KSJ Tracker June 15, 2012

A note from the GM front

Cotton/Wikimedia Commons On Thursday, I noticed this tweet from Keith Kloor, one of my favorite reality-based environmental journalists (and bloggers): @keithkloor I'm curious if enviros & env media types (on whole) are going to ignore this big story. http://bit.ly/KEy9fN The story he linked to was a New Scientist piece by Andy Coghlan titled "GMO Crops Encourage Beneficial Bugs". The headline derived from a two-decade study in China of a type of GM cotton engineered to make its own chemical protection against cotton pests. Because the cotton required far less use of insecticidal sprays, a healthy insect ecosystem began to thrive. And, as it turned out, the ladybugs and lacewings from the cotton fields migrated over to surrounding farms where they preyed on pest insects, like aphids, there. As a resulting, those farms started using lower amounts of pesticides also. These findings are a reminder that years of planting GM crops has so far not led us to the once-predicted total disaster but to a host of complex effects and subtle changes. Some troubling. And as indicated here, some positive. Nothing yet apocalyptic.  As a result, there are signs of waning outrage regarding GM crops.  Or at least a more nuanced perspective. As James Randerson wrote recently in The Guardian, "The GMO Debate is Growing Up." Although in Slate this week, Jeremy Stohl's piece "Death of 'Frankenfood'" ponders whether the Europeans are growing up faster on this issue than here in the United States. Which brings me back to Kloor's question of whether environmental journalists ignored this latest positive study. The answer appears to be yes,  mostly. Google News listed six stories only, including the New Scientist piece I cited above, one from Bloomberg, one from BBC, and one from China's Global Times. I found two or three others scattered about but no signs of large scale interest. If the study had found the opposite effect - let's hypothesize a rise in "non-beneficial" insects - do I think it would have gotten more coverage? Absolutely.  I don't think that's necessarily anti-GM attitude  among journalists though. I suspect rather the natural way the news works with its tendency to fix on gone-wrong rather than gone-right. I don't know either that this is necessarily a "big" story. But I do think it deserved more attention and I would hope it would fit into or inspire some more thoughtful look at GM research. If nothing else,  it's a reminder that complex subjects deserve correspondingly complex coverage. UPDATE: I wanted to call your attention to a couple of other thoughtful pieces that followed the GM cotton story.  For instance, "In Defense of Genetically Modified Crops" by Sarah Zhang at Mother Jones.   And a Scientific American blog by David Biello, "GMO Bonus: Genetically Engineered Cotton Benefits Farmers, Predatory Insects." Both well researched and well worth reading. With thanks to Bora Zivkovic and Keith Kloor. --- Deborah Blum        

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