The BBC’s lack of journalistic and scientific rigour hits new depths. Claire Robinson reports
BBC’s Panorama programme on GMOs, which was aired in the UK yesterday evening, has rightly attracted derision for its outrageous pro-GMO bias. Presenter Tom Heap ignored or skated over every major controversy about GM crops and gave a free ride to a handful of rabid GMO proponents.
Here are some of Heap’s monumental journalistic failures.
Tom Heap claimed that an “overwhelming majority” of scientists agree that GM crops pose no more risks to health than non-GM crops. He provided no proof of this claim, though he might be referring to the survey of scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 88% of whom thought GMOs were safe to eat.
However, it’s unclear how representative the sample is of all scientists, or even of AAAS scientists, and whether the scientists surveyed had conflicts of interest with the GMO industry.
For example, a peer-reviewed survey of the views of 62 life scientists on the environmental risks of GM crops found that funding and disciplinary training had a significant effect on attitudes. Scientists with industry funding and/or those trained in molecular biology were very likely to have a positive attitude to GM crops and to hold that they do not represent any unique risks. But publicly-funded scientists working independently of GMO companies and/or those trained in ecology were more likely to hold a negative attitude to GM crop safety and to emphasize the uncertainty and ignorance involved.
Heap failed to acknowledge that over 300 well qualified scientists have said in a peer-reviewed article that there is no consensus on GMO safety.
Heap has no excuse for ignoring the many studies that show toxic effects in animals from GM foods, as they’ve been collected and summarised in GMO Myths and Truths.
Heap’s treatment of GMO food safety issue shows how far Panorama has sunk since the days when it did real investigative journalism. A real journalist would have taken the conflicting claims of GMO safety as his starting point and looked at why different scientists came to different conclusions.
Heap also repeated the GMO lobby’s slogan that billions of GM meals have been eaten in the US for 20 years with no problems. It’s hard to believe that he thinks there is any science or reason behind this statement, since
1) GMOs are not labelled in the US, so any ill health effects cannot be traced back to GM foods.
2) No epidemiological studies have been carried out to look for ill health effects from GM foods.
3) Americans’ health has got markedly worse since GM foods were introduced in 1996. Is there any connection with GM foods? No one knows, for reasons given in 1) and 2) above.
Bt brinjal a “success”
Heap claimed that this year over 90% of Bt brinjal (eggplant) plots planted in Bangladesh had been successful – without giving his source.* He treated British pro-GMO campaigner Mark Lynas as the “authority” on Bt brinjal, even though Lynas stands accused of fabricating claims about its success. Crucially, Heap failed to address reports from Bangladeshi sources saying that Bt brinjal had failed for the second year running.
Again, Heap should learn that real journalism consists in looking at both sides of the story and doing further investigations. Then he could have concluded, based on evidence, that Bt brinjal was indeed a failure, as many Bangladeshi sources said, or a success, as Lynas claimed.
Even more seriously, Heap failed to mention that Bt brinjal was found toxic in an analysis by epidemiologist Dr Lou Gallagher of the developer company’s own rat feeding data.
British scientist not challenged over conflicts of interest
Throughout, British GMO research scientist Jonathan Jones was presented as an independent authority on the safety and desirability of GM crops. According to Jones, it’s “hard to envisage” how a GM food could be “dangerous”. Yet at no point were Jones’s extensive conflicts of interest made clear to viewers.
Jones was also not confronted with any evidence that GMOs were dangerous, since Heap didn’t seem to have read any.
“Jam tomorrow” GMOs
The programme focused on two “jam tomorrow” GMOs:
1) A blight resistant GM potato developed by Jones, which is still in development and is a long way from market. The GM potato uses a gene pirated from a naturally blight-resistant non-GMO potato. Yes, that means non-GM blight-resistant potatoes are already available – a fact that Heap ignored or didn’t bother to find out.
2) Bt brinjal, a still-experimental crop planted on a few farms in Bangladesh, with a highly contested performance, to put it charitably (see above).
Heap claimed that these new GMOs were taking the pesticides out of farming. Yet neither of these still-new GM crops have had a documented positive impact on farmers, consumers, or the environment. Bt brinjal in particular stands accused of ruining poor farmers.
By firmly focusing on the still empty promises of tomorrow’s GMOs, Heap ignored the present reality. Over 99% of all GM crops planted today are engineered to tolerate being sprayed with herbicides or to contain an insecticide, or both. Heap omitted to mention that GM crops have led to over 404 million pounds more pesticides being sprayed, than would have been the case if the same acres had been planted to non-GM crops.
Elephant in the room ignored
Heap also ignored the elephant in the room: the World Health Organisation’s verdict that glyphosate, the chemical with which over 80% of GM crops are grown, is a “probable” carcinogen. Yet Heap was so preoccupied with cancer that he misrepresented a toxicity study as having claimed a link with “cancer”. In fact the study did not mention cancer. He also claimed the study had been “withdrawn”, without admitting it had been republished and still stands in the scientific literature.
But perhaps this lack of journalistic professionalism is to be expected from an organisation that is so ignorant about GM crops that it allowed its subtitle writers to get away with stating that “genetically modified organisms are made in the lavatory” (see image above)! This presumably should have read “laboratory”. But given the other failings in the programme, it’s quite possible that Panorama’s editors believe that transgenic insertions are being carried out by tiny white-coated scientists working in water closets.
In contrast with the Panorama debacle, here’s an example of how good journalism on GMOs can be done.
This video by the satirical news outlet The Undercurrent is as funny as it is informative and says everything in five minutes that Panorama and Heap missed in half an hour.
Further information and action
If you’d like to know more about the issues Heap ignored or misrepresented, download a free copy of GMO Myths and Truths, written by genetic engineers for the general public.
If you’d like to complain to the BBC about its Panorama programme (broadcast 8 June, 8.30 pm), you can do so here.
* Note by Claire Robinson: After this article was published, Joseph McAuley, the programme's producer and researcher, informed me that the source had been given on screen as Cornell University. I'm happy to correct my error in stating that no source was given – in fact it was flashed up so briefly that I missed it at the first viewing.