The media can, of course, add words of caution from critics. But it must be clear which opinions come from detailed knowledge and training, and which may be driven by other agendas.
Evidence-based reports showing the low risks associated with GM crops are scarcely reported. For example, there was little, if any, coverage of the International Council for Science 2004 report. It stated that there is no evidence that current GM crops damage the environment, or that consuming foods containing GM ingredients harms people.
Rather, headlines about 'frankenfoods' are common, with alleged health threats and environmental risks frequently gracing the pages of newspapers around the world. Most of these stories come from biotechnology critics and anti-GM lobby groups. A few are extreme extrapolations and one or two exaggerations from a kernel of truth. Such scare stories consistently lack evidence from quality peer-reviewed literature.
A 2002 report (updated in 2008) by the American Medical Association said "attempts to introduce GM foods have stimulated not a reasoned debate, but a potent negative campaign by people with other agendas. Opponents ignore common farming practices and well investigated facts about plants, or inaccurately present general problems as being unique to GM plants".
Genetically modified crops are not a panacea, but they are also not the bogeyman the media has allowed the public to believe. So how can the media differentiate between fanciful hypotheses and real concerns regarding GM crops and food?
Just because someone calls themselves an 'expert' in GM crops does not mean they have formal credentials in the field. Far too many critics have little or no training in the science — their opinions should be corroborated before being believed.
Science writers would be well served by talking to people trained in the field of agri-biotechnology, who actually know what the real issues are. Private corporations aside, the public sector has many world-class institutes heavily involved in agri-biotech. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) have long histories of improving agriculture in the developing world. They look at all options, including biotechnology. And publicly funded university-based research in biotechnology is happening around the world. There is no good reason why a given journalist cannot contact a scientist working in biotechnology for an authoritative point of view.
Journalists can also consult regulators. Many countries have tight regulations on food production to ensure public safety. For example, North American regulators demand data on food safety, nutritional composition and a wide variety of environmental considerations before commercialising any GM crop.
The developing world too has strict regulations. In the Philippines, several government regulators as well as independent scientists and technical experts perform safety assessments of potential GM crops. And Brazil, India and many parts of Africa are rapidly institutionalizing regulations that will permit their farmers to benefit from growing GM crops.
The media must also stop presenting claims that we know nothing about the long-term hazards as being unique to GM foods. A recent European Union report points out that little is known about the long-term health effects of any food, including GM. After pre-market safety evaluations, all we have to go by is a food's past safety record. And, in the case of GM crops and food, the safety record is impeccable.
The media must be more careful in covering scientific subjects like agri-biotech. There is a danger of putting the public off science altogether.
October 22, 2008
By Robert Wager