PANNA: U.S. Media Opinion Pages Present Biased View of Biotech


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U.S. Media Opinion Pages Present Biased View of Biotech
May 3, 2002

Thirteen of the largest newspapers and magazines in the United States have all but shut out criticism of genetically engineered (GE) food and crops from their opinion pages, according to a new report by Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy.

The report, Biotech Bias on the Editorial and Opinion Pages of Major United States Newspapers and News Magazines, found an overwhelming bias in favor of GE foods not only on editorial pages, but also on op-ed pages, a forum usually reserved for a variety of opinions. In fact, the report found that some newspapers surveyed did not publish a single critical op-ed on GE foods and crops, while publishing several in support.

"It is a great disservice to the American public when the media filters out critical viewpoints on issues that are central to our times," said Anuradha Mittal, co-director of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy. "This is an issue where there is significant difference of opinion among both scientists and the general public," she said, "and those differences must be represented in the media if the public is to be able to exercise its democratic right to make informed decisions about new technologies."

The report investigated 11 newspapers and three weekly news magazines between September 1999 and August 2001. Out of 40 op-eds, 31 supported GE foods and crops while only seven were critical. Two op-eds argued for labeling of GE foods. Newspaper editorials were united in supporting GE foods and crops and only diverged on the issue of labeling.

The report found that the arguments presented in support of GE crops could be grouped into several general categories:

  • GE crops are good for the environment, or genetic engineering will create a world free of pesticides.
  • We must accept GE crops and foods if we are to feed the poor in the Third World, because they offer the best way to boost agricultural productivity.
  • There are no viable alternatives to GE crops and foods.
  • GE crops are here to stay, so we should just accept them.
  • The public already accepts GE, so what is all the fuss about?
  • Trust scientists, they know best.

The report points out that these are essentially the same arguments used by the biotechnology industry in their advertising campaigns, and that there is an overwhelming lack of attention to widely expressed doubts concerning these arguments. Such concerns include:

  • GE crops in and of themselves may represent significant risks to the environment. In addition, the reduction of insecticide use in so-called "Bt-crops" may be short-lived, and herbicide-tolerant crops may lead to increased, rather than decreased use of hazardous pesticides.
  • The productivity-enhancing potential of GE crops may be greatly overstated, in fact for some crops, like soybeans, there is evidence of reduced yields. Furthermore, GE crops may be unlikely to be appropriate for, adopted by or useful for poor farmers in the Third World.
  • A significant body of research exists which demonstrates the proven potential--to boost productivity, protect the environment and address hunger--of alternatives in the realms of integrated pest management (IPM), sustainable agriculture, agroecology, policy reform, etc. This potential in many cases may be greater than that of GE crops and foods.
  • There are potential health-risks of GE foods for consumers, which may not have been adequately evaluated before the approval of these products.

(Summaries of these arguments may be found at: http://www.foodfirst.org/progs/global/ge/ and http://www.panna.org/resources/geTutorial.html )

The papers surveyed were: The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Houston Chronicle, Newsday (New York), The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal. The weekly news magazines were Time, Newsweek, and The Economist.

The report is based on searches conducted on the Nexis database using the search term "bioengineered foods or genetically modified foods or genetically engineered foods or biotechnology." The findings were reduced to "editorial or op-ed or opinion or commentary."

An HTML copy of the report can be found at: http://www.foodfirst.org/media/press/2002/biotechbiasreport.html.

A PDF version can be found at: http://www.foodfirst.org/media/press/2002/biotechbiasreport.pdf.

Source/contact: Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, 398 60th Street, Oakland, CA 94618; phone (510) 654-4400; fax (510) 654-4551; email foodfirst@foodfirst.org; Web site http://www.foodfirst.org/.

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