BBC's GMO coverage 'fair and accurate'? You decide

Failed Bt Brinjal crop in Bangladesh, afflicted by the bacterial wilt to which the variety is highly prone, resulting in near total crop loss for many farmers in 2015. Photo: UBINIG.
Failed Bt Brinjal crop in Bangladesh, afflicted by the bacterial wilt to which the variety is highly prone, resulting in near total crop loss for many farmers in 2015. Photo: UBINIG.
There's absolutely no evidence for BBC Panorama's claim of 90% success for Bt brinjal in Bangladesh, writes Claire Robinson. But that has not stopped the BBC Trust from dismissing all complaints against its monstrously dishonest report. Nor has it diminished the jubilation of GMO cheerleaders.
The BBC is in effect saying that even if the crop as a whole failed due to bacterial wilt or other causes, that's irrelevant to its 'success', as the trial was only to test its resistance to the fruit and shoot borer.

I was one of several people who complained to the BBC about the misleading nature and pro-GMO bias of the Panorama programme, 'GM Food: Cultivating Fear'.

In a truly extraordinary decision, the BBC has this week dismissed all the complaints about the programme.

Panorama had claimed that GM Bt brinjal (eggplant), engineered to express an insecticidal Bt toxin, had been a 90% success in Bangladesh.

In reality, the claimed "success" of Bt brinjal is entirely anecdotal and from sources with vested interests in the acceptance of GMO technology.

There are no peer-reviewed publications supporting the claims of success being made for Bt brinjal. Zero. Zilch. Nada. In contrast, there are detailed reports from sources in Bangladesh indicating that Bt brinjal was a widespread failure, as I pointed out to the BBC.

But GMO promoter Mark Lynas has not allowed these plain facts to sully his jubilant blog post titled 'BBC dismisses anti-GMO activist complaints over Panorama film's portrayal of Bangladesh Bt brinjal project'.

Lynas wrote: "The BBC's highest complaints body, the Editorial Standards Committee (ESC) of the BBC Trust, found that all the complaints made about the programme were without merit."

His clique of GMO industry supporters were quick to jump in and support him. They included the journalist Tamar Haspel, who has admitted receiving "plenty" of money from pro-agrichemical industry sources. Haspel tweeted: "Bt eggplant in Bangladesh is one of the most compelling GMO successes. @GMWatch is wrong, says @BBC."

So was I wrong? Is Bt brinjal a compelling GMO success? Here's a rundown of the facts.

'Success' of Bt brinjal is purely anecdotal

The source given in the BBC programme for the 90% success claim was Cornell University. Yet when I challenged Sarah Evanega of Cornell's Alliance for Science to provide the evidence, she admitted that Cornell had none and said the source was the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI).

In turn, I asked BARI to provide evidence for the 90% success claim. They also provided none, only offering a powerpoint presentation of pictures of brinjals in the field.

The only 'evidence' of Bt brinjal's success that BARI has published is a 'rejoinder' to a United News of Bangladesh journalist's report of the crop's failure. The 'rejoinder' consists of undocumented assertions of Bt brinjal's success by Dr Rafiqul Islam Mondal, director general of BARI.

The BBC is in effect saying that even if the crop as a whole failed due to bacterial wilt or other causes, that's irrelevant to its 'success', as the trial was only to test its resistance to the fruit and shoot borer.

What was the BBC Trust's response to this absence of evidence for the programme's claims? Its report says, "Cornell University is a highly credible source and it was not necessary to also state that the data had not yet been peer-reviewed or published in order to achieve due accuracy ... the extent to which the audience would either expect, or need to hear about, other factors which might affect the viability of Bt brinjal was limited."

This appears to mean that Cornell can say what it likes, the BBC is willing to repeat it as fact, and no scientific or other documented evidence is required. The hapless viewers, with their apparently "limited" expectations, are expected to take it on trust.

BBC Trust redefines 'success'

The BBC Trust's judgment hinges on a remarkable logical failure: In considering whether BBC Panorama was at fault in not clarifying what was meant by a 90% success, it states that the programme intended the statistic to refer only to the GM crop's ability to resist the fruit and shoot borer caterpillar - "rather than to the success of the crop overall."

The BBC is in effect saying that even if the crop as a whole failed due to bacterial wilt or other causes, that's irrelevant to its 'success', as the trial was only to test its resistance to the fruit and shoot borer. In my view this is an extraordinary and indefensible interpretation of the word!

Then, in a significant admission, the Trust says it "considered that it would have been preferable had the programme explicitly stated this when it cited the statistic." But then the Trust quickly decides the audience would not have been misled because "the aim of the farm trials was to test the ability of Bt brinjal to resist the fruit and shoot boring caterpillar and thus to reduce the use of harmful pesticides".

The Trust adds that even if Panorama's audience had taken the claim of 90% success to refer to the success of the crop overall, BARI had stated that failure for other reasons, such as bacterial wilt, amounted to no more than 10% of the crop.

Yet BARI has published no data documenting this claim, which is contradicted by a detailed report by the Bangladeshi research platform UBINIG. UBINIG collected data from 79 - 72% - of the farmers growing Bt brinjal in the second year of cultivation, the same year reported on by Panorama. UBINIG found:

"Out of 79 farmers in different districts, 58 (74%) declared that due to the losses they had incurred, they would not cultivate Bt brinjal again in the future. Sixteen (20%) of the farmers said they would do so only if the BARI or the Bangladesh Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) provided all the support. Only one farmer showed an interest in growing Bt brinjal again."

Did Bt brinjal require less pesticides?

The BBC Trust takes on faith claims that the Bt brinjal crop reduces the use of "harmful pesticides". Lynas goes even further. He features on his blog a picture of a farmer growing Bt brinjal for the third year running - maybe the single farmer identified by UBINIG who was willing to try to the crop for the third year?

The photo is captioned, "Farmer Afzal Hossain, of Bangladesh's Rangpur district, is on his third year of successfully cultivating pesticide-free Bt brinjal." (my emphasis).

Even the Panorama programme admitted that Bt brinjal farmers used pesticides against pests other than the fruit and shoot borer. But Lynas has airbrushed them out of his caption, with its airy claim of "pesticide-free".

Lynas goes on to dig an even deeper hole for himself, effectively accusing me of dishonesty: "It's important also to note that in its complaint GMWatch did not seek to contradict the finding - repeated by Panorama - that applications of potentially toxic pesticides have been dramatically reduced by the cultivation of Bt brinjal.

"So let's be clear - anti-GMO activists must know and accept that Bt brinjal reduces insecticides by 80-90% or more, yet they continue to oppose it for ideological reasons despite these clear health, environmental and farmer livelihood benefits demonstrated in Bangladesh. In this case anti-GMO really does equal pro-pesticide."

But the evidence backing claims that Bt brinjal has reduced pesticide use at all, let alone by Lynas's figure of 80-90%, is precisely zero.

In contrast, UBINIG reports that large amounts of pesticides were used on the crop: "The farmers had to use huge amounts of pesticides recommended by the supervising authorities of BARI and DAE. These included Comfidor, Ektara, Admasar, Dithen M-45, Bavistin, Thiovit, Basudin, Furadan, Borax, Demsa granular, Vim powder, Admire, 200sl (Bayer CropScience), bleach powder, Heckel, Salclox, Diazinon, etc.

"There were many other insecticides and fungicides sprayed, as provided by DAE. In the booklet of BARI, organic pesticides such as Neem seeds, Neem oil, powder soap, Trix, and the chemical pesticides Malathion, Omite, and Baviston were suggested for different pest/disease attacks."

UBINIG adds that 35 different pesticides, including five banned pesticides, were "sprayed several times in the Bt brinjal fields" on the direction of the supervising officials. UBINIG says that the chemical arsenal was needed to combat a number of pests and diseases that the farmers said plagued Bt brinjal - not just bacterial wilt, which even BARI admitted to, but viruses, fungal infections, insect pests, and mites. The amounts of pesticides sprayed were not recorded by UBINIG.

Lynas is correct that I did not include any evidence about pesticides sprayed in my complaint to the BBC. But that was because UBINIG's report hadn't been published at the time I submitted the complaint. I did try to submit UBINIG's pesticides evidence later in the complaints process, but the BBC told me it was too late to add new information. How convenient!

As for Lynas's claims that there have been "clear health, environmental and farmer livelihood benefits demonstrated in Bangladesh", again, the evidence for that is non-existent.

Toxicity of Bt brinjal

The BBC Trust dismissed the findings of the environmental epidemiologist and risk assessment expert Dr Lou Gallagher that Bt brinjal was toxic, based on Monsanto-Mahyco's own data, which Dr Gallagher was able to examine and analyze.

The Trust's reason? Dr Gallagher's paper had not been "peer-reviewed or ... published in a recognised scientific journal".

Yet, as I made clear to the Trust during the complaints process, the Monsanto-Mahyco safety data that Dr Gallagher analyzed were also not peer-reviewed and published in a journal, and neither are most industry safety data on most commercialized GMOs, at least at the time of commercialization.

Neither were any of the claims made for Bt brinjal's success in Bangladesh - repeated in the Panorama programme and during the complaints process - peer-reviewed and published in a journal.

In a clear example of unscientific double standards, the BBC Trust chose to disregard the lack of peer-reviewed and published status for all promotional claims in support of Bt brinjal, yet used the lack of such status as an excuse to dismiss a report that cast doubt on the GM crop's safety.

Peer-reviewed paper in the works?

The BBC Trust notes that their Adviser during the complaints process "had been given access to a draft of the scientific paper which is being prepared by BARI for publication in a scientific journal on condition that its detailed content remained confidential."

The Trust continues: "The Committee noted the guidance from the Adviser that whilst the draft paper did not include data analysing overall crop failure or concerning the performance of Bt brinjal in the marketplace, it did include detail about overall profit.

"The Committee was given to understand that the draft paper recorded significant cost advantage to farmers resulting from the reduction in the use of pesticides, and labour to apply them, which would usually account for 30 per cent of the overall cost of production."

This is an intriguing detail. This unpublished and non-peer-reviewed paper, which apparently was sufficient to lay to rest any remaining doubts in the BBC Trust's collective mind about the success of Bt brinjal, doesn't look at overall crop failure or attractiveness in the marketplace - arguably the key points for any farmer considering growing it.

However it does allege reduction in pesticide use. So will the paper address the evidence uncovered by UBINIG about the long list of pesticides supplied to spray on the crop in "huge amounts" under the direction of the supervising officials?

And does the claim in the draft paper of "reduction in the use of pesticides, and labour to apply them" have anything to do with the situation as reported by UBINIG: "According to the farmers, most of the time, the [BARI and government] officials took care of the plants themselves as they had to show a good performance"?

This supervision, according to UBINIG, even included replacing dead plants with live ones - actions that would preclude acceptance of any data on Bt brinjal's performance by any reputable scientific journal.

And if the farmers did enjoy reduced costs for pesticides, as claimed by the draft paper, was this because BARI and government officials provided the pesticides free of charge to the farmers, as well as fertilizers, which, according to UBINIG, were applied indiscriminately to the Bt brinjal fields?

Whom to believe?

The reader could be forgiven for concluding that when it comes to judging the success or otherwise of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh, it's just the word of a United News of Bangladesh journalist and UBINIG against the BBC Panorama team and its chosen sources. How do we know whom to believe?

For myself, I have found the Bangladeshi reports more convincing than the accounts of the BBC and its allies, for the following reasons:

  • They emanate from within Bangladesh, rather than British and US interests;

  • Their reports are far more detailed, often naming individual farmers so that claims can be checked;

  • In many cases, photographs and direct quotes have been supplied as supporting evidence;

  • The reports' authors would have nothing to gain and a great deal to lose from making false statements about the Bt brinjal venture, which enjoys support at the highest political level in Bangladesh and the US.

However, even the most skeptical observer would surely agree that the very existence of such contradictory reports begs for rigorous and independent scientific investigation, not the propaganda wash that is being served up by the BBC and Lynas.

Unfortunately it seems that no such investigation has been conducted and now it is too late, since the second year crops have long been removed from the fields.

BBC Trust: 'both cheerleader and regulator'

In its investigation into the BBC Panorama programme on GM crops, the BBC Trust decided that BBC programme makers have done nothing wrong. There's no surprise there, especially as an independent review of the governance and regulation of the BBC published earlier this year concluded, "The BBC Trust model is flawed".

The report's author, former deputy governor of the Bank of England Sir David Clementi, explained the fatal conflict of interest at the heart of the BBC Trust:

"The BBC Trust ... brings together in the Trust Board both governance responsibilities for the BBC and regulatory responsibilities. They do not sit comfortably together. It is for this reason that the Trust is both cheerleader and regulator ... Not surprisingly, best practice requires regulator and regulatee to be in different legal entities." [my emphasis]

Even the BBC Trust chair Rona Fairhead agreed with this proposal: "Sir David Clementi proposes a strong BBC board and a strong external regulator - a change we have argued for."

I couldn't have put it better myself.

How reliable is Mark Lynas?

When it comes to matters GMO, Lynas has been repeatedly exposed as having a troubled relationship with the truth. His statements on GMO safety were termed "unscientific, illogical and absurd" by genetic engineer Dr Belinda Martineau. And his inflated claims about his former role in the anti-GMO movement have been denounced as "not true" by leaders of the environmental movement.

So why are we treated to his effusions on GMOs on a regular basis, as if he is some sort of expert? As Dr Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist for the Center for Food Safety, commented, "It's amazing to me how much credibility that guy has been able to develop just by carrying water for the industry."

Courtesy of the world's richest man, Bill Gates, Lynas now has a position at Cornell, as part of the controversial Cornell Alliance for Science. This allows Lynas to do paid promotion of GMOs "to the exclusion of almost everything else".

So was I - and my Bangladeshi sources - wrong on Bt brinjal? And are the BBC and Mark Lynas trusted authorities on the topic? You decide.



Claire Robinson is an editor at GMWatch.

This article is co-published on GMWatch.

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