Corn, butterflies, and the media were center stage at the John F. Kennedy School of Government Nov. 21 at a conference that examined the media’s role in keeping the public informed – or frightened – about the growing presence of biotechnology in food production.
The conference, sponsored by the Kennedy School’s Joan F. Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, and the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, brought together scientists, journalists, industry representatives, and academics to examine the role the media has had in the hysteria and hype around the issue.
Several panelists were critical of reporting that highlighted the sensational aspects of scientific findings that genetically modified corn could kill Monarch butterflies and reports of genetic “pollution” of Mexican corn from genetically altered U.S. corn across the border. Others, however, praised the handling of cases such as the 2000 disclosure that modified StarLink corn – approved only for animal feed – had reached the nation’s food supply.
During a lively panel discussion focusing on genetically modified corn, a diverse panel disagreed on many things but agreed that nobody – scientists, the media, or the government – has all the answers.
Institute of Politics director Dan Glickman, former U.S. representative and former U.S. secretary of agriculture, moderated the panel and introduced it by reading a news story about how scientists are planning to create new, artificial life for the first time.
“Obviously, this is right on target with where we are today,” Glickman said.
The conference featured three separate discussions, “Media Coverage of Science Issues,” moderated by Shorenstein Center director Alex Jones; “Genetically Modified Corn: Covering Science and Controversy – A Case Study,” moderated by Glickman; and “Communicating Food and Health Risks to Consumers,” moderated by Boyce Rensberger, director of Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“The rising calls in Congress and the administration for sound science reflects a growing sense in policy circles that there’s a lack of sound science behind scientific decisions. Critics complain that decisions are often driven by political concerns driven by sensational headlines,” said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, who kicked the conference off. “These allegations raise serious questions on the role of science in informing public policy and on the role of the media in publicizing scientific discoveries.”
Rodemeyer said the conference would examine whether the interests and goals of journalists, scientists, and policy-makers are at odds. He added that media coverage of the issue has been criticized as one-sided, but that that allegation has come from both sides of the debate.
“Are the impetus to simplify and highlight the news and to emphasize conflict and controversy in the media appropriate in reporting science?” Rodemeyer asked. “Nowhere are those conflicts as obvious as in the debate on food, particularly genetically modified food.”
The discussion on genetically modified corn featured Marc Kaufman, science reporter for The Washington Post who broke the StarLink story; Andrew Marshall, editor of Nature Biotechnology; Linda Thrane, executive director of the industry trade group the Council for Biotechnology Information; Jim Aidala, president of AgroChemical/Biotech, JCS, Inc.; Larry Bohlen, director of health and environmental programs for Friends of the Earth; and C.S. Prakash, professor in plant molecular genetics and director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University.
The lively discussion focused on the cases of StarLink corn and the Bt corn that was reported to be harmful to Monarch butterflies. It ranged, however, from comparisons with the once-promising nuclear power industry, to the level of information possessed by the public, to the regulatory processes in place that protect the public from harmful products.
Though some media outlets have grabbed the easy, sensational headlines, Kaufman said one reliable source for science reporting is the scientific journals. Their peer review process, Kaufman said, ensures that reporters are dealing with a story on which knowledgeable sources have already said the science is sound.
Prakash was more critical of the press, however, saying that the media has used scare tactics and words like “Frankenfoods” to appeal to the public’s emotions rather than relying on the science, which he said, shows the foods are overwhelmingly safe.
Several panelists agreed that, though flawed, the U.S. regulatory process has mostly ensured that unsafe products haven’t made it to market. That contrasts with the case in Europe, where cases of mad cow disease, hoof-and-mouth disease, and salmonella have eroded the public’s confidence in its regulatory bodies. The result, panelists said, has been a broad rejection of genetically modified foods in Europe.
They drew the contrast that in the United States, rather than rejecting products based on the process by which they are created, regulatory bodies examine the individual product to see if it is safe.
“In the U.S., the public does have confidence in the regulatory authority. In Europe it doesn’t,” Marshall said.
Still, many uncertainties remain, according to skeptics on the panel. Questions of whether a modified crop will be safe for people with allergies, whether the crop can be grown safely in nature without contaminating unmodified crops grown nearby, and whether they can be grown without harming the environment all remain unanswered.
The public is also not very knowledgeable about biotechnology used in food production, but given the questions that still can’t be answered even by experts, panelists said that’s not surprising. That uncertainty is reflected in articles, both in academic journals and in the mainstream press, where scientific consensus is lacking.
Kaufman said that, given the level of interest in the issue, he thought reporters had been under-aggressive in reporting about genetically modified foods.
“It is unclear to me that the public is getting as much information on this as it should,” Kaufman said.
Industry supporters, however, said that lost in the debate over safety is the potential for these modified foods to increase yields, produce needed drugs, and reduce the tons of chemical pesticides dumped on agricultural land each year.
“If these products don’t reach the marketplace, the transformative benefits aren’t going to be seen,” Thrane said.