4 Different News Stories, 4 Different Answers: The Truth About GMOs


Confused about GMOs? You’re probably not alone. There’s a war of words going on, and as with any war, there’s plenty of propaganda and hyperbole to go around. Are GMOs a dangerous, unproven technology or the only way to feed the world?

What have you been reading?

As an illustration, let’s take a look at the way the same story was covered by two different news outlets.

This NPR story and this New York Times piece both cover the same report by The National Research Council Committee. The report found that farmers who adopted GMO technology had received benefits, but also, that if the technology is overused and not managed properly, it could have detrimental effects in the future.

Starting with the headline, “Biotech Crops Are Good for Earth, Report Finds,” the NPR piece looks like a fluff, pro-GMO piece.

The Times headline, on the other hand, lays out both sides of the issue succinctly, like so: “Study Says Overuse Threatens Gains From Modified Crops.”

On the whole, the Times piece is much more nuanced and also wide reaching, offering readers helpful background about GMOs, links to more information about what exactly The National Research Council Committee is, and more facts both pro and con. This piece goes into detail about the problem with herbicide-resistance superweeds, while the NPR piece downplays it.

One important aspect of the study that is the subject of both articles was to find out if the overall higher prices of GMO seeds are worth it to farmers. Therefore, it seems like an omission that the NPR piece didn’t even mention that Monsanto, one of the leading producers of GMO seeds, is being investigated by the Justice Department for unduly increasing prices, and for violating antitrust laws by using licensing agreements to kill competition.

The NPR piece likewise didn’t mention that Monsanto share prices are falling, while the Times piece did. Recently Monsanto reported that its profit fell 19 percent in the second quarter, partially because sales of its herbicide Roundup are down due to cheaper generic imports. Likewise, neither story mentioned that, on a recent “listening tour” with farmers, Monsanto found that farmers were upset about high prices and they weren’t adopting the technology as enthusiastically as Monsanto would like.

Remember that what’s good for Monsanto isn’t necessarily good for farmers. As the report found, overuse will threaten farmer gains from adoption of the technology. Monsanto CEO, Hugh Grant has said that Monsanto may be forced to lower its seed prices to increase adoption rates, which in the long run, according to the report, is likely to erode farmer gains.

Another aspect of the report that was not mentioned in either piece is the report’s assertion that more investigation is needed about the impact of GMOs on farmers who grow organic and conventional crops. If we’re looking at the impact of GMOs on farmers, how can we not look at the impact of GMOs on farmers who don’t choose to grow them? How can GMOs be good for these farmers if they are no longer able to make a profit marketing their crops as GMO-free because the crops they choose to grow are contaminated by genetically modified traits?

Where do these differences in editorial outcome originate? It’s difficult to tell. I’ve heard NPR criticized for its coverage of GMOs because it takes advertising money from Monsanto. But so does the New York Times. In this case at least, the Times seems to have the editorial independence necessary to cover the issue more thoroughly than NPR.

In other GMO news this week, over at The Boston Globe, this pro-GMO op-ed by Elliot Entis, CEO of the American Salmon Company and founder of Aqua Bounty Technologies, Inc. got reader comments rockin’. The piece paints organic farming proponents as hopeless romantics who ignore science and want to return to the past. Granted this is an op-ed, not a news story, but the Globe should have some responsibility to its readers to not print such dreck. Who is this Elliot Entis fellow? I looked into his companies. The only information I was able to find about American Salmon is that it is a foreign corporation registered in Massachusetts. Aqua Bounty, however, is a company that develops genetically modified fish that are designed to grow faster in aquaculture operations.

Speaking of science, if opponents of GMOs really are ignoring science, they are not the only ones. Another article hit last week in The Washington Post about how few science-based tests are done on GMO crops. Many sources interviewed for the piece charged that the agencies assigned to regulate GMO crops often ignore the science that is out there.

One of the scientists studying biotech crops for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Robert Kremer, expressed alarm that regulators were not paying enough attention to the potential risks from biotechnology on the farm.

The article also quotes Nina Fedoroff, a special adviser on science and technology to the U.S. State Department, which promotes GMO adoption overseas, saying, “We preach to the world about science-based regulations but really our regulations on crop biotechnology are not yet science-based.”

It’s clear from this one week roundup of GMO news that if you want to stay informed about any topic, especially the most controversial ones with the biggest PR spin machines behind them, it’s up to you to do your own research and look at many different stories on the same topic. Invariably editorial policy, ideological slant, or simply poor reporting can mean the difference between finding the truth (or at least a balanced view) and swallowing a big bucket of spin.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: Oculator

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.