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Respect the science - BBC must address ‘false balance’ in biotech coverage

Phil Lodge

August 2022

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

As one of a hundred or so independent-minded farmers who took part in the Government’s GM crop Farm-Scale Evaluations (FSE) just over 20 years ago, I still despair at the media treatment of genetic engineering in food and agriculture, especially by the BBC.

 

At the time, my reason for taking part in the research was a keen interest in the technology’s potential here in Britain, having visited Manitoba and Saskatchewan in Canada frequently in the 1990’s both pre- and post-adoption of GM canola.

 

From a few hesitant growers in the mid-1990s to almost 100% totally committed growers by 2000 who would not consider going back to conventional canola, the economic and environmental benefits were clear.

 

Scott Day, a pioneering Manitoba zero-till farmer, clocked 600 tractor hrs/year pre-GM and 150 tractor hrs/year with GM and zero-till, saving oceans of fuel on prairies and delivering benefits for soil conservation and wildlife.

 

Ducks Unlimited Canada, a major North American wildlife conservation group, financially encouraged the adoption of zero-till using GM canola.

 

And responsible management of the technology, with the progression from Glyphosate to Glufosinate ammonium tolerant and eventually Clearfield varieties, allowed farmers to rotate chemical tolerance, so protecting the technology’s effectiveness and minimising the development of herbicide resistant weeds.

 

The Canadian experience has been replicated around the world. Millions of farmers, in both developed and developing countries, continue to choose GM technology because it works.   

The technology is supporting major economic and environmental benefits in terms of increased yields, fewer pesticide sprays, less soil erosion and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

 

And after more than 25 years of large-scale commercial cultivation of GM crops around the world, I am not aware of a single negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption.

 

That is an extraordinary track record of safety, and one that is leading regulatory authorities in some parts of the world, where GM crops are widely grown, to ease their biosafety restrictions.  

 

And yet reporting of the issue in the British media continues to imply that genetic engineering remains highly controversial and uncertain.

 

This is despite the fact that these same technologies were used to support the development of life-saving vaccines against Covid-19 in record time, an achievement even praised by the Prince of Wales as “the power of collaboration, of agility and, ultimately, of science itself.” 

 

This is the same Prince of Wales, of course, who famously attacked GM technology in 1998 as straying into “realms that belong to God and God alone”.

 

Unlike Prince Charles, however, the BBC does not appear to have gone on the same journey of discovery and enlightenment.

 

Where the BBC seems to accept the scientific evidence behind man-made climate change, and no longer pursues a policy of ‘false balance’ by giving equal airtime to climate change sceptics, the same cannot be said of their treatment of GMOs and genetic engineering in agriculture.      

 

Next time you tune in to ‘Countryfile’ or ‘Farming Today’, rest assured that if genetic engineering is on the agenda, the considered views of eminent scientists will be counter-balanced by unsubstantiated rants from activist campaigners, claiming ‘unknown effects’ or ‘long-term risks.’

 

One wonders how long it will take before the global weight of scientific evidence behind the safety and efficacy of GM crops finally seeps into the consciousness of BBC journalists, editors and producers? 

 

Judging by the shockingly one-sided coverage aired by the BBC as recently as September 2020 to mark 20 years since 28 Greenpeace activists were acquitted of criminal damage after trashing a GM crop research trial, it would appear we have a long way to go.

 

Coverage on the BBC website and on Radio 4’s ‘The Reunion’ programme conveyed the impression, without challenge, that the actions of those protesting and campaigning against GM crops should be celebrated and applauded.

 

Guest panellists on ‘The Reunion’ broadcast included four prominent anti-GM campaigners of the time, one member of an independent regulatory advisory committee and one plant scientist who himself was conflicted with anti-corporate views. Where was the counter-balancing viewpoint from the farming community or plant breeding industry?  

 

Having hosted successive GM crop trials as part of the FSE programme, and witnessed first-hand the scare-mongering tactics of protesters, it is shameful that the BBC should be portraying anti-GM activists in heroic terms when many of the trial growers involved were subjected to death threats, intimidation, trespass, vandalism and bad-mouthing in the local community.

        

FSE trial growers were subjected to an orchestrated campaign of bullying, violence and misinformation. The BBC should be learning the lessons of 20 years ago and distancing itself from such a dark period for the cause of agricultural science.

 

But perhaps more importantly, neither The Reunion broadcast hosted by Kirsty Wark nor a BBC News website article entitled “GM crops: The Greenpeace activists who risked jail to destroy a field of maize” mentioned that one of the primary achievements of the anti-GM movement was to set back the process of science and innovation in British agriculture by decades, spreading fear and lies about a technology which in the intervening years has been rapidly adopted elsewhere in the world with an impeccable safety track record.

 

Continued access to innovation, and particularly genetic advances, will be critical to our future ability to feed a growing world population sustainably in the face of climate change and pressure on finite natural resources.

 

It is equally critical that public discussion of these advances by the BBC should be transparent and balanced, acknowledging the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence behind their safety and efficacy.

 

Phil Lodge manages a small-scale arable farm in South Yorkshire. He was a trial grower in the Government’s GM crop Farm-Scale Evaluation programme from 1999-2004. He has since stopped growing conventional beet because the economics of weed control do not stack up without GM technology. From a farming background, he sold his house in the 1970s to raise a deposit on his own farm, a 90-hectare, Grade-3 gravelly-sand farm on the urban fringe of Doncaster. “I am not likely to gain massive economic benefit from GM , just a nicer, more common-sense way of growing crops , which is what I live for.”