Slate magazine's William Saletan with Fail Report Card

In the first of a two-part series, Claire Robinson responds to journalist William Saletan’s recent attack on her and other GMO critics

In a recent incisive article on the GMO debate, Timothy Wise of Tufts University laments the "current vehemence" of the battle. He singles out Slate magazine’s William Saletan as one of the more extreme examples of those ready to tar "anyone who dares call for precaution with the stain of being another science-denying zealot". Wise accuses pundits like Saletan of "polarizing" the debate so much that they actually contribute to the suppression of scientific inquiry.

This couldn’t contrast more with how Saletan himself sees things. He responded to my three-part critique of his recent GMO promotional in Slate with a lecture on “how to think critically”. The implication is that this is something he is rather good at, whereas I and other GMO opponents are not.

So let’s take a look at the supposed gold standard of critical thinking, as exemplified by Saletan. And because we all have a life beyond the wit and wisdom of gullible journalists, I’ll restrict myself to a few major lessons in critical thinking in which Saletan gets a big “F” for “fail”.

1. If you’re charged with sins of omission, don’t omit to answer the charge

The first part of my critique focused on how Saletan dealt with the topic of GM golden rice. I pointed out that he blamed the critics of golden rice for the blindness and death of a million or so malnourished children. That’s a damning accusation and it is this aspect of Saletan’s article that has led to GMO critics, like the journalist Michael Pollan and the Union of Concerned Scientists, being directly accused by Jon Entine of having “blood on your hands. Literally.”

But the blood Entine is pointing at is fake blood, thrown by Saletan. As I pointed out, Saletan’s article totally fails to make clear that the real reasons golden rice is still unavailable are:
1. It has failed its field trials
2. It hasn’t been safety tested
3. It hasn’t even been shown to help the malnourished.

And even the body overseeing the rolling out of golden rice, the staunchly pro-GMO IRRI, has never once to my knowledge tried to argue that the critics of golden rice are responsible for these failings.

So how does Saletan answer the charge that he omitted to tell his readers the real reasons for golden rice not being in use? He deals with it by omitting any mention of it at all in his response. Instead, he accuses me of having been corrupted by a “political agenda” that has somehow skewed my thinking on golden rice.

So let me spell out the gravity of the charge that Saletan is ducking. He stands accused of omitting key information from his account of golden rice in order, in effect, to manufacture a crime against humanity. This sort of fakery is almost as repellent as that of the revisionists who distort history in order to massage away real crimes against humanity.

What Saletan is doing is nothing new. It is something that has been done over and over again to environmentalists, starting with Rachel Carson who has been repeatedly accused of causing the deaths of millions through having encouraged a global – but entirely fictitious – DDT ban. And ironically, those mounting these kind of vicious attacks on environmental critics have a very real political agenda: to demonize those who stand in the way of powerful vested interests.

2. Don’t rely on authority

Saletan is correct in saying that I don’t believe in appeals to authority as evidence for GMO safety. I do believe in examining rigorously obtained data and checking primary sources – two things that Saletan has repeatedly failed to do.

Saletan says he also doesn’t believe in relying on authority and claims to look at “the evidence, not the assurances”, since this is “what debunks the arguments against these GMOs”.

Yet it is just this “evidence” on three of his topics – GM golden rice, GM food safety, and GM papaya, that I systematically debunked in my articles by following his claims to their source. His claims on organic food have also been debunked by a knowledgeable organic grower.

Far from relying on evidence, Saletan has taken industry talking points at face value. He has also, despite his protestations, relied on vague appeals to authorities that have issued statements saying GM foods are as safe as non-GM foods. These in turn lack reliable data on which such conclusions could reasonably be based. Given that human studies on the effects of eating GMOs are non-existent, long-term animal feeding studies with GMOs are rare, and some animal feeding studies have found GMOs to be unexpectedly toxic or allergenic, claims of GMO safety are at best baseless and at worst lies.

3. Don’t misrepresent authority

Saletan claims I try to “drown out” evidence with my own appeals to authority, “citing bogus ‘science-related organizations’ such as the American Academy of Environmental Medicine” (AAEM), which Saletan smears as “a quack group dressed up as an association of scholarly referees”. As evidence for this smear, Saletan refers to a blog article written by Stephen Barrett, a man who was judged by a California court as “biased” and as having “little, if any, credibility” on the topics he claimed to be an expert in.

In reality, for the benefit of Saletan and others who believe in authority, I pointed to 124 science- or health-related organisations that had expressed doubts about the safety of GMOs and/or asked for mandatory labeling. Of these 124, the AAEM is one. Others include the British Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the Australia Public Health Association, and the German Medical Association. Perhaps Saletan would like to tell us, based on evidence, how many “quacks” these organisations have among their membership.

4. Don’t defend the indefensible

Saletan attacks me for criticizing his defence of glyphosate as “relatively benign”. He backs up this defence by saying there are even more toxic herbicides out there. But that’s equivalent to claiming that arsenic is “relatively benign” because it’s less toxic than mercury. Less toxic, yes. Benign, even qualified with Saletan’s “relatively”, no.

A probable human carcinogen – as glyphosate has been judged to be by the World Health Organisation’s cancer agency IARC – is just that. It “probably” can cause cancer. An unbiased assessment would replace Saletan’s ludicrous claim, “experts agree that [glyphosate is] relatively benign”, with “qualified experts agree that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen”. In fact, we now know that the IARC experts came close to classifying glyphosate as a “known carcinogen”, so strong was the evidence against it.

Saletan tries to make light of that evidence by quoting one expert as saying of IARC’s classification: “the evidence cited here appears a bit thin”. But what he doesn’t tell his readers is that at the point that comment was made, IARC had only published a summary judgment and hadn’t yet published its 92–page monograph of evidence – something that it has now done.

5. Keep up with new information

It’s telling that in defending glyphosate, Saletan has to exploit statements made in the past by pesticides expert Chuck Benbrook. In his original article, Saletan first talks up Benbrook as “the most sensible critic of GMOs” and then says he has vouched for the relative safety of glyphosate. He quotes Benbrook as saying that “the dramatic increase in glyphosate use has likely not markedly increased human health risks.” But what he doesn’t point out to his readers is that this comment was made several years ago, before some of the most damning evidence on glyphosate was published and long before the IARC reached its verdict on the link to cancer.

If Saletan had actually bothered to check with Benbrook what his current view on glyphosate safety was, he would have discovered it was a world away from what Saletan was claiming. Just this week the New England Journal of Medicine published an article co-authored by Benbrook in which he says that the IARC classification has helped “dramatically” change “the GMO landscape”. He argues that the strong glyphosate link to cancer in combination with the massive increase in use of glyphosate that GM crops are encouraging could mean “GM foods and the herbicides applied to them may pose hazards to human health that were not examined in previous assessments”.

Reuters quotes Benbrook as saying, "There is growing evidence that glyphosate is genotoxic and has adverse effects on cells in a number of different ways. It's time to pull back... on uses of glyphosate that we know are leading to significant human exposures while the science gets sorted out."

The main expert that Saletan deployed in his defence of glyphosate sees previous regulatory assessments as having relied on flawed and outdated research.

Nothing could better describe what Saletan has served up to his readers.

6. Read the studies

Saletan names me among those who are “clinging to the same old discredited attacks on GMO safety”. His source for the alleged discreditation is an article by the journalist Amy Harmon. Harmon in turn cites the GENERA list of studies on the pro-GMO group Biofortified’s website, one of several Big Lists of Studies cited by GMO proponents as evidence of GMO safety. Unfortunately though, the GENERA list is nothing of the sort. It includes studies that found the GMO unexpectedly toxic. And an investigation by Food & Water Watch found that the most common funder of studies in the GENERA database was Monsanto.*

Of course, Saletan would argue that I can’t criticize the biasing effect of Monsanto funding because (as he noted) I sit on an NGO board that has someone from the Organic Consumers Association on it and therefore, it seems, I have a business agenda. Go figure.

And while Harmon and Saletan have fiercely defended the safety of GM papaya in Hawaii and ridiculed those who doubt it, both authors have failed to look at what is apparently the only animal feeding study with this GMO. As I pointed out before, this study showed problems with the GMO, which Saletan is apparently reluctant to confront. What does Saletan make of the immune responses, such as raised white blood cell and lymphocyte counts, and biochemical changes in rats that ate the GM papaya for the short period of 28 days – in a study perversely conducted years after the GM papaya had been introduced on the market? Doctors advise that raised white blood cell and lymphocyte counts can indicate infection, inflammation, tissue damage, or cancer. Does Saletan believe he knows differently? Let him produce his evidence. If it stands up, maybe we’ll rewrite the medical textbooks.

In contrast with Saletan’s uninformed views on GMO safety, a recent peer-reviewed article, “An illusory consensus behind GMO health assessment”, by Prof Sheldon Krimsky of Tufts University, examined animal feeding studies with GMOs and reviews of such studies. He found 26 studies that found adverse effects or health uncertainties from GMOs (there are many more, but Krimsky doesn’t claim his list is exhaustive) and eight reviews that were “mixed in their assessment of the health effects of GMOs”. Krimsky concluded, “When there is a controversy about the risk of a consumer product, instead of denying the existence of certain studies, the negative results should be replicated to see if they hold up to rigorous testing.”

For those who counter that these are only 26 studies and/or like to wave vaguely towards Big Lists of Studies supposedly showing GMO safety, I can point them to a list of over 1800 studies, surveys, and analyses that suggest actual and potential adverse impacts of GM crops and foods and their related pesticides.

We look forward to reading Saletan’s response to a representative sample of these studies. It will be a useful lesson for him in critical thinking – a skill that seems to have deserted him when it comes to GMOs.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll explain how Saletan has misunderstood and misrepresented scientific definitions in order to claim that GM is safe.


* An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the majority of the GENERA studies were funded by Monsanto. Update 21 Aug 2015: Since this article was published, Karl Haro Von Mogel of Biofortified has tweeted that “The most common funder in GENERA was the US Government”. This was foreseen as a possibility in the Food & Water Watch report I cited above – they stated: "Did I mention that Monsanto is the most common funder in the database? That’s what the data analysis tool in GENERA shows. Monsanto funded 46 of the journal articles in the database (probably a larger number if you count all Monsanto subsidiaries), which is more than 10 percent of the studies. It is likely that the USDA is actually the largest funder of studies in GENERA, but Biofortified’s coding makes it difficult to tell.”

The US government is not impartial when it comes to GM crops, having declared a mission to promote the growth of the biotechnology industry. This year Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) reported that scientists working with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) do not have adequate protections from pressure and retaliation when researching issues that threaten the interests of powerful agrichemical corporations like Monsanto. PEER alleges that USDA’s policy even contains language which actively encourages the agency to suppress scientific work for political purposes.