Spin glorious spin

December 2011

Newspaper colour
Photo by NS Newsflash on Flickr

Reporting on GM safety by the media “is often unreliable and unrepresentative of the available scientific evidence” (see GM SAFETY REVIEW: 2011 – October 2011).

By 'unreliable' is meant that, even if the press information comes directly from a Government Research Council, a University, a professor, a body with a respectable-sounding name, and even if you, the tax-payer, funded it, it may still be nothing more than “an elaborate piece of pro-GM propaganda” (GM Free Cymru)


To give you some idea of what to look out for, here are two real-life examples of fabulous “GM-acceptance” spin. Both used the same trick: a headline and introductory sentence (often all that people read) which so skillfully spin the message, that the conclusion the reader will come to is the reverse of what is actually being reported. The fantasy is then made concrete with cherry-picked, supporting quotes.

Confused?

In 2008, headlines such as “UK Farmers Upbeat about GM crops” and “UK Farmers want to grow GM crops” suggested the 'news' that farmers were champing at the bit to get GM seeds into the ground.

The report concerned a study carried out by the Open University, commissioned by the government Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and headed by a professor who was usefully quoted as confirming “New technology such as GM is attractive to farmers”, and further stressing that “A particular advantage of GM is its potential to allow farmers to grow crops with high yields while using less herbicide” (COMMENT Note the positive spin: the “particular advantage” is not a fact, it's a hypothetical possibility).

The Agricultural Biotechnology Council (a biotech industry organisation) was quick to spin this study further into “farmers recognise the clear economic and environmental benefits of GM crops to themselves and the wider public” (COMMENT Note the positive spin: the “clear ... benefits” are not facts, they may be recognised possibilities but they' re still hypothetical)

Even Monsanto got in on the act with a (particularly silly) post on its website which said “Shhhh ... Farmers Love Frankenfoods. British farmers are ready to throw in the organic cotton towel and start growing biotech crops just like their American cousins, finds a new study from the Open University.”

Beyond all these declarations of how pro-GM UK farmers seem to be, what did the study actually show?

The Frankenfood-loving “farmers” were a sample of only 30 individuals, half of whom were elected by the GM industry support group , SCIMAC (Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops) because of their previous involvement in the GM Farm Scale Evaluations. The farmers all ran large-scale commodity operations. By no stretch of the imagination could this tiny, biased sample be used to generalise the opinions, desires or future plans of some 150,000+ 'UK farmers'.

Their attitude to GM recorded in the study was actually that “they would assess it on its merits”. More of a 'wait-and-see' and 'use-my-common-sense' sort of approach than any intention to grow GM, nor recognition of existing GM benefits, and certainly not a love of Frankenfoods.

Perhaps the ESRC was being more honest when it told GM Free Cymru that the research was “investigating the major influences on (farmers') views and decisions”. This rather makes it sound as if the reason for the study was to learn how to shape farmers' views, rather than to find out what views they already held?

The second example was in 2011. UK 'Farmers Weekly' declared that “Shoppers back GM in face of rising food costs”.

The article reported a survey which found that, while 35% of consumers would support GM food, the numbers rose to 44% if the technology kept food prices down.

Looking at the figures in this survey in a more realistic way tells us that two-thirds of the respondents were opposed to GM, while only one-third were actually positive. The hypothetical ability of GM to keep food prices down was greeted by only 9% of the respondents as a possible reason for them to accept GM foods.

One of the purposes if this research was “to find out how rising food prices were affecting people's shopping and consumption habits”. This is outrageous spin: the acceptance of GM is entirely hypothetical but is described as if it has already become part of a change in what people are buying and eating now.

More tellingly, the survey was published an a booklet produced by the Crop Protection Association. This Association is affiliated to CropLife International whose members are BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow DuPont UK, Monsanto, Syngenta and a whole stack of other companies in whose interest it is to promote GM food acceptance.

OUR COMMENT

These continued attempts to suggest GM is being seen in a positive light by farmers and the public seem to be a more subtle version of what's going on in India (see PAYING FOR NEWS – November 2011).

Don't be fooled.


SOURCES
  • Domingo and Bordonoba (2011), A literature review of genetically modified plants, Environment International 37
  • “UK Farmers Upbeat abut GM Crops” Debunked, Institute of Science in Society Press Release 26.03.08
  • Farmers and GM Crops new report slammed as “propaganda dressed up as science”, GM Free Cymru, 22.02.08
  • www.cropprotection.org.uk/members.aspx
  • Caroline Stocks, Shoppers back GM in face of rising food costs, Farmers Weekly, 3.08.11

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