Michael Pollan: the “lonely science writer”

stalks in sun
Corn in the sun

Journalist Michael Pollan is known for his books on food and cooking, but rather than calling himself a journalist, he has taken to calling himself a science writer. He’s not.

In an interview with Grubstreet, promoting his Netflix series (trailer here) promoting the movie version of his overblown book, Cooked, Pollan is asked to comment on biotechnology (GMOs). In an earlier interview he had said that “he felt pretty lonely among my science-writing colleagues in being critical of this technology.” That is because he has not done the usual digging you do before writing a story, as he no doubt teaches his journalism students.

Here’s what he said:

 GMOs have been, I think, a tremendous disappointment. They haven’t done what Monsanto promised they would do, which is make American agriculture more sustainable. I think that they have done a brilliant job of getting everybody to focus on the narrow question of “is this stuff going to kill you if you eat it?” And they’ve won that argument…

Usually you cite sources for claims like that, and other than parroting claims of the Organic Consumers Association, he can’t do that. To cite sources, Klumper and Qaim’s PLoS One meta-study concluded that

On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%.

This is not a disappointment, and it is exactly what Monsanto (and the 5 other biotech companies) claimed they would do. Here is some more of his nonsense:

  • What does it do to pesticides? It increased them dramatically. No it doesn’t. See the figures above.
  • …there hasn’t been the kind of testing the public assumes there was. The FDA doesn’t demand it. GM crops undergo more than 10 years of testing overseen by the FDA before they can be released. They are the most tested and safest crops in our food system.
  • It is a PR achievement, and that is to make any criticism of their products akin to climate denia Can he cite any science to show any harm? No. That is why Pollan is not really a science writer.
  • Well, the issues aren’t all scientific. There are political issues, economic issues, agronomic issues, and those have gotten ignored and it’s a shame. Such as? Farmers buy GM traited seeds because they are more profitable (economic issue) and they allow no-till farming (agronomic issue). The political issues are the huge anti-GMO campaign orchestrated by the Organic Consumers Association and allied groups.
  • The public has made it known that they would like to have labels so they can decide for whatever reason, good or bad, well-informed or poorly informed, that they don’t or want to eat this. Without a label you don’t know what we’re eating. He does not explain what a label would tell you: which ingredient has biotech traits? Which traits are they? What risks (none) are associated with them? Does he know that DNA is completely digested before it reaches your bloodstream and has no effects on your body? Does he know that GM crops are nutritionally identical?
  • I think we should label food if it contains pesticides, but nobody is talking about that. The only pesticide used in biotech crops is bacillus thuriniensis, which is also used on organic farms. Extensive study has shown that it has no effect on humans or livestock.
  • if you’re not using pesticides, if you’re organic, you have to pay to put a label on declaring you aren’t using pesticides.  Sorry, Mr Pollan, organic farmers do use pesticides, just different ones, as Savage explains.
  • Golden rice is a great example. It’s always about to revolutionize world agriculture and help cure vitamin A deficiency, and for some reason it doesn’t come. Perhaps it is because of Greenpeace’s endless battle to resist golden rice, causing blindness in death sue to Vitamin A deficiency.

Let’s be clear: Michael Pollan is knowingly spreading serious misinformation about biotechnology when just a little research would disabuse him of these canards. He may call himself a journalist, but he cannot call himself a science writer.


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