Grist vs. GM Watch: Is there a middle in the GMO debate?

| August 27, 2013
(Credit: Shutterstock via Grist)
This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.

GM Watch, a well-known anti-GMO website, has critically responded to Nathanael Johnson’s efforts to find the middle ground in the GMO debate. In a scathing critique, managing editor Claire Robinson contends that Johnson, a food writer for Grist who, in an ongoing series of articles over the past two months has taken a fresh look at the GMO controversy, is “falling for Pro-GM spin” in his series.

Robinson is also the founding editor of GMOSeralini—a website promoting the research of French scientist Gilles-Erich Seralini, whose study claiming that rats fed GMO corn suffered unique damage has since been eviscerated by mainstream science—and is a key director of London-based earthopensource, an anti-GMO lobby group.

Grist is an enormously influential information source for activists and progressives, many of whom are reflexively anti-GMO. Robinson openly fretted that Johnson is “in a position to pass on his slanted information to Grist’s readers as the careful conclusions of an even-handed investigator.” She is clearly concerned about Johnson’s newly found voice in the GMO debate, and is working to discredit him.

Robinson accused Johnson of overusing pro-GM talking points and for giving little credence or balance to the other side of the argument. She chastised him for featuring only plant scientists who are supportive of crop biotechnology—Pamela Ronald from the University of California Davis, and Margaret Smith of Cornell University—as references in his piece comparing genetic engineering and conventional breeding. In fact, Johnson has often quoted critics of GMOs in his series, including an influential scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Robinson also harshly rebuked Johnson for challenging the validity of research findings of two scientists whose studies have raised controversial questions about the safety of GMOs. The studies that Johnson addressed in his article, “Is extremism in defense of GM food a vice?” —conducted by Arpad Pusztai in 1999 on GMO potatoes, and by Judy Carman earlier this year on pigs fed corn—are often cited by anti-GMO campaigners as evidence of the dangers of GMOs. Both studies, however, have been widely dismembered by the mainstream science community. Thus far, Johnson has agreed with this consensus, rankling Robinson.

Related article:  Ethics debate intensifies over retraction of flawed Séralini GMO rat study

Robinson criticized Johnson for being “touchingly naïve” in his discussion of these studies. Facing stinging criticism, instead of taking the bait, Johnson responds with classy equanimity in an attempt to turn divisiveness into dialogue. He acknowledged that he may have made some erroneous assumptions in analyzing their research methodology.

“These errors are real,” Johnson says, while pointing out the importance of the flaws in the studies he cited, “but they should be exposed in the spirit of collaboration rather than castigation.”

A back and forth discussion, he wrote, works to generate better understanding. “I’m trying to learn, and the only way to learn (in argument-as-battle mode) is to lose. The winner gains nothing,” Johnson wrote in his response.

By not defensively feeding into the two-sided argument, Johnson not only acknowledges the issues GM Watch has with his work, but also continues to advance the conversation by asking that the concerns stirred by genetic engineering can be discussed without defaulting to anti- or pro-GMO talking points.

Johnson’s technique throughout his series has been to present the issues, strip out ideology as best as he can, and, through writing these articles, inch toward a more balanced understanding of the controversy. As demonstrated by her critique, Robinson missed this idea in its entirety—or is threatened that a non-ideological exploration of the science might lead to a more nuanced view of the safety of GMOs.

Quoting philosopher Daniel H. Cohen in response to Robinson, Johnson noted that there are three types of arguments: battles to be won; performances to influence outsiders; and, to a lesser extent, collaboration, where two parties build a stronger conclusion than could have been reached alone, through challenging one another. Johnson is attempting a genuine dialogue with Robinson and other anti-GMO activists; let’s see if they are classy enough to respond in kind.


Additional Resources


The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

Outbreak Daily Digest
Biotech Facts & Fallacies
Talking Biotech
Genetics Unzipped
sperm swim

Video: Sperm are ‘spinners not swimmers’—because they are lopsided

Research by fertility scientists in the UK and Mexico challenges the accepted view of how sperm “swim”, suggesting that it ...
mag insects image superjumbo v

Disaster interrupted: Which farming system better preserves insect populations: Organic or conventional?

A three-year run of fragmentary Armageddon-like studies had primed the journalism pumps and settled the media framing about the future ...
dead bee desolate city

Are we facing an ‘Insect Apocalypse’ caused by ‘intensive, industrial’ farming and agricultural chemicals? The media say yes; Science says ‘no’

The media call it the “Insect Apocalypse”. In the past three years, the phrase has become an accepted truth of ...
breastfeeding bed x facebook x

Infographic: We know breastfeeding helps children. Now we know it helps mothers too

When a woman becomes pregnant, her risk of type 2 diabetes increases for the rest of her life, perhaps because ...
biotechnology worker x

Can GMOs rescue threatened plants and crops?

Some scientists and ecologists argue that humans are in the midst of an "extinction crisis" — the sixth wave of ...
food globe x

Are GMOs necessary to feed the world?

Experts estimate that agricultural production needs to roughly double in the coming decades. How can that be achieved? ...
eating gmo corn on the cob x

Are GMOs safe?

In 2015, 15 scientists and activists issued a statement, "No Scientific consensus on GMO safety," in the journal Environmental Sciences ...
Screen Shot at PM

Charles Benbrook: Agricultural economist and consultant for the organic industry and anti-biotechnology advocacy groups

Independent scientists rip Benbrook's co-authored commentary in New England Journal calling for reassessment of dangers of all GMO crops and herbicides ...
Screen Shot at PM

ETC Group: ‘Extreme’ biotechnology critic campaigns against synthetic biology and other forms of ‘extreme genetic engineering’

The ETC Group is an international environmental non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Canada whose stated purpose is to monitor "the impact of emerging technologies and ...
Share via
News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.
Send this to a friend