Neat topic. Big word

May 2012

Some definitions...
  • science - systematic or formulated knowledge
  • bio - from the Greek word 'bios' meaning the course of life; modern use extends this to include organic life; hence biology - the science of life
  • technology - the science of the industrial (trade or manufacturing) arts
  • tool - mechanical implement
In 2001, when the biotech industry was beginning to realise it wasn't going to be able to 'educate' sceptical UK adults to want its GM food, it had a go at their children.

The information which the new industry wanted to feed to young minds was presented in a series of attractive, colourful booklets: “Your World - Biotechnology & You - a magazine of biotechnology applications in healthcare, agriculture, the environment and industry”. These were made available to secondary schools. 'Genetically Modified Crops and Foods' was one edition tucked into a stack of other biotech-science-type stuff to make it look like a useful, up-to-date, teaching aid. Lest there be any doubt that the venture was anything but a GM-promotion exercise, the issue of 'Your World' magazine which described the wonders of GM food ended, chillingly
You probably now understand more about these complex issues than most adults. Go educate your elders”.

Twelve years on, the biotech industry's clearly aware its hush-hush tactics on GM food in America, which have been successful so far, are bound to crack sooner or later. In fact, the US citizens, who have been kept ignorant and quiet and eating up their biotech products until now, are beginning to behave more like Europeans the more they understand.

And, what better way to tackle this problem than to get American kids to 'Go educate their elders'?

This time round, there's no attempt to camouflage the GM-is-good message by burying it amongst other 'science'. The magazine/teaching-aid, 'Biotechnology Basics Activity Book' is aimed at a younger age-group, with a comic-book style and full of fun puzzles: the accompanying 'Teacher Helpful Hints' says “Have fun when you take a closer look at biotechnology”. In other words, the presentation divorces the subject from real-life, is full of “friendly cartoon faces” and is “more like a fairy tale” than the science workbook it's pretending to be (Cummins). Of course, something you're going to “have fun” with isn't likely to be dangerous.

The propaganda starts out with defining 'biotechnology'. Apparently it's “a really neat topic”, it's “a big word”, and (if you redefine its derivation, see 'Definitions' above) it become “a tool that uses biology to make new products” and “a tool for looking closer at nature”. Since a “tool” is a “mechanical implement”, the Workbook immediately reduces living material to a machine which can be tinkered with to produce goods for sale. Then, just in case anyone notices that living things aren't quite like that, a closer-look-at-nature message is beamed in.

Next, a wealth of positive sound-bytes is pumped in: 'helping' (three times), 'improve' (three times), 'healthier' (four times), 'precise', 'wonderful ways', 'special qualities', and 'solutions' (all in the first two paragraphs).

What happens after that is a stream of subtle shifts of meaning in which 'facts' become 'maybes': a slight of hand youngsters are unlikely to notice.

For example, pupils are asked to figure out from a puzzles how biotechnology helps us: the answers are given in terms of how biotechnology could help us. This 'can-now' slip-sliding into a 'might-one-day possibility' continues throughout the Activity Book. The most laughable example is that biotechnology “could have tremendous potential”. (COMMENT This is a very honest statement: it means that not even the potential of biotechnology is there yet, and may never be. Did they mean it?)

The alert teacher will notice something wrong with the Biotechnology Basics Activity Book just by looking at who produced it.

This 'educational material' is a baby of the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI). The CBI describes itself as “a non-profit 501c6 organisation that communicates science-based information about the benefits and safety of agricultural biotechnology and its contributions to sustainable development”. What all this means is that:
  • The CBI is funded by all the big biotech players BASF, BayerCropScience, Dow Agrosciences, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta. They don't expect a return in cash but expects dividends to appear in the form of public manipulation (besides targeting children, the CBI has been very instrumental in preventing GM labelling or any such right-to-know legislation in America)
  • The 501c6 bit refers to the CBI's tax status as an organisation devoted to the improvement of a particular business i.e. it's a recognised biotech industry lobby group There's no pretence of communicating balanced information, science-based or not, it aims only to deliver material on the benefits and safety of biotech products.
  • 'Sustainable' development is a key buzzword. It's carefully linked to energy-supply, water-management, and crop yield to feed the growing world population using GM crops.
Now, back-track to 2001. Your World was produced in the UK by the 'Biotechnology Institute'. One of the founding sponsors of the Biotechnology Institute whose “generous support” made possible the issue of the magazine on 'Genetically Modified Food Crops' was (you guessed it) the Council for Biotechnology Information (another was Monsanto).


Sustainable development would indeed make a very interesting biotech topic for teachers to explore with their pupils: for example, the contradiction of replacing food crops with GM fuel crops and then trying to use a 'tool' never yet known to increase yields to make up the deficit and to feed more people, or a comparison of the contribution of GM and non-GM varieties to the development of drought-tolerant crops.

As Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association says:
“The book's claims are laughable. But framing blatant lies as “science” for children in schools borders on the criminal”. 
Let's hope US teachers are aware enough to put propaganda dressed up as science in the trash-can, and teach the future stewards of our planet some real biology, such as in the word of GM-whistle-blower scientist Don Huber “Any change in any of these factors (sunlight, water, temperature, genetics, or soil-nutrients) impacts all the factors. No one element acts alone, but all are part of a system. When you change one thing, everything else in the web of life changes in relationship.” These are terms everyone, even kids, can understand.

The good news is that rehashing something tried without success in years gone by, and attempts to brainwash kids as young as 10 years old are signs of desperation and likely to cause more concern than putting a 'GM' label on foods could ever do.

If you have American friends or relatives with children, you might ask them to check out what their kids are being fed in the school science lab.

  • Ronnie Cummins, Outrageous Lies Monsanto and Friends Are Trying to Pass off to kids as Science, AlterNet, 20.03.12
  • Look Closer at Biotechnology, Council for Biotechnology Information, accessed March 2012
  • Oxford English Dictionary
  • Your World, Genetically Modified Food Crops, Volume 10, Issue No.1 2000

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