May 1, 2015

A U.S. News and World Report article glorifies Goodall's embrace of anti-GMO nonsense

Anna Medaris Miller, writing for U. S. News and World report, gives what I hope was unintended free advertising to a dismal new book on anti-GMO quackery by Steven M. Druker ("Altered Genes, Twisted Truth"-scared yet?) and endorsed by Jane Goodall, a once great scientist currently destroying her legacy with woo. Using what is now a formulaic, emotional, fact-free, "think of the children" marketing approach to peddle absolute non-sense to a public confused over a complex scientific topic, Druker displays an intellectual honesty comparable to those who sell books on secret cures for cancer your doctor doesn't want you to know about.

I confess I have not read Druker's book, nor do I have plans to when the next book in the Game of Thrones series is due out soon. But one look at Druker's references in his devastating expose makes it clear that reading it is hardly worth anyone's time. There are 25 sources listed to demonstrate how the FDA has been hiding the shocking truth behind these deadly GMOs. Every one of them dates to between 1991-1993. Has nothing relevant to this subject been pubilished in the last 25 years in Druker's opinion?  They are conversations between FDA employees speculating about what to take into consideration when planning new safety tests now that a new technique to modify crops is emerging. Not one of them presents scientific evidence of any kind or documents any actual instance of harm to humans or livestock from transgenic plants as Druker (and later Miller) implies. But Druker's dishonest, scaremongering screed is just another mundane gambit in conspiracy propaganda pulp designed to squeeze money from the gullible and uneducated, and it is uninteresting. Instead, I was more interested in Miller's uncritical coverage of it.

A perusal of Miller's twitter feed indicates that she covers a variety of health issues but this is the first time she has stepped in the GMO debate. She says she "learned a lot" from the experience but is now "ready for a (non-GMO-verified?) beer", which I take to mean she is now convinced GMOs are best avoided and possibly dangerous. Her article clearly implies this, and it is unclear if it is meant to be journalism or activism. It has subheadings such as "Scientific conflict" and "What's a consumer to do?", which flouts the incorrect notion that scientists are in disagreement about GMO safety and dispenses advice on how to avoid GMO products, respectively.

In addition to citing Druker, whose obvious motivation here is promoting his new book, Miller also cites FDA scientists Edwin Mathews and Gerald Guest, whose statements appear to cast serious doubts on the safety of GMOs. Good for Miller for not just relying on Druker but asking FDA scientists to verify his claims, right? But Miller didn't actually talk to them. She links to Druker's activist webpage which contains references to FDA memos from 1991 and 1992 written by Mathews and Guest. From reading Miller's article, I got the impression she interviewed Mathews and Guest, but that is not true. She's just letting Druker write the article for her and create a false impression of independent consensus. Read the actual memos (here and here) and you'll see they don't say what he says they say; Druker is nothing less than a dishonest crank. Is Miller that gullible or am I missing something?

There are many scientific inaccuracies in Miller's article, but they are mostly forgivable for a non-scientist. Most plant scientists (myself included) would be happy to use the opportunity to teach some plant biology and clear up misconceptions. I seen no point belittling a journalist for getting a tricky subject wrong. I don't know Miller's background, but it is almost certainly not in the life sciences. I don't expect a journalist to understand biochemistry, but I do expect a good one to ask a knowledgeable scientist, especially since this is the first time she has covered GMOs. She sadly failed to do this, and she does deserve criticism for that.

I would point out one error she made because it illustrates a broad misconception. She writes "Genetically modified foods -- also called genetically engineered foods -- contain DNA that scientists have modified in an unnatural way, such as by adding a gene from a different organism ...". She goes on to cite the World Health Organization, in fact she repeats their same wrong definition, word for word. Please stop using the word "unnatural" unless you are absolutely sure you know what it means. It probably doesn't. Scientists have known for a long time that unrelated species exchange genes in nature. Some parsitic plant species mix their DNA and their transcripts with their hosts in their phloem (ewww!!! right?) and some insert their genes into plant genomes, all in nature. I wrote about Cuscuta earlier. We just saw an important paper in Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA about Agrobacterium genes in sweet potato, and this has been going on in other plants, including ancestors of crops, for millions of years; the entire cyanobacterial genome (now inside modern day chloroplasts) and horizontal gene transfer provide other examples that the WHO definition that Miller repeats verbatim is simply wrong (but not Miller's fault, I know). Species always have and always will exchange genes. It is part of nature. It is no less natural when humans do it, unless by "natural" you mean "without human agency".

The FDA memos Miller links to by way of a anti-GMO conspiracy webpage are laughably naive by today's scientific standards. While they do no more than modestly propose what we might want to think about when we test modified plants of the future, the Mathews memo itself is a dead give away his knowledge of the subject was shaky at best. It throws around the word "toxicant" without ever defining it or even specifying what plant natural products are meant. Some plants do produce deadly poisons (that's how nature is) so it's reasonable to worry about this subject. But no evidence is ever cited in this memo on GMOs and no specific plant poison is even mentioned except perhaps a class of glucosinolates found in mustard sauce and cruciferous vegetables--nothing to do with GMOs. Later on, he informs us that glycosides, a general family of plant natural products too diverse to group together, are the most "toxic" plant compounds we know of (no citation), which are in turn more toxic than the next worst offenders: proteins, alkalkoids, and phenolics. Plant proteins are all toxic?!? This document is full of scientific howlers, and I really encourage you to have a look for a few laughs at Dr. Mathews' expense. I just published a paper on glycosides, but I had no idea I was working on deadly toxicants! But in his defense, he correctly points out that it will be very difficult in the future to assess dangers of GMOs because plants already produce thousands of "toxic" biochemicals naturally. His hilarious misuse of "toxicant" is nearly redeemed by this one salient observation. And to be fair, Mathews was just doing his job in this memo, talking about what we knew at the time so we can devise tests that look for trouble as this technology becomes mainstream (remember: this was 1991). Only a dishonest crook could possibly cite this memo as EVIDENCE that GMOs cause harm to humans, the environment, or livestock. It does not say that.

The real question is how can Miller, writing in 2015 for USNWR, an ostensibly respectable news source, cite these sources so uncritically and balance Druker's propaganda push against a few quotations from a single credible source, Prof. Nina Federoff (Penn St. Univ.)? Miller balances the two points of view as if they were two actual points to consider, and throws in heaping praise on Goodall's crazy statements on GMOs as well. It is unclear to me if Miller has just been innocently mislead on this issue (and too lazy to actually read what she was citing), or if she is publishing anti-scientific nonsense and dressing it up as balanced journalism intentionally. If it is the former, Anna Medaris Miller, and you are reading this, please consult an actual plant scientist to check the claims of anti-GMO activists. I would be happy to personally answer questions you have on GMOs. Repeating Federoff's public statement is not the same as talking to her and it does not lend balance to your reporting to put her words on an even footing with those of a desperate crank selling malarky.

Jane Goodall's departure from reality has been sadly well documented recently (and her plagiarism as well), and her anti-GMO stance is a symptom of her fading relevance. Comparisons to James Watson come to mind but at least she's not an unrepentant racist. It is sad that dishonest hacks like Druker can use Goodall's once stellar reputation as a scientist to push his quackery, and even sadder that Miller enables this abuse by uncritically citing them both while failing to point out how weak Druker's argument is. Miller ends by quoting Goodall's prayer that GMOs be taken off the market, and it is hard to imagine Miller did not mean to endorse this message after the litany of nonsense she cites to bolster the anti-GMO case. A few quotes from an actual scientist like Federoff to create the impression of balance do not undo the damage of Miller's message however. Thank you, Anna Miller, for branching out to GMOs as a new area you would like to cover. We need journalists covering this issue. But please try to learn something about the subject first (I know your tweet says you think you learned a lot, but you didn't). Or just ask a scientist who can save you from embarrassment. It's too late in this case, because this article truly is awful, but most of us want to improve and you definitely can with some effort, Anna. That way you won't make the same mistakes we have seen a thousand times in this debate: false equivalency between activists and scientific consensus, repeating the lie that there is no consensus on GMO safety among scientists, appeal to authority (Goodall is clueless on this subject), fear mongering (harder to forgive), repeating zombie lies that GMOs cause sickness in farm animals; the list goes on.

Journalism is worthless if it is not factually accurate and critical of specious claims, and I certainly expect more of USNWR as a source of information. I hope anything else I read from that source in the future is something more than a lazy, misleading, mouthpiece for anti-scientific activist propaganda.

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