[See Paul Raeburn's post for another take on this story.]
A lot of hot talk is circulating among blogging science writers and others in the journalism trade following a long story by a double Pulitzer winner over the weekend. That story is on a deadly blight that threatens the world's citrus industry and on efforts to tweak citrus genomes to make them resistant. The story itself has received high and deserved praise from her colleagues in the news biz. The heated commentary regards one prominent journalist and book writer's brief and contrary critique of the story, delivered via that modern and deliberate vehicle for omission of careful thought in the interests of brevity and instantaneity, the tweet.
- NYTimes (July 27 front page- Amy Harmon: A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA ;
Just read it if you have not done so already. Harmon went to Florida and pr0filed a stubborn and prominent member of the state's citrus (mostly oranges) trade who is pulling out all stops to find a scientist with a plausible cure for a bacterial disease called citrus greening. Spread by a specific species of sap-sucking psyllid insects, it also kills lemon, grapefruit, kumquat, and other examples fast and pretty much at a 100 percent rate once infection occurs. Harmon does not dwell on the deep science involved, but has plenty enough to keep the narrative going. We do learn that her protagonist's program has a promising candidate solution – orange trees in which a spinach gene has been implanted. She gives even less attention to the deep arguments of people who oppose genetically modified organisms and especially if they're for dinner. Rather, and sensibly to my mind, she accurately sums up the vague and generalized fears that many members of the public have about transgenic anythings and suspicions that such creatures and plants inherently, each and every one for all we know, pose a threat to ecosystems both wild and domestic. GMOs just creep some people out. Throw in a trope popular on the enviro left, that Monsanto (code word for GMO ag in general) is most easily regarded as evil, and she sympathetically gives her hero's hopes to save his industry through genetic sciences a very long road to hoe.
One small criticism first: Harmon would better have made clearer that this disease is deadly to citrus, period, not just oranges. I listed a few up above. There are more, including lime and tangerine. Pomelos too. If Harmon had done so we might not have such reactions as this thoughtful, but largely fact-free, example at a popular site:
- Grist – Nathanial Johnson: Orange you ready for a tall glass of GMOs ; Johnson's main point is to declare that the monoculture nature of orange groves is the overarching culprit in this plague's threat to wipe out oranges specifically and by apparent presumption, exclusively. Monoculture ag poses problems to sustainable farming but they are tangential to citrus greening. A farmer growing multiple varieties of citrus would probably see them all wither together.
Overall, excellent story. Disclosure: I own a small share of a 100-year-old+ farm in Ventura, CA, that has some acreage in lemons, and once was heavily into oranges. My mother's ashes are in the rose garden outside the window where she was born. My cousin who now manages the place, and who raised his kids in that same house, keeps the scattered family partners up to date on the mortal peril to our state's citrus (Florida's is already cratering). The insect is becoming endemic in Southern California, the bacterial contagion that transforms it from minor pest to tree murderer is in Mexico and moving north. Most of our lemons are already out, as a precaution, replaced by young avocados. As one might expect, the intimacy of the struggle in Ventura primes me to look kindly on reporters who tackle the bigger issues involved. Through my lens, Harmon has done superbly.
The ruckus among some science journalism critics, fans, and practitioner stems from this tweet from one of the nation's best known writers on the merits of local food (locavores unite!), rational eating, and skepticism re GMOs:
- @michaelpollan: Important NYT story on GM oranges: 2 many industry talking pts, but poses questions: is prob tech? reg? or Monsanto?
That seems to me to be at worst a misdemeanor violation of responsible Twitter use. That is, to summarize the story in part as a collection of industry talking points is a hasty, insulting, and ill-thought way to say Harmon's piece describes (accurately) the motivations and hopes of her story's hero and of the scientists to whom is he giving industry support. But the tweet by its nature is too short for Pollan to spell out exactly what he is driving at. Imagine that – Pollan wrote hastily in a medium that by design encourages hasty writing of one's thoughts immediately and before second thoughts intrude.
Fortunately, I don't need to gather a sampling of reactions to Pollans tweet by many other journalists. It has been done for us already:
- Discover/ Collide-a-Scape – Keith Kloor: A Refreshing, Freshly Squeezed GMO Story in the NYT ; Go to it and see what Carl Zimer, Bora Zivkovic, David Dobbs, and Seth Mnookin among others had to say about Pollan's hasty yet still mean streak of snark. As we learn here, even @amy_harmon found herself heavily engaged in tweety ripostes and other responses to her story, with Pollan's opinion in a prominent role.
Fine job Keith.
And here is what Harmon had to tweet directly to Pollan:
At last look, Harmon's story has generated 743 comments.