TCS Daily

A Dogged Silence

By Duane D. Freese - July 22, 2002 12:00 AM

The American and British media in their coverage of genetically modified crops lately have acted much like the dog in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's story "Silver Blaze."

The tale is about a racehorse that disappears from his paddock, with his trainer found in a field, killed by a blow to the head. Sherlock Holmes is called in, and after he examines the evidence, his fictional chronicler, Dr. Watson, asks: "Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

"The dog did nothing in the night-time."

"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Like the dog, the media have been pretty quiet in their reporting about biotechnology in agriculture lately.

Good News: The Bad News Is Wrong

In some respects, this is a good thing, since when newspapers and the media highlight something, it's usually like a dog howling in the night: It's to complain that something bad, or what they imaginatively think might be bad, is happening. "Science panel urges closer study of biotech crops" and "Panel Urges U.S. to Tighten Approval of Gene-Altered Crops" are typical recent headlines.

And now a recent review of media coverage of agrobiotechnology in the current issue of AgBioForum this winter describes what's happening. Examining press accounts from 1990 through 2001, researchers Leonie A. Marks and Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes of the University of Missouri-Columbia found that when news is hottest about agbiotechnology it tends to emphasize potential, even if improbable, risks.

They noted that "coverage linked the potential for GM foods as a repeat of the UK experience with BSE or 'mad cow disease'" when that worry reached its peak in 1998 and 1999. In the United States, the Washington Post, USA Today and Wall Street Journalagbiotech coverage peaked in 2000 and 2001 with fears about damage to Monarch butterflies and the release of a non-human tested transgenic feed corn, Starlink, into the food supply.

But six studies last fall demonstrated GM corn posed no threat to Monarch butterflies, and most recently the U.S. General Accounting Office - Congress' primary adviser on technical issues - concluded the safety regimen for GM crops in human foods could be enhanced, but was already quite adequate. And as far as windblown contamination, an Australian study published in a recent issue of Science involving a canola variety genetically modified using standard breeding techniques found that the amount was minimal -- less than 0.2% of seeds in any of the other fields. That's no threat to biodiversity or health, except in the mind of someone who has no understanding that nothing in nature is pure.

Now For the Real Good News

But while the media isn't drumming up fears with overly dramatic coverage, it also isn't doing much reporting or investigating the benefits of genetically modified crops - particularly the environmental benefits they provide.

When a coalition for the Declaration in Support of Protecting Nature with High-Yield Farming and Forestry held a news conference April 30, major news outlets such as the Washington Post, USA Today, and The New York Times took a pass. Why will they cover protesters dressed up as butterflies, but not cover two Nobel Prize winners; former Democratic presidential candidate, George McGovern; a World Food Prize winner and the founder of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, talk about the need for biotechnology and other tools for feeding the world's millions of starving people?

The same went for a report issued by the Council on Agricultural Science and Technology, "Comparative Environmental Impacts of Biotechnology-derived and Traditional Soybean, Corn and Cotton Crops." The report notes GM crops are now planted on 46 percent of the world's soybean acreage, 7 percent of its corn acreage and 20 percent of its cotton acreage. Indeed, in the case of cotton, that will quickly grow faster, as India this spring took off its anti-GM blinders, approving by referendum import of GM cotton seeds after some farmers, who illegally imported some, proved its pest resistant and environmental benefit.

What kind of environmental benefit? Well, if you don't have to spray as much pesticide, you don't risk killing as many good bugs as well as pests. If you don't have to plow up as much land to keep weeds down, you have less soil erosion. If you can grow more of a crop on fewer acres, you can turn more land over for other beneficial uses - as buffer zones and for trees. All this leads to improved water and air and soil quality, without having to sacrifice yields as happens with intensive organic farming.

GM crops, the report concluded, actually can increase biodiversity, which is why the authors of the study recommend strongly that agricultural biotechnology continue to be developed "to enhance environmental stewardship."

Let Them Know

If GM can be good for the environment - and 19 Nobel Prize winners who support the Declaration for High Yield Farming and Forestry believe that is true, too - then doesn't the public have a right to know about that as much as risks that have yet to pan out?

The curious thing about the media is that it barks so much about risks, real or imagined, but fails to balance it with full reporting of such benefits.

If only the dog in Silver Blaze had made some noise despite seeing only a familiar face, it might have prevented the horse's trainer from trying to hobble it to win a bet, and getting clobbered by the horse in the process. If the press would draw as much attention to the benefits of biotechnology as it does to perceived risks, perhaps it would awaken the public to the need to keep this vital science from being hobbled by anti-biotech extremists who pass themselves off as friendly environmentalists.



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