Prominent scientists say genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are vital to feeding the world and solving undernourishment, but the broadcast networks were more focused on unproven claims about their “potential health risk.”
GMOs are back in the news since Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., proposed legislation “that keeps states from regulating food with genetically modified ingredients,” The Hill reported June 15.
While politicians debate GMO regulation, proponents say GMOs allow “farmers to produce more food,” use fewer chemicals, and conserve resources. But in more than a year of coverage, 78 percent (25 out of 32) of the broadcast news networks’ stories and briefs said nothing about GMO benefits, more often turning to critics. Instead, they highlighted the unproven “potential health risks” of GMOs, characterized GMOs as “DNA tinkering” and relied on GMO critics like Dr. Mehmet Oz who has been in hot water with Congress and fellow doctors.
Networks question safety of GMOs
Despite extensive scientific evidence affirming the safety of GMOs, the networks frequently brought up concerns about their “risk.”
CBS This Morning co-hosts Norah O’Donnell, Gayle King and Charlie Rose interviewed Consumer Reports Consumer Safety and Sustainability Director Urvashi Rangan about GMO labeling on Oct. 7, 2014. O’Donnell began by saying, “GMO labeling isn’t required in the U.S. despite worries about the potential health risk.”
Their guest provided the “worries.” Rangan argued the government did “not require, that before these things go to market, that they’re actually proven to be safe.”
Even though an onscreen graphic indicated GMOs were “FDA-regulated,” neither O’Donnell, King or Rose challenged Rangan. They should have pointed out that in May 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said they actively ensured foods and ingredients on the domestic market containing GMOs were “safe to eat.”
On April 27, 2015, NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt said that “orders at a major restaurant chain no longer come with a side of DNA tinkering,” after Chipotle eliminated all foods containing GMOs from its menu.
Holt admitted that the “FDA insists that GMOs are safe to eat, but experts say that many customers, especially millennials, remain wary of them.” Of course, Chipotle has actively tried to spread fear of GMOs and agriculture practices in the past.
While 57 percent of Americans told Pew Research they thought GMOs were “generally unsafe” in January 2015, Holt failed to mention that in addition to the FDA, many scientists, studies and organizations’ findings should allay those fears.
Scientists were far more confident in the safety of GMOs than ordinary citizens, according to Pew Research. Eighty-eight percent of scientists in the American Association for the Advancement of Science said GMOs were “generally safe.”
Forbes reported in September 2014 that “more than 2,000 studies” have shown that GMOs were “as safe or safer than conventional or organic foods.” In addition to the FDA, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Medical Association (AMA) found that GMOs were “fine for consumption,” Washington Post’s Roberto Ferdman reported July 6.
“Most people don’t have a lot of knowledge about GMOs,” Oklahoma State University agricultural economist Jayson Lusk told Ferdman. Lusk said the public’s opposition to GMOs was based primarily on a “psychological bias” against foods and ingredients they were unfamiliar with, rather than specific objections to GMOs.
Benefits of GMOs lost in Dr. Oz controversy
All three networks each brought up GMOs in the context of the Dr. Mehmet Oz controversy. For years, Oz has come under fire for his junk science, including from the FDA, National Fisheries Institute (NFI), and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
ABC, CBS and NBC aired a combined 14 stories about Oz’s latest controversy, when 10 American doctors who demanded in April that Oz be removed as vice chair of the Columbia School of Medicine. One reason was that the doctors objected to Oz’s opposition to GMOs, another was his endorsement of questionable products as host of the nationally syndicated Dr. Oz Show.
The networks focused on the controversy between Oz and the other doctors, but skipped discussing any specific risks or benefits of GMOs. In an interview with NBC Today co-host Matt Lauer April 24, Oz claimed his critics “had clear GMO biases,” without explaining their views or why he thought they were wrong.
ABC correspondent Linsey Davis also repeatedly gave Oz a platform to blast his pro-GMO critics, but without offering proof there was anything wrong with GMOs. Davis reiterated Oz’s claims that some of the doctors critical of him were “public defenders” of GMOs and one in particular was a “vocal advocate” of GMOs on both Good Morning America and World News Tonight in April 2015. She also said some of the doctors had “big ties to big industry, specifically genetically modified foods,” but without demonstrating why GMOs were bad.
On the rare occasions when the networks spoke positively about GMOs, these benefits mentioned were usually minimal. For example, ABC correspondent Gloria Riviera reported on a genetically modified apple that was designed to “stay cosmetically superior for longer” during World News Tonight Feb. 14, 2015.
Award-winning scientists support GMOs
In contrast to network coverage about the “potential” threat, prominent scientists have detailed the significant potential benefits of GMOs.
The late biologist Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work on developing genetically engineered crops, which the The New York Times said was “credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives.” Borlaug defended GMOs as not only safe, but highly beneficial in the journal Plant Physiology in October 2000.
“Genetic modification of crops is not some kind of witchcraft; rather, it is the progressive harnessing of the forces of nature to the benefit of feeding the human race,” Borlaug said. “The genetic engineering of plants at the molecular level is just another step in humankind's deepening scientific journey into living genomes.”
A 1993 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine, biochemist and biologist Richard Roberts says GMOs could help solve the “chronic undernourishment” problem. He said in an op-ed for The Boston Globe in May 2014 that nearly an eighth of the world’s population, or more than the entire population of Europe, was undernourished.
“For the sake of sick children and those who go to bed hungry, we must fight the self-serving, political arguments of the anti-GMO movement and ensure that the benefits of GMOs are available to all,” Roberts wrote.
The American Farm Bureau Federation said that GMOs have allowed “farmers to produce more food, using less land and few chemicals, while conserving soil, water, and on-farm energy” and can help feed the world’s 2 billion malnourished people.
Methodology: MRC Business examined the stories during the morning and evening news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC from July 1, 2014, through July 12, 2015, that mentioned genetically modified, GMO or Monsanto in the context of food or crops. Of the 32 resulting stories, only seven mentioned benefits to GMOs.