Science and Journalism ... and Fear Mongering

Something that frequently causes me to have a nearly uncontrollable feeling of hopeless frustration is science reporting. Science reporting is frequently inaccurate, exaggerates (or misinterprets) conclusions, ignores caveats or the degree of certainty. This is normal in all journalism and science journalism is no different. But, fortunately and unfortunately a lot of reporting these days are actually more informal posts on websites (hosted by traditional news organizations or not). This type of reporting often feeds narratives about a particular story, which influences the tone and content of “traditional” (printed) stories on a topic. I don’t actually consider this a fundamentally bad development, but it does mean that if someone proposes a particularly scary interpretation of a scientific event (a new study or new product, etc.), a lot of the reporting becomes wildly inaccurate. This is particularly common in agriculture related science.

Agent Orange Corn?

I recently learned about “Agent Orange Corn”. Apparently Dow has developed a corn variety resistant to a common herbicide, specifically 2,4-D. This herbicide has been around a long time and is generally pretty safe (when used properly)1. In a lot of ways, this new corn variety seems similar to glyphosate-resistant corn (aka Roundup Ready) in that it allows the farmer to plant a food crop, apply an herbicide to remove competitors (otherwise known as weeds) and not worry about killing off their young plants. There are some major problems and issues with herbicide-resistant crops, notably overuse and misuse leading to plants naturally developing resistance to the herbicide in question. However, the possible benefits — less overall use of herbicide, less soil runoff due to no-till methods — means that I applaud an increase in variety.

So what does this have to do with Agent Orange? It turns out that 2,4-D was one of the compounds in the Agent Orange defoliant used horrifically during the Vietnam War. However, most people were horrified because of the damaged caused by the dioxin compound that had contaminated the Agent Orange during production2. While 2,4-D can also be contaminated by dioxin, it turns out that the other compound — 2,4,5-T — was the one actually contaminated with dioxin during its use in Vietnam. 2,4-D itself continues to be used as an herbicide in North America and Europe, with ongoing evaluations of its safety. This doesn’t mean it might not be problematic3 but it’s not dioxin and shouldn’t be implied to be the same as it.

Unfortunately, the Center for Food Safety decided it would try to link dioxin with this proposed corn variety by calling it “Agent Orange Corn”. Their press effort has resulted in regular news organizations emphasizing that aspect: example 1 and example 2. These types of local articles drive fearful opinions and few readers are likely to seek out further or contradictory information. It’s just another story about how evil modern agricultural science is.

It would be a pity if our society continued to grow corn and soy in massive monocultures without developing ways of making it more ecologically sound. Pesticide resistant crops are one way we can minimize use of pesticides, increase no-till agriculture to reduce soil erosion but still produce the large volumes of staple crops our society demands.

Thanks to Biofortified for bringing this one to my attention. Though I would like to point out (thanks to a friend for being pointedly critical) that this sentence is false:

The 2,4,5-T was unknowingly contaminated with a dioxin, something that was only later recognized as a significant human safety issue.

It allows the author to elide (in a manner helpful to his argument) the problematic history of Agent Orange and Dow Chemical’s involvement. We know now that both Dow and Monsanto were aware that their 2,3,5-T was contaminated with a dioxin that they knew was incredibly harmful. While the companies apparently told parts of the military (which then decided to use it anyway), they lied to health organizations4 for some time. Leaving this out allows the author to portray Dow in a much more positive light. The history of the major agribusiness companies (especially Monsanto and Dow) is a major reason people are skeptical of GM developments like Roundup Ready corn and new corn from Dow.

I consider it reasonable to not forever condemn Dow (and Monsanto) for past actions and find knee-jerk demonization to be unhelpful, especially as these companies develop crops that could greatly reduce our harmful impacts. But it does the public discussion no good to pretend these problems don’t exist.


A couple months ago, The Stranger Blog (Slog) posted a breathless, fear-mongering post linking to “The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Foods. This Atlantic article spread all over the internet and ultimately to various traditional news posts, sometimes in completely absurd ways. There are numerous take-downs (and the post itself has been modified heavily). To the author’s credit, he includes links to some of these critical articles now. They are definitely worth reading, especially The Biology Files post because it talks a bit more about the meaning of the research.

An actual fair and interesting article about the original research (which has absolutely nothing to do with genetically modified food) is the Discover Blog post about it which I quickly found by googling after reading the original Slog post. The research itself is pretty interesting (if it holds up) since it means that maybe small fragments of RNA in our food can affect how our bodies function — maybe food has more than just calorie sources and vitamins (and possibly poisons), as we were taught in school. There are a lot of places this research could go, but it’s a bit early for breathless, scaremongering about it. Certainly the possible interactions with genetically modified organisms used for food are completely unstudied at this point.

So why did this one upset me so much?

Not too long after the ridiculous Slog post, Publicola — ostensibly an independent local news media organization with journalistic standards — filed a story about a proposed GMO labeling law that included this howler:

A recent study found that people who consumed GMO rice have small amounts of ribonucleic acid—genetic coding—from the rice in their DNA.

Not only did they not cite the source of the study, the study had nothing to do with GMO rice (it was regular rice), the subjects weren’t humans (they used mice) and the result wasn’t that they found the rice RNA in the subjects’ DNA, just that it was detected in their system (specifically very small fragments in the subjects’ bloodstreams). But it seemed fairly obivous to me that the author had likely read either the Slog post or The Atlantic piece and summarized it in an almost “game of telephone” kind of way. Unfortunately, it made me extremely wary of Publicola as a news source5. But this is just one information source I happen to consume. How many other local news blogs and even newspapers uncritically reported this study in a “scary” fashion? When I google for it, I find blessedly fewer local news articles parroting this scary story than I expected, but plenty of uncritical links by various online sources.

Why does this matter to me?

I think it’s important that we learn to feed everyone without destroying the environment. After a lot of reading, I believe that judicious use of genetic engineering will be critical to prevent a Malthusian solution. But the conversation (especially online) is nearly completely antithetical to fair and considerate examination of the issue. There are some good books, but generally if you search for articles on GM, you’re going to get exaggeration and misconceptions if not outright scaremongering. We need more reasoned discussion and not “Monsanto is Evil” and “Frankenfoods give you cancer”.

Some of the books that helped inform my opinions include:

I read Tomorrow’s Table after attending a talk by the authors hosted by The Long Now. Previously I’d had the vague notion (unexamined and not terribly strongly felt) that GM was “kind of bad”. I didn’t know why really, except vague ideas that it wasn’t good for us. That talk was eye-opening and I’m grateful for the Long Now for putting these talks on, even if I can’t easily attend anymore.

  1. I even found a spectacular page describing some of its breakdown paths. I wanted to know what 2,4-D breaks down into and its half-life — around 10 days. Not that my chemistry is up to understanding much of that link, but I’m in awe that human beings can figure this stuff out! And then just post it on the public internet for anyone to use!

  2. Many at the time were also horrified at the rampant defoliation leading to ecologic damage and destruction of human agriculture, but what is remembered now is generally the toxic effects in humans, most notably from the dioxin contaminant.

  3. And certainly I would expect overuse of any particular pesticide could be an ecologic problem worth studying and finding mitigations.

  4. Thanks to the aforementioned critical friend for this link.

  5. After contacting them via several means (a comment, twitter, and a short message to the contact email given on their site), I have received no response and there has been no correction or clarification in the original article. This indicates to me that I should assume similar care for accuracy and fairness in all other articles. Mistakes happen and sometimes a writer doesn’t check everything, but it’s critical to accept correction gracefully. I myself hope I don’t have to make too many, but it’s inevitable.