worded, conflating the consequences of glyphosate resistance with GM traits as a whole, and its methodology fuzzy -- but simply pointing out its shortcomings, though necessary and done quite well by Keith Kloor, is just one of our duties as science journalists.

From my own reporting on these issues, which I'd qualify as less-than-a-beat-reporter-but-more-than-casual, I can say this: The glyphosate resistance trait, which the vast majority of corn, soy and cotton in the U.S. contains, led to large reductions in the use of non-glyphosate herbicides, and a large increase in glyphosate use. Five or ten years ago, this could be considered a very positive development: Glyphosate is, on the whole, less harmful to the environment and to humans than the herbicides it replaced.

However, rather than being used as one tactic in an arsenal of weed-control measures, farmers and companies relied too much on it, and as glyphosate resistance emerged in the weeds they were trying to control, farmers and companies responded by using more glyphosate. This worked for a while, but evolution prevailed. Several years ago it was clearly apparent that glyphosate resistance had been severely compromised, and most new genetically modified crops are engineered to allow treatment with multiple herbicides.

There are many important, interesting questions here: Is glyphosate still benign at the higher levels at which it's now being used? Is it possible to manage the use of glyphosate-resistant crops so that the trait remains effective? Are farms and companies using the integrated pest control strategies that the glyphosate resistance trait often replaced? What type of herbicide use can be expected to result from the new generation of multiple-herbicide-resistant crops? What will the environmental and human effects be? Will weeds become resistant to multiple herbicides?

Investigating questions like these  is the job of science journalists covering GMO crops. Benbrook's paper gets at them, but was poorly done; so our job isn't only to shoot down that paper, but to go out and report and try to find the answers ourselves.

* Another example that come to mind: Early in the millennium, there was legitimate scientific disagreement over the potential therapeutic utility of embryonic stem cells. There were researchers who had no moral objections to using them, but considered adult stem cells to be more promising, and felt that overhyping embryonic stem cells was counterproductive -- a perspective that has arguably been proven correct. Unfortunately science journalists had no room for this nuance: You were either morally opposed to embryonic stem cell research, or supported it because they had tremendous disease-curing potential! And this climate fed on itself, and helped make scientific discussions of stem cells inseparable from politics. In the end that helped nobody, least of all suffering people who need cures.

** Given how un-scientific, even anti-scientific, a lot of anti-GMO rhetoric is, it's understandable that science journalists are appalled. But debunking the least-responsible critics of a particular scientific enterprise, though important, isn't a laurel on which to rest.

Take the destruction of the experimental wheat plot at Rothamsted -- many science writers said  destruction was unacceptable and wrong, which is true; but there were far fewer journalistic treatments of the trait involved. What might the positive and negative consequences be of crops that release insect alarm pheromones? What did entomologists and insect ecologists, and not just plant breeders, say about this? Could the consequences be adequately tested within existing regulatory frameworks and research customs? 

Maybe it could be very difficult to produce another study with the same goal and caliber, as this kind of research don t receive any kind of stimulus to be proposed. It is convenient to see the description of the via crucis that the researcher (Seralini) faced in order to make this study feasible (it seems a kind of undercover operation). This kind of study is not interesting to the big industry of GMOs, nor to Universities, colonized by the big industry (see Sheldom Krimsky) , nor to researchers that could  have their names written in a kind of unofficial black list of agencies which foster scientific development. It must be remembered that Innovation is the leitmotiv of the new face of capitalism (always rejuvenated). So, it is not so interesting to the State to put so many obstacles to the promotion of this kind of technology even the risks we are facing sounds huge . Maybe Science Journalism needs more Investigative reporters than Purist and proselitist journalists. Science Journalism is not Science promotion.  Money talks, my friend. About that, read 'Risk society' by Ulrich Beck. Don t be purist!  A new kind of science journalism is needed in the new context of private technosciences. Maybe you must wait a lot for another study about health risks of GMOs.  In the meantime, should we eat GMOs or not? What do you suggest? And what about the labels in this kind of stuff? Where are the labels which are mandatory? 

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