Dear Mr Kinnear
Thank you for your email about Background Briefing’s “Curse of the Frankenfoods,” broadcast on Radio National on 15 September. I apologise for the delay in my response.
In accordance with the ABC’s complaint handling procedures, your correspondence has been considered by Audience & Consumer Affairs, a unit which is separate to and independent of program making areas within the ABC. The role of Audience & Consumer Affairs is to investigate complaints alleging that ABC content is in contravention of the ABC’s editorial standards. In the course of doing so, we seek comments from the relevant division, in this case ABC Radio.
In light of your concerns about impartiality and accuracy, we have reviewed the program against the relevant editorial standards, and our findings are set out below.
4.2 Present a diversity of perspectives so that, over time, no significant strand of thought or belief within the community is knowingly excluded or disproportionately represented.
4.5 Do not unduly favour one perspective over another.
Your complaint has contended that “From the title of the show to the presenter’s apparent conversion from being anti-GM, to the choice of people as experts who are not qualified to assess safety or otherwise, the bias was clear”.
The Principles accompanying section 4 of the ABC’s editorial standards make clear that “the ABC is guided by these hallmarks of impartiality:
- a balance that follows the weight of evidence …”
Audience & Consumer Affairs note that the majority of scientific research supports the view that GM foods available on the market are safe for human consumption, and that this view is shared by major scientific and government organisations. The Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) states on its website, “To date, we have identified no safety concerns with any of the GM foods that we have assessed. Other national regulators who have independently assessed the same GM foods have reached the same conclusions” (http://www.foodstandards.gov.
Accordingly, and having regard to the weight of evidence, Audience & Consumer Affairs consider it was reasonable for the program to favour the view that currently available GM foods are safe. The program did, however, make clear there is significant public anxiety about, and resistance to, GM foods, and featured the views of some concerned members of the scientific and general community, including Greenpeace activist Jessa Latona and epidemiologist Dr Judy Carman. We consider it was appropriate for the program to highlight the principal criticisms made with respect to the research of Professor Séralini and Dr Carman, and we note that presenter Ian Walker also made clear that links were available on the program website to the relevant research and responses to the research, to enable listeners to make up their own minds.
“Curse of the Frankenfoods” did not purport to be an in-depth examination of the science of genetically modified foods. The program stated at the outset that its aim was to examine the discrepancy between the scientific consensus and public opinion with respect to the safety of GM foods, and better understand “why we believe the things we do”. The choice of interviewees was relevant to this aim, and included, principally, Mark Lynas, described as a journalist, blogger and anti-GM activist “turned traitor to the cause”, whose own experiences epitomised the broader themes of the program, and provided listeners with insight into how one individual’s attitude toward GM foods was shaped, challenged and eventually changed. The program also interviewed Jon Entine, who discussed Mark Lynas’ ‘conversion’ in the wider context of a shift in the debate and what he considered to be “a turning point in our thinking about the interface between technology and the natural world”.
ABC Radio have advised that Mr Lynas is “an award-winning science journalist and author who spent more than three years researching the science around GM foods before coming to his position. Background Briefing found Lynas to be an impressive, honest and credible interviewee who was knowledgeable and articulate about the science as well as the inner workings of a protest organisation”. ABC Radio have also advised that your allegations about Mr Lynas were put to him during an interview, and that Mr Lynas indicated he receives no payment apart from the paid journalism work he undertakes. With respect to Jon Entine, ABC Radio have advised that Mr Entine “is a journalist who is a specialist in reporting on biotechnology. His organisation, the Genetic Literacy Project, is a non-profit funded by grants from non-partisan foundations, with no ties to any industry or corporation. It’s affiliated with the non-profit Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) based at George Mason University in Virginia.”
Audience & Consumer Affairs note your view that Mr Lynas and Mr Entine “are not qualified to assess safety or otherwise”; however, it is important to note that in the context of the program’s aim and focus, Mr Lynas and Mr Entine were not charged with this task. As reputable journalists specialising in this area, we consider both interviewees were suitably qualified to discuss and communicate some of the issues surrounding public perception of the safety of GM foods to the target audience of the program.
We note your disappointment that the program did not choose to interview Professor Heinemann; however, there was no editorial requirement for it to do so.
Overall, we are satisfied that the program presented a range of relevant perspectives, and that no perspective was unduly favoured, in keeping with standards 4.2 and 4.5.
2.1 Make reasonable efforts to ensure that material facts are accurate and presented in context.
Your specific concerns about accuracy have been addressed in the order raised in your complaint.
Complaint 1: … “It is a false claim that all papayas in Hawaii are genetically engineered. […]”
Finding: Audience & Consumer Affairs agree that Ian Walker, when restating the food products used in the experiment conducted by Dr Craig Cormick of the CSIRO, incorrectly suggested that all papayas in Hawaii are genetically modified. In view of the fact that expert Dr Cormick had moments earlier explained in detail that “a lot of papaya that come from Hawaii are genetically modified, so they had a blight in the crop so they modified them to save them from dying of a blight,” Audience & Consumer Affairs do not consider that audience members would be materially misled by Ian Walker’s incorrect restatement; nor do we consider this constituted a material fact in the context of the report. No breach of 2.1. However, in recognition of your complaint, ABC Radio have added an editor’s note to the transcript indicating that, “Background Briefing notes that not all papayas in Hawaii are genetically modified”.
Complaint 2: “Ian Walker (about the Greenpeace action) ‘CSIRO counters that the trial was strictly for R&D and they were nowhere near the commercialisation phase.’ This is a lie. […]”
Finding: Audience & Consumer Affairs note that the CSIRO fact sheet explains that “If field and feeding trials are approved, and their outcomes are positive, commercial varieties of these GM wheat plants will be available in 2019, or later, as they will have to undergo several strict assessments before they can be approved” (http://www.csiro.au/~/media/
Complaint 3: “Mark Lynas. ‘The GM debate is over, it is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it’s safe. Over a decade in a half, with 3 million, 3 trillion rather, GM meals eaten there has never been a single substantiated case of harm.’ It is ungrounded and misleading to argue that GM food must be harmless to health on the grounds that people have been consuming them for years and no visible damage has been observed …”
Finding: This was presented as the view of Mark Lynas, taken from an Oxford conference where Mark Lynas outlined his changed attitude toward GM foods, and described by Ian Walker as having “thr[own] a hand grenade into the GM debate”. Audience & Consumer Affairs remain satisfied that Mr Lynas is suitably credentialed to put forward his views on this matter, and we consider his views are supported by the weight of evidence. No breach of 2.1.
Complaint 4: “Ian Walker: ‘The Lynas conversion was a revelation for Jon Entine who wrote up the story for Forbes magazine.’ For the record, Forbes magazine named Monsanto Company of the year in January 2010.”
Audience & Consumer Affairs have noted your comment; however, our unit is only able to investigate specific, substantiated complaints alleging a breach of the editorial standards.
Complaint 5: “Mark Lynas: ‘I don’t think I realised that DNA is this universal code, it is just a sequence of 4 letters basically, it’s how you interpret it and you can chop and change it between different species with actually very little impact’. Obviously Mark Lynas doesn’t have a scientific background (he holds a degree in History and Politics) and he poorly understands genetic science. […]”
Finding: This was presented as the view of journalist Mark Lynas. It was not suggested that Mr Lynas is a scientist, and we are satisfied it was reasonable to rely on his expertise as a journalist specialising in this area. We can find no evidence of a breach of 2.1.
Complaint 6: “Ian Walker : On the issue of whether genetically modified organisms or GMOs are really safe there is an overwhelming scientific consensus’ There is no scientific consensus on GMOs. The debate is far from over as this open letter signed by 828 scientists from 84 different countries shows, calling for the immediate suspension of all environmental releases of GM crops and products.”
Finding: Audience & Consumer Affairs note that scientific consensus refers to the majority view; it is accepted that not every member of the scientific community will hold this view. We are satisfied that it is accurate to say that there is a scientific consensus with respect to the safety of GM foods on the market, for the reasons cited under the heading of ‘Impartiality’. No breach of 2.1.
Complaint 7: “Jon Entine ‘A crop that you are tinkering with cannot in itself cause an allergy or health problem.’ Jon Entine is an American journalist who holds a degree in philosophy. He is not a geneticist. GM crops have the potential to cause allergenic reactions, more so than conventional breeding5 6. In Australia, for example, GM peas were found to cause allergenic reactions in mice7. Eating the GE peas also made the mice more sensitive to other food allergies.”
Finding: Audience & Consumer Affairs consider it is reasonable to rely Mr Entine’s expertise as a journalist specialising in this area. We note that Mr Entine was not presented as a scientist, and that his views are broadly supported by the weight of scientific evidence with respect to the safety of GM foods. No breach of 2.1.
Complaint 8: “Jon Entine (about Prof GE Seralini’s study) ‘That study was reviewed by the European Food Safety Authority and remember we are in Europe and Europe is very sceptical of GMOs and the EFSA, a very independent body, just tore apart the study.’ In July, EFSA has issued guidelines for two-year whole food feeding studies to assess the risk of long-term toxicity from GM foods. Ironically, this document largely validates the methodology and choices of Prof Seralini in his 2012 study.”
Audience & Consumer Affairs note you have not raised any specific concerns of inaccuracy in this segment. We have found no evidence of a breach of 2.1.
Complaint 9: “Jon Entine ‘Seralini is a dedicated anti GMO activist but he was aware that people were not looking for science’. Gilles-Eric Seralini is a professor of molecular biology at the University of Caen in France where he leads a research team associated with CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research) and INRA (French National Institute for Agricultural Research). Seralini’s team has been the most published in the world in scientific peer reviewed journals on the effect of GMOs authorised in agriculture and pesticides used in association with GMOs on health, animals and humans.”
Finding: Audience & Consumer Affairs note you have not raised any specific concerns of inaccuracy in this segment. However, we note that accuracy relates to fact not opinion, and that Ian Walker advised listeners that a link was available to Professor Séralini’s research on the program page. We have found no evidence of a breach of 2.1.
Complaint 10: “Mark Lynas (about Dr Judy Carman’s study) ‘that pig health study was about as junk as junk science get’. Again, Mark Lynus doesn’t have any scientific background and Judy’s work is peer reviewed. We dispute your view that because it was published in an organic journal it is does not have any value.”
Finding: At no stage did the program state the research had no value because it was published in an organic journal. The program indicated that the work was ‘controversial’ and included the views of Dr Judy Carman, the initial response to her research by the GM industry (broadcast on the ABC’s PM) along with Mark Lynas’ criticism of the research. In addition, Ian advised listeners that “links to Mark Lynas’ extensive critique and Judy Carman’s line by line rebuttal, plus other scientists’ responses to the pig study, can be found at Background Briefing’s website”, which included a link to the FSANZ and Office of the Gene Technology Regulator responses, the latter of which concluded that “All agencies have reached the conclusion that this study is of poor quality and does not provide any grounds for reconsideration of existing GM crop or GM food approvals or assessment processes” (http://www.ogtr.gov.au/
Complaint 11: “Ian Walker: ‘The case involves organic farmer Steve Marsh from Kojonup in the South of the State who is suing his neigbour, Micheal Baxter. The claim is for damages over alleged negligence and nuisance, which allowed pollen from GM canola to blow across a large section of Marsh’s property in 2010.’ In an email sent to Ian Walker on the 28th of August, Scott Kinnear raised the fact that there was a factual mistake in the script that needed correction. The case is not about “pollen” blowing on to Steve Marsh’s farm, but canola plants themselves containing seed just before harvest. Ian Walker chose to ignore it and chose to communicate wrong information.”
Finding: In response to your complaint, ABC Radio have advised that this was an oversight, and the correct description should be” ‘cut stalks and pods’ not ‘pollen’”. ABC Radio have advised that efforts made by the production team to verify this fact with Mr Marsh went unanswered. In view of this, Audience & Consumer Affairs are satisfied that reasonable efforts were made by the program to verify the fact with the relevant party, and that no breach of 2.1 has occurred. However, in recognition of your complaint, ABC Radio have added an editor’s note to the transcript with the following wording, “editor’s note: The correct description should be ‘cut stalks and pods’ not ‘pollen’ as originally stated.”
Complaint 12: “Ian Walker ‘The Safe Food Foundation, an organic food industry and anti-GM lobby group.’ Ian Walker chose to present the Safe Food Foundation in a bias way. SFF is a not for profit, campaigning and advocacy organisation that works to promote awareness surrounding our food production and consumption. It is not an organic food industry group.”
Finding: Audience & Consumer Affairs note that the ABC aims to present information to listeners clearly and concisely, using everyday language. The program briefly described the Safe Food Foundation as an organic food industry lobby group and an anti-GM lobby group in order to enable listeners to readily understand the organisation’s position. We consider this description was sufficient for these purposes and not in breach of the standards for accuracy. We note that a link was provided to the Safe Food Foundation website on the program page to enable listeners to read about the organisation and its aims in full. No breach of 2.1.
Complaint 13: “On its website, the Safe Food Foundation is billing the case as ‘David versus Goliath’, the lone organic farmer who could lose the lot, up against the might and muscle of Monsanto (who, by the way, aren’t party to the proceedings).” The Safe Food Foundation presented the case as ‘David vs Goliath’ because, even though Monsanto is not part of the proceedings, the GM canola that contaminated Steve’s farm is patented by them and Monsanto has no liability in case of contamination, putting the burden on farmers instead. Ian Walker was well aware of that (an email was sent from Rachel Dujardin on the 30th of August) but chose not to talk about it.”
Finding: Audience & Consumer Affairs note that it is accurate to say that Monsanto is not party to the proceedings, and do not consider there was any editorial requirement for the program to include the requested information. In addition, we note that the program page includes a link to the Safe Food Foundation’s “Help Steve Marsh” campaign, which at the time of writing carries the headline Help this farmer stop Monsanto’s GM canola and enables listeners to read about the campaign in detail. No breach of 2.1.
Complaint 14: “Professor James Dale is not exactly an independent researcher. He leads a $5 million Grand Challenges in Global Health Project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop biofortified bananas for East Africa (Bill Gates owns 500,000 shares of Monsanto). He also leads an initiative from the Syngenta Centre for Sugarcane Biofuels Development with the objective of developing economically competitive cellulosic ethanol using genetically modified sugarcane. Prof Dale owns 17 patents as well.”
Finding: The program disclosed that Professor James Dale is “the Director of the QUT’s Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities”, and that Professor Dale’s Banana 21 Project is “funded by the Gates Foundation and is tackling Vitamin A deficiency in some of the poorest parts of Africa by enriching a staple food—in this case, bananas for Uganda—via GM.” We are satisfied that sufficient context was provided to listeners about Professor Dale, in keeping with 2.1.
Complaint 15: “Mark Lynas – In Uganda, ‘I heard stories from MPs who have had activists going into their constituencies telling people, these are Muslim constituencies, that the scientists are putting pig genes into bananas (so these will be the bio-fortified bananas and also the bacteria-resistant ones), pig genes and therefore you can’t eat it as a Muslim, and literally people have been going crazy about this, and there’s almost been violence breaking out. So, the anti-GM activists have stooped as low as trying to cause religious violence in order to stop this technology.’ […] Could you please provide references for these very strong accusations ? There is no mention of anti-GM activists trying to cause religious violence in order to stop GM food anywhere on Internet, and it is very hard to believe anti-GM activists are better funded by the biotechnology industry.”
Finding: This was not presented as fact but rather views of a journalist based on his experience in Uganda. No breach of 2.1.
For your reference, the ABC’s editorial standards are available here: http://about.abc.net.au/
Thank you for providing our unit with the opportunity to respond to your concerns.
ABC Audience & Consumer Affairs
Photo from Tamara Staples/Stone+, ABC