GE Food Media Coverage

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Saturday, June 01, 2002

To assume that the public is ignorant is not only patronising, but inaccurate and damaging. Global Environmental Change Programme research reveals that people's understandings of the issues are very much better developed than these characterisations imply.

The Politics of GM Food:Risk, Science and Public Trust1, ESRC Global Environmental Change Programme (1999), Special Briefing No. 5, University of Sussex.

Outside of the United States, there has been some public debate in the last couple of years about the possible benefits and possible risks of genetically engineered food. Within the United States though, this has been less so. As seen in the public concern2 section on this site, in many countries, people have been able to vocally protest their concerns and the mainstream media has covered a few of the various aspects of this issue to some extent.

WHO FEEDS THE WORLD? My answer is very different from that given by most people.

It is women and small farmers working with biodiversity who are the primary food providers in the Third World and, contrary to the dominant assumption, their biodiversity-based small farm systems are more productive than industrial monocultures.

Vandana Shiva, Globalization and Poverty3, Resurgence Magazine, Issue 202, September/October 2000

In the United States, however, the media (and Wall Street) has been promoting biotechnology, but with limited debates on the concerns that people have. On the other hand, if there are reports of people concerned about the effects of genetically engineered food, they are quickly labeled as anti-science protestors. In fact, by using the term biotechnology or life sciences, many often do not realize that some food ingredients are genetically modified or engineered.

Over time, scientific and biotechnology advances may show that such foods will be safe. The current body of scientific knowledge already established over the last decade and more, may help towards that. However, that unfortunately is not the end of the story. Where the science can provide a vision and open up many doors of possibilities, politicians and others with stakes in the chance to profit will often be the first to walk through and use it to their advantages.

One wonders then, if there is sometimes confusion on the level and range of discourse itself, when discussing and debating the issues -- often scientists are just trying to make the point that the science itself is sound, while other concerned people are trying to point out that the politics of this are the causes for concern. Yes, both of these perspectives themselves will be debated, but often it does seem as though this distinction can be blurred as well and the media and corporate-interests, via marketing campaigns etc., will use the scientific merits as the political answers.

On this page:

  1. There is more than just two sides to the issue
  2. The promising appeal means less questioning of the need
  3. Public Backlash means Rethinking Marketing Strategies for the Biotech Corporations
  4. The misuse of Science?

There is more than just two sides to the issue

The corporate mainstream media tends to water down the issue into just two sides; pro or against something. We have seen this in the coverage and characterizations of protestors of other important issues, such as during the protests in Seattle4 and Washington D.C.5, where people were protesting the policies of the WTO and IMF/World Bank, respectively.

In the case of genetically engineered food debates, people are largely labeled as pro-science or anti-science. However, there are far more diverse views, opinions and issues than just pro-science and anti-science. For example, there are those that are:

  • For genetically engineered food because:
    • There will be a lot of chance for profits to be gained (a largely corporate reason, which is obviously a dominant and powerful drive.)
    • There is genuine belief that genetically engineered food will provide the benefits envisioned. (This is also the viewpoint that the same corporations suggested above promote through extensive marketing.)
    • The science behind this is appealing and allows many possibilities.
  • Against genetically engineered food because:
    • They are "anti-science", according to the US mainstream media and those who are defending the technology. It is likely that those who are anti-science in the way they suggest are in the minority of people who are against GE food.
    • Religious reasons; "playing with God's creations" etc. (Prince Charles of England is a notable person with this view, as an example).
    • Admittedly, some food processing corporations may not have the ability to pursue biotechnology themselves and therefore see a threat to their businesses. They will then play on the fears that genuinely concerned people have.
  • Some may be for or against genetically engineered food but are concerned at the current way things are going:
    • There is concern at things like
      • Why there has been such staunch resistance to labeling such foods as containing genetically modified ingredients
      • The lack of test results and data about safety
      • The rapid speed in which the technologies are being pushed through
      • How it looks as though largely the corporations are going to benefit and that as they buy up all the patents (even from indigenous people, without their knowledge) they will be able to maximize profits.
      • How some current data shows that yields of GE crops are not significantly better than conventional ways, and that in some cases are worse and require additional pesticides (which again fuels the questions regarding corporate motives, as many of these corporations make pesticides as well!)
    • There are criticisms of the actual science involved (not just by "anti-science" people, but also by many scientists themselves.)
    • There is concern that the price of GE food will be expensive such that the poor people cannot afford them. The corporations need to get a return on investment. If this means that the price will be beyond the poor people that it is meant to target, then we could get into a situation similar to the current trends in pharmaceuticals and medicine, where priority in research and development is given to those products that people will be able to buy, rather than based on need. (For more about this aspect, see this site's section on corporations and medicinal research6.)
    • There is concern that suggesting world hunger is largely an issue that can be solved by genetically engineered food will minimize the other reasons7 that people are hungry. It would allow those other reasons and policies to continue. Therefore, it would not help those people in getting out of poverty in the first place and would allow biotech corporations to be supportive of those other poverty-causing policies because it means profits for themselves.
    • Some are concerned at how perhaps Humans are being used as unsuspecting guinea pigs.
    • (Note that many of these are also reasons that people are against genetically engineered food, more so than the so-called "anti-science" and religious reasons touted by the mainstream media.)
  • etc etc...

The above are just some examples. Many have a mixture of these and other views. The point is that the issue of genetically engineered food also touches many other related issues such as poverty, intellectual property of indigenous knowledge, corporate/trade rights vs. people's rights and so on. The mainstream media in the US and in some other countries, fail to consider this.

While not a complete list, the types of people for the technology include:

  • Scientists (some who are corporate-backed or funded, or work at the biotech firms, while others who are independent researchers)
  • Politicians influenced by these corporations and their lobbying/campaign finances etc
  • The biotech corporations themselves
  • Large agribusiness
  • Other citizens who believe the science and creativeness of the biotech industry.
  • Some mainstream corporate media companies and Wall Street that also see the profits in this

Also, not a complete list, the types of people against or concerned at the way the technology is being promoted include:

  • Public consumer groups
  • Concerned scientists
  • Small family farmers
  • Concerned citizens, mothers especially, concerned about the effects on their children
  • Farmers and others in developing and industrialized countries who fear additional dependency on western corporations due to things like non-germinating seeds, patents on indigenous knowledge and so on. (Some also see this as a modern form of colonialism).
  • Religious groups

Furthermore, when there is a concentration of who is doing the research, many questions regarding ethics, safety, politics, economics, etc. are going to emerge. Furthermore, with economic power comes political power and influence, including influence via the media (often called "marketing" or "public relations" -- PR). This causes much distrust within various sectors, and in the long run, this can only be counter-productive. Anil Agarwal captures this well:

The key reason why GMOS have received such bad press and public attention in the West is that a handful of multinational corporations monopolise the science of genetic engineering and the global decision making on its use. Consumers are not at all convinced that these companies have adequately factored in human health and the environment concerns over their profit motive. The result is that the profits of the gene companies are being affected. So deep is the concern that even the little scientific evidence that may exist on health and environment issues is not accepted by the public. Public opinion remains even deeply distrustful of government regulators, who have been manipulated by big business time and again. It is clear that genetically engineered crops will get accepted only if there is credible scientific assessment to support them.

Anil Agarwal, Manipulating research, Down To Earth Magazine, Vol. 10, No. 10, October 15, 2001 from the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment

Perhaps also quite sinister, has been the apparent use of PR firms by some beleaguered biotech companies in a bid to discredit criticisms. Take the following for example:

  • A PR firm contracted to Monsanto apparently used fake people on internet listserves to appear independent and raise questions and concerns about critics and unfavorable scientific findings that even pressured the prestigious science journal, Nature, to detract an article. George Monbiot is worth quoting about this:

    While, in the past, companies have created fake citizens' groups to campaign in favour of trashing forests or polluting rivers, now they create fake citizens. Messages purporting to come from disinterested punters are planted on listservers at critical moments, disseminating misleading information in the hope of recruiting real people to the cause. Detective work by the campaigner Jonathan Matthews and the freelance journalist Andy Rowell shows how a PR firm contracted to the biotech company Monsanto appears to have played a crucial but invisible role in shaping scientific discourse.

    ... The Bivings Group specialises in internet lobbying. ... An article on its website, entitled Viral Marketing: How to Infect the World, warns that "there are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organisation is directly involved... it simply is not an intelligent PR move. In cases such as this, it is important to first 'listen' to what is being said online... Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party... Perhaps the greatest advantage of viral marketing is that your message is placed into a context where it is more likely to be considered seriously." A senior executive from Monsanto is quoted on the Bivings site thanking the PR firm for its "outstanding work".

    ... "Sometimes," Bivings boasts, "we win awards. Sometimes only the client knows the precise role we played." Sometimes, in other words, real people have no idea that they are being managed by fake ones.

    George Monbiot, The Fake Persuaders8, The Guardian, May 14, 2002
  • On May 23, 2002, a British mainstream TV channel, Channel 4, reported on its news program a speech from British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. In it he was commenting on how his visit to India and how people there and elsewhere in the developing world are supporting GM foods, and that he was told that they can't understand what all the fuss is about in Europe. Blair's basic line was to promote GM and biotechnology as one of the ways forward for the economy. What was striking was how far this seemed to be from reality. In fact, India has been one of the birthplaces of what has become a global wave of protests9 at the corporatization of agriculture and the impacts that concentrated corporate ownership in agriculture has had on the lives of people around the world. A person on the Channel 4 news program also said as much, and hinted that Blair was probably probably influenced and slanting towards business interests and not listening to the voices of ordinary people. George Monbiot