NPR’s War On Genetic Engineering

Henry Miller Senior Fellow, Pacific Research Institute.
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Donald Kennedy, president emeritus of Stanford University and former head of the FDA, once chided those “who give up the difficult task of finding out where the weight of scientific evidence lies, and instead attach equal value to each side in an effort to approximate fairness.” This results, he said, in “extraordinary opinions … promoted to a form of respectability that approaches equal status.” National Public Radio – or as I prefer to call it, National Politically Correct Radio – often falls into this trap, offering extraordinary but discredited opinions that reflect a kind of back-to-nature, New Age fundamentalism that accepts environmental myths and hyperbole and is systematically antagonistic to certain sectors of science and technology.

NPR is entitled to its biases and inaccuracies, much as Fox News and MSNBC are – or they would be, except that unlike the TV networks, they receive federal funding.

The nationally syndicated Diane Rehm show, a showcase of the network’s systematic bias, is consistently anti-science and anti-technology while it promotes big and paternalistic government and pillories the right. Rehm views representatives of self-interested, anti-industry, radical NGOs as a source of worthy and objective expertise while genuinely disinterested academics or industry-affiliated scientists are treated as shills and hucksters. (And it seems never to have occurred to her that government officials might themselves be self-interested and have agendas that conflict with the public interest.)

Rehm and others at NPR regularly buck the science on issues ranging from the effects of pesticides on bees to the supposed hazards of environmental chemicals such as BPA and phthalates, but they are especially antagonistic to genetic engineering. One example was Rehm’s January 3, 2012 program on the labeling of genetically engineered foods, a bash-fest dominated by a rabidly anti-science, shamelessly mendacious (and self-interested) friend of Rehm’s who heads an organic yogurt company. Predictably, it became an exercise in advocacy for government-mandated labeling, although such a requirement is demonstrably misleading and unnecessary, and according to federal appeals courts would violate the constitutional guarantee of commercial free speech.

Among NPR’s most egregious transgressions of fair, professional journalism was a series of programs called “The DNA Files,” which set up a false moral equivalence by juxtaposing the views of Princeton University Professor Lee Silver with those of Margaret Mellon, long-time NGO-dweller, troglodyte and antagonist of any and all applications of biotechnology. This pairing was typical of NPR’s notion of “balance”: an articulate, mainstream, non-ideological academic versus an intransigent, incoherent, anti-industry, anti-technology, uneducable activist.

Another baseless assault on genetic engineering occurred in December 2011, when on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund was permitted to excoriate the genetic engineering of plants without any opposition or correction. It was particularly ironic because the subject of the segment was “A Planet Running Low on Water,” and greatest boon to food security and to the environment from genetic engineering in the long term will likely be the ability of new crop varieties to tolerate periods of drought and other water-related stresses. (One drought-resistant variety – of corn – is already available commercially in the United States, and many more are in advanced stages of the development pipeline.)

Where water is scarce, the development of crop varieties that grow under conditions of low moisture or temporary drought could boost yields and lengthen the time that farmland is productive. Even where irrigation is feasible, plants that use water more efficiently are needed. Agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of the world’s freshwater consumption — and more in areas of intensive farming and arid or semi-arid conditions, so the introduction of plants that grow with less water would free up much of it for other uses.

Where does genetic engineering come in? Plant biologists have identified genes that regulate water use and transferred them into important crop plants. These new varieties grow with smaller amounts of water or with lower-quality water, such as recycled water or water high in natural mineral salts. For example, Egyptian researchers have shown that by transferring a single gene from barley to wheat, the plants can tolerate reduced watering for a longer period of time. This new, drought-resistant variety requires only one-eighth as much irrigation as conventional wheat and in some deserts can be cultivated with the meager rainfall alone.

NPR’s Living on Earth program, the worst of the worst, even managed to find an activist to trash the genetic engineering of trees that will provide fast-growing and reduced-lignin varieties for more sustainable sources of timber, paper and biofuels. (Doesn’t anybody vet the content of these programs?) Her actual objection concerned commercial tree plantations that contain a single genetic variety – that is, monoculture – but she wasn’t smart enough to understand that that issue is distinct from genetic engineering.

Among the worst of many atrocious segments on Living on Earth was a report on the two-year-long experiments performed by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini which purported to show harmful effects, including a high incidence of tumors, in laboratory rats fed genetically modified corn and/or water spiked with the commonly used herbicide, glyphosate. There is so much wrong with the experimental design that the conclusion is inescapable that the investigators intended to get a spurious, preordained result.

The experiments were immediately and universally condemned by the scientific community worldwide, and the research article was retracted by the journal that published it. However, in a segment misleadingly labeled, “New Study Links Genetically Modified Corn to Cancer,” Living on Earth reporter Bobby Bascomb reported the results uncritically.

As any biology graduate student could have seen immediately, it was a non-study. Bascomb concluded that “most scientists will tell you that we need to do more research. This study needs to be done again to see if it gets the same results.” Wrong. In fact, “most scientists” have shown no inclination at all to replicate experiments designed to yield uninterpretable or false results. For more than 25 years, there has been a consensus in the scientific community that the molecular techniques of genetic engineering are essentially an extension, or refinement, of earlier, less precise, less predictable techniques, a view that has been validated by hundreds of risk-assessment experiments performed around the world, as well as vast real-life experience.

Not satisfied with the original flawed, irresponsible reporting on his program about the retracted Séralini study, 14 months later Steve Curwood, the host of Living on Earth, then offered notorious ideologue Michael Hansen of Consumers Union an opportunity to criticize the retraction of the Séralini paper and to spout more disinformation about genetic engineering and the herbicide glyphosate. The know-nothing Hansen, a favorite of Living on Earth who lacks any scientific credentials related to genetic engineering, was back yet again in May with more of his agitprop. A reminder to Curwood and his producers about the rule of holes: When you’re in a hole, stop digging.

It is particularly ironic that genetic engineering has already begun to contribute to the amelioration of precisely the kinds of environmental and human health challenges that NPR and its activist fellow-travelers claim to care about: greenhouse gas emissions, sustainable agriculture, the spraying of insecticides, the pollution of waterways from runoff of agricultural chemicals, food security for the poor, and conservation of water. The success of plants made with the new genetic engineering techniques is incontrovertible: Worldwide, these new varieties have provided “very significant net economic benefits at the farm level amounting to $18.8 billion in 2012 and $116.6 billion for the 17-year period” from 1996 to 2012, according to an authoritative report published earlier this year.

It seems to have escaped the management, producers, and program hosts at NPR that not every issue has two sides. Or maybe they have simply abdicated their responsibility to ascertain where the weight of scientific evidence lies, instead attaching equal value to various points of view in a clumsy attempt to approximate fairness. If the latter, I have news for them: Decision-makers in academia and government as well as in the media make such decisions routinely. For example, in the 21st century we no longer argue about whether vaccines prevent childhood diseases; or about whether the administration of antibiotics to a patient with pneumonia or an infected heart valve is interfering with God’s Plan. But by continuing to pretend that certain viewpoints are legitimate long after they have been discredited, NPR programs mislead listeners and prolong pseudo-controversies.

A recent example of NPR’s bias and ignorance was the airing on August 1 of a Commonwealth Club debate, which featured Andrew Kimbrell, one of the most dedicated, detestable and mendacious antagonists of genetic engineering applied to agriculture. Another of the four participants was Jessica Lundberg, an “organic farmer,” whose comments ranged from the dumb to the irrelevant. I had the feeling that she had stumbled into the wrong discussion. The piece was advertised like this:

Future severe weather is expected to put upward pressure on crop prices. That prospect raises thorny questions. Is there a role for seeds that are genetically modified to be drought resistant? Can 10 billion people be fed without GMO crops? Can organics feed a growing and hungry world?

To pretend that these are unresolved questions that can be constructively illuminated by the chosen speakers is tantamount to debating topics like, “Do antibiotics save lives?” or “Are perpetual-motion machines the Next Big Thing?” One imagines the organizers and broadcasters congratulating themselves on “good balance” by including not only a troglodyte activist but also Monsanto’s Chief Technology Officer and a farmer who actually handles compost every day, whereas all they did was to confuse listeners by perpetuating pseudo-controversy. The really thorny question is why NPR would demean itself by broadcasting such drivel.

The most recent example of NPR’s inability to discriminate respectable from discredited viewpoints aired on September 8, on the “Forum” program, which originates at KQED (San Francisco). It featured Rebecca Spector of the Center for Food Safety (a misnomer if there ever was one), a decades-long opponent of technological advances in food production for whom antagonism to genetic engineering is like a religion. As usual, she cherry-picked facts and made up others as part of yet another NPR genetic engineering bash-fest.

NPR’s coverage of these issues goes far beyond incompetence and ideological bias: It is shameful. It is an affront to taxpayers and demeaning to the many NPR reporters who excel at their profession.
Amity Shlaes made a subtle argument in 2011 for why the federal government’s funding of NPR at even a low level is pernicious:

NPR’s staff and friends pretend that NPR isn’t such a big deal, that it’s just one creature in the great forest of talk radio, which happens to be funded — but only fractionally — by the federal government … But the reality is that NPR is not one among many. It’s a Tyrannosaurus rex, whose every move pounds the forest floor. The reason for this is not the money NPR receives from the government but the colophon of authority that federal subsidy confers. Having the government’s seal makes NPR respectable, and that, in turn, gives it access to customers, including tender young ones, whom Fox [News] can never reach.

M.I.T. meteorologist Richard Lindzen observed that science “provides our only way of separating what is true from what is asserted. If we abuse that tool, it will not be available when it is needed.” The same is true of science-related journalism, and NPR is dulling that tool.

For many reasons — shoddy science reporting, relentless political bias and intellectual dishonesty among them — NPR deserves to be delegitimized by ending its federal funding. And individuals, too, might wish to rethink whether NPR deserves their philanthropy.

Henry I. Miller is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology from 1989 to 1993. This essay adapted and updated from a longer version here.