My friend and colleague Irv Lipp alerted me to this issue of GM (Genetically Modified) maize (corn) in Europe. Here are the basic facts as I can distill them:
1. A French anti-GMO activist, Seralini, who so happens to have an anti-GMO book coming out this week, announced to the media that he was going to release the results of a scientific study that showed definitively that modified corn and herbicides made rats sicker than rats that ate regular corn.
2. He gave the study to major media outlets in France with the provision that they could not consult other experts before release.
3. The news headlines, as NPR reports, showed up stating: BREAKING NEWS: New Study Links Genetically Engineered Food to Tumors”
4. The story has been widely published.
5. Anti-GMO activists around the world have jumped on the study to push bans on GMO food with apparently some success in France and Russia.
But, as Mr. Harvey would say, here is the rest of the story. The “scientific study” is proving to be anything but scientific. I’m not qualified to go into details about why it is being roundly rejected by groups such as European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), but it seems quite obvious that Mr. Seralini and group have cynically manipulated the media into promoting his anti-GMO agenda.
Now, of course, groups that are promoting such foods are on their back feet desperately trying to counter the information (or false information) being so widely distributed.
The real story here is media manipulation. The eagerness of the media to publish a story that certainly will generate a great deal of public interest on a controversial topic plays into the hands of unscrupulous activists. The clever device of getting major media to agree to not investigate the story while it was embargoed should have led them to smell a rat. I suspect many did, but the headline was too juicy to pass up and the do not see their job as in a story like this as validating the claims, only publishing the claims. The blog “food and drink europe” did an excellent job of analyzing the media manipulation behind this story.
Once again I have to hand it to NPR for an excellent treatment of the story. Their take on it seems to me fair, balanced and accurate. They identify the agenda of the study’s author (at least part of it since they didn’t mention his book coming out), but also point make clear the criticism. They even report that the study may show an opposite effect claimed by Mr. Seralini:
Also, if this experiment truly showed a link between genetically engineered food and tumors, one might expect the rats that ate more of the GM corn to develop more tumors. In fact, the opposite happened. The rats eating a diet of 33 percent GMO corn stayed healthier than animals eating food with a GMO concentration of just 11 percent.
And, particularly unusual for a story of this nature, NPR gives some relevant related information:
“…there’s a deeper reason why scientists like Kuiper give little credence to Seralini’s studies. There’s a saying in science: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. For most of the scientists who have been studying the safety of GMOs, it’s an extraordinary claim, at this point, to assert that the current generation of genetically modified crops are harmful to human health.
There’s no apparent reason why that should be true; No one has found new toxic substances in these crops. And the giant feeding experiment that’s been going on for the past fifteen years — hundreds of millions of Americans consuming GMO ingredients — hasn’t produced evidence of harm, either.
It would take a lot more evidence that the results of this study to change their minds.”
The sad facts of this story are:
1) The predisposition of the reader will determine their acceptance of the “science.” Mine predisposition is likely obvious to you.
2) Media scare stories like this have two sad effects: they further destroy trust in the media as a conveyor of truth, and they cause irrational fear that drives irrational public policy.
For crisis communication professionals, particularly those engaged in controversial operations such as making food, the lessons should be clear. This is what the media does, this is how it operates, this is what you have to deal with. Don’t be fooled. However, when NPR calls to do an interview, take the call.