The Fear Factor

Friday, October 30, 2009


Is our fear of biotechnology impeding the scientific progress we once revered? Michael Specter thinks so. In his new book Denialism, Specter says irrational thinking has led the opposition of vaccines and genetically modified food. The internet and the news media aren’t helping either.

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Comments [49]

Marc from Vancouver

Mr. Spector seemed to conflate two very different ideas in his discussion of "denialism" It is certainly one thing to say that a small segment of the public has reacted irrationally to vaccines, given their is no well-researched scientific evidence showing a link to autism, to give one good example. However, it is a very different discussion to say we should trust the agribusiness claims that GMO's are safe and pose no threat to human health or ecosystems, for the very reason there is no good scientific evidence available to prove this. Moreover, the claim of elitism against advocates of organic food is silly, as though the only way to end hunger depends on foreign corporation to bequeath, through an act of noblesse oblige, genetically modified food. Remember the "Green Revolution"? It was bust. There is plenty of good science that makes me very skeptical of claims of industrial farming,and that is not denial--it is just common sense.

Nov. 09 2009 03:01 AM
jennifer from boston

Specter was on Morning Edition this morning, and on Tom Ashbrook's show a few weeks ago, and he was left undisputed in all of them. What is going on here?

Nov. 07 2009 10:10 PM
Rose from Los Angeles

The following statement is inaccurate and illogical: ". . .we're not spending the money we should be spending on [autism] because we're spending so much time debating whether or not to use the most effective public health measure that there has ever been in this country.” Really? Is THAT why we're not spending money on autism? Time may be hyperbolically considered money, but let's not correlate them literally.

Brooke didn't seem prepared to address Specter’s perfunctory responses to the perfunctory reactions of those fearful of ingesting, injecting and otherwise incorporating untested scientific breakthroughs. This is the second time this month I have found this to be true on OTM. It’s disappointing to get this kind of reporting from a team of journalist's journalists.

Nov. 06 2009 02:03 PM
dee from nh

DDT is one of thousands of franken biotech examples that went horribly wrong. That we have systematically wiped out so many life forms on our planet and continue to do so, isn't even raised in this discussion. From the 1960's through to today, I've heard scientists scream about "their" own particular cures for the ails of hunger in third world nations. The issue that Specter and his ilk are now facing, are smarter consumers/citizenry who are now questioning all franken junk coming out of their labs. The animals that I'm sure Specter has been party to testing on all suffered and were tortured for nought. Genetically modified means physically altering and disease creating chemicals. The arguments that organic is inefficient and not practical completely underscores the fact that anything that is health oriented and not for profit is going to be slammed. That NPR appears to showcase these types of news items is just another reason I cannot support it. Yes, the internet and the media are NOT helping spread the gospel of healthier and eco/animal friendly food choices. Mainstream media does appears inextricably tied to the umbilical chords of big money.

Nov. 04 2009 07:22 AM
Mary from Boston

@Uplift: already happened:

Nov. 03 2009 05:11 PM

Full of straw men argument, this fellow.

In particular, every single person I know prefer to eat organic, and not a single one of them is opposed to feeding Africa by whatever means possible, organic or conventional. Not a single one.

Assuming that my sample is representative - and I'm more willing to believe that than to believe the baloney spouted in this interview - then whoever the activists are who would rather that Africans starve than ingest a little bit of GMO, they are not the majority. This argument is crap.

Nov. 03 2009 03:25 PM
Laura Beth

This piece is why I will not pledge any money to NPR. When we hear BOTH sides to the story, not an apparent promotion of vaccines and GMO's. perhaps I'll re-consider my view that even NPR plays it safe as corporate contributors like MERCK,MEDTRONIC, and other biotech companies tied to agribusiness and the medical industrial complex rule the message.
Animals that were fed GM corn and potatoes DID get tumors, organ shrinkage, and died. How could we possibly know what SO many cancers and diseases are caused by when the entire "food" system has been hijacked by corporate interests?
The facts are never completely discussed or good questions asked like; how can we feed 60 + BILLION farmed animals around the globe, while we can't even feed all the human population?
OTM needs a watchdog group that reports on its own bias.
Super bugs and super resistance to pesticides are resulting in emerging threats to our health.
Bees, bats, other insects are at risk from GM crops. Let's stop lying to ourselves, our agriculture has become as toxic as the food it produces. Organic is NOT new, nor does the FARM BILL assist with assuring healthy foods are affordable.
Not much money in health, is there?

Nov. 03 2009 09:36 AM
Nancy from Emmaus, Pennsylvania

Thank you for a dose of reality, Farmer Jeff (#38)!

Nov. 02 2009 04:14 PM
Nancy from Emmaus, Pennsylvania

Specter wears the fact that he has been accused of being a "shill" like a badge of honor. And in the technical sense, I guess he isn't. I'm sure he doesn't derive any of his income directly from agribusiness. His employer, the New Yorker, certainly does--but would this color his judgment? Again, probably not. The real question is, how thoroughly has he researched the funding sources of the "peer-reviewed" studies he touts? Is it, as he claims, necessarily "demonizing" a corporation to suggest they might have a financial interest in funding studies that produce positive outcomes for their bottom line? If an independent researcher or, more likely, an academic department, is receiving a steady income stream from Bayer CropScience or Monsanto, how likely is it that they will ever reach negative conclusions about those companies' products or, if they do, if those conclusions will ever see the light of day? The days of unbiased federal studies based at land-grant universities are all but numbered (Cornell University is one of the last holdouts). Specter's conclusions are therefore no less subject to bias than his opponents'.

As you can see, Specter's diatribe raises more questions than it answers. But then, I guess I'm one of those who "scream from lack of sophistication and knowledge."

Nov. 02 2009 04:00 PM
Nancy from Emmaus, Pennsylvania

Specter asserts that GMOs would increase crop diversity. The opposite is incontrovertibly true. The global food supply is ever more reliant on a diminishing number of high-input, high-yield plant varieties. If a chemical-resistant fungus or insect emerged, the entire world's food supply might be jeopardized (think Irish potato blight, times a million). If an "improved" cassava were to supplant all other cassava varieties, would Africans be more or less food-secure? Wouldn't it be more prudent to encourage diversity so that if one crop succumbed, others would be able to take its place? Agronomists think so. Hence the recent establishment of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Reduced water use with GMOs is another false argument. Studies by the Rodale Institute et al. show that organically managed soils are better able to sustain productivity in periods of drought due to higher levels of organic matter. Which is better for impoverished farmers: (A) deplete their soils through extensive applications of expensive chemicals, then use expensive GMO crops to "compensate" for the depleted soils, or (B) not deplete the soils?

Another false argument Specter introduces is the comparison between traditional selective breeding and modern genetic engineering. The crucial difference: One involves commercial patents and the other does not. I suppose one could make a strong argument for an improved cassava plant if one also showed how the cassava farmer could in the long term pay for the seeds, the inputs necessary to grow them, and the cost of the rights to use the patented organism. Will the cassava farmer be perpetually subsidized by Syngenta, the Gates Foundation, or the World Bank, thus keeping many Africans in a permanent state of dependence (since the more they produce, the more commodity prices will fall), or will the cassava farmer simply go bankrupt and/or commit suicide, as many post-Green Revolution farmers in India have done? Is either choice really attractive?

Nov. 02 2009 03:59 PM
Nancy from Emmaus, Pennsylvania

The title of his book's chapter on organics, "The Organic Fetish," reveals that Specter's approach is not going to be balanced. Contrary to what he implies, "the organic movement" is not monolithic. Anyone who has been following closely knows that local-vs-organic has been a hotly contested argument for some time now, as has the corporatization of organics. The primary focus is and always has been on sustainability.

Specter's assertion that certain African leaders would allow "rich Europeans" to dictate their national food policy and thereby allow their citizens to starve, is both condescending and false. The truth is that these leaders do not want to repeat the mistakes of the first Green Revolution initiated by Norman Borlaug, which, after initial successes, has laid waste to vast swaths of arable land in, for example, India. African leaders need help from developed nations, to be sure, but not if it means exposing their people to the volatility of the global food commodity market (witness last year's food crisis). They support solutions that are small-scale and concentrate on developing local as opposed to overseas markets. Why is it that less than 10% of all arable land in Tanzania is under cultivation? Are organics to blame for that, too? Or are poverty and land-ownership policies to blame?

I had to laugh when Specter, in praising the use of GMOs, made a point of emphasizing the phrase "if used correctly." It reminds me of the terminology used to describe condom usage (2% annual pregnancy rate with "perfect use," 10-18% with "typical use"). Poverty-stricken farmers have every incentive to overapply fertilizers and pesticides if they are being subsidized to do so, and underapply them if they have to pay for them out of their meager incomes. Anyone who expects "correct use" of agricultural chemicals in developing nations is incredibly naive.

Nov. 02 2009 03:47 PM
Jeff from Wisconsin

Bing: Organic farms are far from inefficient. I'm an organic farmer and my yields are just as good as my conventional neighbors. In fact I beat the county average for corn last year by a couple bushels. I spread the manure produced by my beef cows over the winter on my fields, amend the soil with some lime and composted poultry manure every couple years and use legume cover crops fro fertility. I have cut my fertilizer bill by 75%. I manage weeds with crop rotation and tillage and doing other cultural practices that encourage the exhaustion of the weed seed bank. I used to spend thousands on herbicides, but now I don't use a single one and because of good management my yields have dipped only a couple bushels/acre.

A lot of the reason I went organic is because I can actually get paid enough, because of the price premium, that I can keep farming. If I wouldn't have gone organic I wouldn't have been able to afford to keep my farm. The price farmers get for the food they produce is so measly you can't be a farmer unless you go huge. Why do you think we lost all our family farms? Think of all those jobs. We could use them.

Nov. 02 2009 03:12 PM
Californiakayaker from Redding, CA

GMO was advertised as a way to "feed the world by increasing production" by Monsanto. Yet, production is lessening. The only gains are being made by Monsanto, as there company is getting larger, sometimes simply by suing farmers out of existence. Many scientist are comming out with reports and studies showing lower crop yeilds, and roundup ready immune plants showing up in fields, including weeds !

(1) "Study shows genetically altered soybeans produce lower yields," Associated Press, May 17, 2000.
(2) Benbrook, Charles. "Evidence of the Magnitude of the Roundup Ready Soybean Yield Drag from University- Based Varietal Trials in 1998," Ag BioTech InfoNet Technical Paper Number 1, July 13, 1999.
(3) See Jane Rissler, Union of Concerned Scientists Review of USDA Economic Research Service (ERS).

Nov. 02 2009 02:37 PM
Californiakayaker from Redding, CA

Even though the government and Corporations choose to look the other way and make a blanket statement regarding GMO, many scientist are ringing alarms anyway.
One related to loss of Immunity says "cucumber beetles find the genetically modified plants a better source for food and mating".
Another Large bell , the Union of Concerned Scientist:
Q: Don't GMO foods lead to bigger crop yields which will feed more people?

A: None of the GMO crops on the market today have been engineered for higher yield. In fact, a two-year study at the University of Nebraska showed that the most widely grown engineered crop, Monsanto's GMO soybean, actually yields less than natural soy varieties (1).

And another, says mice loose immunity when fed gmo :

Nov. 02 2009 02:33 PM
Bing from Atlanta, GA

In science, there is a right answer.

We have a growing population. Every person on the planet needs a certain number of calories to live. We need to pull enough calories out of the ground to feed all these people. This means being efficient, making each acre of land as productive as possible. We can do this through high-yield farming techniques, including GMO. We have been genetically modifying crops for as long as there has been domestication--first by artificial selection, then by irradiating seeds (hoping that some of the resulting mutations are beneficial somehow), and now we can actually _choose_ the characteristics we want! It is the denialist's job to tell me how GM is any different from what we have already been doing for millennia.

It's important to realize that legit, peer-reviewed medical journals are not urgently pushing organic food because it is healthier. If you hate big business no matter what good can come of it, then say so. Don't pretend your position is based in "health" or science when you are screaming a brand name as an epithet. So what if they profit? We need to feed people! Grotesquely inefficient organic farms can't do this.

I encourage people to listen to the following podcast, which makes the case in a very even-handed way.


Nov. 02 2009 12:43 PM
matt renna from Burlington VT

Specter's views on GMO's measure the effects in a very narrow manner. The point isn't that someone is going to get sick and die as a result of the genetic modification, but rather that we have no idea what the larger consequences of tweaking genes, or transferring genes from one species to another will have on evolution. This is a fundamentally different process of selection than has ever been present on the planet and can create genetic changes at a vastly quicker rate than can occur naturally. What happens when these modified plants (or animals) escape from their containers and crossbreed with wild varieties. How can people be so arrogant as to think they can control this process, or guarantee its safety?

Nov. 02 2009 11:10 AM
Mary from Boston

@Steve Savage: I totally agree. The fundie foodies can't claim how big the pile of mail into the Merrigan task force was and at the same time say nobody discussed it....

They do the same thing by saying it's not tested, it's not researched....yet no matter how many papers and reports we show them they keep moving the goalposts. It's the exact same tactic the anti-vaxxers use every time there's a new paper that destroys their claim.

Nov. 02 2009 10:52 AM
Jeff from Wisconsin

22: Yes, the patent on glyphosate has run out, but other companies, such as Bayer, do the same thing. Traits correspond with a certain mode of action pesticide, which is then sold bundled with the seed. I see this every day and as a farmer, I used to buy it. I've since quit using biotech seeds, because I don't see any benefit, monetarily, and definitely not environmentally.

As you said, the major advances in yields since the green revolution has been through conventional breeding. That said, tne reason organic crops do sometimes yield less is the fact that crop varieties have not been bred to compete and be viable without pesticide and synthetic fertilizer inputs. I'm doing work on my own farm to try to select for local genetics in some of my crops that are competitive in low input systems.

Nov. 02 2009 09:11 AM
Steve Savage from Encinitas, California

Great article overall. I'll point out one issue with what Michael said. There absolutely was a dialog about genetically engineered crops for a decade before they were ever commercialized. I attended some of the meetings where all the issues that concern people (genetic drift, allergenicity, super weeds, adventitious presence...) were discussed by a broad group of scientific disciplines. None of this was done in secret and there was a certain amount of news coverage of this. The Organic movement was fully aware of the coming GMOs to the extent that by 1990 they had decided they would never allow them in Organic because they deemed them unnatural. The reason the hashing out of the organic rules took from 1990 to 2000 was that the Organic community rejected a science-based approach and fought with the USDA and won. Still, you can't say there was no discussion.
Steven D. Savage, Ph.D.

Nov. 01 2009 10:53 PM
Ron Goodman from Santa Cruz, CA

As a scientist who has read numerous related studies, I agree that an autism-vaccine link is unlikely. But there are dozens of peer-reviewed studies (including many referenced on the CDC website) that address other concerns about vaccines. Mr. Specter’s concern is legitimate -- most people make there decisions not based on sound science, but rather on media headlines. But making blanket statements that imply that the cost-benefit ratio of vaccines is always positive simply emboldens those who oppose vaccines and are aware of these other issues.

It also ignores the "public health" vs. "individual health" equation which can further complicate issues. For example, if a disease is unlikely to cause me significant harm, and occasional serious vaccine side effects occur, should I get vaccinated to protect those in society at greater risk of disease morbidity?

I recommend reading an article at which attempts to discuss these issues without taking either a pro or con stance on vaccines.

I’d discourage On The Media from this type of lopsided presentation. It’s easy (and probably correct) to say that many people have opinions that are not supported by evidence. But, if the defense of that statement is with simplistic platitudes, more harm may be done than good.

Nov. 01 2009 10:36 PM
Mary from Boston

Check. Mate. Michael gets his daily dose of namecalling right on cue.

Can't wait to read the book. Will recommend it to my book club, too.

Thanks for raising the issues Michael. Sorry about the hate mail you are going to be getting from the nutters.

Nov. 01 2009 08:58 PM
Michael Litchfield from austin

Mr. Specter could use this comment thread as a object lesson for his next edition of this book. It reads like some inane combination of birther hysteria and creationist ranting, just substitute "Obama's Birth Certificate" of "Evolution" in place of GMO and they could have been generated by a bot.

Nov. 01 2009 08:38 PM
Erich Riesenberg from Iowa

I think some of these comments prove the point.

First, the discussion of GMO on HEALTH, not on sustainability, etc., very different questions, and answers.

Second, mercury in vaccines. One comment states vaccines have been PROVEN to cause autism. No, that is opinion, not fact.

Nov. 01 2009 08:37 PM
Lexie Ross from Atlanta

I'm very disappointed that Bob Edward's extended interviews have been replaced by, On the Media. His show is far superior. As a long time holistic journalist, it was very obvious today that Brooke Gladstone was not well informed about GMO's. There were no questions about the long term effects of putting pesticides in seeds or about any of the animal or insect parts that are put into the DNA of fruits and vegetables. Firefly genes are now used in tomatoes to extend shelf life. Can we expect our grandchildren to sprout gossamer wings? Autism has absolutely been proven to be caused by the mercury derivative in vaccines. I've personally witnessed normal, healthy children who received their DPT shot and the next morning were brain dead! Those GMO fruits and vegetables sit in the refrigerator without aging for months and taste like styrofoam. Can any intelligent person actually believe they have any food value? Michael Spector either hasn't been doing objective research, has no common sense or is on the take. I'm sure he is being heavily influenced by companies like Monsanto and Archer, Daniels, Midland who have been literally destroying agriculture in America so they can completely control it. Europe didn't ban the RGbh hormone for nothing. They know what they're doing.

Nov. 01 2009 07:32 PM
Awake, no thanks to OTM. from Asheville

I am damned tired of near weekly propaganda being spewed on your program. I am glad that many people are waking up to these agendas. I will no longer listen to your trash for the sake of serenity. Thank God for real media sources and my strong bullshite meter. I now expect nothing less than disinformation from NPR. They are in the same category as Fox, CNN, MSNBC, and all the rest of the alphabet style repeating, or rather, reporting; same thing at this point. May you and your think-tank underwriters go to hell and stay off the peoples airwaves!!

Nov. 01 2009 06:23 PM
Teri from Tennessee

Garbage In.... Garbage Out.
Have you read the reports where GMO corn was placed in a feed lot with regular NON GMO corn on the other side. The cows ate the NON GMO corn and ignored the GMO corn. Same with wild birds.

Have you read about the problems farms are having with MONSANTO seeds flying into their NON GMO fields and MONSANTO trying to sue the farmers for growning GMO crops without a permit?

Oh, yes, eat some more Mercury. It's good for you! Wash it down with some weed killer. It makes bigger babies.

Yes, it has been proven around the world that vaccinations can kill and damage healthy kids and adults.

Garbage in... Garbage out.

Nov. 01 2009 05:51 PM
James from Berkeley, CA

Jim at #4. The article you posted is a study about what would happen if a transgene in domesticated squashes escaped into their wild relatives. It turns out for the wild relatives it's a disadvantage not an advantage. The farmers who grow the domesticated squash are doing great.

Farmers have been buying new corn seed from companies every year since the 1940s. Not because of genetic engineering but because of hybrid seed which yielded so much more, and was so much hardier in the face of abiotic and biotic stresses that to them it is worth the cost of buying new seed every year. And there is competition among seed sellers so if one company charges too much, farmers will just buy from another (although the market could definitely use more competition.)

#20 Monsanto's patent of glyphosate, the active ingredient in round-up ran out a couple of years ago. Farmers can and do by herbicide resistant seed from one company and treat it with herbicide purchased from another.

By all means don't take my word for any of these things, check for yourselves. And I'm not arguing GMOs are all rainbows and unicorns either. Especially given the lack of encouragement given to increasing competition in the field to drive down the prices farmers pay, and the way gene patents are currently set up.

But willfully clinging to misinformation like these examples is why the anti-GMO movement made it into a book on science denialism. And if you want your real concerns to be taken seriously you have to let go of the misconceptions and deceptions.

Nov. 01 2009 05:42 PM
Irene Cardenas from Minneapolis, MN

Who is in denial? Regarding autism, many children have disconnected from people after being treated by the medical industry. I discuss some high-profile cases of this in my comment, "The Medical Industry Kills Faster than Natural Life" at:

Besides the chemicals in treatments, do people consider the manner in which treatments are delivered and the attitude of professionals who deliver them? For example, some medical professionals consider patients to be inferior, such as less sophisticated. So, some doctors and nurses think patients deserve to be dominated by them. They justify it to themselves.

When people are surrounded by physical energy that comes across as health or love, diseased cells heal. Evidence for this can be found through my comment (#62) at:

Nov. 01 2009 05:33 PM
Jeff from Wisconsin

The fact is: Genetic modification has yet to produce crops that yield any better than conventionally bred varieties. In fact, RoundUp Ready soybeans have historically had a yield drag compared with conventional counterparts. The persistent line that biotech companies trot out about feeding the world has not been born out. Organic farmers know, and numerous scientific studies have confirmed that yields from organic systems are comparable (usually about 95-100%) of conventional yields.

Biotech is simply way for chemical companies to make farmers dependent on their products: If you buy a genetically modified crop that will only be tolerant of a herbicide manufactured by the same company, you are effectively in debt to that company.

Nov. 01 2009 04:41 PM
Paula Griswold from Camrbidge

Michael Specter might also consider that we have seen several decades of corporate money influencing policy decisions to the detriment of public health and safety.

He might realize that it's not simply that people don't trust science, they don't trust public policy about science, since it seems to be frequently driven by corporate rather than public interest.

Where do we stand with the safety of plastics? Cellphones? Fire retardant chemicals in our clothes and furniture? And many other issues - Do you trust that policy decisions on these products is determined by science in the interest of public health and safety?

Nov. 01 2009 02:50 PM
David Resseguie from Eugene, OR

I, too, was very disappointed by the kid glove treatment Mr. Specter received at the hands of OTM. I would answer his assertions one by one, were it not for the clear and erudite refutations and clarifications written by many of the above commentators. I would,however, like to refer the OTM staff to this book review on, which explains the massive omissions and faulty logic in "Denialism."

I generally greatly appreciate OTM's skeptical stance towards the topics it covers, and hope for many future incisive, valuable gloves-off interviews with news makers and authors.

Nov. 01 2009 02:37 PM
Christopher Fredrick Gautz from Pomona, Ca

Green revolution technology is less than useless if the human grows as fast food increases. Too many people is too many people.

Nov. 01 2009 02:22 PM
Brad from PA

I just want to add my voice to those who are expressing their disappointment with Specter's ideas. A discussion of GMOs doesn't belong with a discussion of vaccines or organic food issues. They really have nothing but the most superficial things (hey, science!) in common. Specter reveals his thinking to be extremely shallow in his comments, which is why I suspect he resorts to insulting those who disagree with him. The corporate system bears much of the responsibility for world hunger, so instead of doubling down on it to fix the problems it created, why don't we focus on transforming or ending it? Isn't that a much more logical response to the origin of the problem?

Nov. 01 2009 01:47 PM
Cathy from Lowell, MA

This is by far the most troubling and unbalanced interview I have ever heard on On the Media. It makes me wonder what is going on with this program (which I usually enjoy).

Is Brooke totally unaware of mounting evidence that questions the health and environmental benefits of GMOs? Is she totally unaware of mounting evidence that organic agriculture that combines old and new practices can be just as "productive" as chemical agriculture (which really isn't so productive when all of its costs are taken into account)?

Shouldn't the fact that this guy repeatedly paints people he disagrees with as irrational know-nothings and Luddites have touched off some skepticism?

In this segment, she and the whole program come across as woefully uninformed and lacking in proper journalistic judgment.

Nov. 01 2009 11:03 AM
Nancy from NorthEast

Thank-you, thank-you, Michael for speaking up as to the benefits of common sense thinking and dialogue about the issues that will have major public health implications world wide. Keep at it please. I wish there were more independent voices like yours.

Nov. 01 2009 11:03 AM
Terry McKenna from Dover NJ

I guess I echo what most others say. We consumers of news have listened to scientists from industry trumpet the benefits of each set of scientific advances. Well, as a child of the 50s we watched a relatively old fashioned agriculture morph over the decades into a agribusiness, where beef is now raised in feedlots with antibiotics and hormones mixed into the feed and where mixed crop farms have been abandoned in favor of giant agro-monocultures.

So "we" have a good reason to be skeptical of what industry's scientist have to tell us.

The genetic crop i most shun is not cassava, but a ruined tomato that has a red outer coat, but not once drop of flavor. I look for organic goods not just because they taste better, but because i also can't trust a farmer who has stripped flavor from my favorite crop in favor of a tomato that is no more than a pretty picture.

Nov. 01 2009 10:56 AM
Teri from Tennessee

Sooo, is this Dude on the payroll of Monsanto or What? Yes, very one sided.

Nov. 01 2009 10:49 AM
Jim Giddings from Greenville NH

We live within an ecosystem (a scientific concept) and an economy (not a scientific concept but one on which much scholarly analysis has been done), and not as isolated people or villages. The proposal to genetically engineer cassava to improve the diet of malnourished Africans makes sense if you assume
1. cassava is all or most of what these people eat
2. those eating mainly cassava are doing so out of free choice and not for ecological or economic reasons beyond their local control.

(1.) may or may not be true, but (2) definitely isn't. I agree with Hans Rossling that HIV is the immediate reason for African poverty in the 2000's, but the long-term causes include the import of cheap US "surplus" grains and soy which devastated small-scale traditional farming in many parts of the world. In West Africa, a traditional local diet was balanced, and included ground-nuts (protein), yams (vitamins), local fruits (vitamins) and cassava (carbohydrates), along with millet and sorghum (carbohydrates and protein). The price of these other locally-grown foods rose beyond affordability in the context of local economy as the number of local farms dwindled, until only cassava (local or imported) was affordable. The US grains and soy were cheap because of the subsisdized petroleum-based inputs and because of companies like Monsanto making their genetically-engineered seeds loss-leaders in the US. Genetically engineering cassava is a short-sighted idea, since it will decrease the genetic diversity of cassava and its ability to withstand drought and pests. It is also not a goood idea to have everybody in a given region depend on a single crop, no matter how nutritious (remember the Irish potato famine was partly a result of potatoes displacing oats in the Irish diet). It is neither irrational fear nor scientific illiteracy that makes me an opponent of genetic engineering and food imperialism, but a concern for the survival of the ecologies on which we all depend.

Nov. 01 2009 09:55 AM
David White from Darlington SC

unbalanced!! I have a lot of confidence in science. Just not in manipulated science that makes a new product look good. Monsanto does not share the tests that show problems with rGBH. The problems with GMOs are not just agronomic. The control over seed variety and chemicals is not help to farmers. In the 80's there were two reports on the future of GMOs. One suggested we avoid it altogether and not go down that path. The other more precient report suggested that the genie was out of the bottle and that it would be more important how it was used and who controlled it. An argument can be made for BT in cotton but not in corn or all the other crops Monsanto wants to infect. The problem of hunger in the world is only partly a problem of technology. It is more often a function of political disorder.

Nov. 01 2009 09:07 AM
Elaine Smith from Boston, MA

Michael Specter referred to the Luddites destroying printing presses. The Luddites did not attack the printing presses, which were responsible for the wider dissemination of knowledge - they attacked mechanized looms which were likely to destroy the livelihood of skilled weavers, replacing them with low-paid lower-skilled machine operators who would work in appalling conditions. The Luddites did try to stand in the way of "progress", which is what I assume that Specter was trying to say about the opponents of GM food, but their cause did have more merits than those who opposed printing presses - these were the rich and powerful (such as the Catholic Church) trying to retain control over the flow of information and ideas.

Nov. 01 2009 08:30 AM
Joseph Lechuga from Portland, OR

I'm disappointed that we did not get to hear from experts on the other side of the issue, as though questioning the use of GMO's was just hysteria with no real merit.

The real issue that most anti-GMO protesters have is the threatening of biodiversity, not whether there are health benefits/detriments. Furthermore, they protest the economic viability of the countries that need these GMO's being able to afford the seeds, and the fertilizers that are needed to make them grow.

The reasoning, as stated in the interview, seems much like the reasoning that Bernard Goldberg uses in Bias. The least amount of research leads him to the simplest solution. It's a bigger problem than is dreamt of in his [Michael Specter's] philosphy.

Oct. 31 2009 11:51 PM
Kathy from Ohio

Another shallow interview by Brooke. And why does On the Media choose to feature books like this which smack of corporate bullying? Unlike Jim who posted previously, I'll have to be convinced that Specter isn't a corporate shill, with complicity by this show in giving him airtime.

Oct. 31 2009 11:19 PM
Terri Pauls from Anchorage

I am very disappointed in your shallow, one-sided coverage of GMOs, especially in food. Are you giving them a free ride because Monsanto now sponsors American Public Media??

There have been no scientific studies of how GM food affects people. How would we test it, when almost everyone is eating GMO corn syrup, GMO soy products, GMO cottonseed oil, and GMO canola oil in so many foods? Such studies would also need to be long-term, but those have never been required. So it's disingenuous for Specter to claim that no one has been harmed. We are guinea pigs without ever having given our permission, or having the conversation about the topic as a society. That is just plain wrong, considering the extreme nature of this technology: e.g., genes of fish being implanted, with the aid of viruses, into the genes of plants. Traditional hybrid techniques are limited to combining species that can combine by themselves in nature (e.g., apples and pears) -- not so in genetic modification. This is a HUGE difference.

The ancestral corn of Mexico has been contaminated by GMO corn, despite ignorant officials claiming that the pollen will not travel more than three feet from the corn stalk.

Master soil scientist Elaine Ingham describes a GM organism she discovered in her screening work that if released, could have devastated global plant life, in
"The Theoretical Promise Versus The Actual Perils Of GMOs." See Part III, Section 1.1 at:
Hear the layperson version at:

Please read Jeffrey Smith's book, _Genetic Roulette_, for harmful results demonstrated in studies done on animals.

I resent my concern about this issue being characterized as "hysterical." Coverage like this makes me less likely to support public radio, which I have supported generously in the past. I am deeply disappointed in you and in the decline of true journalism.

Oct. 31 2009 10:55 PM
geo8rge from Brooklyn NY

Google [robert kennedy autism thimerosal], yup that Robert F. Kennedy.

Oct. 31 2009 10:40 PM
Ellen Dannin from University Park, PA

I haven't read the book, so all I have to go on was the interview. I have to say that I was very disturbed by the vitriolic attack on people who oppose GMO food. The interviewee poses the issue as science v. politically correct organic foodies.

However, the issue is far more complex than the author suggests. There are many reasons for concern. Here are just a few.

Monsanto - and most likely it is Monsanto we are talking about when it comes to the type of GMO food the author discussed - has shown itself to be highly predatory when it comes to suing for violation of its food patents, while not taking precautions to ensure that pollen from its plants has not tainted non-GMO plants. The result has been very expensive lawsuits that have driven farmers out of business.

Or take its use of Round-Up Ready crops that will survive applications of Monsanto's herbicide Round-Up. The have been news stories that these crops were sold to 3d world farmers as a miracle crop. However, the cost of the seed and the Round-up put them in such debt that farmers killed themselves in their despair.

Finally, there are concerns over the way that Monsanto has behaved with other GMO products, most recently rBGH - recombinant bovine somatotrophin - in terms of its approval by an FDA that was a revolving door agency for Monsanto employees involved in making decisions about that product. Another concern has been the violation of the precautionary principle. By the author's standards, the whole rest of the world is made up of Luddites, because they have banned the use of rBST.

I know Brooke Gladstone can be a tough interviewr, but, she sure took of the gloves for this guy.

Oct. 31 2009 07:51 PM
Jim Manning from Prospect, NY

Fear of unintended consequences is not irrational; see for just a taste.

Oct. 31 2009 07:09 PM
Jim Manning from Prospect, NY

I am an avid reader of the New Yorker and of Michael Specter's work. But even the best journalists seem to trip over their own feet when dealing with agriculture and science.

I accept without doubt that Specter is not bought and paid for by industry. And yet he fails to seriously question their line, which is that because there is no scientifically proven harm (yet), and because it has the potential to solve serious problems (true), that we should let them work their magic.

The biggest problem with biotechnology is that it introduces instantaneous and radical man-made changes into ecosystems. This is not the same as the conventional breeding that has been rewarding mankind and shaping ecosystems since agriculture began. We are nowhere near being capable of testing the potential impacts of these new life forms in the environment. Instead we are releasing them into nature and hoping for the best.

Specter's concern about know-nothings and fearmongers is well-founded, and he's right, we need an intelligent conversation. But we need to do that before the decision to release potent technologies is made; given that the majority of the feed crops in the US are already genetically modified varieties, that obviously is not US policy, nor is it standard operating procedure for the owners of the technology.

Oct. 31 2009 07:01 PM
David Ezell from New York City

Michael and Brooke, thank-you for this wonderful piece.

People, and Americans in particular, suffer and waste so many resources because of their anti-scientific bias. I appreciate someone challenging the hyperbolic response to GMOs, immunization and the like.

Is science perfect? No. Is the scientific method the best way to solve complex problems? Absolutely.

Oct. 31 2009 01:46 PM
A N Hll from Detrot, Michigan

I have been adversely affected, more than once, by GMO's. I have been to the emergency room repeatedly with hives, trouble breathing and painful swelling.
It took me years to figure out on my own that the cause of my allergic reactions was genetic modification of food.
I now eat organic and local as much as I can afford. I carry an Epipen with me so that I can respond in case I have an allergic reaction, which has happened at least 6 times in the past 10 years.
I am incensed to hear Michael Specter say that "The number of people who have been shown to have been made sick by eating genetically modified food is exactly zero."
I do not know where to go for someone to count me as one of the many people who have had adverse reactions to GMO's and are not counted.
It is this personal experience that leads me to question the "lack of correlation" between Autism and vaccines. And as for GMO's being banned in some countries in Africa?
Shortages of food have been more the result of imperialist intervention in the continent of Africa with different variations depending on the nation we are discussing than real shortages in foodstuffs.
Certain corporations have created genetically modified foods to increase their profit by making farmers dependent on companies to buy seeds rather than being able to use their own product for replanting.
In my view, the resistance to gmos has been a unification of interest between people in Africa and Europe.

Oct. 31 2009 08:41 AM

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