Earth Matters: GMOs, Mass Media & Social Networking

Earth Matters: GMOs, Mass Media & Social Networking

images-1Editor’s Note: On January 4, the New York Times published a major story about a bill to ban genetically engineered crops on the island of Hawaii. I asked scientist Billy Mason to comment. His response is below.

In the past, the top-down distribution of news in the U.S. has been vulnerable to mass media’s cherry picking the information they shared in order to meet the needs of specific ideologies. Fortunately, the rise of the Internet and subsequent popularity of social networking sites have radically changed the landscape of news distribution and information sharing. In the 21st century, the world’s library of peer-reviewed scientific knowledge rests at the fingertips of Internet users.

Today, the primary news outlets for 84% of the people in the age group 48 and under are social networking sites on the Internet. Consequently, claims made by traditional top-down mass media sources are now being rapidly challenged and debated before they can stimulate a shift in social behavior. As a result, Internet users on social networking websites are facilitating a community of truth derived from a vast array of shared information and discussions.

This progressive adaptation (evolution) of knowledge sharing was recently illuminated when Amy Harmon penned “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops” for the New York Times. In response to her claims that the global scientific consensus believes “existing genetically engineered crops are no riskier than others” and that the anti-GMO movement is driven by public emotions rather than legitimate concerns, a global plethora of fact-checking Internet users on social networking sites quickly pointed out that Harmon’s curtain of pro-GMO statements ignored a multitude of hidden truths.

Specifically, Harmon conveniently ignored the negative economic, social, and environmental externalities associated with producing GMO crops. Externalities are defined as a side effect or consequence of an industrial or commercial activity that affects other parties without accountability. Recent survey results conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture (UDSA) indicate that the economic opportunities of small-scale farmers have been inhibited by the additional GMO production costs as a result of corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta consolidating intellectual property of GMO technologies and seeds.

In addition, Douglas Fox, a professor of sustainable agriculture at Unity College, has concluded that “genetically modified corn violates so many sustainability boundaries” by “destroying habitats, depleting soils, breaking nutrient cycles, polluting air and water, contaminating native maize varieties.” 

Similarly, GMO soybean seeds made by Dow AgroSciences have been genetically engineered to allow farmers to spray higher concentrations of herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup or DuPont’s Enlist to kill weeds and insects. Although pro-GMO media coverage touts the potential for an increase of crop production to justify the use of GMO seeds, they turn a blind eye to the negative impacts to human health and the environment due to the high concentrations of toxic chemicals being emitted into the atmosphere, soil, and water sources. Nor do they bother to mention that weeds and insects are adapting to these harmful herbicides and pesticides and becoming resistant, which means that the concentrations and/or toxicity of the herbicides and pesticides has to be increased in order to be effective. The result of this can be seen in new generations of GM seeds like GM 2,4-D corn, which is resistant to the highly toxic herbicide 2,4-D (an ingredient of Agent Orange), that is up for approval by the USDA.

On the bright side, the progressive trend of news distribution and knowledge sharing via social networking websites has shown success in debunking the barrage of pro-GMO myths spread by Monsanto, DuPont, Nestle, PepsiCo, and others, as evidenced by the ever-growing number of nations that have banned GMOs, the recent push in the U.S. to mandate GMO labeling, and local level regulation like Kauai’s ban on GMOs and pesticides. However, the dark lining that remains hidden is the internet’s perceived unlimited gateway to information, as evidenced by publishers’ restrictive pay walls and the recent push by corporate Internet providers to abolish net neutrality in order to profit from content access, which fosters social inequality.


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