Grist in the Midwest

In a small office on the main street of Colfax Nathanael Johnson unassumingly conducted an interview. He listened intently as a veterinarian talked about antibiotic use, GMOs and even her approaching due date for her twins.

Nathanael Johnson (left) visits with Dave Strutterhs at his farm near Collins, Iowa.

Nathanael Johnson (left) visits with Dave Strutterhs at his farm near Collins, Iowa.

Johnson, a self-acclaimed liberal doesn’t hide the fact that he was raised by parents embracing the 60’s values of hippies that populated the streets of San Francisco at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury during the summer of love. He attended the University of Berkeley and enjoys riding his custom bike on the winding streets of San Francisco. And most recently he has been tagged as an “agvocate” by reporting the facts about GMOs to a readership that prefers news about climate change, mass transit and subsistence farming.

Grist.org an online news site positions itself as a source of intelligent, irreverent environmental news and commentary that has been providing thought provoking articles for readers since 1999. Their goal is to get people talking, thinking and taking action and they proclaim that they are making lemonade out of looming climate apocalypse. There is no shortage of humor on the site mixed with the dire news of the day.

Event attendees visit with Nathanael Johnson about his reporting on GMOs.

Event attendees visit with Nathanael Johnson about his reporting on GMOs.

The answer, it turns out, can be found by simply asking him. And that is what a crowd of 150 people did during a question and answer event at the FFA Enrichment center in Ankeny. During the event he answered questions, talked about his stories and shed light on his approach to social concerns related to agriculture. You can read more about that event here: GMOs: “What’s the big deal?”

This week Johnson was also in Iowa to continue his work on a story about new guidelines by the USDA on the use of antibiotics in livestock. It will be another story in a body of work that has straddled the rails of environmentalism and agriculture that in the past has brought two ideologically different groups together, at least for the moment, on the unlikely subject of GMOs.

Johnson recently completed a six month discovery of GMOs that was celebrated by some in the Ag industry as a win for those that have always believed in GMO crops. Environmentalists and foodies stomached the conclusion too because of his thorough explanations along the way. Just a month into his duties as a food writer he was asked to tackle the issue of GMO’s. As his research and interviews took him deeper and deeper into the subject his stories angered people on both sides of the issue. He quickly found that the messages surrounding GMO’s were supercharged no matter what stance is taken.

I had the opportunity to visit with Johnson as I drove him to the vet clinic in Colfax and later to Dave Struthers pig farm near Collins. I found in talking to him that just because his ideology is rooted in environmentalism his job as a journalist searching for facts and reporting them without bias has led him to report on these issues as accurately as he can. Sometimes even in the face of his readership at Grist. I also found, as a journalist myself, that I can give credit to his editors and other management at Grist for allowing Johnson to explore these issues and report on them regardless of the findings with only accuracy as a guide.

Will his future stories be as accepted by those in the agricultural industry? My guess is probably not. However, after meeting and visiting with him during our drive through the Iowa countryside, I know that the stories will be constructed on facts. In doing so, Johnson will continue to build credibility – and bridges on the all-important topics of food and food safety.