CBS Television: Exploiting Fear for Profit and “Entertainment”


Last Monday the popular show “CSI: Miami” ran a segment in which a young woman dies and it turns out to be because of a GMO corn developed by a rogue company called “Bixton Organic Foods.”  In the plot, the company willingly puts people at risk.  This fictional scenario bears no plausible tie to reality, but it fits well with the simplistic, good guys/bad guys image in the Myth that many people believe about farming.  To see how it feels to be the brunt of a distortion like this, I recommend you read a post from a real corn farmer.  

So why is it possible for CBS writers to generate fictional “drama” about the “danger of GMO” when in fact GMO technology has been used with complete safety for more than a decade on a gigantic scale?  (Having witnessed first-hand the thought and care that went into developing this technology over the past 30 years, I’m not surprised by that safety record).  There is an abundance of good information available about this technology including many confirmations of its safety by panel after panel of highly qualified, science and medical experts around the world.  I think the reason that the fear of GMO persists in certain extreme circles is the same reason that there are still “birthers” and people who are sure that health reform will lead to “death panels.”  Its not that there is much overlap between these demographics but rather that the same mechanism of “selective knowing” is involved.

Epistomology in the Age of Information

It is ironic, and possibly tragic, that in the “information age”, when there is such a vast number of knowledge sources, it actually becomes more difficult to ferret out the truth.  Not all sources are equally credible, but it is difficult for people to know which are and which are not.  Even more problematic, it has become very easy today to simply limit your input to the sources that tend to tell you what you already believe. The success of FOX News demonstrates the fact that there is a profit to be made from mostly telling people things that fit their mindset.  In the case of GMOs and death panels, “selective information sourcing” is how myths, which have been completely de-bunked, can continue to be repeated over and over again until they are so strongly believed that no amount of contrary evidence can displace them.

I don’t want to assign motives to the CBS writers.  The fact that they somehow wrapped GMO, Organic and a veiled reference to Whole Foods into the same outlandish story makes it too difficult to guess an agenda.  It was probably just an attempt to “entertain” – something which seems to require more and more bizarre stunts and stories these days.

So, here is my personal invitation to the writers of CSI Miami.  I could give you some food supply danger scenarios that might not be likely but which have at least some connection to something that has or could actually ever happen.  Interested?

You are welcome to comment on this site or write to me at [email protected]

Image of Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting,  “The Scream” from oddsock.


  1. Bill Fisk

    If GMO food and crops are so good why are the farmers in India committing suicide over their failed crops? Why are we having food shortages in third world countries that use GMO seeds? The Monsanto’s of the world buying votes are the only reason GMO anything is out there, the stuff is under tested and unproven.

  2. Steve Savage

    You are repeating myths. The suicide thing in India is a classic example. It had to do with far more complex issues, but that never gets described in the sources that you probably read. As for “buying votes” being the only reason GMO is out there – you have obviously never tried to sell something to a farmer. These guys are smart and they only adopt new things that really help them. As for being under tested or unproven, that is simply not true. Broaden your sources of information. There is an old saying: “its what you know for sure that keeps you from learning.”

  3. Joe Naftel

    The evidence is out there that GMO is potentially harmful. It’s been shown to cause liver and reproductive problems in lab trials w/ animals. FDA memos now released show their own scientists had real concerns that were never addressed as did scientists that worked for the corporations developing the GMOs. To state there have been no health problems associated with GMOs ignores a dramatic increase in allergy and allergic type reaction syndrome issues in the roughly ten years GMO has been wide spread in the American food system.

    I didn’t see the CBS show so I can’t comment directly but I’m sure it was covered with corral carpet.
    And it’s no more difficult to sell a farmer something he doesn’t need than any other businessman. If GMO is so freaking great why are we subsidizing farmers and their *wonderful* GMO to the tune of billions of tax payers dollars every year?

  4. Steve Savage

    “shown to cause liver and reproductive problems…” That was the idiotic study done by an academic guy in Scotland where he intentionally generated potatoes with toxins. That has no bearing on anything that would ever be commercial. Any technology is “potentially harmful” if you are dumb about what you do with it.
    As you well know, there are plenty of other hypotheses about any increases in reaction syndrome issues such as excessive hygiene. The link to GMO is testable and has been tested.
    Real businessmen (that are going to stay in business) don’t buy much they don’t need. As for why we have crop subsidies, thats simple. There are two senators for every state. That gives the ag lobby far too much power. I would prefer to see any subsidies converted to green payments for doing things like no-till and controlled wheel traffic that have huge environmental benefits.

  5. Zach Dwiel

    “The suicide thing in India is a classic example. It had to do with far more complex issues, but that never gets described in the sources that you probably read.”

    Would you mind sharing some of these sources?

    Many people have been saving seeds for generations, many strains go back to the Native Americans. These seeds have evolved to work well in the locations they have lived in. In many cases, they have been bred by a farmer’s family for generations and can be found nowhere else in the world. They will have evolved to specifically meet that farmer’s land, desires and methods.

    A big problem I have with GMOs is when they use the technology to be create self-destructing Terminator Seeds which can not reproduce. If a farmer plants these GMO Terminator seeds, they are likely to cross pollinate and cause all nearby plants in the same species to also self-destruct, even the plants that a farmer has been evolving for generations. Not only does this mean the seed saving farmer has to buy seeds (which they have never had to do in the past), but it also means that they have lost the seeds which have been evolving for generations. That genetic information is highly valuable and irreplaceable.

    I think that at the very least these terminator seeds should not be legal, as they often destroy personal property. The problem right now is that Monsanto is such a huge corporation that nobody so far has had the time or energy to match them in a legal battle.

    When we consider the effects of GMOs, we must also consider the effects of the genes spreading. I didn’t even touch on the arguments about genetic diversity and opening potential vulnerabilities into our entire food seed base.

  6. M. Davis

    “GMO technology has been used with complete safety for more than a decade on a gigantic scale?”

    You can say this knowing that GMO producing multinationals do not present all their research to the public nor to governing bodies. You know they hid the bad news and promote the good news.

    Proof: Show me one recent independent controlled human feeding trial, then I/we may believe you about GMO safety. Meanwhile – we are being told lies, by you and GMO producers, as there is proof that GMOs do not deliver on all their promise and, in fact, are not a good thing for biodiversity, just for one example, and evidence of allergic reactions for another. Do more serious research. In the meantime, Stop your Spin.

  7. Steve Savage

    I wrote to Zach with detailed answers but briefly:

    http://casi.ssc.upenn.edu/iit/rherring is a site from the Center for the Advanced Study of India and http://artsci.wustl.edu/~anthro/research/biotech_suicide.html is a site about the “debt traps” in India that are a much broader problem that the sale of GMO seeds.
    There is no such thing as “Terminator” technology – it was something that the USDA tried to develop when people were thinking about producing otherwise costly protein pharmaceuticals in plants. That technology was supposed to make sure that those genes didn’t move into any ordinary related crops. 1) it didn’t really work, 2)Monsanto did license the patent, but later it stopped even working of bio-pharma plants for other reasons. This is a red herring.

    Biotech does not interfere in any way with a farmer who wants to save seed in a traditional farming system nor does it “out-cross” with related plants any differently than the crop has always out-crossed. Genes have always moved among closely related plants and it isn’t a problem. If there is a potential issue (e.g. GMO sunflowers could cross with wild sunflower in North America) then the GMO crop is never commercialized – as is the case for sunflower. In South America there are not wild sunflowers, so it was perfectly safe to use GMO sunflowers there.

  8. Steve Savage

    M Davis,

    The EPA does not allow “human feeding trials” and the data submitted for approval of any new GMO crop is extensive. The myth that there is no data submission is just a myth that gets spread in exactly the same fashion as the one about “death panels.” Just because you read something on the internet doesn’t mean its true

  9. Steve Savage


    Certainly it is fictional, but I don’t have sufficient confidence in the American public to believe that they fully understand that. Most “fictional” dramas try to tie into current issues. The line between fact and fiction is blurred.

  10. M. Davis

    “The EPA does not allow “human feeding trials.” Well,how quaint. They think nothing about using the who world’s population as trial subjects though. Impossible to assess damage on such a broad base. Furthermore, they do not allow independent testing – hence the problem.
    And no doubt the data is extensive, just not complete, and one sided. What is extensive is the depth of the pockets of Monsanto lobbyists, and people willing to defend for money this technology nobody wants on their plates.
    Bet all you pro GMOers eat organic or grow your own!
    And where is democracy in all this. Approximately 75% of the world population do not want this product, yet it goes largely unlabeled. Very unhealty for people to have to worry about this fear of food. In fact, it should be criminal to force people to eat what they do not want. I say “force” because most people do not have time to research, and think their governments are looking after them. Finally, just because Monsanto, Dupont, et all say something is true, doesn’t mean it is true. Think honestly about what we are saying, and you may see our point of view.

  11. Steve Savage

    M Davis,
    I don’t see how the EPA can limit independent testing. l would submit to you that the EPA scientists are as an ethical group as you can imagine. Do you have some evidence to the contrary?

    Do I eat organic or grow my own? I grow a bit of my own vegetable supply, but I don’t buy much organic.

    Nothing is true because a major company says it it true. It comes down to the science. You say, “think honestly about the things that we are saying, and you may see our point of view.” I have thought honestly about these issues for more than 30 years and from a scientific point of view, and your “point of view” does not wash.

  12. M. Davis

    Being obviously obtuse does not recommend you, even after 30 years of study. You know perfectly well that I meant the BioTech giants such as Monsanto do not allow independent testing. (Reported in Scientific journal a few months ago.)

    As for science, yes, it’s great to a point but not when it replaces something good (local farmers preferably organic, definitely sustainable) with something NO GOOD (GMO, lack of bio diversity, unsustainability, and health risks (unknown because NO independent testing). And…forcing us to eat something we don’t want anyway. The EU demands labeling, so certain companies package non GMO cereals in the EU, but give us as much GMOs as they can cram into every product. Ingredients no one wants.

    Which scientists do you believe the Pros, or the Cons who are often gagged by Big Agra $$ for fear for their jobs?

    You have made up your mind, and I mine, from scientific readings and news reports. You have posted nothing to make me think otherwise – and I would be open to proof – never doubt that!

    That’s my last words on the subject.
    No hard feelings. Opinions matter.

  13. Julie

    Steve – I’m really shocked by this post. A blog that’s ostensibly about sustainability being so blithely pro-GM just makes no sense to me. I see from your profile that you’ve got quite a wide-ranging history in science and the corporate world. Would you mind elaborating more specifically on the scientific work you’ve done that relates to this issue and who funded/funds it?

    And what do you make of scientific critiques of agricultural biotechnology, particularly from such reputable groups as the Union of Concerned Scientists (e.g., http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/impacts_genetic_engineering/impacts-of-genetic.html ) ?


  14. Steve Savage

    I’m sorry that you are shocked, but there is nothing “blithe” about my pro-GM stance. Unlike a lot of folks who blog about food and agriculture, I have first hand experience over decades. No one pays me to write this blog, in fact it has significantly reduced by consulting income because of the time I spend on it. It would be easier for me to list the ag technology companies I haven’t worked with over the years. That includes biotech giants and also small start-ups. It includes many biocontrol and natural product companies including 7 years focused just on that. I feel very good about my career because of the hugely positive changes I’ve witnessed in Ag over the last 30 years. I have a vision for the further progress I’d like to see in terms of sustainability. Biotech is a relatively small part of that story, but important

    Based on your comment I reviewed the Union of Concerned Scientists site. When you drill down their ag experts represent a small group of folks who have been familiar for decades. Their main complaint is with the potential for a bio-pharma or bio-industrial crop to cross pollinate with regular crops. That is a real issue that has been discussed in biotech circles for decades – I remember a meeting in Davis in the early 80s where that issue came up. There is actually very little of that kind of research underway for regular food crops. There is a modified starch potato for industrial purposes in Europe, but since potatoes are not grown from seed and there are not wild relatives around, its not the sort of “gene-flow” issue that UCS talks about.

    On the whole, plant biotechnology is one of the safest, large-scale technologies ever developed. All technologies have the potential for unintended effects (how many people have been killed by cell phone distraction?), but this one is remarkably low in that category

  15. Julie

    Thanks Steve. I wasn’t actually asking about whether you got income on this from the blog, but about where any research you’ve been involved with has gotten funding.

    I’m not convinced by any research that is produced by those with vested interests in the outcome (which in this case would include any company involved in ag biotech for a profit) – fine if they do the research of course, but it needs to be checked out by independent scientists who don’t have to be careful about biting the hand that feeds them.

    This is no insult to anyone who works for corporates – we’re all likely to operate in the same way. Which is exactly why independent testing is so crucial, and so remarkably absent in the case of GMOs.

    Unfortunately we can’t rely on the EPA or FDA to take care of this for us in recent years – their links with major corporates like Monsanto are well-documented. Are you familiar with the revolving door principle? A few years as a consultant or exec for Monsanto, a few years in the EPA, and back and forth it goes. Not exactly independent oversight.

  16. Steve Savage

    Julie, Sorry. I misunderstood. I’m not a regulatory expert, but I believe the deal with the “independent testing” question is that the USDA, the EPA and the FDA review the testing data, but the applicant (whether for a new drug, a new crop protection chemical, or a new GMO variety) has to pay for the testing. We are talking about huge costs in many cases. The taxpayer shouldn’t have to pay for that. The reason that this isn’t inappropriate is that there are intense rules about how the tests need to be conducted and reported. If you have a negative test result, you don’t have the option of not reporting it. Often times tests are run in labs that do work for many companies. They can be audited by the regulatory agencies. I remember once when a company I worked for was testing a new “insecticidal soap”, natural product. It came up as a moderate irritant in the rabbit eye test (big surprise). We had to report that and so the product that is a classic example of a “soft” pesticide had a pretty scary warming label. Obviously that is a minor example.

    The reason that we don’t know much about the toxicity of natural compounds in food is there there isn’t anyone who wants to pony-up the cash. The few that have been done suggest that almost any food we eat contains natural chemicals that would never be approved if they were pesticides. That isn’t really that scary, just interesting.

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