Reporters like Judith Miller of The New York Times like to explain their completely wrong-headed accounts of Saddam Hussein’s pre-2003 “stockpiles” of weapons of mass destruction as a result of their job, which is simply to report what high government officials are saying. Attractive at first, such an excuse ignores the fact that other national security reporters, like the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh didn’t make the same pre-Iraqi invasion mistakes. The reason for the difference is that while reporters like Miller contented themselves with the official line, others like Hersh sought out a wider group of sources who showed that the official line was, in fact, wrong.
It’s too bad that Harry Eager and his Nov. 4 Maui News story “Seeds a growth industry in isles” about genetically modified food manufacturer Monsanto Hawai’i lies completely within the Miller world of journalism. Written entirely from the company’s point of view, the story exemplifies both the firm’s approach to public relations and the willingness of some reporters to accept such talk uncritically.
“Mark Larson, the company’s global leader in corn trait integration, said the record of the past 10 years is one of enormous benefits to farmers and consumers, with no safety problems and a promising future,” wrote Eagar.
Let’s focus on Eagar’s complete acceptance of Larson’s insistence that incredibly controversial genetically modified foods have “no safety problems.” This is, to put it mildly, completely untrue.
“[S]afety remains an open question,” wrote researchers Rajeev Patel, Robert J. Torres and Peter Rosset—all of whom hold doctorates—in the October-December 2005 International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. “[T]his research is contentious, and academic researchers who have raised it have been marginalized or vilified. Nonetheless, respectable news sources carry information from Monsanto’s own evaluations showing ‘disturbing’ abnormalities in animals fed, in two separate studies, on genetically modified corn and potatoes as compared with rats fed on non-genetically modified food.”
After briefly outlining GMO dangers like that mentioned above, the Patel-Torres-Rosset journal article really centers on Monsanto’s public relations efforts and how they lead reporters like Eagar around by the nose. In their article, the three researchers pull no punches about the power of Monsanto’s PR strategies.
“Monsanto’s methods are particularly insidious,” they wrote. “[T]hey appeal to those who know little about the technology and its downsides, and can be used to undermine or silence those who do bring a critical approach to the debate.”
One of Monsanto’s favorite PR approaches is to equate its own genetic engineering with environmentalism. It’s a particularly ironic approach considering the time and effort the Monsanto Chemical Company spent in the 1950s trying to prevent publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which pointed out the dangers Monsanto-manufactured pesticides like DDT posed the environment.
Today the company—which dropped the word “Chemical” from its name in 1964, two years after Carson’s book came out—can say its GMO seeds are a clean cure for global famine as well as a way to stop future rainforest destruction by bringing increased crop yields to all of the Third World.
“According to Larson, seed [biotechnology] already is doing its part to help the environment,” wrote Eagar. “Roundup-Ready crops require less tillage, meaning fewer gallons of fuel burned in tractors, less erosion from turning over the soil and less consumption of irrigation water.”
Never mind, as the IJOEH article shows, that GMO technology remains prohibitively expensive to most in the world.
“Peasant farmers in the developing world are largely unable to afford traditional agricultural technologies, let alone the expensive and new transgenics,” wrote Patel, Torres and Rosset. “Monsanto fails to note that transgenic crops require infrastructure-rich environments which are often lacking, in part, or in whole, in the agricultural production regimes of those in developing countries.”
Of course, Eagar never hinted at such possibilities in his story, though he did go out of his way to make Monsanto—which controls 38 percent of the corn and 29 percent of the soybeans grown worldwide—look positively humanitarian.
“[Monsanto manufacturing executive vice president Mark] Leidy says the company shortly will announce a Monsanto Hawai’i Science Education Fund to help schools with curriculum development aimed at youngsters who are interested in science,” Eagar reported. “‘Monsanto is critically focused to get more local talent, says Leidy.”
It’s tempting to say the “local talent”will someday include Eagar himself, but he’s clearly too valuable to Monsanto where he is. MTW