25 February 2015

National Geographic's Misapplication of GMOs

In the rhetoric of science, one of the following is not like the others: evolution, global warming, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The misfit is GMOs. That is unless the scientific rhetoric in question comes from National Geographic.

I recently took part in a panel discussion about the intersection of scientific rhetoric and environmental communication, and one of the topics that came up was National Geographic's most recent issue, which contains the cover story about why people have a distrust of science. (Check out the article here.) The article features an okay discussion about why so many people have doubts about things like evolution and global warming. However, in contrast to the principles of science, which seek to gain an ever-larger understanding of our situation, the article impedes and constrains itself substantially, particularly in regard to GMOs.

The article identifies the conflict between people's common sense and the scientific method as a key source of misunderstanding. That's certainly a valid point, but it's only part of the discussion. An important issue the article fails to address is that science itself created some of the distrust. As one of my colleagues on the panel pointed out, science enjoyed a "golden age," in which it aligned with industrial and political forces to create dangerous products (for example, atomic bombs and industrial chemicals) that harmed humans and the environment. Along the way, these scientific creations also harmed the reputation of science.

National Geographic says that the majority of scientific research holds that GMOs are safe for human consumption, and therefore, the case of GMOs is a defining example of people's irrational common sense trumping scientific consensus. With regard to the safety of eating GMOs, National Geographic may very well be right, but consumption is not the whole story, and the magazine does a disservice to science by leaving out key considerations.

It is in the history of science's malpractice that we find the difference between evolution, global warming, and GMOs. GMOs are scientific creations, not established theories about the planet's health and development. As scientific creations, GMOs are more like industrial chemicals and pesticides. In fact, they work in tandem with pesticides to create environmental problems. For example, the combination of GMOs and pesticides imperils monarch butterfly populations by eliminating milkweed, an important source of food for the insects. Pesticides like DDT were once said to be "safe" until we became aware of their larger environmental impacts (like the near extinction of bird species, including the bald eagle). And that is where the aspect of public doubt that National Geographic ignores comes into play. We have been misinformed about scientific creations before, and that led to the crash of science's golden age. Given that history, the control that GMO developers have placed on information regarding their products makes people even more wary.

By disregarding an important contributor to public doubt over science, National Geographic simplifies a complex issue, neglects important environmental considerations (like the possible extinction of species), and contributes to the cloud of mistrust people have for even firmly supported and comprehensive scientific facts like global warming and evolution.

I guess crop fields aren't the only places GMOs are misapplied.

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