GE Food Media Coverage

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  • by Anup Shah
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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 Trust, 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 concern 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 Poverty, 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 Seattle and Washington D.C., 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 research.)
    • There is concern that suggesting world hunger is largely an issue that can be solved by genetically engineered food will minimize the other reasons 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 Persuaders, 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 protests 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 also captures this in another article:

    Tony Blair's speech to the Royal Society last Thursday was a wonderful jumble of misconceptions and logical elisions. He managed to confuse science with its technological products. GM crops are no more "science" than cars, computers or washing machines, and those opposing them are no more "anti-science" than people who don't like the Millennium Dome are "anti-architecture".

    He suggested that in the poor world people welcome genetic engineering. It was unfortunate that the example he chose was the biotech industry in Bangalore in south-west India. Bangalore happens to be the centre of the world's most effective protests against GM crops, the capital of a state in which anti-GM campaigners outnumber those in the UK by 1,000 to one. Like most biotech enthusiasts, he ignored the key concern of the activists: the corporate takeover of the food chain, and its devastating consequences for food security.

    ... Tony Blair was correct when he observed on Thursday that "there is only a small band of people... who genuinely want to stifle informed debate". But he was wrong to identify this small group as those opposed to GM crops. Though he didn't know it, the people seeking to stifle the debate are the ones who wrote his speech; not in the days before he delivered it, but in the years in which the arguments he used were incubated.

    George Monbiot, Corporate phantoms, The Guardian, May 29, 2002
    It may appear shocking or concerning that no less than a Prime Minister of one of the most powerful nations in the world would distort an issue so much. Yet, in some ways this should unfortunately not come as much of a surprise. Public relations, "spin" and so forth accompany politics and the mainstream media. Large corporations are powerful political entities as well as economic ones due to their size. As a result, they can also employ vast resources and hence be very influential. (More about these aspects are discussed on this site's section on the mainstream media and on trade and economic issues.)

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The promising appeal means less questioning of the need

For the biotech companies, pitching genetically engineered foods is fairly easy as it strikes a chord with the altruistic nature of people; something like "pesticides kills insects and help achieve a high yield but have numerous environmental problems. GE foods are meant to help alleviate the need for such pesticides, and hence this would help achieve high yields without these environmental costs. Increased yields will help tackle world hunger."

It is admittedly easy to follow and accept this logic, as it does sounds like it makes sense. Hence the mainstream media often do not question this. (That there are other corporate reasons are also cause for concern, such as advertising revenue and the contribution to the U.S. and European economies by generating more chance of investment into these companies, etc.) It means that base assumptions are made and not discussed thereafter, thereby framing the level and range of discourse. As a result, the question of do we even need such technologies to solve world hunger etc do not come to mind in the mainstream.

As a result, there are numerous issues with mainstream assumptions, including the following points:

  • GE foods are shown in some cases to not have a significantly higher yield than conventional or organic methods, as mentioned in other areas of this web site's section on GE food.
  • Safety is not confirmed.
  • Environmental impacts of GE technologies are also of concern.
  • As mentioned in detail elsewhere on this site's section on GE food, the root causes of world hunger are not affected by introducing GE foods because people will still be unable to afford them, and distribution problems will still exist.
  • And then, even more fundamental is the need even for pesticides. For if even pesticides are not needed, and food can be more successfully produced without them, or with a much reduced amount, then the need for GE food as a replacement for pesticides is surely to be questioned in terms of its worth to society:

    The chemical TNCs [transnational corporations] have often persuaded farmers in developing countries to buy more of their products than they need. In Asia, in particular, the chemical industry has made deep inroads into the rice sector. Spraying large quantities of chemicals has, however, destroyed the natural enemies of pests, eaten into farm profits and lowered returns to farmers. Good business for chemical TNCs it may be, but Asian rice growers are beginning to question whether they are really need these products. There is now considerable evidence, plus growing awareness among Asian rice growers, that yields can be maintained and even increased by using less pesticide.

    ... The rise in awareness about natural ways of pest control is providing small-scale farmers with higher returns at the expense of TNC sales.

    John Madeley, Big Business, Poor Peoples: The Impact of Transnational Corporations on the World's Poor, (Zed Books Ltd, 1999), pp. 43 - 45, (the section titled Questioning Pesticides).

    With questionable yield results with some genetically engineerd crops and potential yield increases (and cost savings) via simply reducing pesticide usage, costly genetically engineered crops are even less appealing.

  • As explained later in the Monsanto section on this web site, in some cases GE versions are designed to be tolerant to certain pesticides so that pesticide usage can be increased (and that many companies that create pesticides are the ones heavily involved in biotechnology).

However, the almost unexpected backlash, the growing awareness, mass protests and general concerns about who is benefiting from the introduction of such technologies has left these "life" science companies and the supportive media thoroughly confused.

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Public Backlash means Rethinking Marketing Strategies for the Biotech Corporations

Ever since the genetic revolution began, biotechnologists have attacked the activists who challenge their work for knowing next to nothing about science, and yet presuming to warn of its consequences. Now it is surely time for the activists to attack some of these biotechnologists for knowing next to nothing about society or the environment, and yet presuming to dismiss social and environmental concerns as irrelevant or misguided.

George Monbiot, The Gene Debate, Resurgence Magazine, May/June 1998.

The public protests and negative reactions in most parts of the world to the corporate-led push for rapid adoption of genetically engineered food has taken many biotech firms by surprise. Even in terms of finance and stocks, the industry is in a slightly troubled time. (Those for this technology will claim some sort of left or even right-wing "conspiracy" against them while those critical of the current ways GE foods are being pushed will claim that the corporate agenda is slanting the debate and motives for development!)

Therefore, as a result, the biotech firms are trying a number of approaches:

  • Extensive marketing campaigns.
    • For example, lately, there is a push in the US to use the more friendly-sounding term "biotechnology" rather than genetically engineered, or genetically modified.
    • Already, advertisements in the US from agriculture and food-based industries and companies, such as Archer Daniels Midlands show the benefits of technology and biotechnology, never mentioning that the food or ingredients may be genetically engineered or modified.
    • The next generation of GE Foods, called "functional foods", (foods that will be modified to contain nutritional enhancements) are being used to gain acceptance of genetically engineered foods and support for the biotech industry. However, there are many issues and problems with functional foods (which will be discussed on the next page in this section of this web site).
  • Previously attempting to promote genetically modified and engineered foods heavily in Africa at a time when the protests and concerns were largely in Europe and Asia.

Additionally, as summarized from Vandana Shiva's book, Stolen Harvest (South End Press, 2000), pp. 108 - 111, the biotech industry itself has attempted to "suppress the debate" in four main ways:

  • "[I]nvoking a call to "sound science"" where, it is presupposed that the industry-friendly science is good and sound, while independent science is labeled "junk" science. By presupposing it, it can often be argued by industry that theirs is sound, while others' views and concerns are to be ridiculed.
  • The industry claims that there is "substantial equivalence" between genetically engineered and natural products. Yet, as Shiva goes on to point out, when corporations "claim monopoly rights [via patents etc] to seeds and crops, they refer to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as "novel". When the same corporations want to disown risks by stifling safety assessment and analysis of hazards, they refer to transgenic organisms as being substantially equivalent to their naturally occurring counterparts. The same organism cannot be both "novel" and "not novel"" She goes on further to point out that claims of predictability by industry is also questionable in that there are many cases where environmental effects, have not been predicted, such as the killing of beneficial species.
  • When the industry refers to "field trials" that prove safety, these tests are often based on narrow parameters etc that just look at the health of the crop, but not the wider impacts or effects on the environment etc. Industry refers to these field trials as proof of safety. Then, they argue that labeling GE foods which guarantee the rights to know and choose, interfere with free trade.
  • Lastly, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) has attempted to "destroy organic options for farmers and consumers" by attempting to allow fruit and vegetables that have been genetically engineered, irradiated, treated with additives and raised on contaminated sewage sludge to be labeled as organic. As Shiva continues to point out, this would prohibit the ability to set any higher standards. Fortunately for now, major citizen protests have stalled this effort, as mentioned on this web site too. However, the concern remains real. If industry succeeds in this, then the difference between organic and toxic food is blurred. Consumer choice and health loses, while corporate profits win.

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The misuse of Science?

Critics point out that while there is enough to debate on scientific ground alone, which would prove to be healthy, the marketing and business pressures have driven scientific research to conform to these needs, sometimes at the expense of people. Genetically engineered foods is one such example. The quotes above and the following links may give hints to that:

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