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The genes of biotech journalism

by Alan Guebert

(Monday, March 17, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Source: Instiute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

And now, the week's show-stopper in bad ag journalism.

On March 12, DTN news service ran a story that highlighting a recent survey of 250 Asian "Sstakeholders" who want biotech crops planted in their native lands. The story, headlined "Developing Countries Favor Biotech," began with this paragraph:

"While well-fed countries engage in conversations about whether or not biotechnology should be used to prevent pests and boost the world's food production, developing countries in Southeast Asia express optimism toward the technology in hopes of saving their starving populations, according to a University of Illinois news release."

The body of the story--ah, news release--contained 12 more paragraphs to reinforce that debatable notion. For instance:

  • Southeast Asians "are focused more on feeding the hungry than engaging in discourse about the moral and ethical dimensions of biotech."
  • The 250 "stakeholders" are described as "urban consumers, businessmen, Extension workers, farmer leaders, religious leaders, journalists, policy makers and scientists."
  • These stakeholders, according to Napoleon Juanillo, the University of Illinois researcher who conducted the survey, "are rational people who are looking realistically at their starving population and seeing the benefits of biotechnology to feed the masses."
  • The research was completed "with assistance from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) "

A sharp knife is not required to chop the story to pieces; a dull two-by-four will suffice.

In the communications trade, this story is what we politely label "greenwashing." Despite its objection to "engaging in discourse about the moral and ethical dimensions of biotech", that's precisely what the story and its supporting commentary does.

Here's how greenwashing works: a.) you are a moral person; b.) moral people don't want babies to starve; c.) biotech crops may help alleviate starvation; d.) as such, you wholeheartedly support the adoption of biotech to fight starvation.

Wait a minute, you say, I'm not a greenwasher. Oh, reply the greenwashers, you mean you are not moral.

It's the old "heads I win, tails you lose" conundrum. Posing biotech as a moral dilemma stops you from asking fair and honest questions because--egads--you don't want to appear immoral.

Or, worse, irrational and unrealistic because, after all, as the story notes, biotech stakeholders "are rational people who are looking realistically at their starving population and seeing the benefits of biotechnology to feed the masses."

In short, fair questions are not welcome. Especially from immoral, irrational and unrealistic questioners.

But let's ask one, shall we? For example, which "well-fed countries are engaging in "conversations" while hungry countries are prayerfully awaiting biotech to "... boost the world's food production ... in hopes of saving their starving populations?"

Presumably the reference is to biotech-laden America and the biotech-fearing European Union.

Conveniently not mentioned, however, is that biotech seeds presently are being used in poverty-stricken, hunger-plagued countries such as Argentina, China and India. The technology, though, has not dented any of those nation's' poverty or hunger.

Indeed, India alone is home to half the world's 800 million under-nourished people.

Who are the stakeholders in the global biotech debate mentioned in the story? While the group does include, ‚¨Surban consumers, businessmen, Extension workers, farmer leaders, religious leaders and journalists, conspicuously absent from the list is farmers.

The omission is not accidental, says Steven Suppan of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Farmers in developing nations today care little about biotech, he notes, because their primary needs are far more basic.

"Ask any ag minister in most developing countries what they need to make their agriculture prosper," says Suppan, "and you get two replies: One, market roads and warehouses to move and store food and, two, for the U.S. and the EU to stop dumping commodities into their countries that force farmers off their land. Biotech is not even on their farmers' radar screens."

What that means is if the poorer nations" farmers can't profitably grow food, let alone move or store it to areas where it is most needed, biotech is not now and never will be a solution to any nation's food dilemma.

That's a troubling fact that greenwashing research such as Juanillo's always fails to point out and news reports such as DTN's always seems to forget. It distorts the debate in an effort to win the debate.

And the distortion perpetuates myths. The grandest myth here is that biotech will solve hunger. If that is a fact, can anyone point to one biotech seed variety that has boosted yields?

But silly research such as this continues to get funded and half-true stories like this continue to get published. How this occurs is explained in the story itself: the research was conducted with assistance from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA).

According to information posted on its website (www.isaaa.org), ISAAA's financial underwriters include Bayer CropScience, Monsanto, Syngenta, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, AgrEvo, Cargill, Dow AgroSciences and Schering AG. No surprise, really. The biotech companies devote billions of dollars to global greenwashing each year.

What is surprising, however, is that the University of Illinois would openly participate in such patently friendly, industry-funded research and that DTN would take a blatantly slanted press release and publish it without one ounce of critical editorial judgment.

On second thought, that's not surprising either.

But the fact that the research is published on DTN doesn't make it research and it surely doesn't make it journalism.

This piece, taken from the Final Word, appeard on the Insitute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's US Farm Crisis listserv. The Final Word comes to you each Friday by special arrangement. Alan Guebert's regular column, the Farm and Food File, is published weekly in more than 70 newspapers around the US and Canada. Contact him at AGuebert@worldnet.att.net. © 2003 ag comm