Thursday, November 3, 2016

Monsanto and Mother Jones agree(!): NYTimes lying with GMO statistics

Are we finally sick and tired of people twisting facts to suit their agendas—even when they’re agendas we agree with?

New York Times writer Danny Hakim walked into a storm of criticism, even though he was just doing what so many have done for so long. 

He wrote a big takedown of the GMO industry, which it is perfectly possible to do without lying. 

But The Times, which published his story Sunday, did a classic smear job. It was so obvious, and so wrong, that it makes you wonder whether anyone at the New York Times is editing its science writers.

Now it turns out that folks all over the map have attacked the sloppy reporting—really all over the map. From Mother Jones to Monsanto.

Hakim set up a straw man—GMOs were supposed to increase crop yields more than non-GMOs.

Then he cherrypicked data to slap it down.

Predictably, Monsanto objected. Here is a Huffington Post piece by a Monsanto vice-president.
Here are Monsanto’s data for environmentally comparable areas of Ontario, Canada, and France: 

“Overall, (corn) yields increased from 113 bushels per acre in 1997 to 170 bushels per acre in 2015, an increase of 51 percent. In France during the same period, the increase in yields was only about 10.5 percent.”

Hakim missed that, but gratuitously threw in some “confirming” statistics. 

“Herbicide use is coming down in France while it’s coming up in the U.S.,” Hakim said in an NPR interview associated with his research.

He ignores two huge facts.

First, France's herbicide use may be down somewhat over time, but it's still equivalent, pound for pound, to North American use.

And second, France's fungicide and insecticide use--calculated at weight per acre--is many times the level used on North American crops.

Can we agree that those are massive facts in this discussion? The French use more pesticide than the U.S. How do you miss that unless you’re intentionally missing it?  

Particularly, how do you miss it if you've conducted, and announce it in your second paragraph, "an extensive examination by The New York Times."

I’ve actually talked to actual American Midwest farmers. They’re spraying far less than they used to.
And based on the French example, the French non-GMO farmer is spraying far more for insect pests than the GMO farmer.

Don’t take my word for this stuff. 

Folks on all sides of the political and environmental spectrum have gone after the Times for bad science reporting. 

Mother Jones, the left-wing journal, is far, very far, from friendly to the GMO industry. It’s a regular, persistent thorn in Monsanto’s side. 

But even Mother Jones attacked Hakim’s work, in an article entitled, “How to mislead with statistics.” 

Was there intent on the part of the New York Times to deceive? Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum thinks so: 

“If you click on the chart pack in the Times story, you will actually find charts showing raw volume of pesticide use in the US and France. However, they're shown in two different charts, using different units, and broken up into different categories. If you were deliberately trying to make a comparison nearly impossible, this is how you'd do it.”

And Grist, another pro-environment site, also attacked the Times piece.

Both Grist and Mother Jones argued against the assumption that American farmers are uneducated, stupid, and prone to make costly errors in judgment.

“It would be a shame if we on the liberal coasts decided the technology was useless just because we have a hard time seeing the benefits that are clear to Midwestern farmers,” write Grist’s Nathaniel Johnson.

And here's the Mother Jones comment along a similar line.

“The story was pretty shallow in its use of statistics. It assumed that you can compare different countries without controlling for anything (different soils, climates, crops, etc.). And it seemed to suggest that American farmers must be idiots, because they keep buying GMO seeds even though they're worthless.”

Let me just say, if you’re the New York Times, “Ouch.”

The good news, is that this example may suggest there's a crack in the armor of ends-justifies-means reporting. 

Let's have these conversations, but let's cut the self-serving prevarication and have the discussions on the basis of facts we can agree on.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2016

1 comment:

Tony Sommer said...

Very good column, Jan. If you can judge by election coverage, the NYT has made a sharp turn in their reporting catering to what they perceive is their reader base rather than providing objective journalism. The GMO story was highly biased. When I read it, I just shook my head. Good work calling them on it!