By: Claire Robinson
Academic physician-educator was banned from pointing out errors in pro-GMO article.
Scientific American recently published a pro-GMO article by Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine.
The article contains outright false claims, such as the old GMO industry line, “Humans have been genetically modifying foods through selective breeding for more than 10,000 years.” In fact GM is radically different from natural breeding and entails different risks.
Shermer also writes enthusiastically of GM golden rice, which he says is engineered “to help Third World children with nutritional deficiencies that have caused millions to go blind”. But he completely ignores the fact that golden ricefailed its field trials and has never been shown to be safe to eat or efficacious in treating vitamin A deficiency in the target malnourished populations.
In other words, GM golden rice still isn’t ready and perhaps never will be. Meanwhile non-GMO methods have successfully reduced vitamin A deficiency in the Philippines to the point where it’s no longer a severe public health concern.
Dr Martin Donohoe, Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Community Health at Portland State University, noticed many inaccurate and misleading claims in Shermer’s article. Dr Donohoe submitted a polite, factual, and well-referenced comment to Scientific American’s comments thread under the article (you can read his comment below).
Dr Donohoe began by correcting Shermer’s claims about the naturalness of GM: “Shermer confuses genetically modified (GM) crops (created through the insertion of a gene from another organism) with genetic modification through selective intra-species breeding based on genotype and phenotype.”
After correcting several other errors of fact on the part of Shermer, Dr Donohoe ended his comment with a mild-mannered suggestion to the self-proclaimed “skeptic” Shermer:
“I suggest Shermer be more skeptical of the claims of industry scientists, whose promulgations are (as the record in agriculture, medicine, and elsewhere shows), subject to bias, data manipulation, and over-promotion.”
However, and to his surprise, Dr Donohoe noticed that his comment was removed from the comments thread a couple of days after it was posted. He received an email from a nameless “Scientific American Webmaster”, who said, “Your comment has been deleted because it contains personal contact information, which is not permitted in our comments.”
Fine, Dr Donohoe thought. He removed his personal contact information and tried to re-submit his edited comment.
But he could not. His ability to comment had been disabled. Dr Donohoe emailed “Scientific American Webmaster”, politely asking why. He received a reply saying:
“Our Community Guidelines are clear about promotion and providing personal contact information in the comments, in that they are not permitted. We sent the email pasted below to inform you of our Guidelines, however further posts from your account continued to violate our Guidelines.”
Since Dr Donohoe had deleted his personal information from his comment, that only left “promotion” as a valid reason for Scientific American to delete his comments.
We examined Dr Donohoe’s comment in light of Scientific American’s Guidelines forbidding “promotion”. The comment does not contain any “promotion”.
Moreover, as Dr Donohoe pointed out in an emailed response to “Scientific American Webmaster”: “I do not have any financial stake in nor ownership of any citation mentioned, except for the fact that I run my own website, free of charge (in fact I pay a company to host it), and it receives no funding; nor do I personally.” Even the sources he cites in his comment are publicly available free of charge.
In his email, Dr Donohoe asked once again “why my posts were removed and my account disabled”.
In due course he received a curt reply from “Scientific American Webmaster”, saying:
“This help desk has already provided our rules to you, as well as our reasons for removing your commentary. Continued emails to this help desk regarding the matter will force us to mark your email as spam. If other users' comments are violating our Guidelines, they will also be removed.
“This help desk will not respond to any further emails from you regarding our comments forum and it's [sic.] rules.”
Dr Donohoe summed up his experience with Scientific American for GMWatch: “My comments were removed, my ability to comment was disabled, and I was told not to contact the webmaster again. I knew Scientific American was pro-GMO, but my comment was straightforward and I find their response troubling and excessive.”
Given the lack of openness of Scientific American’s anonymous “Webmaster” about the true reasons for the apparent censorship, we can only speculate that they are trying to shield the GMO promoter Shermer from a cold shower of inconvenient facts.
NOTE: Dr Martin Donohoe’s website, Public Health & Social Justice, is here and is a great resource.
Re Paleo Diets, GMOs and Food Taboos, by Michael Shermer, April 2015, p78
– see http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-paleo-diets-more-natural-than-gmos/
Comment submitted by Dr Martin Donohoe to Scientific American’s comments thread
Shermer confuses genetically modified (GM) crops (created through the insertion of a gene from another organism) with genetic modification through selective intra-species breeding based on genotype and phenotype. He argues that were it not for GM crops, "the planet could only sustain a tiny fraction of its current population."
In fact, there is no commercially available GM crop that is more drought-resistant, salt- or flood-tolerant, or which increases yields, in comparison with existing non-GM varieties. A large majority of GM crops are instead herbicide-resistant; most of the rest are engineered to produce an insecticidal protein.
Leaving aside voluminous peer-reviewed literature on the real and possible health consequences of GM crops, evolution (which presumably Shermer accepts) has led to resistance among the first wave of GM crops to the very herbicide they were engineered to resist, usually glyphosate (a probable human carcinogen).
Thus, new generations of crops have been designed for resistance to two or more pesticides, leading to increased pesticide use, which affects the health of farm laborers and consumers. Even so, GM crop yields are lower than those obtained through traditional breeding.
There is already enough food to provide over 2700 calories/day to every person. Poverty is exacerbated by GM crops, which are unlikely to achieve the goal of feeding a hungry world. They undermine food and nutritional security and food sovereignty and democracy, while benefiting a small number of multinational corporations (which have been cited repeatedly for scientific and financial malfeasance). Feeding everyone requires political and social will (e.g., one week of developed world farm subsidies is equal to the annual cost of food aid needed to eliminate world hunger, and almost ½ of American food goes to waste).
I suggest Shermer be more skeptical of the claims of industry scientists, whose promulgations are (as the record in agriculture, medicine, and elsewhere shows), subject to bias, data manipulation, and over-promotion.
1. US Dept. of Agriculture
2. Summarized in GMO Myths and Truths: http://gmomythsandtruths.earthopensource.org/, from Earth Open Sourcel; see also Union of Concerned Scientists (Food and Agriculture pages): http://www.ucsusa.org/, Consumers Union at http://consumersunion.org/, and Center for Food Safety at http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/, and GM Watch at http://www.gmwatch.org/.
3. Per the World Health Organization’s Cancer Agency
4. Pesticides will cause an estimated 1 million cancers in the current generation of Americans (National Academy of Sciences) and 1 million people died over a recent 6 year period due to pesticide exposure (World Health Organization)
5. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
6. United Nation Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights
7. United Nations International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development