Biotech reporting mimics Hollywood rumor mill
A few years ago, the mainstream press started covering what the gossip sheets were saying about celebrities. While the "real" press would never stoop to reporting unsubstantiated allegations themselves, it became OK to report on what the scandal rags were saying.
The same thing is going on with the reporting of biotechnology, a serious scientific topic that deserves serious explanatory journalism. Instead of digging out the facts, the mainstream press is reporting that Europeans are in a panic because of the British tabloids' propensity to stir the pot. Then they cite the same handful of claims, factoids, and scientific snippets that appear in the British press. These little myths take on epic status when reporters are unwilling to provide background.
Here are the key ingredients for a biotech story written the way today's reporters do it. I've added some balancing information you probably haven't heard.
- "A Cornell University study showed that pollen from Bt corn (altered to contain an insect-killing protein from Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium) could kill Monarch butterfly larvae."
This laboratory study could be significant--if Monarch larvae ate corn pollen, which they don't. Even pollen dusting of their only food source, milkweed, is unlikely because 1) larvae may not be present when corn is pollinating and 2) there are few milkweeds in and near cornfields. Bt is harmless to birds, mammals, and most other insects, and is far less risky to Monarchs and other beneficial insects than alternative pesticides.
- "A company was about to develop a product that contained the allergen in Brazil nuts."
This little story shows how well the system works. The company was well aware that at least one gene among the hundreds of genes in Brazil nuts caused allergies, so they tested to make sure that the gene they had selected to improve the nutritional value of soybeans was not an allergen. It was; so the company canceled the project. Any gene selected for potential insertion into a biotech product is tested for allergenicity, whether or not it comes from a known allergen like nuts or shellfish.
- "Biotech foods are not tested; companies merely attest to their safety."
Rigorous scientific studies are conducted and reviewed by three agencies of the federal government (Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, and Department of Agriculture) before products are commercialized. U.S. testing procedures meet or exceed global standards developed by an international panel of experts formed by the World Health Organization.
- "A study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that foreign genes might alter the nutritional value of food."
This study, published in Volume I of a journal few have ever heard of, has been roundly criticized by other scientists and lambasted by the American Soybean Association. A vast amount of peer-reviewed research has shown there is essentially no difference between biotech soybeans and other soybeans. There is more natural variability among soybean varieties than the author found in his comparison of biotech and non-biotech beans.
- "A Swiss study showed that Bt corn can harm beneficial insects, including lacewings."
In this laboratory study, lacewing larvae were fed nothing but European corn borer larvae, which are killed when they eat Bt corn. For about 21 days, one group of lacewings had nothing else to eat but sick and dying corn borer larvae. It's no wonder some of them died. In fact, a large percentage of the lacewings that ate corn borers not subjected to Bt corn also died. They were literally sick of eating corn borers.
In the wild, corn borer larvae are a minor part of the lacewing’s diet. Actual field studies show that lacewings and other beneficial insects thrive in Bt fields, much better than in fields sprayed with insecticides.
Unlike the biotechnology industry, which tests genes before inserting them into new products, today's reporters feel no obligation to test activists' factoids before inserting them into their news stories.
Steven J. Milloy is an author, lecturer, and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. He is publisher of the Junk Science Home Page, judged one of the "best 50 Web sites of 1998" by Popular Science magazine.