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June 06, 2008

The media is right – biotech is good for you

by Daniela Kamanga*

I was appalled by John Mbaria’s article, “How Africa’s media is pushing GM crops” (The EastAfrican, May 26-June 1). The article in question singles out the media as possible culprits in spreading the gospel of biotechnology.

As a former journalist and editor, I’m aware of the many shortcomings of the media. I’ll be the first to admit that the media, being part of society, is not perfect. If society is struggling with the issue of corruption, you can bet that the menace exists within the media. An obvious example is the way in which Kenya’s politics are replicated in our media (and dare I say churches, schools and sports!)

Mbaria’s frustration is that African countries — and the media — are “coaxed and coerced... to extol (the GM) technology as the panacea for the continent’s hunger and low agricultural productivity.” He laments that “almost all reports on the GMO initiatives either explicitly endorse them or end up reproducing without comment, the glowing positive picture painted by the GMO proponents.”

In his New York Times bestseller, Food Inc: Mendel to Monsanto – The Promises and Perils of Biotech Harvest, Peter Pringle captures the media’s challenge of covering the highly polarised debate. He laments that “too often... the public seems to be ill served by specialist interest groups who have sought to promote their products or press their rigid opinions rather than seek the wider interest of humanity.” His entire book is an attempt at finding the elusive “middle ground.”

Journalists who find this “middle ground” write excellent articles on the controversial subject of biotechnology. In his article titled, “Are we ready to risk smaller brains, livers and testicles?” (The EastAfrican, May 26-June 1), Mbaria uncritically quotes a globally discredited study published eight – yes, eight years ago. How then can he lament that there is lack of critical analysis of GMO issues in our media?

Kenyan journalists are accurately reflecting the situation in the marketplace of biotech ideas.
Nobody is coaxing or coercing journalists to write positive articles about biotechnology.
What is actually happening is that a new cadre of journalists — realising that the anti-science brigade is all hype and no substance — are beginning to seriously (and critically) cover the area of biotechnology. They recognise that biotechnology is not a panacea for all our agricultural challenges.

I agree with Pringle when he says that pushed too quickly down our throats, biotechnology could have serious downsides; we need to have trained African scientists who will take care of our national interests and agendas, proper regulations and a private sector that can help in the creation of a vibrant science sub-sector. I also agree with Pringle that biotech isn’t everything evil as the anti-GM activists would like us to believe.

I do not expect "blind support,” especially from African journalists. I appreciate journalists who ask more questions than anybody else. Journalists who will dig deep, raising issues that even the scientists may not have thought about.

Fortunately, Kenya has that calibre of journalists. In fact, most of them know the face of hunger. They are therefore as determined as the scientists are to seek to solutions to the problems our society faces. However, they are unrelenting in ensuring that the solutions to our problems are founded on solid ground.

Blind support of biotechnology is a disservice to society. I also do not expect African journalists to swallow hook, line and sinker the anti-GM assertion that biotech has nothing beneficial. Journalists should not oppose just to oppose; even where they are sceptical, they should be willing to change their minds as new knowledge is assimilated.

After all, if biotechnology — or any other technology for that matter — is as great as it claims to be, those for whom it is intended will disaggregate its usefulness. Bill Gates says “humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries — but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity.”

If biotechnology does not serve humanity, it will join the garbage dump of irrelevant technologies the world has produced. However, if the past decade is anything to go by, society has benefited — and continues to benefit — from biotechnology.

*Daniel Kamanga is a former associate editor at the Nation Media Group and has worked in South Africa’s financial services and telecommunication sectors. He is currently the communications director of Africa Harvest — a not-for-profit organisation engaged in promoting biotechnology

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