Why are stories about GM "miracles" lapped up so uncritically by the media and why does non-GM research into solving exactly the same kind of problems seem to get minimal if any reporting, even though it is far more successful? We look at some classic examples of how GM's often exaggerated crisis narratives and hyped silver bullet solutions successfully grab media attention. We also look at how even when these claims turn out to be completely bogus, it attracts little if any attention, and how some failed GM projects, or successful crop developments that have nothing to do with GM, even get passed off as big GM successes!
The virus-resistant sweet potato has been the ultimate GM showcase project for Africa, generating a vast amount of global media coverage. The Monsanto-trained scientist fronting the project has been proclaimed an African heroine and the saviour of millions, based on her claims about the GM sweet potato doubling output in Kenya. Forbes magazine even declared her one of a tiny handful of people around the globe who would "reinvent the future". It eventually emerged, however, that the claims being made for the GM sweet potato were bogus, with field trial results showing the GM crop to be a dud.
There's been a lot of publicity about how GM plants are going to solve the problem of landmine detection. News items around the globe - from the New York Times to the BBC, from TIME Magazine to Reuters - trumpeted their life-saving potential, after a biotech firm claimed to have genetically modified plants so that they would change from green to red when grown near to landmines. But the fact that the project failed attracted no coverage in the mainstream media.
"Only GM can save the banana" is a story that first surfaced in 2001, made a comeback in 2003, and has done the rounds ever since, gaining massive media coverage. Each time this story (re)emerges, it gets expertly debunked... untill the next time comes around.
The potential of genetic engineering to massively boost the production of cassava - one of Africa's most important foods - by defeating a devastating virus has been heavily promoted since the mid-1990s. There has even been talk of GM solving hunger in Africa by increasing cassava yields as much as tenfold. To date almost nothing appears to have been achieved, and even after it became clear that the GM cassava had suffered a major technical failure, the hype about its curing hunger in Africa continued regardless. Meanwhile, conventional (non-GM) plant breeding has quietly been producing virus resistant cassavas that are already making a remarkable difference in farmers' fields even under drought conditions.
Article updated May 2012
Golden Rice has been hyped for almost a decade as a life saver for millions suffering from vitamin A deficiency (VAD). Although it still appears to be several years away from being deployed, its inventor blames this on the unnecessary regulation of GM crops, which he calls a crime against humanity. However, the evidence does not support this claim. In addition, the World Health Organisation states that there are already tried-and-tested programmes for treating Vitamin A deficiency involving cheap, traditional, and readily available solutions. Although under-resourced, these programmes make Golden Rice completely unnecessary.
A GM tomato has been portrayed in the world's media as a major cancer fighter, as well as having other important health-enhancing properties. And some media commentators suggest that this is the "breakthrough" that will convince people of the benefits of GM foods. But the health claims are based on a small-scale study of mice, and experts say the results may have occurred by chance, or may simply not be applicable to humans. They also say that there could be problems with toxicity and that these have not been investigated. In any case, a range of existing fruit and vegetables offer the same potential benefits without any need to resort to genetic engineering.
GM cassava plants with unusually big roots were promoted as a super-sizing breakthrough that "could help alleviate hunger in developing countries", but it turned out that plant breeders had already produced cassava roots that were many times larger than the GM ones, at very low cost and without genetic engineering.