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!
According to Dr. Doug Gurian-Sherman, a former biotech specialist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), speaking in 2008, "After 20 years of GM research and 13 years of commercialization, GM crops have a track record that allows us to evaluate their future prospects... The weak performance to date raises questions about how much more of our scarce research dollars should be devoted to this controversial technology... Let's be clear. As of this year, there are no commercialized GM crops that inherently increase yield. Similarly, there are no GM crops on the market that were engineered to resist drought, reduce fertilizer pollution or save soil. Not one."
In 2011, Monsanto released a drought-tolerant maize, but even the US Department of Agriculture admitted that it was no more effective than existing non-GM varieties. Truly drought-tolerant agriculture depends on agronomic methods more than genetics – for example, incorporating plenty of organic matter into the soil so that it absorbs and retains water.
Yet there have been thousands of articles about "miracle" crops genetically engineered for drought tolerance, as well as enhanced appearance, flavour, nutrition, freedom from allergens, to combat problems like tooth decay or obesity, or to protect against major diseases like cancer. Although there are no crops on the market anywhere in the world that actually do any of these things, stories reporting such GM ''miracles'' continue to win vast amounts of column inches. In GM Myths, we look at some classic examples of these attention grabbing stories.
Some insight into what lies behind the publication of so many of these stories can be gained from a research project which monitored stories about GM published in the press in Britain over a six-month period. The study found that stories which "strongly imply reasons to support GM" – by uncritically reporting GM solutions to apparently intractable problems – were widely published in all types of newspapers. Revealingly, these stories regularly turned up even in newspapers with a sceptical editorial attitude to GM. The fact that these stories were essentially speculative rather than factual was no barrier to their publication: "Corpus analysis of the entire archive [of press reports on GM] reveal that this is a common feature of GM stories, though one which may be missed in casual readings which mistakenly conflate speculation with fact."
By contrast, non-GM research into solving exactly the same kind of problems gets minimal if any reporting in the popular media, even though in many cases it is well ahead of the GM research and far more cost effective. Without GM's often exaggerated crisis narratives and claimed silver bullet solutions which ignore what are often complex scientific, socio-economic, political and cultural issues, it seems there is no story.
Interestingly, when any of these much-hyped GM solutions fail, it seems to attract little media interest. In fact, media receptivity to GM "miracles" seems to be so preset, that some failed GM projects, or successful crop developments that have absolutely nothing to do with GM, have even been passed off by GM promoters as GM success stories.
1. Doug Gurian-Sherman, "Genetic engineering – a crop of hyperbole", San Diego Union Tribune, 18 June 2008