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Biotech’s Assault on Balanced Journalism

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Good journalism is founded on balance and fairness. This means presenting several sides of a story or points of view to help readers gain a more comprehensive perspective on a topic. Without balance, news can be skewed to a particular point of view.

Reuters journalist Carey Gillam has covered issues surrounding genetically modified foods for the past 16 years, no easy task with the growing GMO controversy and its polarized pro-and anti-GMO perspectives. But Gillam’s reporting has been balanced and objective, giving both sides equal treatment. Civil Eats, an award-winning daily news source focusing on food issues, recently cited Gillam in an article, “24 Women Food and Agriculture Reporters You Should Know About.”

In an April 9th Reuters article, “Bill seeks to block mandatory GMO food labeling by
states,” Gillam wrote: “Advocates of labeling say consumers deserve to know if the food they eat contains GMOs, or genetically modified organisms.” A paragraph later she wrote: “Makers of biotech crops and many large food manufacturers have fought mandatory labeling, arguing that genetically modified crops are not materially different and pose no safety risk.”

That is balanced journalism, presenting both sides to the story.

Attacks by GMO proponents

Unfortunately, GMO proponents object to Gillam’s balanced reporting and have attacked her and pressured her editors to remove her from the GMO  “beat.”

In an attack on Gillam’s April 9th article, Val Giddings, former executive vice presi- dent of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), accuses Gillam of fueling the “astroturf”  anti-GMO  campaign with her articles. Giddings then criticized Gillam for writing that “some scientific studies warn of potential human and animal health problems, and GMO crops have been tied to environmental problems, including rising weed resistance.” Giddings wrote: “The claim is false and flagrantly so.”

But the reality is that there have been studies published that show harm to human health and the environment. Even though GMO  proponents consistently tear apart any studies that show harm, such studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals.

It is also true that GMO crops are “tied to” the increasing problem of weed resistance in the US that now affects more than 60 million acres of farmland. Farmers are using large quantities of glyphosate herbicide, which is causing weeds to develop resistance to the herbicide. Glyphosate is designed to be used with glyphosate-tolerant GM crops. Is there a connection between  the use of GM crops and herbicide resistance? I’d say so.

Keith Kloor, who writes for Discover magazine’s “Collide-a-Scape” blog, also attacks Gillam.  In a blog, “GMOs, Journalism, and False Balance,” Kloor claims there is overwhelming scientific consensus backing the safety of GM foods. In an April 16th
article, Gillam wrote: “Last October, a group of 93 international scientists issued a statement saying there was a lack of empirical and scientific evidence to support what they said were false claims the biotech industry was making about a ‘consensus’ on safety.” On Twitter, Kloor accused Gillam: “You are willfully ignoring the scientific consensus on this.” He dismisses the group, European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental  Responsibility (ENSSER), as “a smattering of outliers and GMO opponents.”

ENSSER  members  include Hans Herren, Ph.D., founder and president of Biovision Foundation and winner of the World Food Prize; Belinda Martineau, Ph.D., scientist  and developer of the first commercially grown genetically modified food, the Flavr Savr tomato: and David Schubert, Ph.D., professor and director of cellular neurobiology, The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, among others.
Calling such respected scientists “outliers” is an insult.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, has written about Gillam: “This writer is known for her sloppy and biased writing.”

In 2013 Entine wrote a vicious response to an article, “The Bad Seed,” by Caitlin Shetterly that appeared in Elle magazine. Shetterly wrote about health problems she attributed to a protein in GM corn. In describing Shetterly’s return to health after discovering the source of the problem, Entine wrote: “Like a cripple cured by the laying of hands, Shetterly is now forever grateful, and set out to evangelize her experience of salvation.” Elle’s editor responded by backing Shetterly’s account.

Attacks based on fear

Unfortunately, Reuters may not be providing the same support for Gillam. According to a source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, individuals from pro-GMO companies and organizations, such as Monsanto and the Biotechnology Industry Organization, have been pressuring Reuters and Gillam’s editors to remove her from covering GM food topics and to even fire her.

In a blog, Giddings suggested that Reuters move Gillam to a “beat that would give her less opportunity to exercise the prejudices she is obviously unwilling to check.”

I contacted Reuters to ask about pressure from GMO proponents, and a Reuters spokesperson responded: “We stand by our coverage.” I then asked if Gillam would be removed from covering GMO issues, and Reuters didn’t respond.

Why do GMO proponents like Giddings, Kloor, Entine, and others respond with attacks?

“They are scared to death,” says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and author of several books on food policy.

“They have an industry to defend and are attacking in the hope that they’ll neutralize critics,” says Nestle, who has covered GMO issues for many years. “It’s a paranoid industry and has been from the beginning.”

Gillam recently tweeted: “A bit astonished at the level of fear out there over truthful reporting...”

GMO proponents don’t believe there is a GMO debate. They say the science is settled, GMOs are safe, and forget about labeling them. They are intolerant to the perspective that GMOs pose risks, and that people have the right to know if they are eating them. Carey Gillam’s balanced articles threaten their worldview so they respond with attacks and demand her head.

The question is: Will Reuters show journalistic integrity by keeping Gillam on the GMO “beat” or will they succumb to industry bullying?

The latter would be a loss to balanced journalism and encourage GMO proponents to attack and smear other journalists who provide both sides to the GMO controversy.

Let’s hope Reuters does the former.