BBC dismisses anti-GMO complaints over Bangladesh Bt brinjal project

The BBC has dismissed complaints by anti-GMO activists that its Panorama film 'GM Food: Cultivating Fear', broadcasted in June 2015, was biased and inaccurate. In a lengthy judgement just published (pdf), the BBC's highest complaints body, the Editorial Standards Committee (ESC) of the BBC Trust, found that all the complaints made about the programme were without merit.

Mark Lynas, an author and environmentalist who took part in the short film and made claims of the beneficial effects  of GM plants more specifically Bt brinjal, counters the complaints made by the anti-GMP activists in his blog, which is given below:  

According to the ESC report,

Two complainants contacted the BBC to complain that an edition of Panorama about the new generation of GM foods misled the audience by making a claim of success for a GM aubergine crop which is not supported by the evidence.

These complainants are not identified by the BBC Editorial Standards Committee. However the UK-based anti-GMO website GM Watch revealed back in September 2015 in an unattributed article that it had "submitted a complaint to the BBC regarding the coverage of GM Bt brinjal in Bangladesh in the BBC Panorama programme, 'GM Food: Cultivating Fear'". Apparently when the piece was written the complaint had already been rejected by the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit, so GM Watch declared that it was now "escalating our complaint to the final level, the BBC Trust". (I do not know who the second complainant was.)

The ESC's judgement means that GM Watch's complaint has been entirely rejected by every level of the BBC's editorial standards and complaints process. The judgement is worth reading in full because it provides a forensic and lengthy examination of each issue that GM Watch sought to highlight and shows how the claims of the anti-GMO activists in this case are without foundation. 

(I should state at the outset that I have an interest here: I was a contributor to the Panorama programme in the context of my work with Cornell University and USAID's 'ABSPII' project in Bangladesh, and my name appears on a number of occasions in the ESC report, as you will see below.)

Let's look at the ESC judgement point by point. The first part of the GM Watch complaint, in the ESC's words, was that:

The statement in the programme claiming a 90 per cent success rate [for the Bangladesh Bt brinjal project] was not properly sourced and was misleading.

The ESC then goes on to point out that the Bt brinjal project was indeed 90 percent successful on both possible interpretations of this point: there was no evidence – despite assertions by anti-GMO activists and a blatantly biased report on a Bangaldeshi news site – that Bt brinjal failed to combat the main insect pest, the fruit and shoot borer; and at least 90% of the fields planted with Bt brinjal in the early 2015 season were successfully harvested.

On the issue of resistance to fruit and shoot borer (FSB), Bt brinjal is close to 100% successful in fact. Having visited many sites in Bangladesh personally over two years, I personally never found a single instance of a caterpillar in a Bt brinjal plant or fruit, nor have any of the project scientists.

Though there have been claims by anti-GMO activists that they visited Bt brinjal fields and found fruit and shoot borer caterpillars (see images on this GM Watch page), there is a simple explanation for this: the activists do not know what they are looking at. All the Bt brinjal fields have non-Bt refuge brinjal crops planted around the edge, which are intended to forestall the evolution of resistance in the pest and are frequently infested with FSB. The activists are simply looking at the wrong plants. They should have asked some scientists to accompany them!

Farmer Afzal Hossain, of Bangladesh’s Rangpur district, is on his third year of successfully cultivating pesticide-free Bt brinjal. Phot taken from blog of Mark Lynas

GM Watch and other anti-GMO groups also asserted that a large number of Bt brinjal crops had failed. In the damning ESC judgement, Panorama's producers make clear that they visited several of the fields of farmers supposedly experiencing failure of the crop and found that the allegations of widespread crop failure were baseless.

The ESC also quotes Dr Frank Shotkoski, then ABSPII project director for Cornell University, as stating that "Of the 108 farmers [growing Bt brinjal that season], more than 94% produced crops that performed very well." Separately, the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, the government agency which actually runs the project on the ground, had said that "a total of 12 farmers' plots out of 108 participating in the trial were affected in different degrees by bacterial wilt and other insect and pest [not FSB]." This hardly constitutes a high degree of failure, and the incidence of bacterial wilt is clearly explained by poor weather and irrigation practices.

The ESC also rejected GM Watch's assertion that the BBC Panorama producers had (in the ESC's words) "visited farms and interviewed farmers where the crop had failed but did not include the interviews in the programme". Here's the actual response from the Panorama producer:

We were aware of the reports of crop failure and went to some trouble to check them out before and after filming. On the ground we could find no evidence to support these accounts. In some cases they were contradicted on visiting trial sites. As a result they were not mentioned in the programme.

Ouch! There's much more detail in the ESC report, which I encourage you to read in full. I'm summarising here, so don't take it from me!

It's important also to note that in its complaint GM Watch did not seek to contradict the finding – repeated by Panorama – that applications of potentially toxic pesticides have been dramatically reduced by the cultivation of Bt brinjal. So let's be clear – anti-GMO activists must know and accept that Bt brinjal reduces insecticides by 80-90% or more, yet they continue to oppose it for ideological reasons despite these clear health, environmental and farmer livelihood benefits demonstrated in Bangladesh. In this case anti-GMO really does equal pro-pesticide.

GM Watch also alleged that Panorama had failed to reflect safety concerns about Bt brinjal. (Anti-GMO activists bizarrely insist that pesticide-saturated and insect-infested conventional brinjal is preferable to that produced using the scary technology of molecular genetic modification.) In response the ESC report transcribes the squirming attempts of Greenpeace's science director to sustain fears about GMO health impacts – which he clearly does not personally believe, and therefore shifts the goalposts to 'contamination'.

The ESC report also makes it clear that GM Watch claimed that Bt brinjal was toxic:

The Committee noted the complainant's assertion that the industry's own studies revealed "toxic effects in rats that ate it". It noted this was a reference to data gathered by Mahyco, the Indian seed company who developed the GM brinjal seed, and that in 2011 a scientist in New Zealand said she had reanalysed Mahyco's data and that it revealed organ damage in rats which were fed Bt brinjal. The Committee noted that the Adviser was not aware of any evidence that the scientist's paper had been peer reviewed or that it had been published in a recognised scientific journal.

Ouch again! (my emphasis). More evidence of activists quoting fringe material unearthed from the internet as opposed to that published in peer-reviewed journals. The ESC also says:

The Committee noted the point related to the claim made in the programme by Mark Lynas that there was "nothing that scary" about the Bt brinjal; genetic modification was "just a way of protecting a crop against an insect".

Well, quite. I couldn't have said it better myself…

Yet another aspect of the complaint from GM Watch was that Dr Frank Shotkoski of Cornell University had conflicts of interest which were not disclosed. This was again rejected by the ESC report, which noted that Dr Shotkoski was not even interviewed in the Panorama programme – clearly by this point GM Watch was grasping at straws to complain about, having failed to find anything more substantial.

Finally, the ESC report relates the GM Watch complaint that

The programme failed to inform the audience of the relationship between USAID, ABSP and Monsanto.

Did you hear that? MONSANTO. I said MONSANTO!!! This is of course the trump card for all anti-GMO activists, to be played when all else fails – that hidden behind any scientifically literate defence of genetic modification lies a nefarious conspiracy led by Monsanto. That's MONSANTO by the way, in case you missed it first time around.

Well, it's true that Bt brinjal deploys Monsanto insect-protection technology. But it was DONATED – did you hear that? DONATED I said, with no royalties payable by Bangladeshi farmers, who are encouraged to save their seeds for subsequent cropping cycles.

The ESC noted:

The programme confronted head on the project's associations with Monsanto. We put questions about links with Monsanto to Mark Lynas and to the Bangladesh agriculture minister. We questioned Monsanto directly about their associations with the project while researching the programme.

The upshot?

The Committee concluded that the programme had achieved due accuracy and due impartiality in the way it reflected the role of Monsanto. In accurately stating Monsanto's direct interest and in reflecting the reporter's professional judgement that the exercise could sway the public argument over GM, Panorama gave the audience sufficient information to reach an informed view on the issue.

And so, GM Watch's final allegation was summarily dismissed as also without merit, and the BBC Trust ESC report ends.

In conclusion, I'm actually quite glad that GM Watch made the complaint about Panorama and pushed its view right to the end of the road at the BBC Trust. Because of this, an independent assessment was made of the way Panorama portrayed the Bt brinjal project. It is clear to me in reading the ESC report that it was not Panorama that exhibited bias on the GMO issue – it is GM Watch, a fringe group that remains implacably and ideologically opposed to a pesticide-reducing crop demonstrably improving the livelihoods of small farmers in Bangladesh. Shame on GM Watch, and good for the BBC for daring to present an honest and factually-accurate account of the GMO issue despite predictable howls of protest from the anti-science crowd.



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