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Michael Pollan and Amy Harmon discuss GMO controversy

| August 27, 2013

Just a few weeks ago, Amy Harmon’s New York Times article, addressing the challenges facing Florida orange farmers, sparked controversy when famed food writer Michael Pollan took to Twitter to criticize the article.

Pollan was almost universally excoriated for his post, in part because he never elaborated on his criticism. To many, it seemed almost like a hit and run. His tweet implied that Harmon was either forwarding the agenda of big biotech companies, such as Monsanto, or was naïve about the issues. After his rather cryptic post, Pollan stopped tweeting and vanished from the discussion. His critics argued that by stirring the pot and then walking away before fully explaining himself, Pollan not only took away Harmon’s chance to respond, but also turned what could have been an opportunity for a legitimate debate on genetic modification into an aimless controversy.

Now, for the first time since the controversy erupted, Pollan has addressed those criticisms in a discussion with Columbia Journalism Review reporter Alexis Sobel Fitts that also included Harmon. Pollan told Fitts that he had left for vacation just after the offending tweet and was not aware of the uproar it sparked until his return.

In speaking with Fitts, Pollan has tried to contain the damage. “I meant to highlight her article because it was a good piece,” Pollan said in the article. “But 140 characters is not the way to settle a debate like this.”

“It’s a serious charge,” Carl Zimmer, a science writer and Times columnist told Fitts in criticism of Pollan’s tweet. “I don’t think it’s good enough to just say that and leave it.”

Fitts structured her article by having Pollan elaborate on his “talking points” allegation and then asking Harmon to respond. One industry “talking point” Pollan contended Harmon was parroting in her article was that GMOs can be used to solve “real” problems.

“What if we had lots of public breeding going on using GM to solve real problems? That’s what we haven’t had,” Pollan said to Fitts. “We’ve had Monsanto designing crops that are very profitable because they are resistant to pesticides. This is what the business model is: 90 percent Roundup Ready products. This orange is a story you could conceivably tell the consumer. But there have been others and they largely haven’t made it to market.”

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Harmon defended her article, explaining that she focused on the plight of the Florida orange crop as a story-telling device employed to cut through the misinformation surrounding GMOs and present a nuanced view of how the technology is helping.

“I was trying to tell a narrative story about the development of one particular GMO,” said Harmon. “This isn’t the kind of a GMO that you typically think of when you think of GMOs, so maybe it should challenge your idea of what you think of when you think of genetically modified crops.”

Harmon’s article centered on the fact that GM products have been extensively tested for safety. Respected independent science organizations, as well as regulatory and oversight bodies around the world that rarely concur on the most trivial of details agree that  GMOs pose no harm not also found in conventional or organic foods.

Pollan, along with many anti-GMO activists, remains skeptical of the scientific consensus and is also skeptical of the testing and evaluation process. One has to wonder what the criticism here is other than the fact that Pollan simply disagrees with Harmon and mainstream scientists on this point.

But perhaps this gets to the real issue at the heart of the GM debate. Anti-GMO activists and critics can disagree with the benefits of GMOs or argue the merits of more rigorous testing, but they cannot ignore the trump card: on this issue, there is consensus among the most trusted food safety and regulatory bodies on the planet.

The GM debate is, of course, an important one and one that must continue. However, the conversation must center on science rather than conjecture and ideology. Every time an influential figure like Michael Pollan focuses on fears of the unknown, the possibility of a constructive GM conversation is stunted and the public is bombarded with scare stories rather than science. When this happens, everyone loses.

The public needs responsible journalists to present fact-based articles about emerging technologies and products. Now that Pollan and Harmon have “talked” it out, hopefully the public can get back to  a more civil discussion of the science behind GMOs, genuine environmental challenges and trade-offs in our food system.

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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.

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