William Saletan Loves Golden Rice

The journalist William Saletan’s indictment of GMO critics is being promoted by the GMO lobby. In the first of a three-part series, Claire Robinson looks at his arguments on golden rice

Journalist William Saletan’s skillfully crafted indictment of GMO critics in the online magazine Slate is being frantically promoted by the pro-GMO lobby.

Saletan accuses GMO critics of errors, fraud, and lies, and warns them that labelling GMOs “will not make you safer”. But Saletan’s article on the faults of GMO opponents is packed with fallacies and betrays an uncritical approach to evidence unsuited to a journalist who claims the moral high ground when it comes to facts and truth. In fact, as we shall see, Saletan has a long history of building flawed but superficially persuasive arguments for some seriously bad ideas.

A case in point is his account of the debate over GMO golden rice.

Golden rice: The fairytale and the failure

Golden rice lies at the heart of Saletan’s indictment of people opposed to GM crops. Saletan directly blames them for preventing this genetically engineered crop from solving vitamin A deficiency. This, he implies, has been a humanitarian disaster, coming at the expense of blindness and death in a vast number of children.

That is quite an indictment. But what Saletan fails to make clear is that the reason GMO golden rice still isn’t available owes little if anything to anti-GMO activists and everything to basic problems of R&D.

Although the golden rice project was originally launched as far back as 1985, the IRRI, the body now responsible for rolling it out, announced  as recently as last year that GMO golden rice had failed its field trials and hadn’t yet been safety tested or shown to be effective in reducing vitamin A deficiency in the target malnourished populations. Because of this, the IRRI concluded that there would be another “delay” in the timeline for release.

This troubled and as yet unproven GMO crop has been plagued with such delays for at least the last decade and a half. But while it has been failing to deliver, tried and tested conventional approaches to tackling vitamin A deficiency have achieved a rapid decline in the problem in the Philippines, one of the main target countries for the deployment of golden rice.

So how did Saletan, in what was apparently a whole year of research into the GM debate undertaken apparently not only by him but by multiple interns, avoid confronting the reality of golden rice’s failure while other more mundane approaches were succeeding?

Instead he chose to promote the fairytale that criticism of GM crops is what has stopped the much-needed deployment of golden rice. The New York Times reporter Amy Harmon, who has reported sympathetically and in detail on golden rice, has confirmed that she has never seen any convincing evidence that activism has significantly delayed the production of golden rice.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Saletan that the real reason for golden rice’s non-appearance might be that GM is a crude and imprecise technology that is not well suited to introducing complex traits like enhanced nutrition into a crop where the nutrient of interest is not normally found.

In short, blaming the failure of GMO golden rice on anti-GMO activism is an error – or maybe, given the detailed research that Saletan claims to have done, a fraud – that is far worse than anything he hangs on GMO critics.

Saletan selectively quotes golden rice funder

Nothing better exposes Saletan’s one-sided approach to this topic than when he quotes Gordon Conway, once head of the Rockefeller Foundation, a key funder of golden rice, in support of his attack on the critics. What Saletan fails to mention is that Conway’s most telling criticism was of the PR exploitation of golden rice by GMO supporters.
Conway wrote: “The public relations uses of golden rice have gone too far. The industry's advertisements and the media in general seem to forget that it is a research product that needs considerable further development before it will be available to farmers and consumers."

There is no sign that the pro-GMO lobby has learned from Conway’s caution. As recently as this year, the discredited former UK environment secretary and keen GM industry supporter Owen Paterson was caught giving strategic advice to attendees at a pro-GMO event organized by EuropaBio, the biotech industry's main lobby group in Europe. Commenting on the industry’s need to break the dam on GMO authorizations in Europe, Paterson said, "The golden rice battle is absolutely fundamental." Paterson clearly sees it as the key PR weapon for destroying European resistance to GMOs.
The political reality of the GMO push is entirely missing from Saletan’s article. Golden rice has consistently been used as a poster-child for GM – a technology that has otherwise struggled to demonstrate significant benefits to either consumers or the poor – and as a weapon to attack the biotech industry's critics. And that is exactly how Saletan deploys it.

Saletan’s long record of wrong judgement calls

It’s not just GMO agriculture that Saletan defends. He is also a big fan of a hi-tech approach to the war on terror, to judge by his ardent defence of drone warfare in article after article. He has even claimed that drones cut down on civilian casualties.

He also has a history of shooting his mouth off and then regretting it. He initially argued in favor of George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq, but later, as part of a Slate magazine series marking the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War, he described the lessons he had come to learn, stating, "I wish I'd absorbed these lessons before the war. The best I can do now is remember them before the next one."

Similarly, in a series for Slate on race and intelligence, Saletan claimed to have looked at “all the data, studies, and arguments” and concluded that there was a “partial” link between the two. Crucially, however, Saletan's fourth entry in his series, entitled "Regrets", acknowledged overlooking ties between one of his primary sources, J. Philippe Rushton, and advocates of white supremacy, saying, "I was negligent in failing to research and report this."

In the next part of this series of articles we examine why, when it comes to scientific issues, the “negligent” Saletan needs to eat a large helping of GMO humble pie.