Panorama programme set a new low for a programme which was once a flagship of investigative journalism
Two excellent responses to the BBC Panorama promotional piece on GMOs are below. They show that it’s getting increasingly difficult for the pro-GMO lobby to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.
1. Cultivating myths – The pro-GMO bias of the BBC – Beyond GM
2. BBC Panorama programme: Promoting GMO and cultivating ignorance – Colin Todhunter
1. Cultivating myths – The pro-GMO bias of the BBC
by Lawrence Woodward and Pat Thomas
Beyond GM, June 9, 2015
[links to sources are at the URL above]
The pro-GM bias of the BBC was plain to see during Monday’s (8th June) Panorama programme.
Blinkered and narrow rather than panoramic, selective and prejudicial rather than investigative, this sorry display set a new low for a programme which was once a flagship of investigative journalism.
It had no more veracity and insight than the most clichéd corporate press release and the result was that a mix of myths, deceptive assertions and inaccurate statements by pro-GM lobbyists – including those masquerading as independent scientists – were given a free ride and promotional slot on prime time television.
It’s tempting to say that you couldn’t make this stuff up – except Panorama has proven with its latest fiction that actually you can – and that you can even get the BBC (and thus the licence fee payer) to pay for it.
New and improved!
Any viewer who has ever visited a supermarket will already be familiar with the concept of the front-of-the-package "come on". Words like “new” and “improved” and “scientifically proven” get splashed on product labels every day and yet the reality is often that the only thing that really changes is the package.
So it is with Panorama’s claims of “new” and improved” GM technologies that are safer and more efficient. After noting the “unease and occasional hostility” with which GM crops have been greeted by the general public and many NGOs in the UK and the rest of Europe, presenter Tom Heap begins the programme by saying “tonight we’re going to tell you the story of two genetically modified crops that might change your mind.”
If the title of the programme – GM Food: Cultivating Fear – hadn’t already given the game away, Heap’s introduction left the viewer in no doubt that far from being an in-depth investigation, this was a programme with an agenda.
What followed was a 30-minute propaganda exercise featuring a now all too familiar cast of characters – claiming that those who oppose GMOs were selfish, ideologically driven Luddites who were insensitive to the health and well-being of farmers in the developing world and who were afraid of the ‘science’ of the new.
The programme did indeed tell a story and like all good fictions the narration could have been compelling to anyone who is new to the issues.
For the uninitiated here is a brief guide to the cast of characters.
This Countryfile reporter’s bias towards the GMO quick-fix, and his disdain for the concerns of the general public on GMOs, is well known. These days Heap doesn’t even bother to hide behind even a thin veneer of impartiality or journalistic integrity. Notions such as “critical” and “questioning” are habitually missing from his repertoire – or only appear when talking to anyone who raises questions about GM food and farming.
Sweating "manfully" in the heat of Bangladeshi brinjal fields, this now notorious supporter of GMOs is often presented alongside scientists as an expert in whatever GMO field he happens to be filming in. But Lynas’ expertise lies in self-promotion rather than science. Rumours abound that Heap and Lynas are good friends. This may or may not be true but it certainly might be an explanation for why Lynas’ widely criticised tales of GM brinjal (aubergine) cropping in Bangladesh were given such an easy time.
Described as one of the anti-GMO movement’s “former leaders” who, like Lynas, has broken ranks and begun hurling accusations or moral decrepitude at those who oppose GMOs. Tindale is certainly not a ‘leader’ that most of us would recognise. He resigned from Greenpeace after only five years – coinciding with his “religious conversion” in support of nuclear power. He has now joined the ranks of the professionally converted on GMOs.
Professor Jones works at the Sainsbury Laboratory at the taxpayer-funder John Innes Centre. However in order to include him as an "independent" expert on GMOs the BBC elected to ignore its own editorial guidelines, and simply didn’t mention his commercial interests in GM start-up companies and the fact at he is the owner of various GMO patents.
Her job as Chief Scientific Advisor to the EU President has recently ended. During her time there she played a controversial role in holding back progress on reviewing and limiting endocrine disrupting chemicals and promoting the reduction of regulatory oversight of GMO crops and ingredients.
Former Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Miller opined that it was “impossible to consider how to feed a planet if nine or ten billion people without genetic modification”. This lack of vision was reflected in the strongly pro-GM House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s GM report, but is at odds with the Environmental Audit Committee’s view, which is that GM has little to offer.
The same old story
Other "minor" characters came and went. Anybody who has followed the GMO story over the last two decades will already know the playbook: GMOs will benefit small farmers, GMOs will cut pesticide use, genetic modification is a "benign" and "neutral" technology and there is no evidence that it harms human health.
There was a brief and dismissive visit to an organic farm in Bangladesh as well as a walk on part for the Soil Association’s Helen Browning, various cutaways to Doug Parr from Greenpeace and soundbites from Liz O’Neill of GM Freeze and Pat Thomas of Beyond GM.
A palpable disrespect for those who question the GMO approach to food and farming ran right through the programme.
Worse, the programme did not address the widespread and successful non-GM approaches to sustainable farming. The perspective that GM technology could possibly be unnecessary as well as risky was beyond the vision of the production team.
Instead the three-note tune that throughout the excruciating 30 minutes of the programme was: we need to feed the world, therefore we need GM, and it’s immoral to oppose it. All three notes are false and do not accord to the evidence. What is more this now familiar tune is deeply disrespectful to the millions of people who care passionately about changing the way our food and farming system works to ensure we do feed people sustainably and equitably.
Heap’s lamentable failure to ask any challenging questions of the pro-GM spokespeople and then going journalistically AWOL in the face of assertions – such as that by Anne Glover who was allowed to assert, without challenge that anti-GM campaigners “make things up” – was compounded by his littering the programme with statements straight out of the industry PR manual. These included:
* “27 countries are now growing GM crops totalling 18 million acres”. The viewer is meant to be impressed. In fact almost all of that is grown in just 4 countries and 18 million acres accounts for around no more than 4% of the world’s farmed land.
* “Billions/trillions of meals containing GM ingredients have been eaten without any adverse health impacts.” How does anyone know? There have never been any epidemiological studies and precious little monitoring at all. But there is a clear and documented correlation between the rise of many diseases in the US and the introduction of GM crops there.
* Heap suggested “there has only been one scientific study linking GM crops and adverse health impacts and that was retracted”. In fact there is mounting evidence of adverse health impacts and risks published in peer reviewed journals. And the “one study” he refers to, the only long term study of GM and glyphosate health risks by Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini, has been republished and therefore returned to the scientific literature.
* Heap mentioned the use of glyphosate (Roundup) on GM crops engineered to withstand its effects. This trait has caused an exponential rise in the use of this herbicide n GM crops as weeds have quickly become resistant to the herbicide. What he failed to mention is the fact that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of the World Health Organization, has recently determined that glyphosate is a category 2A "probable human carcinogen".
Heap also completely failed to acknowledge the recent statement by more than 300 independent scientists which says there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs and further suggests that the weight of the evidence points to cause for serious concern.
The rules of balance say we should compare like with like; thus on a programme of this nature a pro-GM scientists should be balanced against an anti-GM scientist – of which there are many. Shockingly, this particular BBC programme did not feature a single dissenting scientist from an independent university or research institute.
Bt brinjal is type of aubergine that has been genetically modified to produce its own pesticide. Rejected in India and the Philippines, the crop has recently been transplanted to India’s more impoverished neighbour Bangladesh – which has no bothersome GM regulations at all.
What Panorama hoped to prove in Bangladesh isn’t clear. GM brinjal is relatively new there and the crop trial is small and limited with, at best, variable outcomes.
There are other parts of the world where the controversies surrounding GM cropping and especially the damage wrought on the environment and farmers – both GM and non-GM – are visible and long standing. Clearly this information did not fit the Panorama narrative.
The genetic modification of the brinjal is aimed at one thing: the fruit and shoot borer, a moth species, which farmers use copious amounts of pesticides to fight. Much like the Bt maize engineered to produce a pesticide that kills the corn borer, early results suggest that under some conditions the Bt aubergine can reduce pesticides use.
But after only a relatively few years of use the corn borer is now showing signs of resistance to the Bt toxin, leaving crops more susceptible to attack than non-GMO. It can’t be long before the fruit and shoot borer does the same. In the meantime, as the programme noted, farmers continue to spray a range of pesticides to treat the multiple other insects and fungi that can attack the brinjal.
What health effects?
Confronted with an organic farmer who was concerned that the Bt toxin could be harmful to human health, Heap dismissed such concerns by telling the woman that it wouldn’t harm her because she’s "not a fruit and shoot borer". By that wacky, unscientific logic anything that harms a laboratory animal or insect should be considered safe for humans to eat. (Heap needs to take a look at GMO Myths & Truths for the scientific low-down).
In fact in 2011 a New Zealand-based epidemiologist and risk assessment expert, Dr Lou Gallagher analysed the raw data on 14- and 90-day rat feeding studies from Monsanto’s Bt brinjal dossier.
It showed that rats eating Bt brinjal experienced:
* Organ and system damage: ovaries at half their normal weight, enlarged spleens with white blood cell counts at 35 to 40% higher than normal with elevated eosinophils, indicating immune function changes
* Toxic effects to the liver.
A return trip to Bangladeshi in a year or two will likely paint a very different picture of the safety and viability of the Bt brinjal.
We have written about the so-called super-spud before.
The programme insinuated that this “game-changing GM potato” with eight separate genetic modifications to combat everything from late blight to bruising in transit was pretty ready to go to market. In fact it is still in concept stage and unlikely to see the light of day for a decade – if at all.
But British taxpayers are already paying for it According to the group GeneWatch £3.2 million of taxpayers’ money has already been spent trying to develop a GM blight-resistant potato. Some £750,000 of public money was put into 3 years of field trials for the blight resistant Desiree potato which was trialled in the UK in 2011-12.
Although the trial was hailed as a success in the media the researchers at Sainsbury’s lab now admit that inserting just one gene is not enough “because the pathogen tends to become resistant”. So they are now looking for a further tranche of taxpayers’ money to develop more complicated (but not necessarily better) strains of GM potatoes.
So much for “working with the grain of nature in a scientifically well-informed way”, as Jonathan Jones put it.
We have come to expect a pro-GM stance from the BBC; we know they pass off people with vested interests as impartial experts; we know they are so obsessed by so-called high-technology and science that they are blinkered to alternatives; we know they treat facts with breath-taking selectively; and we have come to expect shoddy journalism but the dismissive and disrespectful tone of this programme breaks the bounds of acceptability.
The failure of government, politicians, the research establishment and media to acknowledge the concerns of citizens and the clear health and environmental risks associated with agricultural GM technology cannot continue.
But to stop it members of the public must take action.
What can you do?
Apart from throwing your TV out the window what can you do?
* You can – and should – complain to the BBC online, by post or by phone.
* You can tell us what you think by taking our brief survey on the BBC’s stance on GMOs.
* You can join our GM Free Me visual petition and show your face for a GM Free UK.
* If you are a mum, you can join the Mums Say no to GMOs and campaign locally for, instance for supermarkets to stop selling GM fed-meat, dairy and eggs.
* You can start a conversation with your MP by sending him or her a link to The Letter from America, along with your own views.
* Most importantly you can support Beyond GM to help us keep working to present an accessible and rational opposition to GMOs in food and farming.
2. BBC Panorama programme: Promoting GMO and cultivating ignorance
RINF, 9 June 2015
[links to sources at the URL above]
“There is no global or regional shortage of food. There never has been and nor is there ever likely to be. India has a superabundance of food. South America is swamped in food. The US, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe are swamped in food (e.g. Billen et al 2011). In Britain, like in many wealthy countries, nearly half of all row crop food production now goes to biofuels… China isn’t quite swamped but it still exports food… No foodpocalypse there either.” Jonathan Latham
I wasn’t expecting much. So I wasn’t disappointed when I didn’t receive much. I’m talking about the BBC Panorama programme on GMOs that aired in the UK on Monday 8 June. The title of the programme was "GM Food – Cultivating Fear". So it was pretty much clear what was to follow.
The programme began with the presenter Tom Heap asking: “Are groups that oppose GM right to be worried or are they feeding the fear?”
There was never any opening discussion about whether GMOs are even necessary. The programme appeared to buy into the calling card of the pro-GMO lobby that there is a crisis in food production and this technology can remedy it. As will be shown, this assumption is erroneous.
After basing the programme on the pro-GMO false narrative that the technology is necessary if we are to feed the world, the onus was then placed on opponents of GMOs to prove that they are unsafe or harmful to the environment. And that set the tone for the next 30 minutes as time and again opponents or critics of GMOs were dismissed for being "ideological" and "immoral" and for not having science on their side. It was predictable stuff that has become a pretty much standard response by the pro-GMO lobby when attacking its critics (see this). It was clear that in the view of Panorama the cultivation of fear by critics of GMOs was the main issue to be addressed.
Early in the broadcast, the presenter stated:
“18 million farmers grow GM crops in 27 countries, Billions of meals have been eaten with GM ingredients.”
It mirrors a similar claim made by former UK Environment Minister Owen Paterson that as consumers were already unwittingly eating GM food on a regular basis, concerns about human health are misplaced. He stated:
“There’s about 160 million hectares of GM being grown around the world. There isn’t a single piece of meat being served [in a typical London restaurant] where a bullock hasn’t eaten some GM feed. So it’s a complete nonsense. But, the humbug! You know, large amounts of GM products are used across Europe.”
According to Paterson, GM food is safe simply because people do not know they are eating it, have no say in eating it and have not dropped dead from eating it. Perhaps Patterson would like to consult the mounting research that contradicts his assertions pertaining to the health impacts (for example, see this, this and this).
Perhaps the Panorama programme makers should have consulted this research too because Heap repeats this later in the broadcast that billions of meals have been eaten with GM ingredients. He adds that no one has ever brought a case saying GM has damaged their health in the US after 20 years of eating GM food.
In the absence of even a single long-term epidemiological study, attempting to pinpoint health issues as being specifically caused by GM food would at this point be highly problematic, especially given the cocktail of chemicals in our food and the environment. One thing is clear, however: as the use of glyphosate (the main active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide) has dramatically increased in the last 20 years, a number of diseases have spiked.
While Heap and his pro-GMO interviewees were praising the virtues of GMOs and crops designed to withstand copious amounts of Roundup, not once did the presenter mention that the WHO had recently labelled glyphosate as probably carcinogenic to humans. Given that Monsanto was focussed on at various stages of the programme and that one of the two main commercially available GM traits to date is Roundup ready seeds (the other Bt), any reasonable discussion about GMOs should have at least mentioned this.
Instead, all we heard was that glyphosate kills weeds thereby helping the glyphosate resistant GM crop to flourish. Perhaps Heap should have also focussed on the current situation in Argentina where glyphosate use is strongly associated with cancer or that a number of countries have placed bans on the use of this substance .
Panorama would have done better to state that GM food is fundamentally different to conventional food and there has been no long-term independent epidemiological study covering this technology. In fact, it would have been better to use the evidence in Steven Druker’s recent book (Altered Genes, Twisted Truth) as a starting point for the programme. That evidence highlights GM technology was placed on the commercial market due to scientific fraud and that GM technology has a track record of adverse health impacts.
Preferring not to mention any of these issues, the programme soon took us to a field in Bangladesh to try to convince the viewer of the benefits of Bt brinjal – eggplant/aubergine genetically modified with an insect toxin which means in principle (not necessarily in reality) no/less pesticides need to be sprayed on the plant. Heap interviewed a doctor of medicine for his opinion on Bt brinjal who speculated it is a good idea if workers are not coming in with pesticide-related ailments. Of course a medical doctor would say if a plant needs less pesticides then it could only be positive in terms of health impacts on farm workers. Who wouldn’t? But that is not an endorsement of Bt brinjal itself. It was a loaded interview. Nothing was mentioned about the toxin inserted into the plant (effectively making the plant itself a pesticide) and the potential effects on consumers or soil, for instance.
The programme said the GM seeds were given to farmers in Bangladesh who are free to plant the seeds the following year. A combination of public service and US government aid/altruism seems to be the driving force behind GM brinjal in Bangladesh; at least that was the impression given by Tom Heap.
Then we met an organic farmer. Heap says to her that GM advocates do not mind having organic farms in Bangladesh, so why should she mind having GM in the country, which she clearly does (presumably due to the possibility of cross contamination). Again, an anti-GMO person – this time a farmer – was portrayed as being somewhat dogmatic or irrational. Although the programme tries to convince the viewer that cross gene contamination is highly unlikely, contamination of non-GMO food is an increasing concern (see this as well) and can occur by various means – and deliberate contamination is a legitimate issue. It is indeed unlikely that GMO and non-GMO crops can co-exist. Again, this was never discussed.
We are merely assured by scientist Jonathan Jones from the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich that contamination is not an issue and that moreover an overwhelming majority of scientists now agree that GM poses no more danger to our health and the environment than non-GMO. The issue of a consensus on this matter was brushed aside as done and dusted.
The reality is very different. Scientific institutions do not support the so-called consensus. The scientific literature also does not support it. And independent scientists do not support it either. Perhaps the programme makers at Panorama should have consulted this informative, fully-referenced short report from Food & Water Watch prior to implying to millions of viewers that the debate on GMOs is more or less over. Perhaps we would have seen one or two people with alternative views being interviewed (see this to see how scientists/prestigious scientific bodies even propagandise on behalf of the GMO biotech industry).
The presenter then interviews a Greenpeace scientist who claims there is a health risk with GMOs, but he is immediately pulled up by Heap on the basis of his mistaken assertion that there is a lack of evidence for this. It seems such a wasted opportunity that Heap was never as keen to probe the many pro-GMO supporters (who were given a lot of air time) about their claims or the motives of the companies pushing GM technology. The actual need for GMOs was never questioned. It was never argued by anyone that non-GMO agriculture uses less pesticides and that GM farming does not necessarily result in better yields, as Jack Heinneman and his team have discovered. It was never acknowledged or mentioned that many (most) innovations in recent years have occurred through conventional breeding techniques.
And it was never argued that GMOs actually drive the sales of glyphosate. Instead Heap claimed GMOs are taking chemicals out of agriculture.
“In order to deal with rapidly resistant weeds, farmers are being forced to expand use of older, high-risk herbicides. To stop corn and cotton insects from developing resistance to Bt, farmers planting Bt crops are being asked to spray insecticides that Bt corn and cotton were designed to replace” Professor Charles Benbrook
As the discussion shifted to feeding poorer countries with large populations, GM was forwarded as being the solution to global hunger. There was no mention that GMOs are arguably driving poverty and even ecocide/genocide in South America. Neither was there any discussion about alternatives to GMOs despite numerous official reports having argued that to feed the hungry in poorer regions we need to support diverse, sustainable agro-ecological methods of farming and strengthen local food economies: see this UN report, this official report, this report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food and this report by 400 experts which was twice peer reviewed.
There was no discussion about how we currently produce enough food to potentially feed 10 billion people or how the globalised system of food production contributes to food insecurity or poverty (see this). Again, the underlying premise was that GMOs are needed to feed the world.
Heap interviewed Bangladesh’s agriculture minister to let the viewer note that politics plays no part in forcing GMOs into that country. The minister assures him that she or her government are not in the pocket of Monsanto. We are left in no doubt that any "conspiracy theory" about "evil" corporations forcing the hands of politicians has no place in this discussion.
A proper investigative approach to the GMO issue would have attempted to unveil what any informed observer already knows: the corporate capture of regulatory and policy making bodies is a major problem. It is much of a problem as it is in India, the US, Britain or Europe as a whole (see this discussion) . A more revealing approach would have looked at the role of the US State Department in promoting GMOs abroad and its use of unsavoury tactics.
Heap notes that in Britain there is growing scientific and political support for GM. He presents no analysis as to why this might be (ie the issues referred to in the preceding paragraph). The programme merely gives the impression that this support is because the debate of safety and efficacy is virtually won. The presenter says a single study (Seralini) – as if there is only one study highlighting problems – showing major safety concerns was discredited by the European Food Safety Authority. He thus dismisses health risks pertaining to GMOs. Again, this is as naïve as it is misleading because as Druker shows – as many scientists and studies show (see previous embedded links) – there is abundant evidence indicating serious health issues and conflicts of interests within such bodies.
During the programme, Greenpeace comes in for special attention. Steven Tindale (former Greenpeace UK director) says Greenpeace is a top-down organisation and that everything is decided centrally. Note there was no analysis of the main global player in the GMO agritech business – Monsanto. Its actions in Bangladesh are merely presented as benign. Its record elsewhere has been as bad as it can get. Moreover, it is not some altruistic company setting out to feed the planet. It has a vested interest to capture markets and buys up competitors while seeking control of food via applying patents. No discussion about this.
There was no attempt to deal with the argument that the GMO issue isn’t about nutrition or ‘feeding the world’ but about modifying organisms to create patents that will allow increasing monopolistic-like control over seeds, markets and the food supply. No talk of seed freedom or food democracy. There was no analysis of the massive conflicts of interests within agencies set up to protect the public interest. Any critique was aimed at Greenpeace (and a specific incidence involving Action Aid). The critique was not for Monsanto and its attitude to controlling the‘science’ around GMOs and the smearing of scientists whose research it finds unpalatable.
None of the above is based on speculation. It has all been documented. Is sound political analysis conveniently to be brushed aside as conspiracy theory, as not worthy of comment or analysis?
Time and again throughout the programme, interviewees are selected to argue that critics of GMOs are ideologically driven. Former Chief Scientific Advisor for the EU Anne Glover is interviewed and claims certain groups are driven by ideology and are making thing up. The irony (or hypocrisy) of her claim would not have been missed by those who have regarded her as little more than a pro-GMO lobbyist than a scientist (see this). She claims these groups are scare mongering and have a privileged position.
Yet not at any stage of the programme was someone interviewed to explain how certain pushers of GMOs or the companies behind them have made false claims, have spent over $100 million in the US to prevent the labelling of GM food, have made claims that are not supported by studies, have corrupted the machinery of government or policy/regulatory bodies or are driven by financial and political motives (see this, this, this and this, for example).
Instead we have Heap letting Mark Lynas or Heap himself glibly explaining away certain issues.
At the end, Heap says the whole GM issue rests on questions of trust and safety. However, the issue also rests on a wider discussion of GMOs that gives time to critics to express their points of view in full. This includes safety issues, environmental impacts, the politics of (GM) agriculture, whether GM is necessary in the first instance and alternative approaches.
The food crisis lies in a system that is squeezing the bedrock of global food production (smallholders) onto less and less land, financial speculation in foodstuff commodities and land, the colonisation of indiginous agriculture by Western corporations and food insecurity which the introduction of GM has often exacerbated. Panorama failed to inform the viewers about any of this and merely presented GM as the solution to hunger and food insecurity. Any honest and balanced discussion would have tackled or at least mentioned these issues and the many others outlined in this piece.
What are we left to conclude?
Many will have watched the Panorama programme and will be forgiven for asking: as a "public service" broadcaster, who does the BBC really serve?
Colin Todhunter is an independent writer