BBC dismisses anti-GMO activist complaints over Panorama film’s portrayal of Bangladesh Bt brinjal project

The BBC has dismissed complaints by anti-GMO activists that its Panorama film ‘GM Food: Cultivating Fear‘ (non-UK viewers can watch it here or here), broadcast in June 2015, was biased and inaccurate. In a lengthy judgement just published (pdf), the BBC’s highest complaints body, the Editorial Standards Committee (ESC) of the BBC Trust, found that all the complaints made about the programme were without merit.

According to the ESC report,

Two complainants contacted the BBC to complain that an edition of Panorama about the new generation of GM foods misled the audience by making a claim of success for a GM aubergine crop which is not supported by the evidence.

These complainants are not identified by the BBC Editorial Standards Committee. However the UK-based anti-GMO website GM Watch revealed back in September 2015 in an unattributed article that it had “submitted a complaint to the BBC regarding the coverage of GM Bt brinjal in Bangladesh in the BBC Panorama programme, ‘GM Food: Cultivating Fear'”. Apparently when the piece was written the complaint had already been rejected by the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit, so GM Watch declared that it was now “escalating our complaint to the final level, the BBC Trust”. (I do not know who the second complainant was.)

The ESC’s judgement means that GM Watch’s complaint has been entirely rejected by every level of the BBC’s editorial standards and complaints process. The judgement is worth reading in full because it provides a forensic and lengthy examination of each issue that GM Watch sought to highlight and shows how the claims of the anti-GMO activists in this case are without foundation. 

(I should state at the outset that I have an interest here: I was a contributor to the Panorama programme in the context of my work with Cornell University and USAID’s ‘ABSPII’ project in Bangladesh, and my name appears on a number of occasions in the ESC report, as you will see below.)

Let’s look at the ESC judgement point by point. The first part of the GM Watch complaint, in the ESC’s words, was that:

The statement in the programme claiming a 90 per cent success rate [for the Bangladesh Bt brinjal project] was not properly sourced and was misleading.

The ESC then goes on to point out that the Bt brinjal project was indeed 90 percent successful on both possible interpretations of this point: there was no evidence – despite assertions by anti-GMO activists and a blatantly biased report on a Bangaldeshi news site – that Bt brinjal failed to combat the main insect pest, the fruit and shoot borer; and at least 90% of the fields planted with Bt brinjal in the early 2015 season were successfully harvested.

On the issue of resistance to fruit and shoot borer (FSB), Bt brinjal is close to 100% successful in fact. Having visited many sites in Bangladesh personally over two years, I personally never found a single instance of a caterpillar in a Bt brinjal plant or fruit, nor have any of the project scientists. Though there have been claims by anti-GMO activists that they visited Bt brinjal fields and found fruit and shoot borer caterpillars (see images on this GM Watch page), there is a simple explanation for this: the activists do not know what they are looking at. All the Bt brinjal fields have non-Bt refuge brinjal crops planted around the edge, which are intended to forestall the evolution of resistance in the pest and are frequently infested with FSB. The activists are simply looking at the wrong plants. They should have asked some scientists to accompany them!

GM Watch and other anti-GMO groups also asserted that a large number of Bt brinjal crops had failed. In the damning ESC judgement, Panorama’s producers make clear that they visited several of the fields of farmers supposedly experiencing failure of the crop and found that the allegations of widespread crop failure were baseless.

Farmer Afzal Hossain, of Bangladesh's Rangpur district, is on his third year of successfully cultivating pesticide-free Bt brinjal

Farmer Afzal Hossain, of Bangladesh’s Rangpur district, is on his third year of successfully cultivating pesticide-free Bt brinjal

The ESC also quotes Dr Frank Shotkoski, then ABSPII project director for Cornell University, as stating that “Of the 108 farmers [growing Bt brinjal that season], more than 94% produced crops that performed very well.” Separately, the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, the government agency which actually runs the project on the ground, had said that “a total of 12 farmers’ plots out of 108 participating in the trial were affected in different degrees by bacterial wilt and other insect and pest [not FSB].” This hardly constitutes a high degree of failure, and the incidence of bacterial wilt is clearly explained by poor weather and irrigation practices.

The ESC also rejected GM Watch’s assertion that the BBC Panorama producers had (in the ESC’s words) “visited farms and interviewed farmers where the crop had failed but did not include the interviews in the programme”. Here’s the actual response from the Panorama producer:

We were aware of the reports of crop failure and went to some trouble to check them out before and after filming. On the ground we could find no evidence to support these accounts. In some cases they were contradicted on visiting trial sites. As a result they were not mentioned in the programme.

Ouch! There’s much more detail in the ESC report, which I encourage you to read in full. I’m summarising here, so don’t take it from me!

It’s important also to note that in its complaint GM Watch did not seek to contradict the finding – repeated by Panorama – that applications of potentially toxic pesticides have been dramatically reduced by the cultivation of Bt brinjal. So let’s be clear – anti-GMO activists must know and accept that Bt brinjal reduces insecticides by 80-90% or more, yet they continue to oppose it for ideological reasons despite these clear health, environmental and farmer livelihood benefits demonstrated in Bangladesh. In this case anti-GMO really does equal pro-pesticide.

GM Watch also alleged that Panorama had failed to reflect safety concerns about Bt brinjal. (Anti-GMO activists bizarrely insist that pesticide-saturated and insect-infested conventional brinjal is preferable to that produced using the scary technology of molecular genetic modification.) In response the ESC report transcribes the squirming attempts of Greenpeace’s science director to sustain fears about GMO health impacts – which he clearly does not personally believe, and therefore shifts the goalposts to ‘contamination’.

The ESC report also makes it clear that GM Watch claimed that Bt brinjal was toxic:

The Committee noted the complainant’s assertion that the industry’s own studies revealed “toxic effects in rats that ate it”. It noted this was a reference to data gathered by Mahyco, the Indian seed company who developed the GM brinjal seed, and that in 2011 a scientist in New Zealand said she had reanalysed Mahyco’s data and that it revealed organ damage in rats which were fed Bt brinjal. The Committee noted that the Adviser was not aware of any evidence that the scientist’s paper had been peer reviewed or that it had been published in a recognised scientific journal.

 Ouch again! (my emphasis). More evidence of activists quoting fringe material unearthed from the internet as opposed to that published in peer-reviewed journals. The ESC also says:

The Committee noted the point related to the claim made in the programme by Mark Lynas that there was “nothing that scary” about the Bt brinjal; genetic modification was “just a way of protecting a crop against an insect”.

Well, quite. I couldn’t have said it better myself…

Yet another aspect of the complaint from GM Watch was that Dr Frank Shotkoski of Cornell University had conflicts of interest which were not disclosed. This was again rejected by the ESC report, which noted that Dr Shotkoski was not even interviewed in the Panorama programme – clearly by this point GM Watch was grasping at straws to complain about, having failed to find anything more substantial.

Finally, the ESC report relates the GM Watch complaint that

The programme failed to inform the audience of the relationship between USAID, ABSP and Monsanto.

Did you hear that? MONSANTO. I said MONSANTO!!! This is of course the trump card for all anti-GMO activists, to be played when all else fails – that hidden behind any scientifically literate defence of genetic modification lies a nefarious conspiracy led by Monsanto. That’s MONSANTO by the way, in case you missed it first time around.

Well, it’s true that Bt brinjal deploys Monsanto insect-protection technology. But it was DONATED – did you hear that? DONATED I said, with no royalties payable by Bangladeshi farmers, who are encouraged to save their seeds for subsequent cropping cycles.

The ESC noted:

The programme confronted head on the project’s associations with Monsanto. We put questions about links with Monsanto to Mark Lynas and to the Bangladesh agriculture minister. We questioned Monsanto directly about their associations with the project while researching the programme.

The upshot?

The Committee concluded that the programme had achieved due accuracy and due impartiality in the way it reflected the role of Monsanto. In accurately stating Monsanto’s direct interest and in reflecting the reporter’s professional judgement that the exercise could sway the public argument over GM, Panorama gave the audience sufficient information to reach an informed view on the issue.

And so, GM Watch’s final allegation was summarily dismissed as also without merit, and the BBC Trust ESC report ends.

In conclusion, I’m actually quite glad that GM Watch made the complaint about Panorama and pushed its view right to the end of the road at the BBC Trust. Because of this, an independent assessment was made of the way Panorama portrayed the Bt brinjal project. It is clear to me in reading the ESC report that it was not Panorama that exhibited bias on the GMO issue – it is GM Watch, a fringe group that remains implacably and ideologically opposed to a pesticide-reducing crop demonstrably improving the livelihoods of small farmers in Bangladesh. Shame on GM Watch, and good for the BBC for daring to present an honest and factually-accurate account of the GMO issue despite predictable howls of protest from the anti-science crowd.

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Bangladeshi farmer Moinul Islam and his sister Bithi, first-time growers of Bt brinjal, enjoy a bumper harvest. They live in Gaibandha district, and report successfully saving brinjal seed for future cultivation.

30 Comments

  1. Eric Bjerregaard

    “pesticide-saturated” Come on Mark, You know that farmers spray with a pesticide/water mix and nothing is saturated. Other than that a fine article and am glad to hear that folks in Bangladesh are succeeding. This will help put pressure on the Indian gov’t to succumb to truth and get out of the way.

    Reply
    1. gskibum

      You do realize that the statement to which you refer was said by GM Watch, and not Mark Lynas, right?

    2. Eric Bjerregaard

      Oops, My bad. Not reading carefully enough. Sorry Mark. Please get an edit feature for your comments. So, I can correct embarrassing errors. I have reduced, but apparently no eliminated them.Thanks.

    3. Mark Lynas (Post author)

      Well technically is is my phrase – it wasn’t a direct quote from GM Watch or anyone specific. So your complaint stands!

    4. gskibum

      I’m now confused about my own comment. Looking back at the date I wrote it I know I had been sick in bed at the age of 49 with whooping cough. I got clobbered and missed two months of work from that darn bug. I don’t even remember writing the comment.

      Stumbling into it again today, it seems it was Mark Lynas’s statement after all.

    5. Eric Bjerregaard

      No problem, accepted and thanks.

    6. gskibum

      And oh I almost forgot, my apologies for my screw up.

  2. Foster Boondoggle

    Do you think it’s likely that the success of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh will cause the appearance of black market seeds in India or other neighboring countries? It seems like this happened with Bt cotton before it was legally introduced in India. It hardly seems likely that Greenpeace or other NGOs will start going around to village markets testing for “illegal” varieties…

    Reply
    1. Eric Bjerregaard

      I would be stunned if it hasn’t already happened.

  3. Clyde Davies

    I think it’s sad that the BBC has to spend its time and dwindling resources dealing with this kind of rubbish. GM Watch’s complaint is getting into Flat Earther/Birther territory (flat birther?). And the most dismaying aspect of this affair is that it will do *nothing* to change their minds.

    Unfortunately, the ‘net provides both an ideal banner of convenience and a megaphone for anti-scientific bigots everywhere. They just don’t like it when others call them out.

    Reply
  4. Clyde Davies

    It’s also informative to see how few of the usual suspects have weighed in on this thread. When they can’t derail the discussion to talk about their hobby-horses, but have to restrict themselves to the arguments used and issues of evidence, then all of a sudden they’re nowhere to be seen.

    Reply
  5. jackson

    I have a question about how the conclusion ‘less insecticide’ is reached.
    Here they say the yield for brinjal is 15.6 tons per hectare. (2005- 2006)
    http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/pocketk/35/

    bt brinjal is an insecticide. Assuming 1/2 of the plant weight is harvested, this gives us a ‘back of the envelope’ estimate of over 30 tons of insecticide per hectare being used when growing the bt brinjal.

    I can’t find any estimates greater than 4-5 kg of insecticide being used per hectare before.

    So if the farmer is using 70% less of the insecticide sprays, that would mean they are using around 1 kg of the spray to go with the (somewhat guessed at figure) 30 tons of insecticide they are growing.
    By this analysis, growing bt binjal will use about 30 ton of insecticide per hectare more than non-bt.

    By what calculation is less insecticide being used?

    Reply
    1. Eric Bjerregaard

      BR Eggplant is not an insecticide. You are dishonestly attempting to count the entire weight of the plant. Instead of just the weight of the molecules of harmless to mammals BT protein contained in each cell. This is pathetic attempt at manipulation.

    2. Eric Bjerregaard

      Jackson, are you the researcher playing Poe again?

    3. jackson

      Eric-
      I included the entire weight of the plant as insecticide because an insecticide is a substance used to kill insects and the entire plant will kill insects if the insect eats it.

      It might be more appropriate to just count the weight of the actual Cry1Ac protein in the plants.
      Can you tell me what that is? I can’t find any info on that.

    4. Eric Bjerregaard

      I did about a dozen searches and have not been able to find the weight of the protein. I even looked in my shop for a way to isolate the protein from the bag of BT. I bought to spray caterpillars tomorrow. No luck. I can tell you that if you removed the protein from the plant and compared the weight to the weight of the remainder of the plant. You would be doing the same thing as a farmer would be doing. If he removed the water and surfactant from a spray mixture and then compared the weight of the actual pesticide to the weight of the water. I can also tell you that this would be a foolish waste of time unless both the acute and chronic effects of each pesticide were equal. So, when you releasing the cassava?

    5. jackson

      Eric-
      Insecticides for sale include inert ingredients.
      In the case of Bt brinjal, the active ingredient is a selling feature, so to call the plant an insecticide is not incorrect word usage as far as I can tell. (The insecticide includes x% active and y% other ingredients).
      I guess the real question then is what is the x%?
      I can understand why the companies promoting these insecticidal plants wouldn’t want to include the insecticides they are growing as part of the insecticides used by the farmers, but it does seem a bit disingenuous to me.

      There is no GMO cassava approved as far as I know, so I wouldn’t attempt to venture a guess when one would be ready if ever.

    6. Clyde Davies

      This line of argument is utter nonsense. Would you regard an entire potato crop as being composed of insecticide? Because all solanaceous vegetables produce their own insecticides, such as solanine. Or nicotine, in the case of tobacco.

    7. jackson

      Yes, I would call tobacco a pesticide (insecticide) as would home gardeners and chemists and all sorts of others-

      http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/presspacs/2010/acs-presspac-october-27-2010/tobacco-and-its-evil-cousin-nicotine-are-good-as-a-pesticide.html

      Green potatoes are pesticides as well. Don’t eat them.

      I would point out that in both those cases the insecticide part of the chemistry of the plant has evolved with the rest of the plant overtime and therefore wouldn’t be considered an ‘added’ pesticide.

      In the case of Bt eggplant, we have an insecticide placed in the plant on purpose by a commercial entity that then promotes this addition for the purpose of sales.
      That’s why I would consider it an ‘added’ pesticide.

    8. Eric Bjerregaard

      Yes, added, But that is no big deal. Especially when what is added is something you swim and dig in with no harm. Especially for those of us mammals that have an acidic stomach. The Eggplant is not the same as inert ingredients. It is more like the water mixed in a spray.

    9. jackson

      Clarification-
      I would consider the insecticide ‘added’ because the chemistry was placed for the purpose of adding the insecticide.

      The fact this is used to promote sales leads me to conjecture the people doing the selling are considering them added as well on some level.

    10. jackson

      eric-
      Yes, the Bt is safe for people to eat.
      What does that have to do with how much insecticide is being used to grow the plants?

      I’m guessing the amount of Bt used in the fields might be less by growing it there than by attempting to bring it in by spray, but I don’t know.

    11. Eric Bjerregaard

      Please see my previous comment about the relative toxicity or lack there of in the case of BT protein. The weight isn’t the real issue. The lack of risk is.

    12. jackson

      In retrospect, my question could be asked this way-

      How much insecticide do the plants produce?

      I would think this would be answered in a public FAQ type list, but I have yet to find any reasonable attempt to answer it. I’m usually pretty good with Google-either I’m missing the one right in front of me (it happens) or this isn’t well documented.

      Seems an obvious question to be left so unanswered.
      I don’t know what to make of the situation.

  6. Nadia

    As it stands this is all anecdotal evidence. Is there a scientific article that you can source in order to back up these claims? Having read the BBC report, the BBC is simply stating that the responsibility with regards to the truth about the 90% claim for success in 108 trials in growing the plant lies squarely with Cornell University and not with the BBC.

    Reply
    1. Clyde Davies

      That’s not the way it works. The burden of proof lies with the accuser, not the accused. If somebody accuses me of lying about an issue, then I demand that they come up with evidence to support that assertion. GM Watch accused Panorama of lying about this issue and on subsequent examination this was found not to be the case.

  7. I Thought I Saw It Move

    Mark – I’m pro-GM, so I’m not being confrontational. But – could you give a reference for the claim that “90% of the fields planted with Bt brinjal in the early 2015 season were successfully harvested”? I’ve seen it pop up a few times in relation to Bt brinjal, but haven’t been able to find a paper that reports this. Would be useful to have a primary journal source for this, if available.

    (or am I correct in thinking that this is data that hasn’t yet been published because it can take time to collate trial data and write a paper)

    It’s just that we often ask anti-GM campaigners to cite sources and back up their claims with evidence. It’s only sensible that we hold ourselves to the same standard.

    Reply
  8. Eric Bjerregaard

    Clyde Davies. There is a cassava researcher that goes by Jackson. that sometimes comments on these articles. He has “”Poed”” me before. I keep wondering if this is he playing Devil’s advocate. Try asking him what difference does it make to us if a harmless, to mammals, insecticide is added to any crop, and why does he repeat his mention os selling?

    Reply
    1. Clyde Davies

      It seems like a totally fruitless line of discussion, to be honest. This comment is particularly obtuse:
      “In the case of Bt eggplant, we have an insecticide placed in the plant on purpose by a commercial entity that then promotes this addition for the purpose of sales” – See more at: http://www.marklynas.org/2016/04/bbc-dismisses-anti-gmo-activist-complaints-bangladesh-bt-brinjal-project-featured-2015s-panorama-film/?replytocom=356966#respond

      Firstly, if he’d bothered to read the article properly, he’d have gathered that it was a joint project between a commercial entity and government agencies (two universities in this case). Secondly, what’s wrong with selling crop plants? But I suppose organic agricultural suppliers simply give away their goods for the benefit of humanity.

    2. Mark Lynas (Post author)

      Yes, they give away organic fruit. But at a premium 🙂

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