A David and Goliath parable

Henry Miller Senior Fellow, Pacific Research Institute.
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David and Goliath stories have been around for a long time. It’s gratifying when justice is served and David slays his tormentor, as in the Biblical tale, but most often the little guy gets squashed. The latter is how I felt on October 23 when New York Times food writer Mark Bittman did a gratuitous hatchet-job on me. Yes, on me — a nerdy gray-beard who works in an eight-by-twelve-foot office at a university think tank and doesn’t even have a secretary.

Bittman’s column, “Buying the Vote on GMO’s,” contained flagrantly defamatory misrepresentations. I have been critical in print of Bittman’s opinions in the past, and I can only conclude that his column reflects personal animus and malice towards me — a quintessential hit-piece.

The underlying issue was my opposition — including a TV ad that I made — to a particularly insidious California ballot initiative, Proposition 37, which would have required the labeling of certain “genetically engineered” foods. It failed every test for sound regulation — scientific, economic, legal and common sense — but I’ve written extensively about its shortcomings so there’s no need to rehash them here. Anyway, Proposition 37 was handily defeated, and good riddance.

The fact that Bittman joined the ranks of self-interested activists and yahoos on this issue as on so many others is nothing new and comes as no surprise. Neither does my disagreeing with the political persuasion of a Times columnist. But I found Bittman’s personal and mendacious attack on me — in the nation’s third-largest newspaper by circulation — shocking.

By far the most offensive allegation in Bittman’s column was, “Dr. Miller led a tobacco front group that aimed to discredit the link between cigarettes and cancer.” This is completely, utterly without foundation. It is not only defamatory but preposterous. As a physician, I detest cigarettes and the carnage wrought by smoking. In fact, I have written about the urgent need for government policies to reduce the risk from cigarettes. That article includes this unequivocal statement: “Tobacco is an inherently, irredeemably dangerous product.”

I have never worked directly or indirectly, with or without compensation, on behalf of the tobacco industry. In the 1990s I did join with other scientists in support of a group called The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition. Its stated mission was to debunk junk science. Bittman may believe it was funded in part by the tobacco industry; I wouldn’t know. But I never “led” the group or served in any leadership capacity. I never received any compensation of any kind from the organization or from a tobacco company or industry group. And I certainly never knowingly lent my name or support to any activity that questioned the linkage between cigarettes and cancer.

Bittman also alleges that I “was portrayed in a television ad as a Stanford University professor. (He isn’t.)” But the ad did no such thing. The original TV ad identified me as “Dr. Henry I. Miller, M.D.; Stanford University.” (To eliminate the redundancy, the “Dr.” was soon dropped.) I am an M.D. (University of California, San Diego) and I am a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution — my paycheck comes from the university, my office is there (next to the campus’ iconic bell tower), and I have a university ID card and email address. Because Stanford has a strict policy about not creating the appearance of endorsing political campaigns or issues, the general counsel requested that my tag line should clearly reflect that my affiliation is at the university’s Hoover Institution and that my title is for identification purposes only, in order to emphasize that I was not speaking on behalf of Stanford.

To that end, “Hoover Institution” was added, as was an asterisk to indicate that my affiliation was for identification only. In addition, the background of the ad was changed — electronically — from a university setting to a generic building. In other words, we took great care to avoid precisely the kind of false charge Bittman made.

Bittman’s article was sloppy, incoherent and puzzling in so many ways. Some examples:

● He confused “pesticides” with “herbicides,” which anyone writing about them should know are different.

● In spite of his overall theme and specific assertions, genetically engineered (GE) crops have significantly benefited human health and the natural environment (vide infra).

● GE crops have resulted in less use of chemical pesticides, with less runoff into waterways and ground water and fewer poisonings of farmers and their families. Between 1996 and 2009, for example, 393 million kilograms less of pesticide was sprayed on crops globally, equal to 1.4 times the total amount of pesticide applied annually to arable crops in the entire European Union.

● GE crops make possible greater use of no-till farming techniques, with less soil erosion, runoff of agricultural chemicals, release of carbon dioxide to the environment and fuel consumption by mechanized farm equipment. For example, in 2009, the shift to GE crops reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 17.6 billion kilograms, equal to the removal of 7.8 million cars from the road for a year.

● According to a study published in 2010, when fields are planted with insect-resistant GE corn, there are significant benefits to neighboring fields that contain conventional corn varieties, because the GE varieties exert an “area-wide suppression effect” on insects. The researchers calculated that over the 14 years of their study, the cultivation of the GE varieties improved farmers’ profits in three U.S. states by about $3.2 billion, $2.4 billion of which was accrued in nearby fields planted with non-genetically-engineered varieties. (The farmers planting the conventional varieties benefit disproportionately because they don’t have to buy the more expensive GE seeds.)

● There are health benefits — especially, fewer birth defects such as spina bifida and less toxicity to livestock — from lower levels of mycotoxins in GE, pest-resistant corn.

● Economic benefits in the form of higher farm income from higher yields and lower costs of production have resulted in lower prices of commodities on world markets (corn, soybeans and derivatives) than would prevail otherwise. Between 1996 and 2009, biotech crops increased global farm income by nearly $65 billion and increased production of corn and soybeans by 130 million tons and 83 million tons respectively. As a result of this extra production, world prices of corn and soybeans were nearly 6% and 10% lower, respectively, by 2007 than they would otherwise have been had the technology not been utilized by farmers.

● Higher production arising from GE varieties — including yield increases and second cropping of soybeans in Argentina — provides enhanced supplies of food and feed products and increases the availability of high-quality calories.

● GE crops result in higher farm incomes and farm security, which translates to higher household incomes and improvements to standards of living and are especially important in developing countries, where income levels are lowest but benefits from using GM varieties have been greatest on a per hectare basis.

● The “repeat index” — the fraction of farmers who, after trying a GE variety, choose to plant it again — is extremely high. In other words, farmers are pleased with the crops because they improve their bottom line and increase economic security.

● Bittman acknowledged in his column, “The editorial boards of major California newspapers are also lining up to help squash the yes vote.” In fact, every major daily newspaper in the state (and many others, 43 in all) editorialized against Prop 37. Mightn’t readers wonder why? Ordinarily, these 43 papers would have difficulty agreeing on what day of the week it was. Could it have been because Prop 37 was so flawed, so anti-social and so unwarranted that the Fourth Estate was virtually unanimous that it’s a bad idea?

None of these facts was evident from Bittman’s article. As he does repeatedly in his columns, Bittman failed to perform even the most cursory due diligence. But his intention in the October 23 column wasn’t to get the facts or the sense of his story right: It was to get me. Bittman’s article was malicious, deceitful and unprofessional. But the Times refused to issue a retraction.

I’ve been advised that the bar for proving libel is so high that legal action would be fruitless, and hugely expensive. So this article is the only stone available for me to heave at the Gray Lady.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. His most recent book is “The Frankenfood Myth.”