GM bias on BBC?

Jason Ball at the Natureheads blog

I have encountered a few examples recently of what seems to be, at best, poor journalism, at worst, bias in favour of Genetically Modified crops – which, it must be said, are expected to have associated influences on people and the planet which are not easy to justify.

The question is, am I really seeing bias with regard to the issue of GM crops, or is it simply a case of standard practice in the media generating a rather blinkered coverage? I am usually a big fan of the BBC, but recently my efforts to understand the potential impact of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) led me to read, listen to and watch various items on TV, the web, and radio. The BBC gave me cause for concern.

As a Naturehead the potential influence of GMOs is important to me, and my biology background helps me to understand some of the science-based issues. I am not immune to showing bias myself, but I think I am being fair when questioning the balance and quality of media articles I’ve encountered. What do you think? Am I seeing bias in the BBC?

King claims GM can save the world
Taking part in the radio mini-series Street Science, Sir David King was introduced by BBC Radio 4 as follows:
“David believes passionately that GM crops could save the lives of millions of people around the world. He’s worried that the anti-GM sentiment in the UK is ruining Africa’s chances of benefiting from this technology.”

You can listen again to Sir David King on Street Science here. (You’ll need Realplayer.)

A few things strike me about the way this was set up:

  1. the BBC give a platform for a scientist to speak out pro-GM
  2. the series is about promoting understanding of Science
  3. this implies that once you understand the Science you might be happy to accept GM crops

The BBC seem to set up a science versus anti-science scenario. Sir David himself said that he expected a strong presence of anti-science, ‘nature will provide’ views. The BBC present the argument so simply – does King really believe this, given the evidence, or is this how the BBC puts it? This is a scientist who dismisses Organic food production as “a lifestyle choice” (Observer, 5 Oct 2008.) so perhaps he does.

And the viewpoint is so narrow – it’s just about feeding the world. They specifically mention Africa, but this does not take account of the demands that rich ‘northern’ countries make on the world’s food suppply, for example it’s reckoned that the UK impacts about 4 times it’s own land area for its food.

My understanding so far, of the issues surrounding GM is that it’s about much more than feeding the world. What’s scary is that some leading UK politicians are simplifying the debate and the media – in these cases the BBC – seem all too happy to follow in their footsteps. For a refreshing change, read this article in the Guardian by Rachel Dixon about how Hilary Benn tries to reduce the GM issue to 2 questions.

I must have been mistaken about at least one thing – my impression was that Sir David King was in the same camp as the BBC Horizon programme Jimmy’s GM Food Fight, which seemed to basically set the same theme as above – i.e. that anti-GM sentiment might be depriving the poor of the ability to feed themselves. And I thought the BBC Horizon programme was biased and weak on the way it presented the science, because it was also narrowly focussed.

But the editor of BBC Horizon refutes bias, and what’s more, he has now come out to say firmly that Horizon said GM Crops are nowhere near being able to solve the problem of feeding the world. Please read on…

BBC Horizon disputes bias in GM Food Fight
On the blog for the Feeding the World Conference the Organic Research Centre now have a reply to their letter of complaint to the BBC. Richard Sanders of the ORC wrote to the Horizon editor, Andrew Cohen, about the programme entitled Jimmy’s GM Food Fight (broadcast 25th Nov 2008.)

Cohen denies any bias in the programme. His summary of the programme’s conclusion is that GM crops “currently on the market aren’t going to save the world, they’re good for farmers and good for profits, but while there are lingering doubts about the safety we should proceed carefully” and that any real benefits of GM may be “10, 15, 20 years in the future”

However, he does not seem to answer any of the specific criticisms from the ORC on factual error, the debate limitations, or journalistic weaknesses.  Read more…

Wrong debate
These BBC programmes have set up a debate which misses the point.

First of all, it’s not about science and anti-science, because the debate about GM technology requires a scientific evidence-based approach to analyse, assess and deal with the problems, limitations, risks and the best application of this technology. I heard at conference Dr Brian Johnson and Dr Charlie Clutterbuck call for a proper risk assessment system for GM technology. (Dr Johnson believes in 15 years’ time we might have a totally different set of gene engineering tools and could be building ‘designer organisms’ with synthetic biological processes. Listen to the very end of this MP3 sound file.)

And if , as Horizon concludes, GM crops aren’t fit for feeding the world then the question is, how do we tackle that challenge?

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