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One-fifth of Media Stories on GMOs Published in Africa Contain Misinformation

Misinformation is a serious problem in scientific debates ranging from climate change to vaccines to nuclear power. It can damage society’s interests because people who are misinformed about an issue may make decisions based on flawed or false information. For example, the World Health Organization declared an “infodemic” during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic due to the proliferation of misinformation about the disease, its causes, and possible treatments. This “infodemic” led to increased death rates and disease due to people seeking and applying inappropriate treatments and ignoring and resisting evidence-based control measures.

Genetically modified crops have been subject to a decades-long, orchestrated campaign of misinformation by opponents. This has yielded substantially negative public attitudes and media coverage and resulted in biotech regulatory systems that are de-facto prohibitionary in many geographies.

The Alliance for Science has previously published work on quantifying the scientific consensus on climate change and examining media misinformation both on COVID-19 and vaccines. In a recent study we quantitatively assessed the phenomenon of misinformation on genetically modified crops and food (“GMOs”) in the mainstream and online news media over a two-year period. And we defined misinformation as information which is at variance with widely accepted scientific consensus on the safety of genetic engineering. This new paper is thought to be the first to quantify the extent of GMO-related misinformation in the world’s media, based on a comprehensive dataset.

The study assessed top English-language media from around the world, with stories published over a two-year period between January 2019 and January 2021. Overall, 9 per cent (47) of the 535 relevant articles containing ‘GMO’-related keywords contained misinformation. This false information was considered likely to have had a potential reach of 256 million people. This means that more than a quarter of a billion people across the globe could have been exposed to misinformation surrounding GMOs.

In addition, the study showed that one-fifth of African media coverage of genetically modified foods contained misinformation. The corresponding figures for North America and Europe were 5 per cent and 7 per cent, respectively.

As well as regional tags, the articles were also subjected to sentiment analysis. While an overwhelming majority of articles were categorized as ‘neutral,’ the majority of misinformation was rated as ‘negative’ in tone. There were no articles containing misinformation with a positive tone towards GMOs.

The Impact of GMOs on Human Health

The biggest category of misinformation concerned human health. This category includes articles containing claims that GMOs cause cancer or other health impacts without refutation, because such claims contradict a worldwide scientific consensus that food from genetically engineered crops is as safe as food from non-genetically engineered crops. Misinformation on GMOs and human health also had the highest readership, achieving a potential reach of 139 million people.

On this specific issue of GMO misinformation, our results show that misinformation about GMOs is still a huge problem, and that hundreds of millions of people are being given false information that contradicts the scientific consensus on the safety of genetic engineering. Make no mistake: misinformation about GMOs can be as harmful to society as misinformation on vaccines or climate change. The media must do better and must stop publishing false claims on this subject spread by anti-science activists.

The fact that the problem of misinformation on GMOs is particularly acute in Africa, is very worrying. Because this is where it is harming the livelihoods of smallholder farmers by preventing them from accessing new crop varieties that are resistant to pests and tolerant to drought caused by climate change.

It is vital that the benefits of scientific innovation are not denied to people in the Global South. The Alliance for Science vows that it will continue to combat misinformation on this subject and others via its Nairobi-based Global South Hub, and by working with partners including the Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB).

It is very unfortunate to see that misinformation about GMOs in the mainstream media is still a significant problem and outranks the proportion of misinformation in other comparable debates such as COVID-19 and vaccines.

About the Study

The study was conducted in partnership with Cision Media, using its NextGen database of global media. Sentiment analysis and categorization was performed manually, not by machine. The paper was published in the peer-reviewed journal GM Crops & Food, with the citation: Lynas, M., Adams, J., Conrow, J. Misinformation in the media: global coverage of GMOs 2019-2021. GM Crops & Food (2022) DOI: 10.1080/21645698.2022.2140568

About The Alliance for Science

The Alliance for Science seeks to promote access to scientific innovation as a means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability, and raising the quality of life globally.

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Editor’s Note: Mark Lynas is Climate and Research Lead for Alliance for Science

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