GMO misinformation will impact Kenya's food security negatively

Kenyans have not however been well served by some of their representatives and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), who have joined together to spread unprecedented amounts of misinformation about GMOs, particularly making numerous false allegations about supposed health effects that no reputable scientist would endorse.

You would not find any scientific expert saying that GMOs cause men to grow breasts and women to grow beards or give anyone cancer, and yet these claims have spread far and wide in the Kenyan media.

At the Alliance for Science, of which I am the director, we seek to combat misinformation globally on issues such as vaccines, public health, food security and climate change.

We have analysed three months of coverage in the Kenyan media of the GMO issue, during the debate about the lifting of the ban, from October 2022 to the end of January 2023.

Our results are shocking and suggest that the rates of GMO misinformation in Kenyan media may be among the worst in the world.

While an earlier global study we conducted found rates of media misinformation on GMOs (mostly falsely alleging health effects such as cancer) were around 9 per cent, we found rates of 40 per cent in our survey of Kenyan media.

Specifically, looking at 14 top-tier national media outlets, we found 151 out of a total of 376 articles contained unchallenged negative misinformation about GMOs.

This is unprecedented and extremely worrying. It will be very challenging for Kenyan citizens and policymakers to make properly informed decisions about the use of genetic technologies in agriculture with this extremely high level of misinformation.

Just as misinformation about vaccines leads to vaccine hesitancy and harms public health, misinformation about GMOs will have a directly negative impact on Kenya's food security situation.

This is not a game: Malnutrition from chronic food insecurity leads to stunting and harms the life prospect of millions of Kenyan children. Leaders of political parties and politicians should not throw around falsehoods to score cheap political points.

NGOs which have an anti-science agenda and oppose the modernisation of agriculture for ideological reasons should be open and honest about this and not try to mislead the public about non-existent health effects to bolster their support.

At the risk of repeating myself, I should be clear: Scientists around the world have assessed GMOs, and have reached a strong consensus that new techniques for breeding crops such as genetic modification are no riskier than older approaches. Thus, any claims about the negative health effects of GMOs are 100 per cent false and must be reported as such in the media.

Nutritionally such foods are the same as any other, which is why consumers in much of the world have been eating genetically modified foods for decades with no ill effects.

I also want to be clear that this is not a problem unique to Africa. An earlier study we conducted at the Alliance for Science found that during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, then-US President Trump was the biggest single purveyor of media misinformation about the disease.

Internationally, many of those spreading myths about vaccines are the same organisations or share the same agenda as those spreading myths about GMOs. Thus the scientific community must unite to combat them both.

I do not blame the media either, and least of all, hard-pressed journalists seeking to do their jobs with few resources and many obstacles. However, it is clear from our report that journalists and media houses must do more than simply report the controversy on GMOs.

In doing so, they risk unwittingly spreading misinformation. Just as with Covid-19 and with vaccines, media outlets must accept responsibility for not misleading their readers.

Therefore, when prominent people make false statements, scientists must be contacted to give proper context and readers must be informed in the same article if statements are false.

Likewise, scientists too must make strenuous efforts to ensure that their expert views are not neglected and that they are effective communicators to politicians and the public via media outlets.

At the Alliance for Science, we are already working closely with partners sharing this agenda, including the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation, the Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation and others.

Kenyans, and especially Kenyan children who are currently going hungry, deserve the best from us all. We have failed them so far, and we must not continue to fail them again in the future.