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The Amy Harmon wars

(article, Culinate staff)

Back in July, the New York Times ran a long feature, reported by Amy Harmon, on Florida's efforts to save its citrus industry from disease with the aid of genetic modification. Many science journalists lauded the piece — and took Michael Pollan to task for his seeming criticism of Harmon's work on Twitter.

The Columbia Journalism Review tracked Pollan down and tried to figure out the whole mess — a complicated stew of '"industry about GMOs. The CJR take was a thoughtful assessment not just of the GMO controversy but also of the differences between science journalists themselves, ranging from Pollan and Tom Philpott (generally seen as anti-GMO journos) to Harmon and the Discover magazine blogger Keith Kloor (generally seen as neutral or pro-GMO).

A month after the oranges story, another Harmon GM crop feature ran in the Times, this time on golden rice. A strain of rice genetically modified to include beta-carotene, golden rice has been around for years; it was developed as a way to help prevent vitamin A deficiency in the Third World. But, like many other GM crops — including the GM corn recently destroyed in the field by the Hungarian government — it's controversial, to the point of inspiring violent protests. 

Keith Kloor applauded Harmon's new piece, but the nutritionist and food activist Marion Nestle did not, pointing out that, in essence, there's no magic bullet for the problems of poverty-induced malnutrition. 

And Andrew Revkin, a science blogger for the New York Times, enthused over both a Mark Lynas article on Slate about the golden-rice controversy and Pollan's nuanced response to Revkin's questions about the GMO controversy. As Pollan wrote to Revkin, echoing arguments made over a decade ago by the Indian food activist Vandana Shiva:

bq. My point is these people need a better diet even to make the golden rice work, so why not just work on getting them a better diet? How does a bowl of golden rice compare with a carrot? How many carrots, or vitamin supplements, or squash seeds, can you buy and distribute with the hundreds of millions that has been spent developing golden rice? Is this the best use of our resources? I don’t know the answers, but these are key questions no one seems to be asking.