I was very disappointed with Michael Specter’s recent piece in The New Yorker called “Seeds of Doubt: An activist’s controversial crusade against genetically modified crops.”
For one thing, Specter didn’t seem to understand the basics of crop genetic engineering (GE) itself, inaccurately describing the process multiple times in the article. For example, GE crops are not created by firing “a bacterium into seeds” (as was stated on p49 of the article). DNA isolated from various organisms (plants, animals, viruses, bacteria) is what is inserted into all GE crops, not an entire organism such as a bacterium. And that inserted (foreign) DNA is present in every cell in the resulting GE crop plant, not just its seeds or any other specific organ or tissue in that plant. We apparently have a long way to go in educating the public about this powerful technology when a staff writer covering “science” for The New Yorker doesn’t get it right.
The article also failed to mention any of the risks of genetic engineering, risks associated with (for example) what the US Food and Agriculture Agency (F.D.A.) has referred to as “unexpected” changes that can occur as a result of utilizing the techniques currently used to genetically engineer crop plants. [For more information on risks specific to genetic engineering (as opposed to traditional breeding) and examples of commercialized GE crops exhibiting “unexpected” changes or “unintended” risks see Crop Genetic Engineering is a Mutagenic Process, Crop Genetic Engineering, Warts and All, and Science-based Regulation of GE Crops Requires More Long-Term Rat Feeding Studies of NK603 Corn.] Although I’m not formally trained as a journalist, it seems to me that mention of such technological risks, as well as documented failings like StarLink™ corn, should be made in an article casting doubt on an activist’s crusade against that technology.
Consequently, in my opinion, Specter’s piece contributes to the “hyper-propagandizing” of GE products that one of his interviewees, Dr. Deepak Pental, mentioned (p56) was a mistake made by the promoters of this new biotechnology.
I wrote a letter to The New Yorker expressing my disappointment, a drastically shortened version of which was published in the Sept. 15, 2014 issue of the magazine. My entire, original letter (containing quotes, and reference to The New Yorker pages that contain them) follows.
Unfortunately, Michael Specter only contributed to the “gulf between the truth about G.M.O.s and what people say about them” (p57) with his piece about genetically engineered (G.E.) crops and Vandana Shiva (“Seeds of Doubt” August 25th). “Genetic engineering takes the process [of breeding] one step further” (p48) is by no means enough information to enlighten anyone about how this technology works, how it differs from traditional breeding, whether it is safe, or anything else.
As a former genetic engineer who carried out safety studies submitted to the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) to gain commercial approval of the world’s first G.E. whole food, the Flavr Savr™ tomato (in 1994 not 1996 as implied in the article), I know firsthand of the kinds of risks this technology presents…and so does the F.D.A. which has admitted that “unexpected” and “unintended” changes can occur in G.E. crops. [Commercialized examples of unexpected, unintended changes include one Bt corn variety (Bt176) that posed a 100 times greater risk of harming Monarch butterfly larvae than other Bt corn and another (StarLink™) that contained a Bt protein that behaved like a human allergen in multiple tests conducted in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency.] For the most part, long term studies to identify any such unexpected, unintended changes in G.E. crops have not been conducted but a few that have been suggest we should proceed more cautiously with this technology.
On the other hand, long term animal studies as well as human clinical trials have been carried out for G.E. insulin (mentioned in the article, p57) and all other commercially available G.E. drugs for humans in the United States. Those drugs are also labeled; patients know they are products of genetic engineering. Patients can therefore make informed decisions regarding any potential risks, risks they are likely more willing to take than a non-patient would be.
When it comes to groceries, people—healthy or not—can’t make the same informed decisions about G.E. foods, at least not in the United States; and most Americans, in poll after poll, indicate they want that opportunity. After all, it’s one thing to need a G.E. medicine, another to wear G.E. cotton, and still another to feed your G.E. yellow corn or G.E. soybean meal to your animals; it’s quite another when you are feeding yourself and your family and the foods in questions haven’t gone through rigorous, long term testing.
I agree with Mr. Specter that we will need many approaches to farming in order to “feed the world” (p57) but, to make informed decisions about the available approaches, we’ll also need more scientifically accurate and thorough descriptions of them than was provided for genetic engineering in his article. Otherwise, “Seeds of Doubt” could be classified as simply more “advertis[ing]” (p49) or “hyper-propagandizing [of] G.M. products” (p56) and that is not what I, for one, expect from The New Yorker.
Belinda Martineau, Ph.D.