Anatomy of a Newsweek Valentine to the Anti-GMO Movement
Imagine a press call like this:
Giant Oil Company Executive: We are here to talk to a scientist who has authored a new study called: "Huffing Oil Prevents Cancer"
Scientist: I estimate that those who have huffed oil every day for 22 years will never get cancer. Based on my study, all people should buy more oil and huff it daily.
Reporter: That is a great headline. I will write this story in 4 hours.
Giant Oil Company Executive: Here is a list of references and links.
Scientist: I am a scientist. You do not need to verify or fact-check.
Reporter: I love oil! I will write it a Valentine.
Far-fetched? Well, not really. This happens routinely in media coverage about GMOs. For the most part, press coverage goes something like this: The Good Guys (organic companies and environmental organizations) vs. The Bad Guys (biotech, agriculture, and food companies). The good guys are called "consumer groups" and the bad guys are called "industry." Bad guys spend all the money, lie to consumers and poison the planet: good guys are just struggling, selfless "non-profits" trying to save us from Monsanto.
And last week, one of us (Julie), got an inside view into how easy it is to spin anti-GMO information and how easy it is to get at least one reporter to swallow it whole.
The Environmental Working Group, an anti-GMO activist group, hosted a press call on Feb. 2 to discuss the latest "study" about glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in Monsanto's RoundUp (you can read the report here). Anti-GMOers blame glyphosate for pretty much everything from allergies to cancer to bad presidential candidates.
The study was written by Dr. Chuck Benbrook, a controversial figure you can read about here. He has been bankrolled by the organic industry for years and his research is always favorable to the anti-GMO organic industry. He was joined on the press call by a policy analyst from the Center for Food Safety and a professor from Penn State University. All are anti-GMO activists.
EWG very graciously allowed Julie to participate in the press call. A handful of reporters joined the call, including Doug Main from Newsweek.
The call lasted about an hour and ended at 2pm. Less than five hours later, Newsweek's Doug Main posted an article that can only be described as an early Valentine to Benbrook and the entire anti-GMO crowd: Glyphosate Now the Most-Used Agricultural Chemical Ever. Love, Doug [okay, we added that]
The article is a one-sided regurgitation of everything that was presented on the press call. Main passes along all the information the activists gave him without fact-checking or providing a frame of reference.
"The world is awash in glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, produced by Monsanto. It has now become the most heavily-used agricultural chemical in the history of the world, and many argue that's a problem, since the substance comes with concerning albeit incompletely-determined health effects."
Awash in glyphosate! Horrifying, no? Main is painting the image exactly how the activists want him to - that our world is awash in a dangerous chemical. It would be nice to know what herbicide glyphosate replaced since we can assume weeds have always been a problem. It would also have been nice to have a comparison to other agricultural chemicals used, conventional and organic. 19 billion pounds? What does that even mean?
• "It's not yet clear how much of an impact glyphosate has had on cancer rates."
This sentence suggests that glyphosate could have an impact on cancer rates, even though there is no proof whatsoever. It's meant to scare the reader and imply we just haven't found out "yet" that it causes cancer.
• "At the same time, the U.S. EPA has relaxed its rules about what it considers a safe level of glyphosate. Fifty times more glyphosate is allowed on corn grain now than in 1996...."
No citation offered, no confirmation by the EPA.
• "Furthermore, it's robbing farmers of income, which is diverted to companies that produce herbicides and herbicide-resistant crops like Monsanto's Round-Up Ready corn and soybeans. 'The bottom line is that at least 30 percent of the net income that used to go to farmers is now going to these companies,' Benbrook says and it continues to get worse."
How hard would it have been to call a farmer to comment on this? If the 30% number is even true, how does this compare to previous years? How much would farmers spend if they used something else to kill weeds?
The original article doesn't even let Monsanto respond; it was completely one-sided. Perhaps an editor came to his senses and told the reporter to get the company's reaction.
Main doesn't say how the study was funded (no one asked during the press call). Julie later verified with EWG that Dr. Benbrook "completed much of the work when he was still with WSU." Washington State University employed Benbrook for years and much of his program funding came from big organic companies (he left the university last year).
EWG also confirmed that the publishing fee was paid from Benbrook's foundation, Ceres Trust, an organic group that gives out grants for "programs to eliminate pesticide exposure and GMO contamination." Quite simply, the money trail behind Benbrook's latest work can be directly traced to the organic industry that greatly profits from any bad news about Monsanto, glyphosate or GMOs.
For the record, we are not alleging any wrong-doing by anyone; activists are doing their jobs and reporters are often overworked and underpaid. However, anyone looking for information about glyphosate or GMOs will see this piece online - along with Newsweek's imprimatur - and assume it's the full story when it's activist propaganda sealed with a kiss.
Unfortunately, as long as the media continues its largely one-sided coverage about GMOs, consumers will continue to be misled by this cozy relationship between the media and anti-GMO activists.