The study examines, among other things, how the landscape of reportage around genetically modified crops has changed and why.

Features Thursday, July 10, 2014 - 05:30
By Aritra Bhattacharya Big media, without doubt, sits on the side of growth. But does that mean it backs genetically-modified (GM) crops? The answer today, on the basis of an analysis of reports and editorials published in major English newspapers of the country, would seem to be ‘yes’. If you’re asking what’s wrong with that, you only need to consider how the GM industry in Britain worked with the country’s civil servants on a media strategy to win over consumers sceptical about GM food. The two joined hands as part of a of strategy to relax regulations on the controversial crops and civil servants were seen asking lobbyists for 'eye-catching' ways to plug GM crops. This effectively means media coverage around GM crops was not objective, or independent, but was designed to—to borrow a term made famous by Noam Chomsky—manufacture consent. One cannot, of course, say the same about nexus between civil servants and GM lobbyists in India, since documents to prove it do not exist in the public domain as yet. But apparent to the critical eye is the attempt to manufacture consent: to discredit all opposition to GM, to place genetic modification and the pursuance of it at the pinnacle of ‘good science’ and to tailor coverage on agriculture around specific ‘eye-catching’ phrases.  The above is achieved through a variety of measures, and this study, in part is an attempt to unravel that. It also examines, among other things, how the landscape of reportage around genetically modified crops has changed and why. What’s all the fuss about? Genetically modified crops refer to plants used in agriculture whose DNA has been modified using genetic engineering. Through genetic modification, a trait that does not occur in the plant naturally is introduced. Genetic modification could be undertaken for a number of reasons: for instance, it could be resorted to for introducing a ‘poison’ in the plant such that pests don’t attack it; or it could be undertaken to introduce a drought-resistant gene, ensuring the crop survives in scanty rainfall conditions. Proponents of GM crops—scientists and transnational corporations—say they improve productivity and cut down on pesticide use, but critics advise caution, pointing to ill-effects of GM crops on the health and environment over a short term and the reluctance of corporations to fund long-term impact analysis.  As is expected, the debate over genetically modified crops is messy. On one side are biotechnology giants like Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences and BASF, along with various other public and private companies and research institutions, and scientists connected with them; on the other side are activists and farmers’ organisations, along with some NGOs. Trading of charges, accusing the other of jeopardising agriculture are routine, and some of this messiness gets reflected in reportage around the issue. A lot, however, goes unreported—at least as far as the narrative on the side of those opposed to GM crops is concerned.  This series examines the issues connected with reporting/writing on genetically modified crops, and connected with it, the corporatisation of agriculture. Stories/ editorials on the issue of GM crops published between 2 September 2013 and 20 February 2014 in major English newspapers in the country constitutes the sample for this study. The sample is not comprehensive; I may have missed out some stories published during the period, but that I believe isn’t so much of a drawback, since the core issues the sample at my disposal has raised would remain the same. So would, largely, the findings of the study. A couple of things need to be kept in mind as regards reportage on GM crops in the said period. The National Food Security Act was signed into a law on 12 September 2013; Jayanthi Natarajan ‘resigned’ as environment minister on 21 December, and Veerappa Moily took charge of the portfolio thereafter; lobby group International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) released a report on the global status of biotech crops on 13 February 2014. These three ‘events’ provided fresh basis for reporting on the issue of GM crops—the food security act is tied to greater grain production, a plank biotech companies use to sell their products; Moily replaced Natarajan as the latter was seen opposing GM crops, and was refusing to file a joint affidavit along with the agriculture ministry in the Supreme Court backing field trials of GM crops; the ISAAA reported that total acerage under GM crops had gone up, and more than ever before, farmers were growing GM crops. The first part of the series looks at the numbers—how many stories were published and which side did they sit on; it looks at efforts at sensitisation of media professionals and the culture of freebies, questioning whether such drives ‘equip’ journalists with an approach towards reporting on GM crops and allied issues. The second part looks at the communication architecture within which such workshops and seminar are organised; the level of penetration of pro- and anti-GM forces within the media-scape and the language of reporting on biotechnology in agriculture. Attention is paid to networks that exist to promote as well as oppose the adoption of biotechnology in agriculture, and the issues therein. The third part looks at some of the media reports that constituted the sample for this study, to uncover biases within them; journalists reporting on the issue report along established lines, thus ensuring that coverage remains biased since the terms of reference themselves are biased—what can be achieved within this framework at most is a certain kind of tokenism, where voices of those critical of GM crops are given representation. The big change Among the 40 articles that constituted the sample, five articles were devoted to looking at the claims of biotech corporations critically. These five articles included stories on statements by activists and lawmakers saying GM crops are not a solution to concerns about food security (see here and here); an opinion piece arguing for a pause on field trials of GM crops; a 3-part story looking at the claims of biotech companies; and a story critical of achievements of the green revolution, which biotech corporations use regularly to push for entry into the Indian market. The other 35 articles were all in favour of GM. This included three edits—one in the Times of India (TOI) and two in the Indian Express (see this and this). Most of these reports were based on some scientist or scientists’ body or minister pushing for opening the market for GM crops and allowing field trials of the same; Jayanthi Natarajan’s predecessor in the environment ministry Jairam Ramesh had imposed an indefinite moratorium on field trials on GM crops after a series of public consultations across the country when the industry was pushing for introduction of GM brinjal. Some of these news reports, quoting ‘experts’ and ‘scientists’, did include a quote or two from activists or organisations opposed to GM crops, but these quotes were more like token inclusion, used to create a veneer of objectivity. The overall tenor in such stories, as well as the last word, was reserved for pushing for GM.  Reports and opinion pieces that were positive as regards GM crops appeared in TOI, Indian Express, The New Indian Express, Hindustan Times, Deccan Herald, Open, The Hindu, Hindu Business Line, Businessweek, Mint, Economic Times and Business Standard,—in other words, across most national level English news outlets. This is quite a change from just about a year ago, when ISAAA, an international body that pushes for biotechnology in agriculture and has a presence in most countries, stated that certain sections of the media in India were hostile to GM crops. In its Communicating Crop Biotechnology: Experiences from the Field, on page 14, under “some factors favouring/hindering biotechnology development” in India, it mentioned the following: “Intensity of anti-biotech groups, Anti-biotech media coverage”. Under “Communication challenges”, it noted: “Influence of activists and media coverage on government decisions”. Behind the scenes I posed the question regarding whether this change in the media’s stance was true and what accounted for it to Bhagirath Choudhary, ISAAA Director for Strategic Initiatives and Director of ISAAA South Asia Office based in New Delhi. This is what he had to say in an email interview: “Over the period of time, we have found that the Indian media is becoming averse to activists tactics. Media understands the complexities of agriculture and plight of the farmers. They do comprehend the need and usefulness of new technologies and have been reporting the impact of Bt cotton over a long period of twelve years in the country.” There are a range of things that the ISAAA and other organisations have done to bring about this change. Mentioning these efforts, Choudhary says: “There have been numerous programmes that allowed media professionals to understand and learn technological strength, familiarize and expose them to the R&D and laboratory environments, expose them to field realities and organise travel to farm shows around the world. The most successful program was to organise in-house familiarization cum training program called media workshop at various places throughout the country.” When quizzed about the details of such ‘programmes’ aimed at ‘sensitising’ media persons, he responded saying: “Around 25-30 journalists reporting on agriculture/S&T/economy participated two-day media workshops organised by ISAAA in collaboration with IARI, ICRISAT, Karnataka Media Academy, Indian Society for Cotton Improvement, Chandigarh press club etc. Media Professionals were made to understand risk/benefits of GM crops; hand on training to isolated DNA, exposure to green house facilities and organise field visits.” In addition to this, the ministry of agriculture organised media awareness program in each cotton growing state organized by Biotech Consortium of India Limited.  Association of Biotech Led Enterprises – Agricultural Group (ABLE-AG), a biotech industry association in India, also conducted its own media colloquium in different states. I wrote to the executive director, ABLE-AG, Dr Nadoor Seetharama, asking for details of workshops conducted for media persons from September 2013 to mid-March 2014. He responded saying in many of the workshops organised by ABLE-AG, farmers, students and media persons are brought together; most of these workshops are conducted jointly with other “like-mined organisations such as CII, FICCI and universities”.  There are about 12 workshops organised every year, he said. Giving details of workshops since September 2013, he wrote:  Awareness workshops:  total of 4 in Gujrat, jointly with Gujrat Agricultural universities, only with Gujrat State biotechnology Mission (GoG – cost sharing basis) 4 events in Karnataka: Multi-stakeholder discussions with farmers, experts, scientists, NGO leaders, and the media personnel: a total of, 3 with University of Agri Sciences at Bangalore, and 1 with JSS Foundation, Mysore. 1 awareness workshop at Indore (Rajmata Agri University campus) 2 press meets –at Chandigarh, and at Bangalore  Guest lectures arranged Seminar by 2013 World food prize winner in Feb 2013 –Prof Marc Montagu of Belgium at ICGEB, and NOBGR (ICAR) Most of the workshops organised by ABLE-AG have been in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. The venues of the workshops were “somewhat biased towards Bt cotton growing states, but this will change”. The ISAAA, in its workshops, invited journalists from Delhi, Rajasthan, UP, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Maharashtra and Gujarat. The group also facilitated media professionals’ trips to USA, the Philippines and China to study the impact of Gm crops. ABLE-AG, on the other hand sponsored two journalists for a trip to the Philippines in 2013, along with a host of farmers, to study the positive impact of GM crops. Such “freebies” on the part of lobby groups and companies give rise to “paid news” by another name, and dictate largely the manner in which they report on GM crops and related issues. The above efforts, however, start making sense only when one examines the way they form part of the communication architecture adopted by those seeking to promote genetically modified crops. This aspect will be explored in the next part of the series. Read the next two parts in this series- The Language Game: Does the GM lobby control media coverage on agriculture? Internal bias, external push: Does the GM lobby control media coverage on agriculture? The writer is a journalist and a PhD candidate at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC). He can be reached at The opinions expressed in this articles are the personal opinions of the author. The News Minute is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability or validity of any information in this article. The information, facts or opinions appearing in this article do not reflect the views of The News Minute and The News Minute does not assume any liability on the same.

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