Biotech Alfalfa Approval Sprouts Mythology

The federal government recently abandoned a “burdensome” proposal to restrict the planting of biotech alfalfa, sprouting fierce debate among fact-seekers and storytellers alike. Today, we’ll compare notes from two eco-friendly food writers who have dramatically different ideas about what their readers should know.

New York Times food pundit Mark Bittman readily admits on his blog, “I’m not a chef, and I never have been.” Bittman’s not a scientist or farmer either, but that didn’t stop him from offering his uninspiring and unoriginal opinion about the USDA’s approval of biotech alfalfa.

In his anti-biotech essay, Bittman can’t seem to resist being a mouthpiece for radical environmental groups promoting the fantasy that biotech foods are spooky or unsafe. The introduction of biotech alfalfa, he claims, presents "real dangers" to farming, food production and human existence as we know it:

To be fair, two of the biggest fears about G.E. crops and animals — their potential to provoke allergic reactions and the transfer to humans of antibiotic-resistant properties of G.M.O.’s — have not come to pass. (As far as I can tell, though, they remain real dangers.)

Thankfully, Bittman’s blind faith isn’t in vogue among scientists.

He also resurrects the laughable “precautionary principle” argument, writing that “not even its strongest advocates can guarantee that there aren’t hidden dangers.”

We also can’t prove that we’re not all going to die in a fiery apocalypse tomorrow. But that doesn’t mean we’re dusting off our “bucket lists” this afternoon.

Bittman’s fear mongering will win the applause of green crusaders who partner with organic food manufacturers and retailers to keep biotech-bashing myths alive. The Atlantic's James McWilliams, on the other hand, is better able to discern fact from fiction:

I’m not a big supporter of alfalfa production, be it organic or conventional or genetically modified … That said, as I encountered one condemnatory article after another regarding Tom Vilsack’s choice to deregulate GM alfalfa, I kept wondering what I often wonder when grappling with an agricultural controversy: where's the data? (Are you reading this, Mark Bittman?)

McWilliams managed to steer clear of turning baseless arguments into certain facts. Instead of asking biotech proponents to prove a negative, he assessed how much risk there is of contamination.

What a novel idea:

To seek an absolute guarantee against contamination of any crop would be like driving a car while insisting that the manufacturer promise you’ll never be harmed. Even so, with a contamination possibility that’s less than 1 percent, we are not looking at a scenario in which GM alfalfa is going to overtake its organic counterpart.

Digging for actual data like this, and responsibly reporting them to impressionable readers, isn’t something Bittman does well (if at all). But that’s just our opinion of the New York Times’s “Opinionator.”

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