Archive | September 2013

Marcella Hazan 1924-2103

hazan 1

Associated Press | The Washington Post

She eschewed the American-style Italian food that suffocated mushy pasta in grainy meatballs and tasteless cheese. She begged home cooks to use more salt and once wrote that if readers were concerned about salt affecting one’s life expectancy, to “not read any further.” On the topic of garlic, Hazan took a sharp view.

“The unbalanced use of garlic is the single greatest cause of failure in would-be Italian cooking,” she wrote in her 2004 cookbook “Marcella Says…” ‘’It must remain a shadowy background presence. It cannot take over the show.”

. . . In 2004, Marcella Hazan wrote, “Simple doesn’t mean easy. I can describe simple cooking thus: Cooking that is stripped all the way down to those procedures and those ingredients indispensable in enunciating the sincere flavor intentions of a dish.”

Hazan said the Roman dish spaghettini aio e oio — thin spaghetti with garlic, oil, parsley, chili pepper and nothing else — embodies the simple-yet-complex nature of Italian food. Dishes should nourish and please, she added, not “dazzle guests with my originality or creativity.”

“I am never bored by a good old dish and I wouldn’t shrink from making something that I first made fifty years ago and my mother, perhaps, fifty years before then,” she wrote. “I don’t cook ‘concepts.’ I use my head, but I cook from the heart, I cook for flavor.”


Giuliano Hazan | Saveur

My mother’s tomato, butter, and onion sauce unfailingly elicits feelings of comfort and well-being. Its ability to wash away fatigue and anxiety is almost miraculous, and its preparation borders on alchemy. Who would think that simply putting tomatoes, a peeled halved onion, butter, and salt in a pot and cooking it with barely an occasional stir until it is reduced, would produce such concentrated goodness? In my freezer there is always a batch, ready to be defrosted and enjoyed in the time it takes to cook some pasta.


8 tbsp. unsalted butter, cubed
¼ tsp. sugar
1 (28-oz.) can whole, peeled tomatoes in juice, crushed by hand
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and quartered lengthwise
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Bring butter, sugar, tomatoes, and onion, to a boil in a 4-qt. saucepan over medium-high heat; reduce heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring occasionally, until flavors meld and sauce is slightly reduced, about 45 minutes. Discard onion, and season sauce with salt and pepper before serving.

Jaden Hair | The Steamy Kitchen

Jaden Hair | The Steamy Kitchen

It’s funny how a little thing like lunch can be a life changer.

For Marcella Hazan, it was when Craig Claiborne of the NY Times came to lunch in 1970….and shortly thereafter, celebrities, writers, chefs and other-important-people-who-can-make-your-career started coming to Marcella’s classes to learn about authentic Italian cooking. Six best-selling books, Lifetime Achievement awards and changing the way Americans cook, think, enjoy Italian food…that’s Marcella.

My life changing lunch was last week.

It was a bit unexpected – I’ve been friends with Lael and Guiliano Hazan (Marcella’s son) for the past couple of years but never imagined that I’d be meeting Marcella. And it wasn’t until Pamela Sheldon Johns swung by the area on book tour that I had that chance. A few emails, text messages and phone calls with Pamela and it was decided that lunch at the Ritz Carlton in Sarasota was the plan, and that Marcella would be joining us.

I really didn’t know what to expect, I had heard Marcella was intense and intimidating, but I would have expected nothing less from the “doyenne of Italian cooking in America“…a fervent force of nature, indeed!

Lunch was pleasant, I was on my best behavior and didn’t slurp my Pork Belly Ramen Noodles like I normally would, for fear that a long slingy noodle would slurp-lash rich broth at my dining companions. Conversation flitted between Pamela’s cooking school in Italy to olive oil to cookbooks to book tour to travel.

No, wait. Pamela and I flitted. Marcella listened, at moments her eyes would gaze away and just when I thought we had bored her to tears, she’d smile and cut our sing-song fluttery conversation with her wisdom, bluntness and staunchy opinions.

And that was our lunch.

But that wasn’t THE LUNCH that I was referring to.
read more

SERVES 4 – 6

This lusty dish, whose Italian name means warm bath, provides the perfect counterpoint to raw vegetables. This recipe is based on one in Essentials of Classic Italian Cuisine (Knopf, 1992) by Marcella Hazan.

1⁄2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tbsp. butter
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
10 salt-cured anchovy filets, rinsed, boned,
and finely chopped
Kosher salt
Assortment of raw, cut-up cauliflower, carrots, celery, radicchio, and radishes

1. Heat oil and butter in a pot over medium-high heat until butter begins to foam. Add garlic; cook for 10 seconds.

2. Reduce heat to medium-low and add anchovies. Cook, stirring and mashing anchovies with a wooden spoon, until anchovies are broken into very small pieces and dip is cloudy, 3–4 minutes.

3. Season with salt to taste and serve immediately as a dip for an assortment of raw vegetables.


Daily Essentials | Sunday | 29 September 2013

James Nevin Miller | Mechanix Illustrated | May 1954 | Amanda Uren | Retronaut


Brad Plumer | Wonkblog | The Washington Post

And, the report argues, those labels may be leading Americans to throw out tons and tons of perfectly good food each year — one reason why the United States rubbishes about 40 percent of the food it produces, or $165 billion in wasted food each year.

Delana | Web Urbanist

GhostFood, a “participatory performance” from Miriam Simun and Miriam Songster (yup, a double-Miriam team) is meant to simulate the experience of eating foods that could soon be extinct. A 3D printed headpiece attaches to a visitor’s face just like glasses and replicates the olfactory profile of certain foods. A substitute edible substance with a texture identical to the “ghost food” is provided. The scent and texture combined trick the mind into believing that the actual food is being consumed.

Eliza Barclay | Salt | NPR

The green-roof movement has slowly been gaining momentum in recent years, and some cities have made them central to their sustainability plans. The city of Chicago, for instance, that 359 roofs are now partially or fully covered with vegetation, which provides all kinds of environmental benefits — from reducing the buildings’ energy costs to cleaning the air to mitigating the

Late this summer, Chicago turned a green roof into its first major rooftop farm. At 20,000 square feet, it’s the largest soil-based rooftop farm in the Midwest, according to the Chicago Botanic Garden, which maintains the farm through its program.

Kate Hodal | The Guardian

Nguyen Tien Tung is just the sort of man you’d expect to run a Hanoi slaughterhouse: wiry, frenetic and filthy, his white T-shirt collaged with bloodstains, his jean shorts loose around taut, scratched-up legs, his feet squelching in plastic sandals. Hunched over his metal stall, between two hanging carcasses and an oversized tobacco pipe, the 42-year-old is surveying his killing station – an open-air concrete patio leading on to a busy road lined with industrial supply shops.

Two skinless carcasses, glistening pure white in the hot morning sun, are being rinsed down by one of Nguyen’s cousins. Just two steps away are holding pens containing five dogs each, all roughly the same size, some still sporting collars. Nguyen reaches into one cage and caresses the dog closest to the door. As it starts wagging its tail, he grabs a heavy metal pipe, hits the dog across the head, then, laughing loudly, slams the cage door closed.

The Revisionist History of Healthier Fries

Here comes the news that Burger King has engineered a lower fat, lower calorie fry. I don’t really care and five will get you ten that whatever they did will make french fries even more fattening and unhealthy . But what got my goat in the article was this:

Roughly a decade ago, McDonald’s began using a soy-corn blend of fats instead of beef tallow to cook its fries in an effort to reduce the trans fats that contribute to higher cholesterol.

What actually happened was this:

At the behest of the Center for Science in the Public Interest that delicious, wholesome (relatively wholesome) beef tallow was replaced with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. That campaign started in 1984 and was victorious in 1990 when the chains abandoned tallow in favor of trans fat laden partially hydrogenated oil.

NPR’s Dan Charles:

But did you know that in the 1980s, health activists actually promoted oils containing trans fats? They considered such oils a healthy alternative to the saturated fats found in palm oil, coconut oil, or beef fat. In 1986, for instance, the (CSPI), described Burger King’s switch to partially hydrogenated oils as “a great boon to Americans’ arteries.”

It wasn’t until 1993, after stampeding the fast food industry into greatly multiplying the nation’s consumption of what may be the single most deadly ingredient in our food supply, the CSPI reversed course and began campaigning against trans fats.

Here’s The Harvard School of Public Health on the dangers posed by trans fats:

Today we know that eating trans fats increases levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, “bad” cholesterol), especially the small, dense LDL particles that may be more damaging to arteries. It lowers levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) particles, which scour blood vessels for bad cholesterol and truck it to the liver for disposal. It also promotes inflammation, an overactivity of the immune system that has been implicated in heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. Eating trans fat also reduces the normal healthy responsiveness of endothelial cells, the cells that line all of our blood vessels. In animal studies, eating trans fat also promotes obesity and resistance to insulin, the precursor to diabetes.

This multiple-pronged attack on blood vessels translates into heart disease and death. An analysis of the health effects of industrial trans fats conducted by researchers with the Harvard School of Public Health Department of Nutrition indicates that eliminating trans fats from the U.S. food supply could prevent up to 1 in 5 heart attacks and related deaths. That would mean a quarter of a million fewer heart attacks and related deaths each year in the United States alone.

McDonald’s and Burger King didn’t remove trans fats from their menu until 2008.

Michael Jacobsen’s obsession with saturated fat caused the organization to tout the benefits of partially hydrogenated oils well after their dangers had been established. This didn’t stop them from changing course when the dangers of trans fats had been exposed without apology or acknowledgement. The history of trying to engineer low fat, low calorie foods that make us fatter and sicker is a long one, but CSPI has been there every step of the way. The trans fat french fry debacle was just the pinnacle of their blundering.

Mary Enig at The Weston Price Foundation traces the twists and turns of CSPI’s position on saturated fats and partially hydrogenated oils:

By 1988, the adverse effects of trans fats were well known. The article points out that stearic acid has no effect on blood cholesterol levels, yet CSPI continued to accuse beef tallow, which is rich in stearic acid, of “raising cholesterol and increasing the risk of heart disease.” As for the tropical oils, they do not need to be hydrogenated!

Blume was at it again in March 1988 with another article, “The Truth About Trans .” “Hydrogenated oils aren’t guilty as charged. . . . All told, the charges against trans fat just don’t stand up. And by extension, hydrogenated oils seem relatively innocent.. . . . As for processed foods, you’re better off choosing products made with hydrogenated soybean, corn, or cottonseed oil. . . ” This article was widely disseminated; Michael Jacobson provided it as a handout to members of the Maryland Legislature during hearings when the University of Maryland group tried to introduce labeling of trans fatty acids in the State.

But by 1990, CSPI could no longer defend the indefensible. In October of that year, Bonnie Liebman, CSPI Director of Nutrition, published an article “Trans in Trouble” which referred to recent studies by Dutch scientists showing that trans fats raised cholesterol. “That’s not to say trans fatty acids are artery-cloggers,” she wrote, “. . . the fats in our foods may affect cholesterol differently than those used in the Dutch experiment. . . . The Bottom Line. . . Trans, shmans. You should eat less fat. . . Don’t switch back to butter. . . use a soft tub diet margarine. . . . ”

. . . The revisionism began in December 1992 when Ms. Liebman wrote: “We’ve been crying ‘foul’ for some time now, as the margarine industry has tried to convince people that eating margarine was as good for their hearts as aerobic exercise. . . . And we warned folks several years ago that trans fatty acids could be a problem. . . . That’s especially true now that we know that trans fatty acids are harmful, but we don’t know how much trans are in different foods.” Of course, CSPI had issued no such warning, but had been defending trans fats for more than five years. And there’s no apology for falsely demonizing traditional fats. “Don’t switch back from margarine to butter,” wrote Ms. Liebman, “. . . try diet or whipped margarine. . . use a liquid margarine.”

In November 1993, Bonnie Liebman coauthored an article with Margo Wootan called “The Great Trans Wreck,” which would have been in preparation well before Michael Jacobson’s infamous press conference, in which they asked, “Why do companies love hydrogenated fat if it’s so unhealthy? . . . . despite the claims on many packages, most companies switched not to vegetable oil, but to vegetable shortening. And that created a problem.”

You can read the whole sorry tale of hubris and revisionism at the Weston Price Foundation. The fruits of that revisionism can be seen in the statement above from The New York Times.


In thinking about writing a piece on the SNAP battle going on in Congress, I put together some of the most interesting stuff I’ve read this week. I thought I’d share it.

Environmental Working Group

If you live in one of America’s 100 hungriest counties, there is a one-in-three chance that you rely on food stamps.

There is also a pretty good chance that your member of Congress just voted to kick you off food stamps.

And, if you live in Haywood County, Tennessee, or Shannon County, South Dakota, you can be sure your representative not only voted to kick you off food stamps but also voted to give him- or herself more farm subsidies.

Sadly, two-thirds of the 39 legislators who represent America’s 100 hungriest counties voted yesterday to cut funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, by $40 billion over the next ten years.

What’s more, the same legislators voted last month to increase unlimited subsidies for the largest farm businesses at a time of record farm income.

Frank James | NPR

President George W. Bush isn’t fondly remembered by progressives for much. But anti-hunger advocates credited him during his administration for strongly supporting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the formal name for food stamps) and other policies to help unemployed or low-income workers and their children escape the fear of not knowing where their next meals would come from.

Under Bush, . When I fairly early in the Bush administration, they were already praising Bush for doing more than President Clinton to directly respond to the food insecurity crisis affecting many people.

Paul Krugman | The New York Times

To the extent that there’s any rational argument here at all, I think, it rests on the observation that while SNAP enrollment did fall during the boom of the 1990s, it was flat or rising during the expansion of the middle Bush years. This supposedly shows that the program’s use was being driven by things other than economic factors.

But there’s a crucial point such analyses miss: the “Bush boom,” such as it was, never did trickle down to lower-income Americans — the kind of people who might use food stamps. Here’s a chart comparing income, in 2012 dollars, at the 20th percentile (left axis, inverted) with the percentage of the population on SNAP:

 photo incomesandsnap_zpsf0140464.png

The Clinton expansion led to a substantial rise in incomes near in the lower part of the distribution, and was accompanied by a sharp fall in SNAP usage. The Bush expansion never did reach many Americans, so it’s no surprise that SNAP use didn’t fall. And then, of course, SNAP use surged in the crisis, which is what is supposed to happen with a safety net program.

Paul Krugman | The New York Times

Spending as a percentage of GDP was no higher in 2007 than it had been in 1990. It then soared when we experienced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression — which is exactly what should have happened. True, spending didn’t fall during the Bush-era economic expansion, but as I’ve already explained, that expansion didn’t trickle down to the people who use food stamps.

You also want to bear in mind that we used to have another major poverty program — AFDC — which was replaced with TANF, which has virtually withered away. In 1990, spending on AFDC was 0.3 percent of GDP; by 2011, it was down to 0.07 percent of GDP. So food stamps were, in effect, picking up some (but only some) of the hole left by the end of traditional welfare.

Jonathan Cohn | The New Republic

The 2002 and 2008 laws re-authorizing food stamps streamlined enrollment, eased the asset test, and made other changes that both boosted benefits and boosted participation. Conservative publications are full of anecdotes that suggest food stamps are fostering dependency and, I’m sure, some beneficiaries live up to stereotypes of lazy people living on the dole. But the percentage of SNAP recipients who are working has actually risen steadily for two decades. It’s up to about half. (See the next graph.) And the program’s design actually arguably encourages work, for reasons the Center on Budget details:

the SNAP benefit formula contains an important work incentive. For every additional dollar a SNAP recipient earns, her benefits decline by only 24 to 36 cents — much less than in most other programs. Families that receive SNAP thus have a strong incentive to work longer hours or to search for better-paying employment. States further support work through the SNAP Employment and Training program, which funds training and work activities for unemployed adults who receive SNAP.

More generally, 95 percent of SNAP participants have incomes below 130 percent of the poverty line, or about $30,000 a year for a family of four. Forty-four percent have incomes that are less than half the poverty line, or about $12,500 for a family of four. SNAP doesn’t seem plagued by waste or fraud, either. Ninety-two percent of the program’s funding goes to actual benefits. A 2011 report from the General Accounting Office found that program errors, including both people getting too much assistance and people getting too little, affected less than 4 percent of recipients.

See also:


This piece has gotten fairly wide circulation and deservedly so. I have a few quibbles and observations.
1. You really need to disentangle biotech seeds and problems relating to the pesticide use associated with specific seeds before you explain how they are related. To someone who isn’t already on top of the issues, they are hopelessly conflated in this piece.

The local differences over glyphosate are feeding the long-running debate over biotech crops, which currently account for roughly 90 percent of the corn, soybeans and sugar beets grown in the United States.

While regulators and many scientists say biotech crops are no different from their conventional cousins, others worry that they are damaging the environment and human health. The battle is being waged at the polls, with ballot initiatives to require labeling of genetically modified foods; in courtrooms, where lawyers want to undo patents on biotech seeds; and on supermarket shelves containing products promoting conventionally grown ingredients.

This is the opposite problem from what Amy Harmon was criticized for in her citrus greening piece. Many felt that she did not provide enough context. I disagreed with that criticism. I thought Harmon was wise not to attach a giant boilerplate rehash of the entire GMO debate before moving on to tell the story that she had chosen to tell. Balancing the proper amount of background necessary for clarity and context is tricky.

2. Strom’s choice to use the term ‘biotech’ without ever using ‘GMO’ is an interesting and loaded choice. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. Is there a move a foot at The Times to tell these stories in a less polarizing way? Not enough data. Stay tuned.

3. I’m sure that this story will fuel Monsanto Derangement Syndrome but it’s not clear to me that there are any clear policy takeaways other than the need for funding independent ag research at our public universities to make sure farmers get the information they need to make good choices.


Eddie Gehman Kohan | Obamafoodorama

“I’m here today with one simple request– and that is to do even more and move even faster to market responsibly to our kids,” Mrs. Obama said.

Speaking from beneath the historic portrait of Lincoln in the packed State Dining Room, Mrs. Obama laid out her vision for continuing the “cultural shift” toward healthier eating she said is already underway thanks to her Let’s Move! campaign.

More than 100 guests attended the event, billed by the White House as the first of its kind at 1600 Penn. They included representatives from food, beverage and media giants, as well as academic experts, parent leaders and public health advocates.

Paul Bennett | Medium

I am sitting talking to Sean, a 17-year-old working-class kid from Handsworth, a notoriously tough area of Birmingham in the UK’s Midlands. His speech is strangely inarticulate and slurred, his accent heavy and laced with slang—original Jamaican patois mixed with English street. I have family from Birmingham and know the nasal dialect,but even I am struggling to understand and keep up.

What I do understand is that Sean is hiding something. He has a condition known as Phenylketonuria, a serious metabolic disorder that we are studying for a client of ours. They manufacture a food supplement which helps moderate the effects. PKU, as it is known, is an inability for the human body to process any form of complex protein, meaning that the sufferer is resigned to a life of bland, low-protein food: no red meat, chicken, cheese, nuts, or legumes. Staples such as bread, pasta and rice have to be carefully monitored. Most are simply impossible to digest.


Kimberly Kindy | The Washington Post | 8 September 2013

A meat inspection program that the Agriculture Department plans to roll out in pork plants nationwide has repeatedly failed to stop the production of contaminated meat at American and foreign plants that have already adopted the approach, documents and interviews show.

The program allows meat producers to increase the speed of processing lines by as much as 20 percent and cuts the number of USDA safety inspectors at each plant in half, replacing them with private inspectors employed by meat companies. The approach has been used for more than a decade by five American hog plants under a pilot program.

But three of these plants were among the 10 worst offenders in the country for health and safety violations, with serious lapses that included failing to remove fecal matter from meat, according to a report this spring by the USDA inspector general. The plant with the worst record by far was one of the five in the pilot program.

Dan Charles | The Salt | NPR

n the quirky little college town of Yellow Springs, Ohio, home to many unconventional ideas over the years, there’s now a small insect factory.

It’s an unassuming operation, a generic boxy building in a small industrial park. It took me a while even to find a sign with the company’s name: . But its goal is grand: The people at EnviroFlight are hoping that their insects will help our planet grow more food while conserving land and water.

They don’t expect you to eat insects. (Sure, Asians and Africans do it, but Americans are finicky.) The idea is, farmed insects will become food for fish or pigs.

Consumers Union

In a move decried by consumer and environmental groups as severely weakening the meaning of the organic label, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced this week that the agency had changed the process for exempting otherwise prohibited substances (such as synthetics) in food that carries the “organic” or “made with organic” label. No public comment period was provided for the changes to this policy, which had been in place since 2005.

Under the federal organic law[1] and prior to Friday’s announcement, there was a controlled process for allowing the use of substances not normally permitted in organic production because of extenuating circumstances. These exemptions were supposed to be made for a five-year period, in order to encourage the development of natural (or organic) alternatives. The exemptions were required by law to expire, known as “sunset,” unless they were reinstated by a two-thirds “decisive” majority vote of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and include a public review. This is no longer the case.

Stephanie Strom | The New York Times

Dirt in two fields around Alton where biotech corn was being grown was hard and compact. Prying corn stalks from the soil with a shovel was difficult, and when the plants finally came up, their roots were trapped in a chunk of dirt. Once freed, the roots spread out flat like a fan and were studded with only a few nodules, which are critical to the exchange of nutrients.

In comparison, conventional corn in adjacent fields could be tugged from the ground by hand, and dirt with the consistency of wet coffee grounds fell off the corn plants’ knobby roots.

“Because glyphosate moves into the soil from the plant, it seems to affect the rhizosphere, the ecology around the root zone, which in turn can affect plant health,” said Robert Kremer, a scientist at the United States Agriculture Department, who has studied the impact of glyphosate on soybeans for more than a decade and has warned of the herbicide’s impact on soil health.


Here’s some food for thought: One-third of the world’s food goes to waste every year. In the U.S., about 40 percent of our food gets thrown out. It’s happening on the farm, at the grocery store and in our own homes.

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about what to do about it — from that’s past its prime to getting restaurants to .

, the former president of Trader Joe’s, is determined to repurpose the perfectly edible produce slightly past its sell-by date that ends up in the trash. (That happens in part because people misinterpret the labels, according to a out this week from Harvard and the National Resources Defense Council.) To tackle the problem, Rauch is opening a new market early next year in Dorchester, Mass., that will prepare and repackage the food at deeply discounted prices.

What Has Changed?


Picture 2Earlier this month Stacy Malkan the former director for Yes on 37 tweeted a link to a story in which she was quoted,

@sciam editorial against #GMO labeling is sloppy and unscientific

The story in the New York Daily News was a round up of sound bites by anti-GMO activists angered over an editorial by Scientific American in the September 6, 2013 issue concluding that GMO labeling is a “bad idea”. She followed up:

@sciam editorial board previously argued that biotech control over GMO research is “chilling”

and linked to an editorial from August 13, 2009 “Do Seed Companies Control GM Crop Research?”

To which Beth Hoffman followed up with the question:

What has changed? RT @StacyMalkan: @sciam previously called biotech control over GMO research is “chilling”

My first reaction was that the most obvious thing that has happened is that the framework surrounding independent research of GMO crops has dramatically changed since 2009. Which I tweeted:

@BethFoodAg @StacyMalkan The access to seeds for research changed & independent studies have shown same the results as industry studies.

This had been covered in depth just recently. Nathanael Johnson had written about the dramatic change exactly one month earlier as part of his widely followed series in Grist unpacking the issues surrounding GMO crops and foods.

Responding to complaints by a group of 24 corn insect scientists led by Elson Shields in 2009 a conference had been convened between researchers and the industry at Iowa State University. Over the next six months a set of principles [pdf] was hammered out. Following that, formal legal agreements between biotech seed companies and the major public research institutions were reached. There are minor issues around the edges, but the problems raised by Shields and his colleagues detailed in Scientific American’s 2009 editorial had been squarely addressed.

It’s an important piece of the puzzle and yet within anti-GMO circles it’s as if it never happened. Later that day Malkan retweeted the old SciAm editorial link:

@sciam: “The agricultural revolution is too important to keep locked behind closed doors.

But the more I thought about what had changed, I found myself thinking about how the landscape has changed since 2009.

Of course it’s possible to hold that nothing has changed and that the two positions aren’t mutually exclusive or even necessarily inconsistent. It’s fairly easy to imagine that someone without an ideological dog in the fight could be in favor of open access to seeds for research and take the position that government mandated GMO labeling in the absence of a clear public health reason is unwarranted. But the landscape HAS changed and those kinds of positions usually aren’t being taken outside the context of a general stance towards an issue. There have been changes that have materially affected people’s understanding and changes that have shifted the social psychology of the debate.

It’s a much more polarized environment and there have been a number of things that I imagine would have pushed the editorial board of Scientific American into what would seem like a new stance on GMO’s. At the risk of mere projection and wild speculation I’ll give three examples. These are things I believe have shifted the framing of the debate in the social circles of the editors of Scientific American.

As the debate has become more polarized a cautious, “responsible” slightly anti-GMO agnosticism has become harder to maintain. The social dynamics of a polarized environment are (tautologically) that people wind up picking sides. Some of that is inevitable in the course of clarifying positions or responding to new data. But a fair amount can result as tribal identification starts to kick in and I don’t discount the social psychology of picking sides based on the positions of those we trust or those whose values we identify with.

The most polarizing event relating to GM crops and food since 2009 was the Prop 37 campaign that pushed for labeling in California. One of the products of that campaign were a series statements by organizations that GMO’s are safe. The most important of these came from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. AAAS Board of Directors On Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods [pdf]. Here was the most venerable and respected scientific organization in the US stating unequivocally that GMO’s pose no greater risk than conventionally bred crops and summarizing the scientific consensus:

The EU, for example, has invested more than €300 million in research on the biosafety of GMOs. Its recent report 1 states: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.” The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.

It’s not like science minded people were unaware of all this before the AAAS made this statement, but it’s a clarifying moment.

The statements by AAAS and others also underlined that research had continued to come in since the seeds had been made available for independent research and that the new research was consistent with the peer reviewed research which had been conducted prior to the new agreement. In the four years between the two SciAm editorials the report “A Decade of EU Funded GMO Research (2001-2010)” [pdf]had been published, collecting and summarizing a pile of research over a significant time that had been conducted without industry funding.

Another significant change had taken place beginning in fall of 2012. Researchers Anastasia Bodnar and Karl Haro von Mogel began cataloging peer reviewed studies relating to GMO safety in their GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas or GENERA. The list of studies included in the database quickly grew from 450 to 600 including well over 100 independently funded studies. It meant that people looking for research done on the safety of GMO’s found themselves facing a formidable collection of peer reviewed studies in a single place. It became difficult to wave away or talk around and the canard that GMO’s hadn’t been thoroughly researched rang pretty in the wake of GENERA’s launch.

By September of 2013 it has become nearly impossible for science minded people aware of the issues surrounding GMO’s to be susceptible to the drumbeat of doubt pounded by those who keep saying that GMO’s have not been studied, that the research has all been bought and paid for by the industry, and that a substantial debate exists among scientists about the safety of GMO’s. A major lynch pin of respectable agnosticism that had existed in 2009 had simply vanished by September 2013.

What became perhaps the greatest source of polarization about GMO’s also came about during the Prop 37 campaign. In September of 2012 just before the vote on November 6th began the notorious Séralini Affair.

French researchers headed by Gilles-Eric Séralini published a study supposedly showing that female rats fed GM corn developed tumors at a higher rate than those fed non-GM corn. (The study also demonstrated a lesser reported health benefit for male rats drinking the herbicide Round Up) The study helpfully included photos of tumor engorged rats (but no photos of control rats) that immediately began appearing on placards, picket signs and pro-37 websites. The study, especially the photos, was an agitprop coup for Prop 37 backers.

It also immediately triggered what may, in the end, be a longer lasting and more powerful backlash by science journalists. A backlash that sets the anti-GMO movement back more than the agitprop gains the Séralini study added in moved them towards their goals. Reputable scientists and science journalists were quick to discredit the study and they weren’t pleased.

On October 10, 2012 the journal Nature was reporting: “Hyped GM Maize Study Faces Growing Scrutiny“, detailing obvious flaws with the study. A bigger deal, in terms of the cultural dynamics, came when the science writer Carl Zimmer of The New York Times and National Geographic condemned THE WAY the study was released.

I don’t like starting the weekend in a state of infuriation, but here we are.

On Wednesday, French scientists had a press conference to announce the publication of a study that they claimed showed that genetically modified food causes massive levels of cancer in rats.

The paper appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. That being said, outside experts quickly pointed out how flimsy it was, especially in its experimental design and its statistics. Scicurious has a good roundup of the problems at Discover’s The Crux.

But those outside experts were slow to comment in part because reporters who got to see the paper in advance of the embargo had to sign a confidentiality agreement to get their hands on it. They weren’t allowed to show it to other experts.

. . . the strategy was clear: prevent science writers from getting informed outside opinions, so that you can bask in the badly-reported media spotlight. Sure, the real story may emerge later, but if you get that first burst of attention, you can lock in people’s first impressions. The documentary about the primate fossil got the audience its producers were hoping for. The French scientists got the attention of the French government, and thus reinforcing opposition to genetically modified foods, although the study itself fails to make that case. Mission accomplished.

This is a rancid, corrupt way to report about science.

This last phrase became the title of a post at Tracker the blog of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT. The post details the outrage and alienation that swept through the science journalism community at the shoddy work of the study, the manipulation of the media and the cynical, opportunistic agitprop uses the study was put to in the Prop 37 campaign.

For science writer Keith Kloor it was a wake up moment. It was in the aftermath of the Séralini debacle that he realized that anti-GMO activists were cut from the same cloth as climate science deniers, his usual beat for debunking style journalism and blogging. Writing in Slate:

I used to think that nothing rivaled the misinformation spewed by climate change skeptics and spinmeisters.

Then I started paying attention to how anti-GMO campaigners have distorted the science on genetically modified foods. You might be surprised at how successful they’ve been and who has helped them pull it off.

I’ve found that fears are stoked by prominent environmental groups, supposed food-safety watchdogs, and influential food columnists; that dodgy science is laundered by well-respected scholars and propaganda is treated credulously by legendary journalists; and that progressive media outlets, which often decry the scurrilous rhetoric that warps the climate debate, serve up a comparable agitprop when it comes to GMOs.

In short, I’ve learned that the emotionally charged, politicized discourse on GMOs is mired in the kind of fever swamps that have polluted climate science beyond recognition.

The latest audacious example of scientific distortion came last week, in the form of a controversial (but peer reviewed!) study [pdf] that generated worldwide headlines. A French research team purportedly found that GMO corn fed to rats caused them to develop giant tumors and die prematurely.

Within 24 hours, the study’s credibility was shredded by scores of scientists. The consensus judgment was swift and damning: The study was riddled with errors—serious, blatantly obvious flaws that should have been caught by peer reviewers.

As the parallels between climate science denial and anti-GMO activism began to sink in we witnessed another signal event in January of 2013. The environmentalist and former anti-GMO activist Mark Lynas gave a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference stating it explicitely: His anti-GMO views had been a form of denialism. When challenged on the contradiction between his support and reliance on the consensus on climate change and his opposition to the consensus on GMO’s he was forced to admit that he simply hadn’t grappled with the science or the views and ideas of those he’d opposed.

My second climate book, Six Degrees, was so sciency that it even won the Royal Society science books prize, and climate scientists I had become friendly with would joke that I knew more about the subject than them. And yet, incredibly, at this time in 2008 I was still penning screeds in the Guardian attacking the science of GM – even though I had done no academic research on the topic, and had a pretty limited personal understanding. I don’t think I’d ever read a peer-reviewed paper on biotechnology or plant science even at this late stage.

Obviously this contradiction was untenable. What really threw me were some of the comments underneath my final anti-GM Guardian article. In particular one critic said to me: so you’re opposed to GM on the basis that it is marketed by big corporations. Are you also opposed to the wheel because it is marketed by the big auto companies?

So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths.

Except for the apology, none of what Mark Lynas said was news to science journalists. Yet, I have to think that the flashpoint of the convert’s confession, bearing witness to the denialism of the movement he had helped found must have served to sharpen and harden the conception that opposition to GMO’s is a form of denialism and thus something that science journalists must and will reflexively push back at.

I doubt that GMO opponents really understand the ground they have lost in the polarization following Prop 37. The success of the March Against Monsanto was surely a success in terms of number of people in the street. The number of people actively opposed to GMO’s and in favor of labeling is certainly up from a year ago.

But the number of journalists who understand GMO’s reasonably well and are aware of the scientific consensus is greater as well. While many people get their news from specialized websites and blogs, most people still get there information from professional journalists and I believe the tide has already started to turn in that community. The number of writers turning to people like Pamela Ronald of UC Davis or Kevin Folta of the University of Florida for quotes and background is surely larger.

I think the era of a quote from Andrew Kimbrell or Jeremy Rifkin balanced with a quote from a Monsanto spokesperson is behind us. And it’s not good news in the long run for opponents of GMO’s.

Though I see these changes as good news, I don’t take any particular pleasure in pointing it out. While I believe the polarization of the issue and the resulting affinity bias is part of what brought the editors of Scientific American into taking a fairly explicitly pro-GMO stance in opposing mandatory labeling, the cognitive biases that kick in for all of us in a polarized environment make it harder to think clearly, to weigh inconvenient evidence and to hear our most thoughtful critics.

That to me is a loss.