BBC Horizon replies on GM programme

Andrew Cohen, editor of Horizon, has replied to the letter from Richard Sanders of the Organic Research Centre at Elm Farm. (Original letter below.)

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Dear Richard,
Thank you for your e-mail regarding the Horizon episode Jimmy’s GM Food Fight. Horizon has a strong track record of making accurate and credible science documentaries which are rigorously researched. We take any allegations against Horizon very seriously and we refute claims that the programme doesn’t deliver a balanced view.

We appreciate that there are passionate and deep held views on both sides of the GM debate. It may not surprise you to hear that there have also been complaints that the programme swayed towards the anti-arguments.

Given the programme’s conclusions that the GM crops “currently on the market aren’t going to save the world, they’re good for farmers and good for profits, but while there are lingering doubts about the safety we should proceed carefully” and that any real benefits of GM may be “10, 15, 20 years in the future” it’s difficult to see how you can interpret the programme as being unbalanced in favour of GM foods.

Horizon is a science strand and the aim of this programme is to present a balanced view of the current status of GM technology from a scientific point of view and to encourage and broaden the debate on this matter. We believe the programme realised these aims and we stand by it. There may be associated but separate issues with the business model of the agricultural system, but they do not fall within the remit of a programme about the science of GM.

Andrew Cohen
BBC Horizon

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Andrew Cohen
The Editor
BBC Horizon

November 28th 2008


Dear Andrew
I was delighted to learn earlier this month that Horizon was to tackle one of the big science issues of our age, the debate for and against GM crops.

Imagine my disappointment then on transmission (Tuesday November 25th) when what had been heralded as quality analysis from the BBC Science Unit turned out to be PR (albeit subtle PR) promotion of how GM crops will “save the world”.

In this instance the Horizon team has produced a programme heavily biased to one point of view. Are you intending to produce a second programme looking at alternative, properly sustainable, agro-ecological solutions? Global food security is a complex scientific, socio-economic, political and cultural issue. Your programme has failed to do justice to this complexity because of the apparent editorial decision to focus on GM crop science as some sort of magical “techno-fix”.

I list below just some of the areas where your programme has veered from the path of high quality analysis that is expected from the BBC:

  1. Failure to look at alternative solutions to tackling food security and environmental problems in clearly set out in the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) published in 2008
  2. Incorrect claims that GM herbicide tolerant crops have reduced pesticide usage ignore research to the contrary due to the development of weed resistance to herbicides.
  3. Incorrect claims that gene transfer between crops and wild plants were hypothetical when they have already been shown in the field in the UK, Mexico and Canada.
  4. Failure to examine fully the environmental, social and economic impacts of GM soya production in Argentina and elsewhere in South America.
  5. Omission of any mention of the use of patents to control global seed markets by the biotech corporations and the impact on farmers’ rights to save seed and on agricultural biodiversity.

The GM crop industry is famed for its ability to hype its research and its GM products. So far all that’s been delivered by Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF and the rest is promise after promise of a technology that will feed a hungry world. GM crops merely reinforce the world’s current model of an oil-based, energy intensive agriculture and do nothing to provide long-term sustainability.

I look forward to your reply and to another programme soon from the Horizon team that properly explores these complex issues.

Yours sincerely

Richard Sanders
The Organic Research Centre – Elm Farm



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2 Responses to “BBC Horizon replies on GM programme”

  1. GM bias on BBC? « the natureheads blog Says:

    […] However, he does not seem to answer any of the specific criticisms from the ORC on factual error, the debate limitations, or journalistic weaknesses.  Read more… […]

  2. mark allen Says:

    I watched the Horizon GM program and I have to say that it was not as one sided as has been made out to be. However the subject of GMO technology will always be contentious.
    For every story and science journal paper released stating that cross pollination is possible, or that weeds are growing ressistant to herbicide, or that GMO plants are dangerous to health there is a always an equal counter-argument.
    Like most technological developments, my issue is not with the pure science but the financial mechanisms in place. We constantly hear how GMO technology will feed the world but then why have GMO technology companies installed GURTs, or terminator seeds, in their GMO seeds? This all comes down to agro-business not some humanitarian mission to feed the world. An easy way to keep people from starving is allow them to grow crops they can eat rather than enticing them into growing cash crops for the west.
    GURT,Genetic use restriction technology, in my opinion, is actually the scariest part of GMO technology. Included into the genetic make-up of the plant is the instruction to be infertile after one year, or one harvest. Horror stories are abound in GMO technology and I can see many a scientist raising their eyebrows at these words, but what does happen if cross pollination occurs. What does happen if this particular trait spreads? How ever small the potential for harm for the greater environment, this should make us think twice before using this technology. The propagnada machine has been used by both camps and it is almost impossible to see through the chaff.
    I have no doubt that GMO technology will be used more and more in the future. The simple question is; is there actually a need for the technology, maybe the way we live our lives and economical systems are the real cause of starvation, war, greed suffering etc. GMO is no miracle cure just another technological fix to create profits. Reduce our relience on profits and perpetual growth economical models and I suspect many people will be happier and have fuller bellies.

    Mark Allen

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