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:


  1. This is exactly what I was concerned about when we chatted on your Don’t-call-them-superweeds post. It has been my suspicion that people are under the impression that the resistance was a gene transfer situation.

    They don’t always say it explicitly (as Laurie did here) but I think it’s underlying their claims even when they don’t say that. And that leads to further misunderstandings on herbicides.

    Thanks for addressing this. I hate to have to Rbutr the Colbert Report, but I will have to do so.


  2. Yeah just another example of wrong, as in really wrong information being shared as correct information, even if it was part of the schtick. People are going to believe a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer even if she’s joking and it’s not clear whether she is or is not. Thought “my amber waves of frankengrain” rising in back of Colbert was pretty funny though.

    1. Yeah, I actually enjoyed Colbert’s part of the bit. He was just given incorrect information by an “expert” as fact. And that’s annoying.

  3. What I don’t understand is why she was the guest on this topic at all. There are tons of scientists who would have been much more knowledgable on the subject (obviously) and would have been funny too. Why is the go-to person for glyphosate resistant wheat a journalist? She might be a really great journalist, but what is going on here?

    1. OK, so I looked her up (Wikipedia). Apparently she does have quite a science background. Good for her! So, IMHO that makes this even worse. Both journalism and science training tell us to wait and gather information before spouting off. Also, her research and journalism has been in medicine… so again I ask why did Colbert pick her?

      1. I listened to her speak last fall about influenza epidemics, and while she was sharp on some issues, she was very wrong about others, includig how long it would take to do a directed evolution project and the risks involved. I think some f this s shaped by her national defense mindset from the think tank.

  4. I agree that the Colbert Report is a political satire, comedy show, but it does fill a journalistic niche within the spectrum of news especially with a younger demographic. There are people who get all of their facts and news from their programs. But the point that I’m trying to make is that Colbert and Jon Stewart will both hide the fact that they are comedians if anyone is critical of the “facts” presented on their shows.

    1. It is a fair point to say that there is a demographic that actually rely on Stewart & Colbert for news. I’m actually one who watches these shows far more than any actual news program. That said, I think we can’t hold them to the same journalistic standard as real journalists. They are parody, and they do it well. My issue, is that Laurie Garrett is a journalist, and one that has actually won a Pulitzer Prize for her science journalism. She is well respected, has science and journalism credentials, and therefore should know better than to go out and simply repeat untruths she read on the internet. And Colbert’s bit about frankengrain would have been equally funny if she had presented real facts, instead of made up crap.

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