Reuters falls for Biotech spin (12/11/2005)

To see the article Prof Miller says reflects clear PR manipulation of Reuters:

Reuters falls for Biotech spin
Prof David Miller / 11 November, 2005

Spinwatch has today written to Reuters to complain about an article which seems to have been the result of a successful Biotech industry spin operation. Any response will be posted here.

Dear Reuters

I would like to raise a concern I have about the Reuters article, 'Africa seen accepting GMO crops more in future', which was published in October out of Johannesburg. My concern is with the superficial coverage the article provides and what I would see as clear PR manipulation of your journalist(s).

The article is based overwhelmingly around the views and comments of Florence Wambugu who is described in the article simply as "a Kenyan biotech expert". The article reports her view that "homegrown projects" will win acceptance for GM crops in Africa where she says "resistance has been against foreign companies". The example given of a "homegrown" project is that of a consortium headed by Wambugu's 'Africa Harvest' group, which is developing "a GMO strain of sorghum with higher nutritional content."

My concern is that the article fails to place any of Wambugu's claims in context. For instance, the following press release (July 1, 2005) from Pioneer Hibred, a subsidiary of DuPont headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, makes it clear that it is a major player in Wambugu's consortium.

An article published in the Des Moines Register, 'Scientists work to improve sorghum for humans' provides even more detail. It reports that the DuPont-owned subsidary is providing "crop seed expertise and vast plant genetic resources". Pioneer is, it seems, providing sorghum germ plasm, intellectual property rights "and the expertise to make sorghum more nutritional - a contribution valued at $4.8 million".It's also apparent from this article that Pioneer is training, "Africans at its worldwide research headquarters in Johnston as part of the effort".

While the Reuters article does make reference to "two U.S. groups" being involved in the project, it does not mention that one of these "groups" is the seed division of a major GM corporation. This information seems important in the context of claims made in the Reuters article that this is "absolutely an African driven project" and that it is not driven by foreign companies.

Florence Wambugu's own background is also relevant to this issue of the role of foriegn companies in promoting GM in Africa. Wambugu was previously a Post-Doctoral fellow in Monsanto. ( ). She has also partnered with DuPont on a previous biotechnology project which is still ongoing.
She is also a DuPont Biotech Advisory Panelist.

In addition, her group Africa Harvest's communication activities have been supported by CropLife International, a global federation 'representing the plant science industry' and led by companies like BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont , Monsanto and Syngenta. Whether Florence Wambugu's current communication activities are similarly supported is hard to say as I could not find funding information on Africa Harvest's website. However, the site's previous funding information page is still accessible via an Internet archive and this confirms the funding by CropLife International.

A page relating to Africa Harvest's communications activities is also accessible. Its references to "extensive and sustained" media work and "a state-of-the-art biotechnology communication network", suggests both a well-resourced and highly professional lobbying operation )

It is also worth noting that Florence Wambugu's projects have come in for considerable critisism for the way in which they have been promoted. It is not only "anti-GM activists" who have noted the inaccuracy of many of her claims and of their coverage in the media, but academic researchers. For instance Aaron deGrassi of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex takes apart Wambugu's claims for the GM sweet potato project she worked on with Monsanto, concluding her claims have more to do with PR than science
- Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa

Two other recent reports have taken apart her claims for the biotech banana project Africa Harvest has run with the help of DuPont. These researchers found her claims to be largely unsupported by the available data or by peer reviewed study, and in some cases they found the available evidence directly contradicted her claims. (see 'The Anti-politics Gene - Biotechnology, Ideology and Innovation Systems in Kenya',

I appreciate that your journalists will be generalists dealing with a whole range of topics, but this is an important global issue with potentially major implications for the future of agriculture in many parts of the world. I am sure that your journalists will therefore want to provide coverage that is balanced and informative.

To help deal with the issue of manipulation by lobbyists, SpinWatch - the organisation I helped to found - is developing a database that may be of interest to your journalists and may help them to pose pertinent questions - The US-based Center for Media and Democracy operates a similar database: SouceWatch -

Prof David Miller
Professor of Sociology
Dept of Geography and Sociology
Strathclyde University


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