Nathanael Johnson: Grist to whose mill?
GMWatch, 21 August 2013
The online magazine Grist is well known for its coverage of environmental issues and for its incisive writing on food, agriculture, and GM, from the likes of Tom Philpott (now with Mother Jones) and Tom Laskawy, the founder and executive director of the Food and Environment Reporting Network.
Recently, Grist has offered us a new food writer, Nathanael Johnson, a Philpott replacement who has started to pen a series about GMOs. Johnson says a friend asked him before he started, "So are you for them, or against?" to which he answered, "I'm trying to figure that out."
His figuring out has given considerable pleasure to GM supporters. Jon Entine of the Cato Institute, whom Tom Philpott has called an "agribiz apologist", has celebrated in the columns of the business magazine Forbes "the sudden and surprising turn” of Grist. Entine uses Johnson’s pieces to pontificate on what constitutes good science journalism – the creators of which, in his view, include himself, Mark Lynas, the pro-GM blogger Keith Kloor, and the bloggers at Biofortified, who are keen admirers of the GM plant scientist Pam Ronald.
Ronald might be said to typify the problems with Johnson's series exploring the GM issue. In the third piece in this series, Johnson set out to explore the differences between conventional breeding and genetic engineering, with Ronald as his principal guide. For additional information he turned to another pro-GM plant scientist, Margaret Smith of Cornell. Unsurprisingly, the resulting article was supportive of GM’s safety.
The only real balance he offered to these two keen GM supporters were some things he had heard at a talk given by the microbiologist Dr Ignacio Chapela. This juxtaposition would seem to suggest a severe lack of balance: on the one hand, direct quotes arising out of hours apparently spent meeting and talking to Ronald and her assistant, and a direct interview with Margaret Smith, contrasted with notes from a lecture Chapela gave “years ago”. Again unsurprisingly, it's Smith who gets the final word.
Sadly, Johnson's latest article, "Is extremism in defense of GM food a vice?", is full of the mistakes and misleading statements that I have come to expect from his supposedly open-minded series.