Investigation or advocacy? The BBC reveals its pro-GMO bias

What BBC / Panorama didn't want you to know: This year's GM Bt brinjal plants either died out prematurely or fruited insignificantly compared to the locally available varieties, bringing finacial ruin to their cultivators. Photo: New Age (Bangladesh).
What BBC / Panorama didn't want you to know: This year's GM Bt brinjal plants either died out prematurely or fruited insignificantly compared to the locally available varieties, bringing finacial ruin to their cultivators. Photo: New Age (Bangladesh).
The Panorama programme on GM foods and crops last Monday was a masterpiece of spin, bluster, misrepresentation and outright deceit, write Lawrence Woodward & Pat Thomas, with the BBC's top investigatory strand hijacked to force feed the UK population with the purest of pro-GMO propaganda.
Genetically engineered Bt Brinjal in the country's several districts has cost farmers their fortunes again this year as the plants have either died prematurely or fruited insignificantly compared to the locally available varieties.

The pro-GM bias of the BBC was plain to see during Monday's (8th June) Panorama programme 'GM Food - Cultivating Fear'.

Blinkered and narrow rather than panoramic, selective and prejudicial rather than investigative, this sorry display set a new low for a programme which was once a flagship of investigative journalism.

It had no more veracity and insight than the most clichéd corporate press release.

The result was that a mix of myths, deceptive assertions and inaccurate statements by pro-GM lobbyists - including those masquerading as independent scientists - were given a free ride and promotional slot on prime time television.

It's tempting to say that you couldn't make this stuff up - except Panorama has proven with its latest fiction that actually you can - and that you can even get the BBC (and thus the licence fee payer) to pay for it.

New and improved!

Any viewer who has ever visited a supermarket will already be familiar with the concept of the front-of-the-package 'come on'. Words like 'new' and 'improved' and 'scientifically proven' get splashed on product labels every day - and yet the reality is often that the only thing that really changes is the package.

So it is with Panorama's claims of 'new and improved' GM technologies that are safer and more efficient. After noting the "unease and occasional hostility" with which GM crops have been greeted by the general public and many NGOs in the UK and the rest of Europe, presenter Tom Heap begins the programme by saying "tonight we're going to tell you the story of two genetically modified crops that might change your mind."

If the title of the programme - GM Food: Cultivating Fear - hadn't already given the game away, Heap's introduction left the viewer in no doubt that far from being an in-depth investigation, this was a programme with an agenda.

What followed was a 30-minute propaganda exercise featuring a now all too familiar cast of characters - claiming that those who oppose GMOs were selfish, ideologically-driven Luddites who were insensitive to the health and well-being of farmers in the developing world and who were afraid of the 'science' of the new.

Familiar faces

The programme did indeed tell a story and like all good fictions the narration could have been compelling to anyone who is new to the issues.

For the uninitiated here is a brief guide to the cast of characters.

Tom Heap: This Countryfile reporter's bias towards the GMO quick-fix, and his disdain for the concerns of the general public on GMOs, is well known. These days Heap doesn't even bother to hide behind even a thin veneer of impartiality or journalistic integrity.

Genetically engineered Bt Brinjal in the country's several districts has cost farmers their fortunes again this year as the plants have either died prematurely or fruited insignificantly compared to the locally available varieties.

Notions such as 'critical' and 'questioning' are habitually missing from his repertoire - or only appear when talking to anyone who raises questions about GM food and farming.

Mark Lynas: Sweating manfully in the heat of Bangladeshi brinjal fields, this now notorious supporter of GMOs is often presented alongside scientists as an expert in whatever GMO field he happens to be filming in.

But Lynas' expertise lies in self-promotion rather than science. Rumours abound that Heap and Lynas are good friends. This may or may not be true but it certainly might be an explanation for why Lynas' widely criticised tales of GM brinjal (aubergine) cropping in Bangladesh were given such an easy time.

Steven Tindale: Described as one of the anti-GMO movement's "former leaders" who, like Lynas, has broken ranks and begun hurling accusations or moral decrepitude at those who oppose GMOs. Tindale is certainly not a 'leader' that most of us would recognise. He resigned from Greenpeace after only five years - coinciding with his "religious conversion" in support of nuclear power.

He has now joined the ranks of the professionally converted on GMOs.

Jonathan Jones: Professor Jones works at the Sainsbury Laboratory at the taxpayer-funder John Innes Centre. However in order to include him as an 'independent' expert on GMOs the BBC elected to ignore its own editorial guidelines, and simply didn't mention his commercial interests in GM start-up companies and the fact at he is the owner of various GMO patents.

Anne Glover: Her job as Chief Scientific Advisor to the EU President has recently ended. During her time there she played a controversial role in holding back progress on reviewing and limiting endocrine disrupting chemicals and promoting the reduction of regulatory oversight of GMO crops and ingredients.

Andrew Miller: Former Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Miller opined that it was "impossible to consider how to feed a planet if nine or ten billion people without genetic modification."

This lack of vision was reflected in the strongly pro-GM House of Commons Science and Technology Committee's GM report, but is at odds with the Environmental Audit Committee's view, which is that GM has little to offer.

The same old story

Other 'minor' characters came and went. Anybody who has followed the GMO story over the last two decades will already know the playbook: GMOs will benefit small farmers, GMOs will cut pesticide use, genetic modification is a 'benign' and' neutral' technology and there is no evidence that it harms human health.

There was a brief and dismissive visit to an organic farm in Bangladesh as well as a walk on part for the Soil Association's Helen Browning, various cutaways to Doug Parr from Greenpeace and soundbites from Liz O'Neill of GM Freeze and Pat Thomas of Beyond GM. A palpable disrespect for those who question the GMO approach to food and farming ran right through the programme.

Worse, the programme did not address the widespread and successful non-GM approaches to sustainable farming. The perspective that GM technology could possibly be unnecessary, as well as risky, was beyond the vision of the production team.

Instead the three-note tune that throughout the excruciating 30 minutes of the programme was: we need to feed the world, therefore we need GM, and it's immoral to oppose it. All three notes are false and do not accord to the evidence.

What's more, this now familiar tune is deeply disrespectful to the millions of people who care passionately about changing the way our food and farming system works to ensure we do feed people sustainably and equitably.

Scientific consensus

Heap's lamentable failure to ask any challenging questions of the pro-GM spokespeople and then going journalistically AWOL in the face of assertions - such as that by Anne Glover who was allowed to assert, without challenge that anti-GM campaigners just "make things up" - was compounded by his littering the programme with statements straight out of the industry PR manual. These included:

  • "27 countries are now growing GM crops totalling 18 million acres". The viewer is meant to be impressed. In fact almost all of that is grown in just 4 countries and 18 million acres accounts for around no more than 4% of the world's farmed land.
  • "Billions/trillions of meals containing GM ingredients have been eaten without any adverse health impacts." How does anyone know? There have never been any epidemiological studies and precious little monitoring at all. But there is a clear and documented correlation between the rise of many diseases in the US and the introduction of GM crops there.
  • Heap suggested "there has only been one scientific study linking GM crops and adverse health impacts and that was retracted". In fact there is mounting evidence of adverse health impacts and risks published in peer reviewed journals. And the "one study" he refers to, the only long term study of GM and glyphosate health risks by Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini, has been republished and therefore returned to the scientific literature.
  • Heap mentioned the use of glyphosate (Roundup) on GM crops engineered to withstand its effects. This trait has caused an exponential rise in the use of this herbicide n GM crops as weeds have quickly become resistant to the herbicide. What he failed to mention is the fact that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of the World Health Organization, has recently determined that glyphosate is a category 2A "probable human carcinogen".

Heap also completely failed to acknowledge the recent statement by more than 300 independent scientists which says there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs and further suggests that the weight of the evidence points to cause for serious concern.

The rules of balance say we should compare like with like; thus on a programme of this nature a pro-GM scientists should be balanced against an anti-GM scientist - of which there are many. Shockingly, this particular BBC programme did not feature a single dissenting scientist from an independent university or research institute.

2015 Bt brinjal crop failure - too unimportant to mention?

Bt brinjal is a type of aubergine that has been genetically modified to produce its own pesticide. Rejected in India and the Philippines, the crop has recently been transplanted to India's more impoverished neighbour Bangladesh - which has no bothersome GM regulations at all.

What Panorama hoped to prove in Bangladesh isn't clear. GM brinjal is relatively new there and the crop trial is small and limited with, at best, variable outcomes. Indeed in March of this year, reports emerged of widespread crop failure of the Bt brinjal, for example in Bangaldesh's New Age newspaper:

"The cultivation of genetically engineered Bt Brinjal in the country's several districts has cost the farmers their fortunes again this year as the plants have either died out prematurely or fruited very insignificantly compared to the locally available varieties, reports United News of Bangladesh.

"Spot visits to 12 Bt Brinjal fields in Manikganj, Narsingdi and Comilla over the last one month hardly found any living or properly fruiting plant on those fields ... The fields belonging to Afzal Hossain and Md Mannaf have turned out to be an ultimate upset as each of the two fields appears half-barren as one looks at.

" 'We've removed most of the plants after those had died about 15 days ago. The officers (BARI officials) told us to do so to prevent the spread of the disease. Despite that the rest of the plants are dying out in numbers every day,' Mannaf's wife Lovely Begum said ... "

Needless to say, there was not a word of this truly disastrous outcome on the Panorama programme, which only admitted to a "false start last year" before claiming a "90% success rate" in 2015.

There are other parts of the world where the controversies surrounding GM cropping and especially the damage wrought on the environment and farmers - both GM and non-GM - are visible and long-standing. Clearly this information did not fit the Panorama narrative.

The genetic modification of the brinjal is aimed at one thing: the fruit and shoot borer, a moth species, which farmers use copious amounts of pesticides to fight. Much like the Bt maize engineered to produce a pesticide that kills the corn borer, early results suggest that under some conditions the Bt aubergine can reduce pesticides use.

But after only a relatively few years of use the corn borer is now showing signs of resistance to the Bt toxin, leaving crops more susceptible to attack than non-GMO. It can't be long before the fruit and shoot borer does the same.

In the meantime, as the programme noted, farmers continue to spray a range of pesticides to treat the multiple other insects and fungi that can attack the brinjal.

What health effects?

Confronted with an organic farmer who was concerned that the Bt toxin could be harmful to human health, Heap dismissed the woman by telling her that it wouldn't harm her because she's "not a fruit and shoot borer."

By that wacky, unscientific logic anything that harms a laboratory animal or insect should be considered safe for humans to eat. (Heap needs to take a look at GMO Myths & Truths for the scientific low-down).

In fact in 2011 a New Zealand-based epidemiologist and risk assessment expert, Dr Lou Gallagher analysed the raw data on 14 and 90-day rat feeding studies from Monsanto's Bt brinjal dossier. It showed that rats eating Bt brinjal experienced:

  • Organ and system damage: ovaries at half their normal weight, enlarged spleens with white blood cell counts at 35 to 40% higher than normal with elevated eosinophils, indicating immune function changes.
  • Toxic effects to the liver.

A return trip to Bangladeshi in a year or two will likely paint a very different picture of the safety and viability of the Bt brinjal.

The 'superspud' - it doesn't exist, and it's not needed

The so-called super-spud contains eight separate genetic modifications to make it combat everything from Late blight fungus - the one that caused the Irish potato famine - to bruising in transit.

The programme insinuated that this "game-changing GM potato" was ready to go to market. It's not. In fact it is still in concept stage and unlikely to see the light of day for a decade - if at all.

But British taxpayers are already paying for it. According to the group GeneWatch £3.2 million of taxpayers' money has already been spent trying to develop a GM blight-resistant potato. Some £750,000 of public money was put into 3 years of field trials for a blight resistant Desiree potato which was trialled in the UK in 2011-12.

But in fact, there already are numerous varieties of potato available right now that resist Late blight, that have been developed by conventional plant breeding techniques.

Although the field trial was hailed as a success in the media, the researchers at Sainsbury's lab now admit that inserting just one gene is not enough "because the pathogen tends to become resistant". So they are now looking for a further tranche of taxpayers' money to develop this more complicated (but not necessarily better) strain of GM potatoes.

So much for "working with the grain of nature in a scientifically well-informed way", as Jonathan Jones put it.

Shoddy journalism at the public expense

We have come to expect a pro-GM stance from the BBC; we know they pass off people with vested interests as impartial experts; we know they are so obsessed by so-called high-technology and science that they are blinkered to alternatives.

We know they treat facts with breath-taking selectively; and we have come to expect shoddy journalism. But the dismissive and disrespectful tone of this programme breaks the bounds of acceptability.

The failure of government, politicians, the research establishment and media to acknowledge the concerns of citizens and the clear health and environmental risks associated with agricultural GM technology cannot continue.

But to stop it members of the public - citizens, voters and taxpayers - must take action.



Pat Thomas and Lawrence Woodward are directors of the campaigning group Beyond GM. This article first appeared on the Beyond GM website. This version includes some additional reporting by The Ecologist.

What can you do?

Apart from throwing your TV out the window, you can:


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