With global food prices up eighty-three percent over the last three years, world leaders are looking for any means available to ease the burden on consumers, especially in developing countries.
Potential policy-oriented solutions, such as relaxing the U.S. ethanol requirements that chew up the supply of corn and other foodstuffs, are manifold. We live in a world that reveres technology, however, and the promise that humans can engineer their way out of any bind. Thus, it was no surprise when, in April, The New York Times reported that:
Soaring food prices and global grain shortages are bringing new pressures on governments, food companies and consumers to relax their longstanding resistance to genetically engineered crops.
Yet two months later, after a plethora of articles exploring the biotechnology industry’s ability to mollify world hunger, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) complained that some journalists had been misled. The nonprofit advocacy group issued a press release at the end of June, which argued that:
A number of recent news stories on soaring food prices worldwide have cited unsubstantiated claims that genetically engineered crops are the solution to the problem. In fact, according to experts at the UCS, there is no evidence that currently available genetically engineered crops strengthen drought tolerance or reduce fertilizer use. Nor do they fundamentally increase crop yields.
The UCS is partly right. While it can make a strong argument that genetically modified (GM) crops are unlikely to reduce global food prices and alleviate hunger in the short-term, there is, in fact, some evidence that they improve yields. The group, which has long criticized the alleged benefits of GM foods, is also only partly right about the related journalism. Its press release identified three problem stories.
The first was a June 5 article from the Los Angeles Times covering a United Nations emergency summit on food supply in Rome. The meeting focused on the correlations between biofuels production and rising food prices, but, as a sentence at the end of the piece reported, “American officials are also using the summit to promote genetic engineering as a way to boost food productions by the increasing crop yields.”
While there is nothing technically wrong with that statement (nobody claims that GM crops are a solution - only that they could be), it hints at a common criticism made by biotech opponents — that the industry is taking advantage of global hunger to promote a dubiously beneficial product. In 2007, the number of worldwide acres devoted to biotech crops increased substantially for the twelfth consecutive year, according to the ISAAA, an industry trade group. U.S. exporters, who planted half of those acres, stand to benefit the most from more growth, and the food crisis may abet that. Indeed, a May article from the Chicago Tribune reported that:
The Bush administration has slipped a controversial ingredient in the $770 million aid package it recently proposed to ease the world food crisis, adding language that would promote the use of genetically modified crops in food-deprived countries.
While the article prominently notes that the value of GM foods is “intensely disputed,” it is, nonetheless, another one of the pieces singled out by the Union of Concerned Scientists’ press release. The group complained about a quote from Dan Price, a food aid expert at the National Security Council, who told the Tribune, “We certainly think that it is established fact that a number of bio-engineered crops have shown themselves to increase yields through their drought resistance and pest resistance.” Just one paragraph farther down, the Tribune reporter balances Price’s quote with one from the national director of the Organic Consumers Association, who says, “I think it’s pretty obvious at this point that genetically engineered crops — they do a number of thing, but they don’t increase yields.”
The UCS doesn’t mention that quote, of course (tsk, tsk), but that omission doesn’t invalidate the criticism. Too often, science journalists think that adhering to the old norm of “balance” fulfills their obligation to readers. But two conflicting statements do not enlightenment make. What is a reader supposed to think when one person says that GM crops boost yields and another says the opposite? In such cases, journalists must at least try to provide more context.
For starters, reporters can unbundle the crops. Referring to them in aggregate as having this or that effect on yields (or on any other variable) is utterly meaningless - they’re all different. At this point there are really only three big crops to keep track of, anyway: corn, cotton and soybeans. (Dig deeper and you’ll get a bit of data on rice, wheat, canola, cassava, tomatoes, and a few others.)