by Jonathan Latham, PhD
Synopsis: If the purpose of the press is to be a public interest watchdog then the science media is a uniquely unsuccessful institution. This is nowhere truer than in its coverage of the ag-biotech industry. Especially useful for anyone wanting to understand the relationship between this industry and the media are journalist descriptions of 'humanitarian' GMO breakthroughs. In these, biotech crops are proposed, in the words of Canada's National Post, to pull "the African continent out of decades of economic and social despair”. Such articles appear regularly in all of the specialist science media and well beyond, including the New York Times,Time magazine, the Toronto Globe and Mail, the Guardian, the Economist, Slate, New Scientist, Forbes and hundreds of others. The gusher of biotech good news stories originates mostly from a very limited number of GMO projects: edible vaccines, biofortified cassava, golden rice, and a virus resistant sweet potato.
Yet the scientific foundation of these breakthroughs is weak; they are invariably based on preliminary or unpublished research, or they have already failed. What they primarily showcase is the failure of the science press to fulfill the requirements of rigorous and sceptical journalism. The ag-biotech industry has taken full advantage of this to project an image of itself as ethical, innovative, and essential to a sustainable future that is virtually unrelated to reality.
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Jonathan Latham, PhD
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