A fifth of media coverage on genetically modified foods in Africa contains misinformation. A new scientific study shows.
This has been partly attributed to the influence by Anti-GMO organisations and networks who have persistently influenced the media.
According to the study, while it may appear striking that nearly half of all misinformation surveyed arose in Africa the researchers did not make a true comparison to other regions as they intentionally highlighted African media for special investigation in their media list, therefore biasing it for this purpose.
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“While the majority of articles returned in our search of English-language media were produced in North America, it is striking that Africa produced the highest proportion of misinformation in its coverage. About 20 per cent - a fifth - of Africa’s GMO media content in our database is rated as misinformation. The corresponding proportion is five per cent for North America and seven per cent for Europe,” the study reads in part.
“Roughly a fifth of the media coverage in Africa contained false messages about GMOs, confirming the influence of anti-GMO activism in the continent and at least partially explaining the negative policy environment applied to GM crops and food in most African countries.”
The study assessed top English-language media from around the world, with stories published over a two-year period between January 2019 and January 2021. Articles were assessed for misinformation, defined as statements that disagreed with the scientific consensus on the safety of genetic engineering.
The paper, which is published in the peer-reviewed journal GM Crops and Food, is titled “Misinformation in the media: global coverage of GMOs 2019-2021.” The lead author is Mark Lynas, climate and research lead at the Alliance for Science, which is based at the Boyce Thompson Institute in Ithaca, New York.
Overall, nine per cent (47) of the 535 relevant articles containing ‘GMO’-related keywords contained misinformation. This false information was considered likely to have had a potential reach of 256 million people.
As well as regional tags, the articles were also subjected to sentiment analysis. While an overwhelming majority of articles were categorized as ‘neutral,’ the majority of misinformation was rated as ‘negative’ in tone. There were no articles containing misinformation with a positive tone towards GMOs.
The biggest category of misinformation concerned human health. This category includes articles containing claims that GMOs cause cancer or other health impacts without refutation because such claims contradict a worldwide scientific consensus that food from genetically engineered crops is as safe as food from non-genetically engineered crops. Misinformation on GMOs and human health also had the highest readership, achieving a potential reach of 139 million people.
“One of the most striking results from our analysis is that 100 per cent of the misinformation about GMOs has been characterized as negative, mixed, or neutral in sentiment, while none has been positive. This suggests that anti-GMO activist networks have been successful in persistently influencing media coverage of the issue, and that misinformation primarily originates from the anti-GMO perspective,” says the study.
In view of the study, this finding raises ethical questions given the benefits that genetically engineered crops have delivered to smallholder farmers in other parts of the world and the fact that many anti-GMO groups in Africa are supported by groups based in the Global North, primarily Europe, where food security is not an issue. The study says many of the African misinformation articles found quote extensively from campaigners who are part of these NGO networks based in the Global North.
“Current campaigns against GM cowpea would, if successful, reduce protein intake and hamper the ability to tackle malnutrition and health and ecological impacts arising from the overuse of pesticides,” the study says.
The analysis finds that GMO misinformation is still a significant problem in the media, with nearly a tenth of all coverage of agricultural biotechnology containing falsehoods at variance with widely accepted scientific facts.
“Even relatively low levels of misinformation about genetic engineering are a concern because the resulting avoidance of the technology in agriculture has had negative real-world impacts that have been evaluated and quantified. A meta-analysis of the global impact of GM crops found an average yield increase of 22 per cent and a reduction in chemical pesticides of 37 per cent. These benefits are foregone in places where so-called GMOs are banned,” the study reads.
This rate of misinformation is far higher than that for vaccines and comparable to the highly politicized issue of climate change. Given that the potential worldwide readership of this misinformation totaled over a quarter of a billion between 2019 and 2021, it is incumbent on the scientific community to make urgent efforts to improve its communications about genetic engineering with both the media and the general public.