Despite a full-court press defending the supposed benefits of genetically engineered "golden rice," it has never entered production. According to Jonathan Latham of Independent Science News, the science media has utterly failed to report accurately on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) -- on their failures and criticisms rather than just their potential successes. A transgenic high-protein cassava, a type of starchy edible root, was lauded in the scientific press but fizzled not long after. So did a supposedly virus-resistant sweet potato that was widely hailed in the media. According to Jonathan Latham of Independent Science News, these and others are just a few examples of what he says is the utter failure of the science media to report accurately and critically on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) -- on their failures rather than just their touted successes.
In an article entitled "Fakethrough! GMOs and the Capitulation of Science Journalism," Latham describes how GMOs lauded in the media as "breakthroughs" are often just PR boosts for genetically engineered varieties or traits that either aren't new, are untested, or fail (and the failures are too often not reported). Often, GMO reporting also ignores or downplays extensive criticism and concerns raised by independent scientists.
PR's Baby: Golden Rice
A Google search for "golden rice," which is being genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene in its endosperm, and "vitamin A" (to which beta-carotene is a precursor) yields over 100,000 results, as of January 7. It's been on the cover of Time magazine and in the New York Times many times. Clearly, PR has created a "buzz" around the product.
Foodwatch, a consumer advocacy group based in Germany, published a 2012 report, "Golden Lies: The Seed Industry's Questionable Gold Rice Project." It concludes that managers of the "golden rice" project have "employed propagandistic methods to push the project beyond the issue of vitamin A deficiency, setting a precedent to increase the pressure on regulatory authorities and accelerate[d] the introduction of agricultural biotechnology. It is still not possible to judge whether or not Golden Rice is even technically able to combat vitamin A deficiency. ... Any risks posed by the cultivation or consumption of Golden Rice have been largely ignored."
Yet the science media has rushed to promote the rice despite the paucity of evidence for its benefits, Independent Science News writes: "There is thus what must surely be an unprecedented disparity between the number of articles generated around golden rice and its actual achievement, which currently stands at zero."
Scientist Absconds with Notes on GMO Cassava
The Monsanto-funded Donald Danforth Center developed a GMO cassava (also called manioc or tapioca) that was announced in a 2011 article in New Scientist by lead author Mohammad Abhary and enthusiastically lauded in other media. But according to Latham, "a subsequent investigation at the Danforth Center found that the 'modified' cassava plants in their greenhouses had no zeolin gene in them. They were not transgenic despite the fact that illustrations in the Abhary publication appeared to show they were." Abhary had apparently left the country "along with vital information" -- like how the plants were produced. New Scientist retracted the study and the lab did not redo it. However, the whole post-enthusiasm debacle was apparently left unreported by major science media.
The Vanishing Virus-Resistant Sweet Potato
Forbes magazine reported in 2002 on the development of a GE virus-resistant sweet potato whose yields it called "astonishing." As documented by Latham, the Toronto Globe and Mail and Canada's National Post also reported on the GMO root vegetable, the latter even echoing project leader Florence Wambugu's hyperbolic claim that the technology would pull "the African continent out of decades of economic and social despair."
But on the ground in Kenya, Independent Science News points out that "Monsanto's virus resistance was ineffective in field tests and an official report even claimed that 'non-transgenic crops used as controls yielded much more per tuber compared to the transgenics,'" and one scientist even remarked that "all lines tested were susceptible to viral attacks."
However, the press, including the New York Times, continued to publish reports and op-eds even in 2010 listing "virus-resistant sweet potatoes" as among "a few examples of genetically engineered foods that could improve the lives of the poor around the globe."
"Missing Context" in Science Journalism
Latham gives these and other examples of what his report calls the "capitulation of science journalism" regarding GMOs. Critically, he notes:
Science journalism could at any point over the lifetime of biotechnology have asked some foundational public interest questions: Is the technology ready? Are the regulators competent? Why is it considered appropriate for industry to fund and conduct its own safety studies? What are the views of dissenting scientists? And many others. Yet only a tiny handful of professional science journalists have ever escaped the standard narrow framing around a specific product, which therefore leaves the reader imagining there are good answers to these questions. ...
For example, when the UN published a major report by hundreds of scientists proposing that industrial agriculture and GMOs were inappropriate solutions for agriculture and poverty, the New York Times never once mentioned it.
A population without a dependable media to inform it about the issues with genetic engineering or to provide it with what Latham calls "missing context" cannot be blamed for asking that they at least be informed by food manufacturers when their products include GMO ingredients.
Most people favor GMO labeling and think they have a basic "right to know," despite the hard-fought losses advocates experienced in the 2013 and 2012 election seasons after GMO corporations flooded the airwaves with disinformation ads. This month, the state of Maine became the second state to pass a law mandating GMO labels (Connecticut was the first last year), and similar bills are pending in both New Hampshire and Vermont.