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Balancing media coverage
Many people write in asking what to do about press coverage on GM they don't think is accurate. You can use this list of issues to help you reply to news items you feel do not provide an accurate representation of GM issues.
GM Freeze and others have long-standing frustrations with the way a variety of issues related to GM food and crops are reported by the media, including the understanding of the science, the motivations of those questioning the usual view and the politics of Big Ag. See the box below for an example of how we have tried to approach these concerns.
GM and the BBC: BBC coverage of GM has had its problems, and GM Freeze has complained through the usual channels (see various press releases, llike this) about the failure of coverage to air relevant scientific questions about GM technology or deeper socio-economic problems with the techno-fix approach.
GM Freeze also wrote a detailed submission to the BBC review of its science coverage (takes you to the BBC website). The review report states at pages 63, 66 and 77:
"Too often, though, the non-governmental bodies it [the BBC] turns to in such discussions have a social an political, rather than a scientific, agenda. They have every right to promote their views, and some do sterling work. Even so, constantly to invoke then in opposition to researchers can lead to bizarre mismatches. The BBC would not have a discussion between a centre-forward and an opera critic but some of the discussions, like that on GM potatoes, have been almost as surreal…
“A belief in alternative medicine or astrology and a fear of vaccines or of GM food are symptomatic of a deep mistrust in conventional wisdom. Such skepticism should be part of every scientist’s, every journalist’s or very politician’s armoury. However mistrust can harden into denial. That faces the media with a problem for, in their desire to give an objective account of what appears to be an emerging controversy, they face the danger of being trapped into false balance: into given equal coverage to the views of a determined but deluded minority and to those of a united but less insistent majority….
“There is no doubt that the majority of BBC news and current affairs science reports in Today, Newsnight, Panaorama and elsewhere are clear, accurate and impartial…
“Of course in science the contrarians are sometimes right.”
The BBC is not a scientific body, yet seems to be making scientific judgements. As a major media outlet it could make a valuable contribution to public discourse by addressing the fact that there is growing scientific dispute about GM remembering that, as they note, we might just be right.
This type of difficulty is sadly too common and is not limited to the BBC.
To be clear: Our concern is not the amount of time offered to each side, as is sometimes claimed, but the quality of discourse and the failure of the media (in general, there are exceptions) to engage in an exposure of the deeper questions, ethical and scientific, in favour of the easier option of portraying well-founded concern and questioning as “fear” of change or technology.
Some of these issues are indeed political or ethical. This does not invalidate them as serious and worthy of thorough discussion.
Seeking real balance in coverage
One of the most effective ways to try to ensure better media coverage of our side of the GM debate is to engage with local papers and radio stations. These papers often pick up stories from news agencies or other websites, and like all media outlets often their reporters are not familiar the issues they cover. This can mean myths circulated by the biotech industry can get repeated until people believe them.
However local media are often very interested in highlighting the views of local people. Much of this is now done online, but hard copy letters to editors are also a good way to make contact and get points across for those who do not use the internet. These pieces can also get picked up and repeated, so that's what we want to try to do.
Below is information for people who want either to write to editors or to respond to a piece on GM they feel needs rebalancing. It can help you respond to common issues raised in the media, as well as offering the GM Freeze view on alternatives to GM in food and farming that do the job better. Remember there is a lot of background on other parts of this website, so this will help you find your way around.
The current push for GM is about a failing industry trying to save itself. This intends to help readers see between some of the lines in their arguments.
If you have questions about responding to press arguments that are not answered here, feel free to get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll help and add it to this list so others can benefit.
Please share any responses you get from editors or reporters, they are very valuable in helping us monitor developments in the arguments and industry’s positioning.
The liability gap
It is always helpful to point out that like the cigarette industry, GM companies resist taking legal responsibility for their products. In order to protect us and make them more responsible, it’s time the GM industry was made strictly liable for all environmental, economic and health damage that may arise from GM food and crops. This is vital as “coexistence” of GM crops with conventional agriculture may be impossible.
If they believe their products are safe, biotech companies have nothing to lose by accepting liability for their products.
When they say: “Millions of GM meals eaten in the US with no harm done”
GM is unlabelled and untraced in the US food supply, so there is no way to determine where GM is going or what health impacts it might be having, or even how much GM is actually being eaten. Without tracing where GM has gone it is impossible to study the impacts, so claims of this nature have no scientific basis.
Industry food safety claims are based on their own, not independent, data. Food safety approvals are based on data supplied by industry (with a vested interest in the success of the application) to regulators, so often regulators have no independent data to compare to industry claims.
It is very helpful to ask for the reference to a peer-reviewed scientific paper of studies of public health showing “no harm” done from eating GM in the US. We do not believe credible studies of this kind exist.
When they say: “Opposition to GM is based on fear, not science”
There is a wealth of scientific papers and reports casting doubt on the safety of GM foods and crops for people, animals and the environment. The EU procedures for assessing the risks of GM are currently undergoing a major revision following Member States raising concerns about their adequacy. These concerns are being voiced throughout the world, for instance Indian courts reversed a decision to approve GM Bt Brinjal because of the poor quality of the scientific data presented.
It is helpful to point out that citizens are not obliged to accept whatever is scientifically possible, and ethical concerns are valid and should receive respectful attention. The public should be honestly consulted and their responses respected. Non-GM alternatives are also based on science and often already do the job better, with less risk and no public rejection, keeping farmers and consumers on the same side so everyone benefits.
Citizens are not obliged to accept whatever is scientifically possible.
When they say: “GM improves yield”
We are often told we need GM to feed a growing world population because GM raises yields.
No current GM crops have been shown to consistently increase yields. GM traits for herbicide tolerance and insect resistance, which dominate GM commercial crops, do not increase yield per se. In fact independent US studies show up to 10% lower yield in GM soya – showing that manipulating a few genes gives unpredictable results. The IAASTD report, a comprehensive global study by 400 scientists, found that a fundamental change in our approach to agriculture is required to feed the world, and the role for GM as a quick fix is not sustainable.
It is helpful to point out that increased yields are due to developments in traditional plant breeding, not GM. GM labs use already high-yielding varieties and then apply GM techniques to them. This is not GM improving yield.
When they say: “GM will help us cope with climate change/drought”
All crops need the right mix of sun, water and healthy soil to produce a good yield – GM cannot change this. Despite many promises and billions of pounds spent over decades on research, not a single GM drought tolerant crop has been developed that farmers can actually grow.
GM promises of good crops in tough areas are already causing huge problems in some areas, like South Africa, where GM crops are not just weak, but failing (takes you to digitaljournal).
It is very helpful to point out that traditional plant breeding, using modern techniques, has produced successful non-GM drought tolerant crops in fields where farmers need them now.
When they say: “GM is ‘greener’/reduces chemical use”
Herbicide tolerant (Roundup Ready, etc) crops:
GM can reduce the use of weedkillers like Roundup in the first few crops, but weeds are quickly developing resistance to the chemicals used on GM crops. The resulting “superweeds” are forcing farmers to use more and more chemicals, including older, more dangerous ones, at considerable expense. Some US GM farmers have to hand weed whole fields when chemicals stop working, and a host of other problems are emerging.
It is clear GM herbicide tolerant crops have accelerated the development of weedkiller resistance. There are now 140 types of herbicide tolerant “superweeds” in 40 US states, with 13 species resistant to glyphosate, and even the industry admits it takes older, more dangerous chemicals to control them.
It is useful to point out that there is good scientific reason to believe that reverting to other herbicides when glyphosate fails will have a devesatating result producing even more superweeds. This is why a different approach is needed instead of accelerating the pesticide treadmill with more GM and more chemicals.
Insecticide (Bt) crops:
GM Bt maize and cotton are engineered to produce toxins in every part of the plant – including the parts we eat. The toxins kill some insect pests, but not all, and Monsanto now admits that pink bollworm in parts of India is resistant to GM cotton it was designed to control (takes you to Hindustan Times and India Today). Exposing non-target insects (like butterflies) to Bt toxins remains an issue of great concern, as does the safety of the Bt toxins for human health.
GM insect resistant crops produce their own pesticides instead of being sprayed with chemical insecticides, but this is a change in the way pesticides are used – GM Bt crops have not resulted in an overall reduction is pesticide exposure.
It is helpful to point out that the development of pest resistance shows that Bt toxins, like other artificial pesticides, do not provide a sustainable solution to controlling pests.
It is also very helpful to point out that GM is a change in the way pesticides are used, not a reduction, and that unlike applied pesticides (which also need to be reduced) eating this kind of GM means eating the toxins produced by the plant - they can't be scrubbed off.
GM aphid repelling wheat:
It is very unclear if this approach will work or be acceptable to the wider farming community, for whom there is no market for GM. Aphids driven off GM wheat may move on to neighbouring non-GM crops. There is good reason to believe aphids will become accustomed to the GM wheat so it may simply not work.
It is helpful to point out that other non-GM techniques, like simply encouraging naturally occurring aphid predators and parasites, works without GM and also has the considerable benefits of cutting pesticide use and protecting the UK wheat market and exports from the risk of GM contamination.
When they say: “GM is modern, predictable science”
The early idea that one gene controls one action is rapidly becoming outdated. Modern science, including the study of epigenetics, shows genes have far more complicated interactions with one another and the environment than was first imagined. Therefore many of the promises of the GM industry based on cut-and-paste moving a few genes between species may simply not prove possible.
However the industry has spent many years and millions of pounds in research, and it is unlikely to let that funding stream go without a fight.
It is helpful to point out that more modern applications of genetics in plant breeding are showing great promise and should be supported with generous funding support. Marker Assisted Selection (MAS) is an advanced genetic technique used to identify valuable traits in parent plants before fertilisation to ensure those genes are passed to offspring plants. This cutting edge development of traditional plant breeding already produces breakthroughs where GM has failed (including deepwater rice, drought resistant rice, high protein corn, pest resistant potatoes, disease resistant barley, millet and watermelon).
On contamination of non-GM crops with GM traits
The chances for GM to contaminate other crops varies from crop to crop, depending on how they are modified, how they pollinate/reproduce, if it is an experimental crop or from a GM crop commercialised elsewhere in the world, etc. GM contamination can and does happen, including in the UK.
It is helpful to point out that regardless of the controls put in place, it is not possible to prevent the wind from blowing, insects from collecting pollen or people making mistakes.
In discussions about GM wheat trials in the UK much has been made of the heaviness of wheat pollen decreasing the chances of GM wheat cross-pollinating with non-GM wheat. This is used to dismiss points about contamination of the food chain.
It is very helpful to point out that cross-pollination is not the only means of GM contaminating non-GM supplies, so this argument does not answer the question. Migrating geese are now thought to be responsible for GM contamination of North American canola (oilseed rape) crops far from source. Other birds or small animals can move GM grains, seeds or tubers off GM fields into other fields, as can farm machinery. Western Australia, having been promised no problems with the introduction of GM canola, now faces multiple GM contamination incidents of non-GM farms due to spillage of GM during transport and flood waters carrying GM beyond its intended sites. Farmers should be very concerned about this.
Cross-pollination is not the only means of GM contaminating non-GM supplies.
It is also very helpful to point out that the causes of some of the largest GM contamination incidents are unknown, including the ongoing problems with Chinese rice, the huge problems with US rice, the global contamination of flax/linseed that started in Canada and so on. Relying on arguments about cross-pollination is in no way sufficient to deal with the concern.
When they say: “We’ll get left behind if we don’t do GM” (or “We need GM for our economy/meat industry”)
GM has promised much, but hasn’t delivered. A far better use of time and money would be to improve farmer training right around the world, including in the UK.
It is helpful to point out that GM is not the only available approach to agricultural science. Rather than throw good money after bad, the UK should establish centres of excellence in areas like soil husbandry and advanced traditional plant breeding to lead the world in a more sustainable and equitable approach to managing farmland and forests.
The farming press often claims we need GM animal feed to remain competitive. These discussions can claim, or appear to claim, that:
- EU GM policy prevents farmers from buying GM feed (this is untrue, they can buy as much of it as they like),
- There is not enough non-GM feed to meet the need (also untrue, as there is a good deal of non-GM produced that farmers are unwilling to pay to have certified as non-GM because they do not have a secure buyer. This non-GM is therefore sold mixed in with GM).
The EU has become far too dependent on imported animal feed, much of it GM. Policies favour a highly concentrated industrial farm model that has resulted in poor animal welfare and forces smaller farmers out of business.
National authorities are not testing food to find GM in places it shouldn't be or to follow up reports showing damage to animals’ guts, lower nutritional value and allergic reactions or reactions in immune systems in GM-fed livestock. GM DNA from feed can pass into animals’ blood. Pesticides in GM animal feed are not routinely monitored, so we don’t know what our livestock are eating. We do know the maximum legal residue limit for weedkiller glyphosate in food was raised 200% at the time GM soya came on the market.
It is helpful to point out that the vast majority of the world's crops are not GM – based on current figures GM is only planted on about 2.75% of global agricultural land. Most of this goes to animal feed, fibre and industrial-scale agrofuels. What’s left is in processed food (primarily unlabelled in North America).
It is also helpful to point out that there is enough non-GM feed produced to meet the need. If supermarkets would place orders for non-GM-fed animal products, farmers producing feed ingredients would have the confidence to acquire non-GM certification for the crops they are already producing.
It is also helpful to point out it was not a lack of GM that caused food prices to go up – GM soya and maize were produced throughout the 2007/8 price rises. Regional droughts, diverting food crops into industrial-scale agrofuels, financial speculation in food markets and the rising costs of fertilisers and fuel were key contributors. GM can’t fix these.
Furthermore research across the EU is helping us find the kind of crops and breeds we need to be less dependent on importing GM animal feed (takes you to The National Trust) and exporting the damage it does to communities and the environment in far away countries. This is where taxpayer money should go, not more GM research to produce products no one wants to eat.
When they say: “GM skeptics are preventing solutions to hunger”
It is very helpful to point out that the developing world is not clamouring for more GM. The Indian Government put an indefinite moratorium on GM brinjal (eggplant) – a flagship project for the GM industry – until safety questions are answered. There are GM bans, active protests or legal challenges in Thailand, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Mexico, South Africa, Kenya and Argentina, as well as Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Austria, Luxemburg, Hungary and elsewhere.
EU opposition to GM leads the way, showing that GM agriculture is not inevitable because citizens have the right to make our own decisions about what we grow and eat. La Via Campesina (takes you to VC) the 20 million strong global network of small and peasant farmers, strongly opposes GM crops, as does the Scottish Crofting Federation (takes you to SCF - see 20 March event).
EU opposition to GM leads the way, showing that GM agriculture is not inevitable.
It is helpful to point out that the world’s underlying approach to food should not be about market control, patents and profit. Feeding the world means tackling poverty, improving access to the food we already produce, ending the waste of 30-40% of the world’s food, reducing losses in storage, making trade fairer, curbing overconsumption and investing in effective research. We don’t need GM to do any of this, and in fact GM drains research funding away from better alternatives. See section on yield above for further points.
When they say: GM offers “choice”
GM crops are often portrayed as a “choice” for farmers, and sometimes for consumers.
It is helpful to point out that a significant number of consumers do not want GM in their food (as evidenced by supermarket refusal to permit GM in their own brand products). Neither do consumers want GM in their animal feed.
It is helpful to ask why farmers would choose to grow a crop that consumers do not want to eat.
Since people reject GM as food, the vast majority of GM crops (around 80%) have no place to go except into animal feed. There is no requirement to label food from animals fed a GM diet, so we do not know where we are supporting the GM industry in this way unless supermarkets have clear, strong policies.
The biotech industry fights hard to prevent GM labels. There is no informed consumer market demand for GM food or feed – when people know where GM is, they avoid it. When US dairies started labelling their milk as free from GM hormones, they were so popular Monsanto went to court to get them banned. They failed.
It is helpful to point out that a 2010 NOP poll showed 89% support for labels on animal products in the UK showing where GM feed is used, like they have in Austrian and Germany.
If the GM industry believes people are changing their minds, they have nothing to fear from using "GM-fed" labels and letting the market decide.
Other things you can add to letters on many topics
- Over 97% of the world’s farmland grows non-GM crops. Despite spending billions on research over decades, GM crops have not improved yields or solved drought tolerance, so they can’t help feed the world any better than conventional crops. Hunger is a political problem. It needs political answers.
- In May 2010 the EU Environment Committee recommended that the Parliament require all foods from animals fed GM to carry a GM label.
- The tide is turning against GM multinationals: US courts have ordered Bayer to pay farmers over US$42 million in costs and damages for the contamination of rice farms in 2006, with hundreds more cases in the pipeline. In May 2012 Indian authorities announced plans to prosecute Monsanto for biopiracy. (takes you to Deccan Chronical)
- Governments and industry say we need GM crops to ease rising food prices, but in 2008 10% of GM crops went into biofuels instead of feeding people.
- Claims that GM is safe are based on the industry’s own studies, and they rely on “commercial confidentiality” to prevent key raw data on safety being used by independent researchers.
- GM research promising “GM jam tomorrow” continues to soak up public funding that should be spent finding sustainable solutions that work.
- Patented GM crops give companies like Monsanto and Bayer unprecedented control over the supply of seeds and food. They say we need GM animal feed to keep costs down, but GM prices spiked just as steeply as non-GM in 2007/08– and we pay them even more to avoid it.
These and other arguments are set out in our “10 Myths” and “GM Wheat? NO THANKS!” leaflets.
Order *free* copies of these and our NEW window stickers by emailing email@example.com.