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Fakethrough! GMOs and the Capitulation of Science Journalism

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page and our Millions Against Monsanto page.

Good journalism examines its sources critically, it takes nothing at face value, places its topics in a historical context, and it values above all the public interest. Such journalism is, most people agree, essential to any equitable and open system of government. These statements about journalism are especially applicable to the science media. But while the media in general has recently taken much criticism, for trivialising news and other flaws, the science media has somehow escaped serious attention. This is unfortunate because no country in the world has a healthy science media.

This is science journalism?
According to the New York Times genetically engineered Xa21 rice was big news ( Song et al 1995). In a 1995 article titled " Genetic Engineering Creates Rice Resistant to Destructive Blight", journalist Sandra Blakeslee wrote it was:

"the first time that a disease-resistance gene has been put into rice"

Blakeslee then quoted a senior figure, Gary Toenissen, deputy director of agricultural sciences at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, as saying it heralded

"a new era in plant genetics and resistance breeding".

But eighteen years after that artice was written, the failure of these predictions is clear. No commercial GMO rice of any kind exists, nor has Xa21 or any similar gene for disease resistance been developed for commercial purposes.

Neither was the research as novel as the Times made it sound. Toenissen claimed it was:

"the first time that a disease-resistance gene has been put into rice",

but readers weren't told that this gene was already in rice plants, because rice is where it came from ( Song et al 1995). Blakeslee thus described neither a conceptual nor a commercial breakthrough. But it was certainly a very useful PR boost for plant biotechnology.    


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