Laurie Garrett gets things surprisingly wrong on the Colbert Report

Stephen Colbert
Stephen Colbert

Strange times indeed. I woke up this morning to find several folks in my twitter stream alerting me to an interview on the “Colbert Report.” The interview was supposed to be about the GM wheat found recently in Oregon. Near the beginning of the interview, Colbert asks (humorously) how the GM wheat survived, wondering if it had been “doing a Rambo out there, living on mud puddles and grubs?”

Laurie Garrett immediately goes completely off-topic and responds:

Garrett: “The one thing we know, is that there are 24 strains of so-called superweeds. These are giant weeds that are very hard to kill, because they’ve absorbed these strange genes that make them resistant…”

Colbert:  “In some wheat, there’s a gene in there that keeps Roundup from killing it, and that can jump to the weeds its trying to kill?”

Garrett:  “Exactly.”

Exactly?? I don’t know what Laurie Garrett’s area of expertise is. Before this interview was brought to my attention on Twitter, I’d never heard of her. But she obviously knows very little about genetics, crop science, or weed management. This exchange is really quite baffling to me. Ms. Garrett apparently thinks that the 24 different “superweeds” (I presume she really means glyphosate-resistant weeds) have become glyphosate-resistant by “absorbing strange genes” from Roundup Ready wheat. The most troubling part, to me, is that she begins her statement with “The one thing we know…” and then proceeds to say something that is a complete fabrication.

Of the 24 weed species confirmed to be glyphosate-resistant, not a single one became resistant by hybridizing (or “absorbing” a gene, as Ms. Garrett describes it) from a crop. All glyphosate-resistant weeds found to date have evolved due to selection of naturally occurring resistant biotypes within a population by repeated use of the herbicide. Absolutely no crop transgenes have ever been found in a glyphosate-resistant weed. This could be possible in the future, particularly in the case of crops with closely related weed species (such as wheat and jointed goatgrass). But it has not happened to date.

Ms. Garrett then talks about the “Farmers Assurance Provision” and says that it:

“makes it impossible to sue genetically modified crop issues.”

I presume she is talking about the same paragraph that had been dubbed the “Monsanto Protection Act” by anti-GMO folks. The text of that provision is here:

Sec. 735. In the event that a determination of non-regulated status made pursuant to section 411 of the Plant Protection Act is or has been invalidated or vacated, the Secretary of Agriculture shall, notwithstanding any other provision of law, upon request by a farmer, grower, farm operator, or producer, immediately grant temporary permit(s) or temporary deregulation in part, subject to necessary and appropriate conditions consistent with section 411(a) or 412(c) of the Plant Protection Act, which interim conditions shall authorize the movement, introduction, continued cultivation, commercialization and other specifically enumerated activities and requirements, including measures designed to mitigate or minimize potential adverse environmental effects, if any, relevant to the Secretary’s evaluation of the petition for non-regulated status, while ensuring that growers or other users are able to move, plant, cultivate, introduce into commerce and carry out other authorized activities in a timely manner: Provided, That all such conditions shall be applicable only for the interim period necessary for the Secretary to complete any required analyses or consultations related to the petition for non-regulated status: Provided further, That nothing in this section shall be construed as limiting the Secretary’s authority under section 411, 412 and 414 of the Plant Protection Act.

I don’t see anything in Section 735 that says anything about not being able to sue Monsanto. This paragraph gives absolutely no protection to Monsanto whatsoever with respect to GM wheat being found in Oregon. Perhaps Ms. Garrett was talking about a different provision put into a continuing resolution?

I realize that the Colbert Report is a comedy show, and that his shtick is to be over the top. I personally watch the show regularly and think it is quite funny. So it’s difficult to be too upset about this. But during the interview, Laurie Garrett makes two claims, both of which are completely untrue. Personally, I would be a little wary of going on ANY show, even a comedy show, and simply making things up. Particularly if I wanted to keep any sort of credibility as a Pulitzer Prize winning science journalist.

Here is the Colbert Report clip:

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