Media hype – shaping GM attitudes since 1990

GM comic

I bet you’re all sick of hearing about genetically modified (GM) food and biotechnology. However, I think it is a great example of how science is portrayed in the media, and how people respond to this, so bear with me.

I have studied GM foods to some degree, and have a basic understanding of the pros and cons. I’m not going to express my bias, I’m not here to rant. Instead I will consider both angles of the GM debate, and how they were/are portrayed in the media.

The major problem people have with GMO (genetically modified organisms), is that we humans cannot see into the future and what the long term affects will be with such organisms. However, GMOs have the potential to rapidly improve the way we do things – such as increase yields in farm systems and produce more food to feed the world, as long as there are minimal risks to the general public.

Not everyone in the public has had the opportunity to learn about GM foods at a secondary or tertiary level, and therefore the media has the opportunity to shape people’s perceptions of this science. It has become a controversial science where ‘natural’ things are distorted into foreign species with messed-up DNA, or where sceptics are labelled “science illiterate” – depends what you are reading.

Here is what Greenpeace has to say:

So how did GM foods become so publicly contested? How did the controversy begin?

Well, basically the media had a large role in this by portraying GM science as a war between competing sides. In the red corner: pro-GM anddddd in the blue corner: anti-GM. Not only this, but governments were trying to sway voters by taking a particular side on the issue.

It is interesting to see how the media reports GM issues. British newspapers can even be categorised into pro- or anti- GM foods. The Times and The Sun are pro-GM, The Guardian and Daily Mail are anti-GM. The Times argue that resistance to GM foods is due to a deficit in scientific knowledge (that is, the public doesn’t see enough scientific data and hence oppose it based on fear, emotion or tradition). The Guardian considered the issue from a wider perspective – socially and politically and considered how GM foods would affect companies, the economy and so on. Emotion often played into this too.

You might be thinking, so what about Australia? Well, a study in South Australia found through survey data that an increase in knowledge of farmers about biotechnology did not necessarily indicate a more favourable view of biotechnology. Interesting, huh? So apparently, re-informing or informing the public may not be the right tactic. Attitudes may already be set in stone. Perhaps playing toward emotion will work? Maybe we need a brand new communication tactic if we are to shape new attitudes – depends what your goal is.

1. What is your position on GM foods and biotechnology? What led you to take that stance: education, opinions around you, the media?

2. What do you think is a good method to gain support for GM, or perhaps you’d prefer to discourage the notion of GM?

Augoustinos, M., Crabb, S., & Shepherd, R. (2010). Genetically modified food in the news: media representations of the GM debate in the UK. Public Understanding of Science, 19, 98-114.

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By polc01

12 comments on “Media hype – shaping GM attitudes since 1990

  1. I was pretty miffed when Greenpeace recently destroyed the CSIRO’s GMO trial crop. How are we meant to learn if there are going to be long term effects etc. if people won’t allow for these kinds of trials to happen.

    I don’t have a lot of knowledge with genetic modification (I’m a marine management girl), however I think having a general understanding of the process of science allows me to see that this has so much potential! We have a HUGH population to feed, and this may be one of the solution. I remember reading something in an ag-related class once where scientists were impregnating rice with iron, which asian countries are often quite deficient in. Perfect solution, but they wouldn’t eat it because as a result of the iron, it went orange.

    GM foods that increase yield is a slow process, that doesn’t really show a dramatic breakthrough. We’re just more efficient in our farming. I think when someone has developed a GM food that is trialled and proven to solve (or assist in) an otherwise unsolvable and dramatic issue, the public & media will come around. Just think, if a group of scientists can save a few hundred dying children in Africa by successfully growing some crops that otherwise wouldn’t… I don’t think anyone will be game to argue with the benefits!

    • I agree, destroying a trial crop isn’t really going to help on the path to discovery! At least trialing the crop might give a better indication for the future. I hadn’t heard about the rice with iron, that’s so clever! I would definitely go for something beneficial like that.

  2. I can’t decide whether to be for or against. Both sides can come up with compelling arguments: world hunger versus destruction of the environment. What is more important?

    I have often wondered what would have happened with the imago of GMOs, if Monsanto would not have had such a monopoly in the GMO market from the start. I cannot help but associate Monsanto with all the cons related to GMOs. Whether this bad image was created by the media? I actually wonder whether this time Monsanto should be blamed itself for it. They may say no or do not care, because despite the long lasting debate, I believe they have continuously made huge profits since they entered this lucrative market. And a lot of it seems to come out of already empty pockets of 3rd world farmers.

    • Hi Anke,
      I’m in the same boat as you. There are plenty of great arguments on both sides, and i flip flop regularly. The whole Monsanto image does have a big effect on how GM is portrayed, I know it puts me off!

  3. Monsanto are pretty morally reprehensible just from a general standpoint, its a shame GM crops have to be have them as the posterboy essentially. The heavy opposition has though, if anything, enhanced Monsanto’s monopoly, since starter projects (such as the CSIRO crop mentioned above) are more vulnerable.

    That said I think that the Greenpeace video was a little well… I doubt its factual accuracy, its a little TOO bold. Does make me want to see if they have any cited sources though so maybe mission accomplished?

    • I agree with you here, the Greenpeace video seemed a little extreme for me. It is a shame that smaller attempts at GM trials, such as that of CSIRO, can’t seem to get a good footing compared to Monsanto.

  4. Hi, I loved your inspiring post.

    Let me say, I’m on the side of pro-GMO, since the evidence of danger in GMO is not clearly stated. Monopoly of seed by Monsanto? Yes, but a cruel fact is the most of non-GMO seeds are also provided by big companies. Just a matter of degree.
    I can keep listing up a rebuttal over a dozen argument, but that’s not the point.

    The most of anti-GMO claims are based on emotional propaganda, and behind that attitude, I think there are techno-phobia, based on exceeded naturalism(such as Greenpeace), but this argument easily fall into two extreme options, like “would you back to stone-age? or keep consuming every benefits of technology?”, both claim are nonsense and not realistic.

    In this issue, media tends to be act a major role. Well then, what can media do in order to deepen the argument, not only emotional aspect?
    If informing biological facts (education) can’t help this aim, what point of view can we take?

    In fact, it is complexed argument. It is consist of political, economical, ideological elements.
    My opinion is, media should not afraid of telling its complexity. If scientific information does not change the situation, how about political aspect? How about ideology behind this issue? How about economy?
    For these issue, scientific information may not take major role, but the most basic principals of science may help these argument, like “How big is an impact?” “What evidence is provided?”, “Logically correct?”, “Is that data objective?”.
    Science is not only an information source of argument, but also works as useful tool to maintain objectivity. For that purpose, I believe science journalism should not hesitate to talk about other principles, like politics, ideology, or economics, because that helps to improve “science literacy” among the public in real world.

    • I agree with you Kohei, the media should not reduce the concept and complexity of the GM issue. Showing one side of the story isn’t always the way to go (as with those British newspapers). I like to have both sides of an argument personally, I don’t like making rash decisions on something, and only having one side of the story doesn’t help.

  5. I grow up with the idea natural is best. My grandparents even argued against the use of pesticides, but perhaps that was a very simplistic view. Things have changed, a more mobile population, global warming and drought are few to name. Developing new crops to cope with the ever changing demands does not even sound a bad option.

    The development of the biotechnological industries to engineer new products appears to be the problem! What happens if a superbug is developed that will kill the human race? I think at this stage we did not need to worry about the creation of new GMO’s, since the medical world helped this along with the over use of antibiotics and should I add the feedstock industry also did a good job. Antibiotics are still being produced!

    Providing the science community has a social and ethical conscience, the development of GM plants is one option we have, to deal with some of the major problems. Dwelling on the past and on what might happen is certainly not the answer. If GM soybeans means having less wind, I am all for it.

    • I like the ideal of natural things, eg. not using pesticides. However, often commercial things such as pesticides are the only economically viable option – which is a shame and generally a necessity these days. With such an expanding population, trialing things such as GM slowly become more and more of a necessity. The issue of resistant organisms is a complex one, for sure, however.

  6. Hi Carmen! Great post!

    The thing that I find most interesting about the GM debate is the fact that herbicide resistance (with respect to GM crops) is hardly, if ever, mentioned. I only heard about it from Julie Plummer (FNAS) as a passing comment. I can understand why pro-GM’s wouldn’t want to broadcast this kind of information, but I think that the major problem is that people are not being honest in the debate (as others have mentioned). But then again, does that ever happen?

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