February 1, 2012
By Henry I. Miller
National Public Radio’s treatment of scientific and environmental issues is puzzling — and irritating. While its programs cover global warming and the environment from every angle, embracing the most recent apocalyptic predictions, they permit continual attacks on genetic engineering applied to agriculture. This technology – an extension, or refinement, of widely used, less precise, less predictable techniques –is friendly to the environment, reduces CO2 released to the atmosphere and contributes to sustainable agriculture, yet NPR regularly exaggerates its risks and ignores its benefits.
The most recent example was the Jan. 3 program of syndicated talk show host Diane Rehm, a bash-fest dominated by her anti-genetic engineering chum who heads an organic yogurt company. Predictably, he advocated government-mandated labeling of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients – never mind that such a (completely unnecessary) requirement would be costly, mislead consumers and violate the constitutional guaranteeof commercial free speech.
Among the most egregious previous transgressions by NPR 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 polymathic Princeton Professor Lee Silver against those of Margaret Mellon, long-time NGO-dweller, troglodyte and antagonist of any and all applications of biotechnology. This pairing was a typical example of NPR’s notion of “balance” – really “pseudo-balance”: an eminent mainstream, nonideological academic versus an intransigent, anti-industry, anti-technology, uneducable activist.
Another abdication of fair, professional journalism occurred on Dec. 12, 2011, on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.” That day the World Wildlife Fund’s Jason Clay appeared on the program and proceeded to bash the genetic engineering of plants. The subject of the segment was “A Planet Running Low on Water.”
Clay’s rant, however, was completely misinformed, and ironic considering genetic engineering’s greatest long-term boon to food security and the environment is the creation of new crop varieties that tolerate periods of drought and other water-related stresses.
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% of the world’s freshwater consumption — and more in areas of intensive farming and arid or semi-arid conditions, such as California. Thus, the introduction of plants that grow with less water would free up much of that essential resource 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. Egyptian researchers have shown that the transfer of a single gene from barley to wheat enables the plants to tolerate reduced watering for a longer period of time. This new, drought-resistant variety requires one-eighth the irrigation of conventional wheat and in some deserts can be cultivated with rainfall alone.
NPR has also aired a lot of uninformed commentary about a genetically engineered, fast-growing Atlantic salmon called AquAdvantage. This fish is indistinguishable from its wild cohorts except that it reaches its mature size in about 40% less time because it contains a new growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon. Last year I discussed the scientific and regulatory aspects of the salmon on the NPR program “Forum,” at NPR’s KQED in San Francisco, paired with Consumers Union’s Michael Hansen, who, unlike me, possessed no credentials or credibility for discussing genetic engineering.
NPR aired another fishy salmon-focused segment during “Science Friday” on Dec. 9, 2011, pitting distinguished lab scientist Alison Van Eenennaam against Anne Kapuscinski, a “professor in sustainability science” (which sounds like something from The Onion) and veteran anti-science alarmist, fabulist and darling of radical environmental NGOs.
The basic scientific and risk-assessment questions surrounding the fast-growing salmon were resolved long ago, but you wouldn’t know it from the discussion. As responsible scientists are wont to do, Van Eenennaam made only carefully qualified, measured statements, while Kapuscinski prattled on and on about small risks and expressed concern about the regulatory approval of this salmon being a worrisome “precedent” for future animals. (In spite of the fact that every such animal undergoes an intensive — and excessive — case by case review by FDA.) Kapuscinski spouted a lot of obfuscatory gobbledygook about the need for worst-case scenarios that make about as much sense as planning for July snowstorms in Phoenix.
Furthermore, Kapuscinski never acknowledged that more efficient and productive fish-farming would greatly benefit human and environmental health. As Steven Salzberg, professor of medicine and bioinformatics at the Johns Hopkins Medical School, wrote in a Forbes commentary last year, “Sadly, environmentalists who oppose the [AquAdvantage] salmon don’t seem to realize that they are acting against their own interests. The same is true of the fishing industry. If they [succeed at banning genetically engineered fish], the result will be the eventual extinction of many wild fish species, with unpredictable consequences for the ocean’s ecosystem.” Wild Atlantic salmon is listed as an endangered species in the United States and is “threatened” in most of the rest of the North Atlantic.
Moreover, Randall Lutter (Resources for the Future) and Katherine Tucker (Tufts University) have concluded that the marketing of genetically engineered salmon “will lower salmon prices and increase consumption of salmon, an exceptionally good source of omega-3 fatty acids linked to lower risk of heart disease.” They “estimate that the resulting increase in omega-3 intake will prevent between 600 and 2,600 deaths per year in the United States.” But activists of the Mellon-Kapuscinski mold are unmoved by such considerations.
The management, producers and program hosts at NPR fail to realize that not every issue has two sides. They have instead attached equal value to various points of view in a clumsy attempt to approximate fairness. But decision-makers in academia and government as well as the media make such decisions routinely. For example, in the 21st century we no longer argue about whether vaccines prevent childhood diseases, and financial writers don’t cover companies whose business is the development of perpetual-motion machines. By pretending that certain viewpoints are legitimate long after they have been discredited, the media prolong the pseudo-controversies and mislead their audience.
Media bias on a variety of issues is nothing new, but NPR’s biotech-bashing is an affront to two of the constituencies that provide generous subsidies to the network — the federal government and various high-tech companies. Do they really want to support a forum for baseless, mendacious anti-technology propaganda?
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, 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.