A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Acres of print on GM..... and yet more acres of GM crops.....

It is always fascinating, if not necessarily edifying, to compare and contrast the coverage of the GM debate in our glorious media. With the recent advice of English Nature and Acre (The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment) to the government possibly giving the 'green' light (how the 'greens', by contrast, are seeing 'red'!) to GM maize, the acres of print have been most productive, modified or not. Here is a selection for your delectation:

(a) The Guardian (January 14) is relatively straightforward about the spring time-line for maize, but it adds a sting in the tail, namely that, given the controversy surrounding GM crops, a full cabinet decision may be required;

(b) The Daily Telegraph (January 14) also suggests that Britain is bracing itself for GM crops in the spring. It states that, despite widespread opposition, Acre has supported GM maize and that there may even be qualified support for GM oilseed rape and GM sugar beet under different field regimes;

(c) The Daily Mail (January 14), ever predictable, talks of a spring introduction for maize, ahead of a series of approvals for other products, in the face of 90% opposition! Here is the Mail in typical 'Femail' Section mode: "The decision - by the Government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment - flies in the face of official polls showing 90 per cent of people oppose 'Frankenstein' crops and food." [Not quite what a significant recent survey concluded - namely that folk would choose GM food if the price was right!];

(d) The Daily Mirror (January 14) focuses on the fury of the protestors as large-scale GM farming comes a step closer. It is worth deconstructing some of the language used by this (er!) 'Newspaper of the Year': 'furious', 'warned', 'death knell', 'angry', 'threat' and, of course, the inevitable 'Frankenstein foods';

(e) The Independent (January 14) notes that Acre has given a "partial approval", and also mentions the spring time-line. Some of the reporting here, however, is above average: "Professor Jules Pretty, deputy chairman of Acre and an ecologist at Essex University, said that it was the way that a GM crop was managed - rather than simply whether it was GM or not - that determined whether the damage took place";

(f) The Sun (January 14) even gets in on the act, suggesting a spring planting. This is splendid tabloid stuff - five simple sentences, each a paragraph, ending with: "Greenpeace blasted the maize recommendation." Amaizing and quite corny. Clearly a new disease - 'Green Maize Blast'. Clever reporting though - "Get yer cobs off";

(g) Some Scottish newspapers also report the story, suggesting that the advice is mixed and a hot potato for government. Here are The Scotsman (January 14) and The Dundee Courier (January 14). The Courier writes: "Politicians were yesterday handed the hot potato of deciding the future of genetically modified cropping in this country after receiving mixed messages from the Advisory Committee of Releases into the Environment, which was specifically appointed by the Government to come up with answers on GM";

(h) And, lastly, here is the standard BBC Online Science/Nature News (January 13) and the earlier report of the New Scientist (January 04).

On slightly wider issues, I have to say that there is a lot of muddled thinking in all this. If evidence of greater herbicide use is seen by some as a reason to postpone GM Herbicide Tolerant (GMHT) crops, then conventional sugar beet should immediately be banned in favour of GMHT beet, where herbicide use is incontrovertibly lower.

Moreover, misinformation on US maize herbicide-use is completely irrelevant to any consideration of UK sugar beet and oilseed rape. A major reason for increased herbicide use in US GMHT crops is the growth in 'No-Till' farming that is made possible. Again, I find ideologically opposition to 'No-Till' odd in the face of the massive evidence (accumulated since the 1930's dust bowl problems in the central USA) that eliminating tillage is the single most important step in soil conservation to reduce water and wind erosion, which occurs on a large scale in many areas of the world (outside western Europe) with vulnerable soils/climates. No-tillage is an essential component in making agriculture sustainable through preventing soil loss. More damage has been done to soils worldwide in the C20th by tillage and overgrazing than by any other factor. It is thus sad to see opposition to this essential practice just for the sake of attacking GM crops.

So, watch this space! The acreage of GM print (like GM crops!) can only grow! As we go through this charade, the rest of the world is just getting on with it: 'More acres devoted to biotech crops' (The Washington Post and Yahoo!News, January 14):

"The global acreage devoted to genetically altered crops jumped 15 percent last year, the seventh straight year of double-digit growth and a sign that a broad controversy over the safety of the technology has not deterred farmers from adopting it."

Philip, fed up with the wholly-contrived brouhaha. Dinner.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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