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Science. Communication. Community.

Out of the GMO Jungle

The discussions around genetically modified organisms sometimes seems hopelessly muddled, with intertwined concerns about human health, ecological impacts, and agribusiness. A recent article makes strides toward disambiguating these distinct issues.

by Rachel Bernstein

Boumalne du Dades, Oranges

Oranges supplies will dwindle if growers can’t overcome citrus greening; genetic engineering may hold the key (Image credit: Rosino/Flickr)

I spent the summer after my freshman year of college working in my first research lab, where we studied fruit fly development by tinkering with their genes. Around that same time, golden rice was making the news, and as a budding scientist I was intrigued by the new crop’s potential to address malnutrition. When I brought it in the lab, though, one of the graduate students (who seemed so seasoned and wise at the time) aggressively responded that the likely health and ecological ramifications outweighed the benefits, and we have to be careful about playing God. I recognized the irony of hearing this perspective from someone who modified organismal DNA on an almost daily basis, but as the naive, abashed undergrad I didn’t question her.

Since then, my scientific confidence has come a long way—unlike discussions around GMO foods, which are still mired in a muck of misinformation and conflation of health, environmental, and agribusiness concerns. However, Amy Harmon’s recent, nuanced story in the New York Times about efforts to save oranges from disease with genetic modification suggests that we may be inching toward a fruitful conversation.

Among the piece’s highlights, like the engaging narrative and the smooth scientific explanations, I most appreciated Harmon’s efforts to separately discuss a variety of distinct issues that often become entangled, like theoretical health concerns, the way that Monsanto’s business practices infiltrate many GMO discussions, even when there are no big companies in sight, and humanity’s long history of agricultural engineering. The article is a textbook example of long-form science journalism, using a narrative backbone to explore multiple facets of a complex scientific issue. (I’m a big fan of long-form journalism in general, but especially for science, where the full story usually involves multiple research groups and years, if not decades, of work.)

Almost as interesting as the piece itself was the science writing community’s response. The article was widely lauded on Twitter, as partially captured in this Discover Blog post, and generated additional commentaries at Discover Blogs, the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, Boing Boing, and Grist. My sense is that the magnitude of this response reflects our thirst for a nuanced discussion about this topic. It’s very challenging to write about a subject that you know will generate such furious debate, but these are also the areas where we most desperately need smart, accessible coverage.

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About Rachel Bernstein

Rachel was a 2010 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at the Los Angeles Times, and is now a freelance science writer living in San Francisco. Among other things, she is interested in scientific publishing, education, and backpacking, especially in Yosemite.

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