Some time early this year a group called the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications will issue a report, and a ritual of sorts will ensue. The report will probably say, as it has for the past dozen years, that more countries are growing more genetically engineered crops on more acres. Then, on cue, watchdog groups, most visibly Friends of the Earth International, will issue press releases questioning the report and its claims. The press will report on this, first addressing the ISAAA’s report, then turning to Friends of the Earth and other groups for critical comment in an effort to create a semblance of balance. Then we’ll move on to other things until the annual report emerges the next year.
Any reporter covering any beat knows the drill: digest new report, find opposing data or claims, write story. But having engaged in this ISAAA/watchdog ritual last year myself, I stumbled into a dilemma: I couldn’t find any opposing or alternative data because no group other than the ISAAA—an industry-funded, pro-biotech organization—collects it. And while this may seem like a narrow problem, it’s an especially important one right now. Roughly one billion people around the world suffer from chronic hunger or malnutrition, and as global population rises to an expected 9.1 billion by 2050, the problem of how to feed everyone will grow even more acute. This expected population growth, along with the complicating factors of climate change, means farmers will have to grow more food on less land and under more extreme weather conditions.
Biotech companies are open about the fact that this scenario creates a huge business opportunity for them—that they can capitalize on this looming crisis through their technologies, which will, they insist, produce more food, using less water, fertilizer, and pesticides, on less land. From their perspective the only thing standing in the way of a biotech solution to world hunger is the acceptance by government and the public that will put more GM crops in the ground in more places.
Controversy, in the form of health and environmental concerns, has swirled around GM crops from the beginning, and countries around the world have been cautious in adopting GM technologies. Given this reality, the biotech industry has an interest not just in increasing global acceptance, but in the appearance of diminishing resistance to its technology. As more farmers in more countries grow GM crops, the industry thinking goes, the less opposition there will be in the future to their products—something the annual ISAAA report seems to demonstrate. Ask any spokesman in the biotech industry about negative notions of biotech, and he’ll say: Look at all the countries adopting our technology. Look at all the farmers benefiting from GM seed. How bad can it be?
For journalists who cover this story, however, getting a reliable answer to that question is anything but simple.
When the first genetically modified crops were commercialized in 1996, opponents, advocacy groups, and some in the media immediately seized on the term “Frankenfood” to characterize the new crops. The foundational science is owned by three companies—DuPont, Syngenta, and Monsanto—and association with a scary monster was clearly not their idea of good PR. But, much to the companies’ irritation, the name has persisted in the public consciousness ever since. In fact, thirteen years later, the debate over GM crops is even more entrenched than ever, and the press has been largely unable to tease apart the competing claims and bring some measure of clarity to the issue.
The initial skepticism about the technology focused on food safety, with GM critics questioning the long-term consequences of eating GM food. They continue to say there is no evidence that GM food is safe, and some believe there is enough evidence—such as studies that connect GM foods to allergic reactions—to support more rigorous regulation and safety testing. The industry counters that there is no evidence demonstrating the food is unsafe, and says testing the long-term safety of GM crops, which are functionally the same as a non-GM crops, is virtually impossible. Indeed, even the anti-GM camp admits that there is no solid evidence linking GM food to human illness.