GMO crops and journalistic balance

The complainant, Elisabeth Clark, focused on a passing reference to crop yields from GMO seed in an interview about the reasons for the Chinese takeover of a large seed and pesticide company. She thought the commentator was wrong and the statement had to be corrected. The truth is not so simple. The statement was appropriate and GMO was not the topic under discussion.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about a reference to the yield of GMO crops made by a regular contributor to the CBC News Network program, The Exchange. You said you heard Ian Lee state that “GMO crops produce higher yields.” You said this statement was false and that it was unethical to allow his assertions to go unchallenged about an issue as important as the global food supply:

If Prof. Lee followed the growing body of “independent research” on genetically engineered crops he would know the opposite is true. Monsanto and Syngenta (ironically acquired by China) and their subsidized researchers have the attention of media and gov’ts and continue to cite studies riddled by conflict of interest with claims that do not hold up in field testing.

You thought that Mr. Lee’s statement was “deliberately misleading” and cited other studies that conclude the opposite is true:

The definitive study to date on GM crops and yield is “Failure to Yield”, by Dr Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and former biotech adviser to the US EPA. The study concluded, “Commercial GE crops have made no inroads so far into raising the intrinsic or potential yield of any crop. By contrast, traditional breeding has been spectacularly successful in this regard; it can be solely credited with the intrinsic yield increases in the United States and other parts of the world that characterized the agriculture of the twentieth century.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The executive producer of The Exchange, Robert Lack, replied to your concerns. He told you that segment focused on a news story that China National Chemical Corporation, a state-owned enterprise, had announced a deal to buy Syngenta, a Swiss-based fertilizer and seed company. He pointed out that Mr. Lee, the commentator, made only one reference to GMOs in a piece that focused on China’s concerns about food security for its citizens:

Here is what Mr. Lee said: “Remember - this company (Syngenta) is at the forefront of GMO - genetically modified foods - to drive up the yields of the food that China needs”.

In other words, Mr. Lee said that ChemChina is buying Syngenta and its GMO expertise because it hopes to drive up the yields on crops in China.

He disputed your claim that the statement was misleading, and added that Syngenta’s own website lists its desire to grow more crops using fewer resources.

You responded to Mr. Lack with two concerns. First, you said that the quote he attributed to Mr. Lee was “consistent with our recollection,” but that you also recalled “a throwaway comment” that Mr. Lack did not reference in his explanation. You wondered what a transcript would reveal because “we recall Prof. Lee remarking (a paraphrase) ‘GMO crops produce higher yields.’

In addition, you rejected a defense of the position by citing the corporation’s own website, as you say independent research contradicts the statement, and your concern was that there was no reference to that research or the evidence you cite to show that GMO does not necessarily lead to higher yields.

REVIEW

CBC News standards call for accuracy in reporting, and state that “in the case of comments made by a person expressing an honest opinion, we ensure that the opinion is grounded in facts bearing on a matter of public interest.”

Your complaint states that Mr. Lee said “GMO crops produce higher yields,” which you acknowledge is a paraphrase. I have listened to the entire interview and that is not what he said.

There was only one reference to GMO foods in an interview that was actually about the reasons behind the purchase of a feed and pesticide company by a state-owned Chinese corporation. The context matters here. The purchase was newsworthy, because as the introduction to the discussion said, the Chinese company, Chemchina, had bid 60 billion dollars for Syngenta, a Swiss company. This would be the “biggest foreign takeover in history.”

The context of the interview was why China would do that. In setting up the brief discussion, Mr. Armstrong told the audience:

The move will give China access to seeds and fertilizer that would improve food security for a nation struggling with outdated farming methods and polluted soil.

He then asked Mr. Lee if the motivation behind this bid was “about food security.” Mr. Lee talked about the growing need for food and energy in China, and the concern that the country be better able to feed itself. He emphasized the pressure to deliver and said that this proposed purchase was part of an “unfolding strategy of the Chinese leadership to modernize agriculture and deliver more food to its population.”

Mr. Armstrong raised the issue of the very low rate of efficiency of Chinese farmland. It is in that context that the single reference to crop yields was made. This was the discussion:

Peter Armstrong: I was saying to someone earlier – everybody else probably knows this already – but I was shocked to read 10% of Chinese farmland is deemed to be efficient. That’s a remarkable stat.

Ian Lee: It is and I have been teaching there since 1997 and you see it. In fact, I have taught in a lot of centrally planned economies or economies in transition and what is remarkable is the extraordinary inefficiency of agriculture. Look at Russia. Look at Ukraine. Look at China. And there are huge opportunities there, of course, for countries like Canada that have an extremely efficient agricultural economy. But when you consider there are so many people and they are getting so little value added, such a low return from their agricultural sector, and so many people to feed, it is no wonder that they did this deal today. Remember this company is at the forefront of GMO, of genetically modified food to drive up the yields of the food that China needs.

The bolded comment is the sum total of the reference to GMO. It is a passing reference, and in this context is hardly definitive. It could be read to say that Chinese officials have an expectation that GMO varieties will increase crop yield. Mr. Lee may also believe that to be true, but he made the comment in the context of China’s quest for more productive agriculture. In fact, one of the studies you pointed to, entitled “Failure to Yield,” concludes that it “does not rule out the possibility of genetic engineering eventually contributing to crop yield.” The Chinese government appears to believe that a large investment is worth it.

Getting to the detail about whether that belief is well placed is beyond the focus or scope of the segment. As you point out, Mr. Lee is a generalist, and would not have detailed knowledge of the current literature, nor of the controversy about the claims made about the issue. If this had been a discussion about GMO, or GMO and crop yields, then the producers of The Exchange would have had an obligation to ensure the people asked to speak about it had extensive knowledge, and that their views and assertions would be challenged if there was more than one view. This comment was made in the broader discussion about China’s need to increase its productivity. This is not a definitive assertion of the efficacy of GMO crops and their yield potential.

In this case, this passing comment, in the context of the desire of Chinese policy makers to find a solution to their food needs, was not in violation of CBC journalistic policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman