Last week Jim Thomas, of the ETC Group sent out mass email went out suggesting that I was colluding with the synthetic biology industry. He’d seen the agenda of a conference where I’d been invited to speak organized by a couple synthetic biology startups and concluded that I’d taken on the “role as an industry advisor.”
This conclusion came in part from the fact that I’d come to a panel on synthetic biology, that the ETC Group participated in, and arrived with representative of a synthetic biology company. I’m a journalist, and I’m not affiliated with the industry in any way. (By the way if you need an introduction to synthetic biology check this out.
Here’s an introduction to the controversies brewing there). Here’s what actually happened: John Cumbers got in touch with me a few months ago and told me that several small startups were interested in using synthetic biology to make food, and they realized they were walking into a mine field. This was not some polished executive, but an enthusiastic scientist juggling the phone while trying to get his kids in the bath (if I interpreted the noises correctly). He explained that they wanted to get together and talk about how to get this right, to insure that they didn’t repeat the same missteps that the GMO companies made, and conduct themselves to stay on the side of the angels.
I knew very little about synthetic biology in food (though I did write about the origins of synthetic biology a decade ago in the East Bay Express). I agreed. I was flattered that they were interested in my opinion and welcomed the opportunity to perhaps actually make change (that rarest of journalistic occurrences).
Last week I met up with Stephan Herrera, from the synthetic biology company Evolva to chat about the talk I’d give over dinner. Cumbers had wanted me to meet with Herrera because my wife was due to have a baby any day, and if I didn’t make it, Herrera was going to give the talk instead. We had pizza in Berkeley, and then walked over to the panel discussion (put on by Friends of the Earth).
I didn’t have any plans to write about it, I was just curious. It turned out that the discussion was not an informative weighing of the pros and cons, but simply an extended listing of all the potential evils of synthetic biology, without giving any voice to the notion that it could have any positive impact on the world. I realized then, that this was going to become a major issue, which I’d probably be writing about.
In the end, I didn’t even go to the conference. It looked like things were progressing and I wanted to stay close to my wife, but to be perfectly frank, I was also afraid. That mass email had made it perfectly clear that my reputation was at stake, and that these groups wouldn’t hesitate to defame first and ask questions later. It felt a little like a bully had warned me off.
And indeed, on Monday May 5, the Center for Food Safety published a notice claiming that the attendees of the conference were “being coached in how to rebrand their products by Nathanael Johnson,” and that I should be ashamed. When I pointed out that I wasn’t even there the Center for Food Safety corrected the posting.
But even if I had gone, should I be ashamed? The assumption seems to be that I’d only talk to these people if I was somehow on their side. Look, I’m pretty willing to give a talk for anyone if they are interested in listening, and I generally learn the most from conversations with people who have different perspectives than mine. As a journalist I stand committed to the ideal that an exchange of facts might actually change someone’s mind. I know that it works for me at least.
If you have any question as to what advice I was going to give at the conference, you can read my talk here. It’s hastily written for the voice, so it’s a bit sloppy. Basically it’s an argument for transparency and labeling.
One more thing: Thomas’ email said that my articles “have been controversial because of his misquoting of interviewees.” Well, yes, there was one time (singular) I misquoted a source:
Marcia Ishii-Eiteman told me that GMOs had led to decrease in insecticide spraying of 123 million pounds between 1996 and 2011. I wasn’t sure I’d got all those dates and numbers right so I took it out of quotations and paraphrased this way:
It’s clear that Bt plants have led to vast decreases in spraying, said Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist at the Pesticide Action Network. “But,” she quickly added, “as was predicted 10 years ago, we are starting to see the insect resistance to Bt.”
That vast was a problem. She felt it was wrong to characterize this as vast. I agreed that was a mistake and we cut the word and made this correction:
Correction: This article originally quoted Pesticide Action Network’s Dr. Marcia Ishii-Eiteman as saying that Bt plants had led to vast decreases in spraying. We have changed this line by removing the word “vast,” an imprecise and subjective term which does not accurately reflect Dr. Ishii-Eiteman’s statement.
These things have been recirculating on the Internet. I just wanted there to be a place where people could find out what actually happened. If you want to know more, or are planning another hit piece and you actually want to know what’s going on, you can email me at Nathanael47 at yahoo.com