Media coverage and public attitudes to GM food (12/1/2005)

The science journal Nature is printing an edited version of the following letter, less almost all of the first paragraph, the first sentence of the second, and the last sentence of the letter!

Here's the full version.

The Editor, Nature

You say ('Going Public'; Editorial; 431, 883; 21 October 2004) that "British scientists have seen the public swayed by misleading media coverage of genetically modified (GM) food and vaccines." I do not imagine you had in mind the constant stream of pro-genetic engineering articles in the national press through most of the 1990s, nor the endless, uncritical reporting of miracle crops that would cut pesticide use, end blindness and feed the world, still less your own shameful record in withdrawing the paper by Chapela et al on GM contamination in Mexico. What evidence do you have for suggesting that media coverage was biased one way or another - or is this an area where you feel scientists should be content to rely on mere assertion and personal prejudice?

Whatever reporting you had in mind your comment is ill-informed, and inaccurate. The evidence in the scientific literature on the impact of media coverage on public attitudes to GM food suggests that public attitudes to GM food in a number of European countries were formed independently of the scale and nature of the coverage of GM issues in the media (1,2,3). This is a message equally unwelcome to some on the anti-GM side (who sometimes fall into the trap of judging their success by the amount of media coverage they get), as it is to pro-GM scientists and companies, who are happier thinking that their products were rejected as a result of unfair media coverage, rather than simply because they were bad products which the public did not want to buy. Of course, the group to whom this conclusion is least palatable are journalists, who like to believe that their readers read and believe every word they write.

However, the ability of citizens to come to decisions on flawed technology like GM crops independently of media coverage (whether biased or not) does support your contention that scientists should be prepared to trust the public to make a sensible contribution to discussions on research
priorities. It also suggests that a great deal of time and expense would have been avoided, and significant public research funding put to better use, if the public had been consulted about GM crops at an earlier stage.

Peter Melchett,
Policy Director, Soil Association,

1.Grove-White R, Macnaghten P, Mayer S, Wynne B (1997) Uncertain World: Genetically Modified Organisms, Food and Public Attitudes in Britain. Lancaster, UK: Centre for the Study of Environmental Change, Lancaster University

2. Marris C, Wynne B, Simmons P, Weldon S (2001) Final Report of the Public Attitudes to Biotechnology in Europe Research Project. FAIR CT98-3844 (DG12 - SSMI). Lancaster, UK: Centre for the Study of Environmental Change, Lancaster University

3. Mayer S, Stirling A (2004) GM Crops: good or bad? European Molecular Biology Organization reports VOL 5, NO 11, 2004; 1021-1024

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