A funny thing happened on the way to SynBetaBio

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

10 thoughts on “A funny thing happened on the way to SynBetaBio

  1. Well, if it isn’t clear now that you are dealing with fundamentalists, I don’t know when it will be. It’s clear to those of us who have had similar battles with creationists, we see the same phenotype.

    We keep hearing that scientists are not properly trying to understand and quell the misunderstandings. That it’s our fault the discussion is where it is. Yet over and over efforts like you’ve made here–or like Raj Shah made in the past, what happens? (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/magazine/12wwln-shah-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0):
    “I guess I really don’t know why there is so much hostility.”

    Remember when Seralini and Smith were invited to debate with scientists, and they ran away? It wasn’t the plant scientists who bailed.

    Is it really that science folks are failing at this discussion–or are some groups really just completely resistant to anything but their own party line?

    You better watch out. Next you’ll find yourself of GGFC’s Lynas/Folta hit list: http://www.gmofreeglobal.org/en/advocacy

  2. I attended last Wednesday’s event, and read your draft. (Like you, I was unable to attend on Monday.) They are almost perfectly orthogonal to each other: the FoE event focused mostly on the effects of a possible synthetic biology food industry on the smallholders currently producing the crops targeted for replacement; you complain about a lack of consumer awareness about the benefits.

    But there is a stranger part to your draft. You cite the famous Utah Phillips moose turd routine; did you ever taste a “Flavr Savr” tomato? I did. It was awful, and of course failed in the marketplace, despite an active promotional campaign. Ever had homegrown tomatoes? Tasted fresh, organic corn? Good grass-fed beef? There is a price premium, there are economic and social considerations to discuss. But substantially equivalent? Don’t make me laugh. Moose turd pie, indeed.

    Finally, your line about being warned off by a “bully” is deeply ironic. It sounds as though you are trying to inoculate yourself against criticism; yet you must be aware of the rather heavy-handed sanctions that have been applied to certain scientists who challenge the industry-backed consensus. It’s hard to have dialog in that atmosphere, and your language here is —shall we say — not helpful.

    • I don’t complain about lack of consumer awareness about benefits – I say there have been no clear benefits to consumers. An important difference. I agree that scientists have been bullied and have written about the corrosive effects of that. Bullying is never acceptable.

    • Davis and Chicago, the two sites selected for initial introduction of the FLAVR SAVR tomato. On May 21, 1994, the genetically engineered FLAVR SAVR tomato was introduced. Demand for this product was high and remained high, but the product was never profitable because of high production and distribution costs. http://californiaagriculture.ucanr.edu/landingpage.cfm?article=ca.v054n04p6&fulltext=yes
      Also I’ve had organic tomatoes from Whole Foods and I’ve had non-organic tomatoes from backyard gardens. Fresh wins every time. Not sure what your point is.

  3. Nathanael
    I agree with your statement that “Bullying is never acceptable.” That is why I wonder why Grist has seemingly abandoned its own guidelines to let stand the vicious, personal and off-topic remarks below your series of articles on GM made by those who identify themselves to be scientists against other scientists?
    The worst sort of behaviour that I would interpret as bullying has been perpetrated by some of those who are now claiming a sort of victim status.
    Non-scientists may (and often do) use non-scientific arguments about technical things. I wish that these kinds of responses were all ‘nice’, but I have a greater level of tolerance for insult when there is a mismatch of technical knowledge (as I would hope non-scientists would extend to me when I try to engage outside of the technical issues). But in the frontier of society and new technology/products, the ‘scientific’ community has been more and more frequently publicly engaging in the same or worse behaviour, and ignoring the double standard.

    • I should note that Jack Heinemann is one of those real scientists with legitimate concerns about GMOs. And he’s been subjected to a lot of vitriol, so he knows what he’s talking about. Grist just got overwhelmed with the number of comments and we knew that holding court to determine who was guilty of violating guidelines would suck up even more time. Even now that I’m writing about much less controversial things and I’m only getting 40 or so comments, I can’t always read all the way through. Suffice to say that we haven’t figured this out.

  4. @Pete Shanks, it appears that you yourself have done a poor job of reading Nathanael’s post. In addition to what has been written above, at no point in his posting does he try to ‘inoculate’ himself from criticism. Rather, he is stating that there is a certain prevailing fanaticism that allows for misquoting and defamation before asking any questions or even attempting to understand his viewpoint. Skewing the truth, deliberately or due to plain stupidity, is just as unforgivable as bullying, if not worse.

  5. My brother received similar feedback (from the right wing) for an article in the Economist that quoted him.

    I wonder if the moderate voices are so busy living their lives that often the extreme voices (tea party / left) are the voices that dominate. That’s why I think folks (like you) taking a strong middle road are so important (and so few). It’s so much downside with very little upside.

    I’m always skeptical of those who instead of discussing something with someone try to shout them down, defame them etc. I didn’t like those protests at Pomona when they happened when they prevented a speaker from speaking, and I continue to dislike them today, from either side of any debate.

    Call it like it is, and can’t wait to keep on reading your stuff.

  6. In one way CFS won, you didn’t go. Did I read that correctly? You changed your mind because of what Jim Thomas said.

    I understand. It’s not easy taking such heat, especially when it’s from folks you thought you knew.

    I have been impressed by what you have gotten me to do: actually read Grist. What’s next? HuffPo? I think you are fair and thoughtful. Qualities that many in the anti-gmo camp hate.

    FWIW, I think you get it right most of the time.