Report more on biotechnology issues, science journalists urged

OFAB award ceremony on December 1[Photo,Africa Science Dialogue]

Science journalists in Africa have been urged to write more about biotechnology to sharpen their reporting skills and inform the public more on the topic.

Speaking during a science communication capacity strengthening workshop for recipients of the 2023 Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology(OFAB) Media Awards Africa in Dar es Salaam on November 29, scientists noted that not many science journalists have taken a keen interest in biotechnology, despite it being a critical area of science.

The OFAB project manager Vitumbiko Chinoko noted that there was still a lot of misinformation about biotechnology and the only way to address it could be through accurate reporting by journalists by working closely with scientists to bridge knowledge and information gaps.

To ensure accurate reporting on biotechnology, Chinoko urged science journalists who are interested in covering such topics to read widely and engage closely with scientists and policymakers.

Chinoko admitted that as with most ideas, cutting through the myths and misinformation is a daunting but necessary task, which if not handled well can roll back any advantages inherent in technology.

During the workshop, participants got to hear about the lessons and experiences from other countries in Africa on rolling out biotechnology.

In Burkina Faso for example, it came out clearly why the genetically modified cotton (Bt cotton) project that was deemed a success story in Africa was stopped.

Cotton farmers in Burkina Faso[Photo,Africa Science Dialogue]

Making a presentation on the state of biotechnology in Africa, Emmarold Mneney, the Executive Secretary of the Biotechnology Society of Tanzania said the Burkina Faso issue was a problem of breeding and not an issue of technology.

“This was purely a breeding problem. The product did not meet the farmers' needs and there was no industrial analysis,” he said.

He appealed to critics of agricultural biotechnology not to use the Burkina Faso Bt cotton experience to trash the technology.

The lesson learnt is that scientists need to develop products that meet farmers' and industry needs.

Burkina Faso is the classic example that biotech critics use to dismiss the success of the technology. Commercialisation of the Bt cotton was stopped in 2015 after farmers rejected it based on quality issues.

Reports show that the fibre from the genetically modified cotton variety was significantly shorter than what the market required.

On his part, Emmanuel Mugisha, executive secretary Rwanda Media Council urged journalists to embrace ethical considerations in reporting agricultural biotechnology.

“As a professional science journalist, you should always abide by ethics and observe principles like professionalism, accuracy, objectivity,” he stated.

Mugisha noted that health issues always arise when it comes to biotechnology therefore journalists should report on this accurately, provide context for scientific findings and foster informed public discourse.

Critics of biotechnology always spread the falsehood that genetically modified foods cause cancer, a claim that has no scientific proof.

“Fact checking helps sort the issue of misinformation and build credibility and audience trust,” Mugisha noted.

Mugisha urged scientists to help journalists with guidelines on biotechnology reporting, terminologies in their local languages so that they can report in simple, clear and concise manner that the audience can understand.

“Reading widely helps to improve your information base. Keep your professional integrity intact,” he advised.

Verenardo Meeme Program Officer at African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) urged journalists to use the right pictures when illustrating biotechnology to avoid creating a misleading image in the minds of the public.

The three-day workshop culminated in an award ceremony on December 1 where journalists in Africa who have excelled in biotechnology reporting were awarded in a ceremony graced by Tanzania Minister for Agriculture.

The Standard journalist Hellen Miseda emerged the 1st Runners Up in the Print/Digital category for the articles she wrote on Standard Digital.

The overall OFAB Africa Awards winner was Tinsae Habte Sibane from Ethiopia Broadcasting Corporation.

OFAB Africa Media Awards is an annual award sponsored by African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) through its Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB) project.

The awards are aimed at recognising exemplary journalism that promote best practices in science reporting with emphasis on agriculture biotechnology through responsible, professional, ethical and effective reporting.