The world of genetically modified food is rife with miscommunication – it seems that no matter how well-informed we try to be about the safety of GMOs, there’s always someone pointing us in a different direction. And this, unfortunately, is no accident.
Some of the confusion surrounding GMO food, of course, is due to the fact that the research is ever evolving.
“There isn’t a large body of evidence illustrating the dangers of GMOs,” explains Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, an organic watchdog organization. He notes that while short-term animal studies have been conducted, there are few human studies that show whether or not GMO food is safe.
In large part, however, the scientific community tends to agree that there’s nothing wrong with genetically engineered food – in theory. Some uses of genetic modification, such as the development of genetically engineered Rainbow papaya hailed for saving the Hawaiian papaya industry or “Golden Rice” enriched in beta carotene to help vitamin A-deficient communities, have be seen as positive advances by many.
“There are valid concerns about some aspects of GE agriculture,” reports Slate. “But none of these concerns is fundamentally about genetic engineering.”
The truly valid concerns are linked to the ways in which biotech companies are using this technology, notably patenting herbicide-resistant seeds that promote monocultures, hinder biodiversity, and encourage the prolific spraying of the herbicide glyphosate, which the World Health Organization deemed “probably” carcinogenic in 2015.
But even when it comes to glyphosate, it seems, there are wide differences in opinion. For every report demonizing the chemical, there is one (or several) claiming that these fears are unfounded. And yet internal emails paint another picture. One 2001 email written by a Monsanto scientist reads, “If somebody came to me and said they wanted to test Roundup I know how I would react — with serious concern.”
It seems, then, that the biotech industry is dictating what journalists report on its products, contributing to mass misinformation.
Journalist Carey Gillam experienced this first-hand during her 17 years covering the industry for Reuters, when, she notes, “the industry pushed back on any story that they deemed not favorable to GMOs,” essentially coloring the way that the news media presented GMO food products.
“It's a very broad, deep and cohesive effort by very powerful corporations who have their profits at stake,” says Gillam. “And for reporters, the nuances of the issues are not easy to investigate.”
How Does Biotech Control What We Know About GMO Food?
Here in the United States, we’re lucky enough to have freedom of the press. So how is the biotech industry coloring our perception of GMO food so expertly?
Gillam cites a variety of tactics, including partnering with outlets like the Genetic Literacy Project which, along with the American Council on Science and Health, attacked New York Times investigative reporter Danny Hakim for his stories criticizing the agrochemical industry. Both publications, it bears mentioning, were shown by lawyers in a U.S. District Court in April to be financially linked to Monsanto.
The industry also pays off individual reporters, academics, and scientists to report on GMO food in a favorable light. Recent emails released during a lawsuit against Monsanto show that the company encouraged academics to participate in “deceptive authorship” with regard to the safety of the company’s proprietary glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide and even provided a “high-quality draft” of an article to Henry I. Miller, a vociferously pro-GMO academic, for publication in Forbes under Miller's name.
Biotech companies also fund and run conferences to train reporters to cover GMOs in their favor, often without the journalists themselves knowing any better.
“If you're a young reporter and perhaps don't know the beat very well yet, it's a much easier path to simply let the industry guide coverage,” notes Gillam. But it's a dangerous temptation, notes Gary Schwitzer, publisher of HealthNewsReview and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.
“Far too many journalists are sliding down the slippery slope of attending conferences that are sponsored by entities with financial interests,” he tells The Progressive. “This practice changes journalism [into] another form of pay-for-play.”
What Happens to Journalists Who Won’t Play the Game?
Of course, many journalists refuse to buy into this misinformation campaign, and many of them suffer for their integrity.
“If a reporter is not easily wooed, and reports comments, studies, information that contradicts the industry agenda, that reporter will be targeted for an array of actions aimed at curtailing coverage,” explains Gillam. This can range from industry reps calling to demand changes or corrections, "even when they [cannot] demonstrate any inaccuracies in stories" to freezing out journalists entirely. Gillam notes, for example, the “common practice” of denying interviews to unknown journalists or those who are not known as "friendly" to the industry.
Gillam herself experienced this after years covering reports from industry group International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotechApplications (ISAAA), which is funded in part by Monsanto. In 2014, Gillam mentioned criticism of the data in her story, and the group reacted very poorly.
“After the story ran, they went crazy, calling and yelling at me, calling my editors, and telling me that never, never again would I get an ISAAA report or an interview with the ISAAA executive,” she recalls. “It was insane, because the story was mostly their stuff, their narrative and their data, with only a small mention of the criticism.”
The following year’s report was shopped to Gillam’s colleagues, and this year’s story does not even mention that the ISAAA receives industry funding.
Monica Eng of Chicago’s NPR station had a similar experience after exposing an undisclosed financial relationship between University of Illinois professor Bruce Chassy and Monsanto.
“I’ve worked as a professional journalist in Chicago for more than three decades,” Eng told The Progressive. “I’ve uncovered questionable activity in government groups, nonprofits, and private companies. But I don’t think I have ever seen a group so intent on trying to personally attack the journalist covering the issue.”
It seems, then that journalists have two choices when it comes to reporting on GMO food: slag through an enormous amount of research – and risk being insulted, frozen out, or even discredited – in order to report accurately, or report the spin, just like the biotech industry wants.