Biotechnology misinformation flooding media has scientists worried
Thursday May 18 2023
The rise in misinformation on science, technology and innovations is a concern for the scientific community as it has “negative effects” on research and biotechnology, the researchers have said.
Misinformation creates fear, hinders the uptake of safe scientifically researched technology and poses a challenge in reporting, said Dr Sheila Ochugboju, the executive director of Alliance for Science.
“The truth matters,” she said.
She was speaking on Wednesday in Nairobi during a media breakfast meeting between the advocacy organisation and the Kenya Editors Guild. The Alliance for Science advocates for science-based solutions to reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint, mitigating the climate crisis, reducing poverty, and improving food security and nutrition.
In Kenya, misleading information on genetically modified (GM) foods and seeds has resulted in heated debates, especially after the government lifted a 10-year ban on open cultivation of GM crops in October last year.
“If you say ‘I don’t want GMO foods,’ it should be because you have a preference and not because you think it causes cancer. You are allowed to make a choice, [and] if you have the information, then you can make a choice based on evidence rather than misinformation,” she stated.
The “GMO discussion is based on fear instead of being based on facts,” veteran editor Emmanuel Juma said, as scribes concurred that it has led to misreporting in some cases.
Storm of misinformation
Research shows a significant number of GMO stories fail to tell the science behind the research of biotech products, Dr Ochugboju noted, adding that a recent report revealed a concerning rise in misinformation in media reporting on science and biotechnology.
“More than 40 percent (of media articles) contained misinformation on GMOs,” she said.
The report by Alliance for Science released in February this year, titled GMO Misinformation in the Kenya Media, shows that of 376 articles surveyed between October 2022 and January 2023, 40 percent of them carried unchallenged misinformation.
The “high rates of misinformation (in Kenya) are perhaps among the worst in the world, and will make it very difficult for Kenyan citizens and policymakers to make informed decisions about GMOs in the face of such a storm of misinformation,” the report says.
Read: EA region abandons pro-GMO arena
“In order for the country to have a productive debate on the contribution GMOs can make to food and nutrition security, media will need to make a special effort not to repeat quotes, even from prominent people, which contain misinformation without rebuttal. Scientists will need to become better communicators, and media will need to devote space to authoritative scientific voices on this controversial topic.”
To tackle misinformation in media, journalists were urged to dig deeper to find relevant and accurate information through collaborations.
“Let us stop depending on others to tell us what we can find out for ourselves,” Michael Onyango, the head of partnerships at Alliance for Science, said on Wednesday, adding that the organisation is willing to partner with the media for access to research.
“We want to ensure that science is understood and (the language is) not heavy… [such] that people cannot engage with.”
Further, scientists called on the media to differentiate between biotechnology research for the common good and for-profit products.
“Let’s separate the products from the science,” Dr Ochugboju said.
“We are engaging stakeholders to have an enabling environment for the conversation (on biotechnology). And let’s be clear, it’s not to push a product.”
Read: AU urges gene editing for food security
Journalists were also challenged to “hold scientists to account” and push for the development of affordable solutions to infestations and sustainable climate-smart agriculture.
“And ask our governments to make sure that that happens,” Dr Ochugboju said.