Today in AgBioView: July 14, 2004:
* Argentina OKs Monsanto's Roundup Ready GMO Corn
* Argentina approves use of Monsanto's genetically modified corn
* Roundup Ready Corn Approval in Argentina Underscores Value and Benefits of Agricultural Biotechnology
* Plant Patents, the CGIAR, and feeding the hungry
* National Corn Growers Association announces valuable maize genome data now available to scientists
* Reduced tillage benefits greenhouse gas objectives
* India must boost GMO research on agri crops – Exec
* European Union: WTO Dispute Continues Despite the End of the EU´s de facto Moratorium
* Tough tomatoes -- Genetic technology supports sustainable farming
* Supermarkets reject prince's 'dull' potatoes
* Green Grow the Pressies: How the media get the environment wrong
Argentina OKs Monsanto's Roundup Ready GMO Corn
- Reuters, July 13, 2004, by Hilary Burke
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (Reuters) - Argentina, the world's No. 2 corn exporter, has approved planting of genetically modified Roundup Ready corn even though top crop buyer Europe still shuns it, government officials said on Tuesday.
The long-awaited decision has sparked hope among Argentine farmers of a corn crop revival similar to Argentina's GMO soybean boom after the introduction of Roundup Ready soy. Monsanto Co. developed Roundup Ready crops resistant to glyphosate herbicide to make production cheaper and easier.
The European Union, the top buyer of Argentine corn, has not approved Roundup Ready corn for consumption. But in May, the bloc lifted a five-year ban on new GMO foods when it authorized imports of another GMO maize, known as Bt-11.
"This approval will not endanger human health or our commercial interests," Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna told reporters, adding there is a clear "favorable tendency" in Europe toward this particular GMO corn.
Many farmers have switched to GMO soy in recent years to capitalize on high international prices and lower production costs. Now they will have an incentive to plant GMO corn.
Corn area has shrunk 20 percent in the last four years to just 2.9 million hectares, while soybean area grew 250 percent in the last decade, reaching a record 14.2 million hectares.
The government hopes more farmers will plant Roundup Ready corn and introduce crop rotations to stem soybeans' steamroller expansion. Soybeans are grown on nearly half of Argentina's cultivated lands.
Agriculture Secretary Miguel Campos said the corn's introduction would be gradual, starting with just 10,000 hectares this year. The planting of the 2004/05 corn crop begins in August.
Biotech crops are a hotly debated issue and opposition is stiff in many places around the globe. Argentina's production of GMO crops is second only to the United States, and some 95 percent of Argentine soybeans are glyphosate-resistant.
Argentina last approved a new biotech crop three years ago, when it gave the go-ahead to GMO cotton.
Argentina is expected to export 8.5 million tons of 2003/04 corn, trailing well behind top exporter the United States, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. U.S. farmers are already growing Roundup Ready corn.
Monsanto Argentina applauded Tuesday's announcement.
"The government's decision marks a turning point and contributes to the creation of public policies on biotechnology," Alfonso Alba, Monsanto Argentina's president, said in a written statement, adding that the move would stimulate investment.
In December St. Louis-based Monsanto stopped selling soybean seeds in Argentina, the world's No.3 soybean producer, citing a huge black market in GMO seeds that made it impossible for the firm to recoup its investments.
Soybean seeds can be culled from new plants and reused with no significant drop in yields. While Argentine farmers are allowed to reuse their own seeds, it is illegal for them to sell such seeds to others.
Corn seeds cannot be reused without risking wildly variable yields, which means each year farmers will have to buy new seeds -- presumably from authorized seed dealers.
Argentina approves use of Monsanto's genetically modified corn
- St. Louis Business Journal, July 13, 2004
The government of Argentina has approved the use of Monanto's NK603 genetically modified corn, the company said Tuesday.
The corn will be available for Argentine farmers to plant this fall in limited quantities and should be more widely available in the 2005 and 2006 growing season.
Argentina is the second-largest corn exporter in the world, with an estimated 6 million acres grown in 2003-2004. The European Union, its largest customer, has not approved genetically modified corn for human consumption, however.
Genetically modified corn is designed to increase yields and make production cheaper and easier. The company said the long-term potential mrket for Roundup Ready corn could reach up to 5 million acres.
Monsanto's genetically modified soy is booming in Argentina. Soy acreage in Argentina has tripled in the past 10 years, partly to Monsanto's Roundup Ready seeds. Monsanto has suspended its soy sales in Argentina because farmers' replanting of genetically modified seeds violates its patents and cuts revenue.
St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. (NYSE: MON) develops insect- and herbicide-resistant crops and other agricultural products.
Roundup Ready Corn Approval in Argentina Underscores Value and Benefits of Agricultural Biotechnology
- Press release, Monsanto.com
St. Louis, Missouri (July 13, 2004) - The Argentina government's approval today of the planting of Monsanto's Roundup Ready corn event, NK603, will lead to an increased number of biotechnology acres planted in that country and around the world as growers continue to realize the value and benefits of the technology.
"This is the second important biotech approval in recent weeks following the approval by Japanese regulators of the YieldGard Plus stacked corn trait for importation," says Brett Begemann, Executive Vice-President of International Commercial, Monsanto Company. "The new approval in Argentina indicates that the major crop-producing countries around the world continue to recognize the safety and benefits of biotechnology agricultural products."
Roundup Ready soybeans and cotton, and insect-protected corn and cotton are already approved for planting in Argentina. Roundup Ready corn will be available to growers this fall in limited quantities of Monsanto's branded corn seed for the 2004 planting season in Argentina and should be available more widely in the 2005 and 2006 growing season. "Like farmers in Argentina, Monsanto has experienced a good return on its investment on insect protected corn in Argentina," said Begemann.
In the 2003-2004 growing season, 6 million acres of corn were grown in Argentina, and Monsanto's branded corn seed market share was estimated at approximately 45 percent. The company's Maizegard insect-protected corn was planted on over 2 million acres in Argentina. The long-term potential market for Roundup Ready corn from sales of both single and stacked traits, could potentially reach 5 million acres assuming that stacked traits are approved in Argentina, and the these traits are broadly licensed to seed companies. Additionally, the size of the potential market will be affected by the company's ability to receive import approvals for Roundup Ready corn in other world areas, notably Europe. Actual acreage will depend on many additional factors, such as business, economic and weather conditions. The trait initially will be sold in Monsanto's branded seed, and like Maizegard, will be part of the total cost of the branded seed. On a per acre basis, initial pricing for Monsanto's Roundup Ready corn trait in Argentina will be in the range of pricing for Monsanto's Roundup Ready corn trait in other global areas.
Monsanto's biotech acres grew to 172 million acres in 2004 from 150 million acres in 2003. In addition, a recent study by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) found that a total of 7 million farmers in 18 countries plant biotech crops and six million of those are farmers in the developing world.
Roundup Ready crops allow growers to use Roundup glyphosate-based agricultural herbicides over the top of growing plants, thereby offering more effective weed control with an herbicide that has a favorable environmental profile.
Monsanto Company (NYSE: MON) is a leading provider of agricultural solutions to growers worldwide. Monsanto's employees provide top-quality, cost-effective and integrated approaches to help farmers improve their productivity and produce better quality foods. For more information on Monsanto, see: www.monsanto.com.
From: "Dave Wood"
Date: Wed, 14 Jul 2004 02:12:00
Plant Patents, the CGIAR, and feeding the hungry
AgBioView 12 July 2004 reports the concern of Sandy Thomas, Director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, over the patenting of derivatives of samples obtained from the large germplasm collections of the CGIAR. While the Nuffield Council endorses the use of GM crops to feed the hungry, Sandy's concern is that broad patents over genes or gene vectors could prevent others from using the patented variety for breeding purposes. While this is undoubtedly so, the use of patented varieties is dependent on national patenting laws and international legal agreements, and has little to do with the independent CGIAR institutes, who, under a ten-year-old agreement with the Food and Agriculture Organization, do not own the samples and therefore cannot restrict their use.
Already, Sandy's concern is reality: restrictions on the subsequent use of varieties apply not just for patented plants, but have been longstanding under most Plant Varietal Rights legislation. For example, Art 14.5 of the 1991 UPOV International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants uses the idea of dependency. If a new variety is `essentially derived' from an older variety (including transformation by genetic engineering) then authorization by the breeder of the old variety is required for production and selling the new variety. This could involve a licence payment.
The current Material Transfer Agreements used by the CGIAR institutes when distributing genebank samples prevent intellectual property protection of any kind on 'the material or related information'. However, these MTAs do not prevent patenting of derivatives of samples obtained from the CGIAR genebanks, as noted by Sandy. As there is nothing similar to the UPOV dependency concept in the MTAs of CGIAR institutes, there is at present no way of controlling derivatives of samples of what hitherto have been 'public domain' material.
Sandy concludes that access to the unique resources of the CGIAR must not be jeopardized. Unfortunately, the CG institutes plan to place their collections under the new International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA). The Treaty has two articles that relate to Sandy's concerns.
The first is positive. Article 12.3 (d) of the Treaty forbids anyone from claiming IPP over derivatives that would limit access to the original samples. Anyone requesting samples from the new multilateral system would have to agree specifically not to jeopardize future access to samples in the system, which is planned to include CGIAR samples. Thus the samples themselves would remain available for breeding.
However, the second is negative and restrictive. Article 13.2.d (ii) of the Treaty allows breeders to restrict further research and breeding on derivatives of samples obtained from the multilateral system. But by restricting research and breeding, breeders will incur penalties: they must pay a yet-to-be-determined tax into the Treaty financial mechanism. Indeed, the main income-generating activity of the Treaty is specifically dependent on restrictions on further research and breeding - as feared by Sandy for products of CGIAR samples. And although the CGIAR samples will be a major resource for the Treaty, the CGIAR institutes are not a party to the Treaty and therefore cannot prevent these restrictions.
All that Sandy can do if he does not like these restrictions is to lobby the CGIAR not to place its genebank samples in the Treaty. I've been doing this for a decade against fierce CGIAR opposition (from the policy bureaucrats, not the genebank managers). One reason for my concern is that countries that freely gave samples to the CGIAR over several decades cannot get duplicates back without signing onerous MTAs dictated by the Treaty (of which only a minority of countries are now members). This is a clear breach of long-term CGIAR commitments to supply and re-supply samples to any country that asked. To me, this is going back on promises and about as bio-unethical as you can get.
The CGIAR can feed the hungry by continuing the fine technical work of varietal development and distribution of the past thirty years, and not by dabbling in the quicksands of international genetic resource policy.
And we should remember, despite all the NGO lobbying over patenting and GMOs in the Treaty negotiations, that neither the Treaty nor the CGIAR collections cover bacteria, until now the main source of GM herbicide and insect resistance in crops.
National Corn Growers Association announces valuable maize genome data now available to scientists
- From a press release, July 13, 2004 (VIA AGNET)
ST. LOUIS-- Valuable maize (corn) research is now available to research scientists working to sequence the maize genome, the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) announced today. Ceres, Inc., Monsanto Company, and DuPont subsidiary Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc. have transferred their maize sequencing information to a searchable database on the Internet hosted at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.
After completing a licensing agreement downloadable on the NCGA Web site at http://www.ncga.com, scientists can access the research at http://www.maizeseq.org .
"Access to these gene sequences will help public-sector researchers more quickly develop corn plants with improved agronomic performance and profitable quality traits," said Patrick Schnable, professor and director of the Center for Plant Genomics and past chair, Maize Genetics Executive Committee.
In March, NCGA announced the three industry leaders would share their corn genome sequence data, which combined with the corn sequence data already in the public domain will significantly accelerate the identification of genes within the entire corn genome.
This project underscores NCGA's continued commitment to advancements through research. NCGA took a leading role in getting the Plant Genome Initiative signed into law in 1997 and continues to support this important effort. With the availability of sequencing data from Ceres, DuPont and Monsanto, the corn genome could be completely sequenced by 2007, potentially years ahead of when it would have been completed without this initiative.
The NCGA's mission is to create and increase opportunities for corn growers in a changing world and to enhance corn's profitability and usage. NCGA represents more than 33,000 members, 25 affiliated state corn grower organizations and hundreds of thousands of growers who contribute to state checkoff programs.
Founded in 1998, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is a not-for-profit institute with a global vision to improve the human condition through basic plant research. Please visit http://www.danforthcenter.org for additional information.
Reduced tillage benefits greenhouse gas objectives
- Soil Conservation Council of Canada- Press Release, July 14, 2004 (VIA AGNET)
Indian Head, Sask., July 14, 2004: Although there are regional variations, Canadian farmers are finding both production and environmental benefits from adopting farming practices such as zero and reduced tillage, say soil conservation specialists.
The techniques, which eliminate or reduce tillage in crop production, also play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, says Jerome Damboise, the eastern co-ordinator for the federal Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Program (GHGMP) for Canadian Agriculture. The soil and nutrient management components of the program are administered by Soil Conservation Council of Canada (SCCC).
Details of how reduced and zero-till farming practices are benefiting Canada's objective to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are explained in a recently released feature article now available on the SCCC Web site at www.soilcc.ca .
"More farmers are finding conservation farming practices make production and economic sense," says Damboise. "They can maintain or increase yields and reduce production input costs. At the same time, these soil and moisture conservation practices are important to sequestering carbon in the soil."
Research on Canadian climate change estimates Canadian cropland can store or sequester as much as 22 million tonnes of atmospheric carbon dioxide per year by using best management practices such as zero tillage. It's further estimated that grazing land can store another three million tonnes of carbon dioxide through improved grass production and proper grazing management.
Zero-till and direct-seeding production practices, along with reduced use of summer fallow, can store from 0.3 to 0.5 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year in the soil depending on the weather and moisture patterns.
Approaches to zero tillage and conservation farming need to be modified for different regions of the country. The benefits of using a zero-till drill to seed directly into standing wheat and barley stubble has been demonstrated across much of Western Canada. However, new approaches are being evaluated through Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada, which produce different crops, with different cropping techniques under higher moisture weather regimes.
In Ontario it's estimated approximately 10 percent of corn, 50 percent of soybeans and 75 percent of wheat are produced under no-till, while in Quebec it's estimated 20 to 25 percent of soybean and grains are no-till. Figures are higher if reduced tillage production is included. Although zero-till has yet to catch on among corn growers in Eastern Canada, there is growing interest in the technique.
Depending on the region and weather patterns, Western Canadian producers have been buying into conservation farming practices for more than two decades. In Manitoba, where zero tillage was pioneered about 25 years ago, the practice has been adopted in the drier parts of the province. Of approximately 12 million cropped acres, two million are cropped under zero-till systems.
In Saskatchewan, about 50 percent of the seeded acres, or 16 million acres, are farmed under zero-till, while in Alberta about 27 percent or 7 million acres are cropped under zero-till practices. British Columbia reflects both trends in the country with producers in the Peace River region adopting conservation farming practices similar to those used on the Prairies, while farmers in the Lower Mainland face similar challenges as producers in Eastern Canada.
Soon after they were first broken, Prairie soils lost much of the organic matter from the surface layer, says Dr. Henry Janzen, a research scientist specializing in soil biochemistry with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Lethbridge Research Centre. He estimates between 20 and 30 percent or soil organic matter has been lost. "Part of that can be recovered with improved management practices," he says. "Within a few decades, carbon storage will again reach a plateau or a point of stability."
Adopting conservation tillage or other practices that preserve organic matter is an important part of a sustainable agriculture system, he says. "Carbon sequestering is only one part of the whole process. The main objective is to enhance the resilience and productivity of our farm land."
The GHGMP supports a broad range of projects across Canada with the goal to promote awareness of agricultural practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Soil Conservation Council of Canada (SCCC) administers the delivery of the soil and nutrient management sector component of the program. For more information on activities, visit the SCCC's Web site at www.soilcc.ca.
India must boost GMO research on agri crops – Exec
- ODJ via COMTEX, July 13, 2004, Prasenjit Bhattacharya (VIA AGNET)
NEW DELHI - (Dow Jones)-- Leading policy maker and agricultural scientist M.S.Swaminathan was cited as saying that India's new government has pledged more funds to the rural sector in areas such as irrigation, but there is also a pressing need for more investments in developing genetically modified crops, and that only new crops that can withstand traditional problems faced by domestic agriculture such as droughts and salinity will provide a lasting solution to India's need for food security, particularly in the case of oilseeds, adding, "The federal government needs to fund research in public institutions for developing genetically modified crops that are resistant to drought and salinity."
The story notes that the National Commission on Agriculture was recently set up by newly appointed Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar to draw up a comprehensive agriculture policy for the country.
The story adds that Swaminathan is widely credited with spearheading the farm technology movement in the 1970s that boosted India's foodgrains production and ended the country's dependence on imported foodgrains.
European Union: WTO Dispute Continues Despite the End of the EU´s de facto Moratorium
- Mondaq Article Service, 14 July 2004, by Iciar Chavarri
The European Commission authorised on 19 May 2004 the placing on the market of Syngenta's Bt11 genetically modified maize. However, despite this decision the dispute brought before the World Trade Organization (WTO), by Argentina, Canada and the US against the EU's de facto moratorium on the approval of genetically modified organisms is still in place and the Dispute Panel review continues as planned. The parties have already presented their first submissions and participated on 2 June in the first Panel hearing.
Two independent groups acting in the public interest are intervening in the dispute settlement process by making submissions to the WTO Dispute Panel in the form of amicus curiae (or "friend of the court") briefs. While third parties can file "amicus curiae" there is no obligation on the Panel to take their views into account. One of the amicus curiae has been submitted by a trans-Atlantic group of expert academics and the other one by an international coalition of 15 public interest groups from Europe, the US, Canada, Argentina, Chile and India. The coalition of interest groups claims the WTO should reject the challenge and recognise the legitimate role of the EC and individual countries to establish appropriate mechanisms to make decisions about the desirability of GMOs. The coalition of scholars believes the role of the WTO Panel should be one of reviewing the procedural adequacy of executive decision-making processes in the various jurisdictions involved, rather than one of arbitrating on the substantive merits of the individual risk assessments themselves. The ruling of the WTO Panel is expected in early September.
While it has been claimed that the approval of the Bt11 GM maize ends the EU's de facto moratorium, it does not imply that the WTO dispute is or should be terminated. The WTO proceedings can be terminated either by (i) the complainants request to suspend the proceedings or (ii) the parties notification to the WTO Dispute Settlement Body that they have reached a mutually satisfactory solution which puts an end to the dispute.
It is very likely that the complainants will proceed cautiously at first and that they will not request the suspension or termination of the proceedings until there are clear indications from the EU Member States and European Commission that the requests for GMO authorisations which are currently in the pipe-line will receive a positive response, meaning that they will be able to be marketed in the EU.
Genetic technology supports sustainable farming
- THE ECONOMISTJul 8th 2004
NEW genetic technology may not only help to bolster traditional selective-breeding techniques. It may also, horror of horrors, have a role in the sort of "sustainable" farming favoured by opponents of high-tech agriculture. For biotech has now shown that there are differences betweenthe molecular biology of sustainably grown crops and those grown using modern agricultural techniques. Moreover, those differences favour the sustainably grown plants.
Autar Mattoo and his colleagues at the American Department of Agriculture'sVegetable Laboratory have been comparing mulching methods for tomato crops.As they observe in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, theyhave identified differences in the ways that tomato plants express theirgenes, depending on whether those plants are grown on a black polyethylenemulch and fed with synthetic fertiliser (the method favoured by conventional modern horticulture) or by using a mulch made from a leguminousu plant calledhairy vetch (which is favoured by the proponents of sustainability).
Black polyethylene mulching involves the plants growing through holes inplastic sheets that cover the soil. The sheets keep the soil moist and warm,and also stop weeds growing. Hairy-vetch mulch does all of those things,too, but using it is not as convenient as laying down a few sheets ofplastic, and is more expensive. On the other hand, plants grown using hairy-vetch mulch are a lot healthier (and yields are 20% higher), so Dr Mattoo wondered if he could track down the biochemical origins of this healthiness.
To look at the activity of the plants' genes, Dr Mattoo used a modern genetic technique called cDNA subtraction cloning. This works by making copies of the messenger molecules that carry information from the genes in acell's nucleus to the protein factories in its outer reaches. The more messengers there are from a particular gene, the more active that gene is.The copies of the molecular messengers are known as complementary (or "c")DNAs, and by employing suitable chemical trickery, it is possible to comparethe cDNA profiles of two plant tissues by, in effect, subtracting one from the other, so that only the differences remain.
Using this technique, Dr Mattoo found a number of genes that expressed themselves more vigorously in plants grown on hairy-vetch mulch, rather than black plastic. These genes included those involved in photosynthesis,disease resistance, defence against pests and the assimilation of nitrogen.All of this helps to explain the more vigorous growth of hairy-vetch-mulched plants.
What is not explained, however, is why these genes express themselves vigorously. But Dr Mattoo has a hypothesis. Among the healthiest parts ofthe hairy-vetch-grown plants are their roots. These are a source of hormone swhich affect gene expression. More roots, more hormones, and more expressive genes. One up to sustainability.
Supermarkets reject prince's 'dull' potatoes
- Daily Telegraph, By Nicole Martin, 12/07/2004
First his organic carrots were rejected by supermarkets because they were too crooked. Now the Prince of Wales is to supply schools with potatoes from his organic farm because they are not shiny enough for food stores.
In a deal struck with South Gloucestershire county council, the prince will provide local schools with 100 tons of Cara and Cosmos potatoes grown at Home Farm near Tetbury, Gloucs.
The prince turned to the council after learning that his produce failed to meet the criteria of large supermarkets.
David Wilson, the farm's manager, said there was currently a drive to achieve "cosmetic perfection" in major stores.
"I have given up selling potatoes to supermarkets because they don't like the skin marks and we can't get them shiny enough for them," he said.
"The waste from the field to the table is shocking and outrageous. The outlet we use has strict criteria over what the supermarkets want. It is not just one supermarket, but several."
Mr Wilson said that around half of the prince's carrots were rejected by superstores for cosmetic reasons.
A spokesman for the prince said it was common for supermarkets to turn down a certain proportion of a farmer's produce.
"Supermarkets will reject vegetables if they don't meet the very high standards they set," she said. "The rejected produce - known as outgrades - is good quality produce and it is a pity to waste it. That is why Home Farm sells it to schools for meals," she said.
Green Grow the Pressies: How the media get the environment wrong
- National Review (Op-ed), by Iain Murray, July 13, 2004
In 1995, they told us that Yucca Mountain was going to explode in a nuclear firestorm. It won’t. In 1998, they told us that nuclear-weapons installations were making people sick. They weren’t. In 2000, they weren’t concerned with arsenic in the water. In 2001, they were. This year, they have claimed that the Pentagon is worried about global warming and that phosphate mines are harming Floridians. “They” are journalists, and the issue is the environment. What makes this particular issue so susceptible to bad journalism?
At least part of the answer has to be politics. If you followed the controversy over arsenic in drinking water in 2001, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Bush administration was plotting to poison the reservoirs. Yet, in fact, the Environmental Protection Agency had simply chosen to revert to standards that were changed only in the last few days of the Clinton administration. The press had gone almost eight years without noticing that Carol Browner and the Clinton EPA were happy to allow these “dangerous” standards of arsenic in the water.
In other areas, too, the press deliberately changed its tune. In 1987, The Washington Post had editorialized in favor of oil exploration in the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve, saying, “That part of the Arctic coast is one of the bleakest, most remote places on this continent, and there is hardly any other where drilling would have less impact on the surrounding life.” By 2000, when George W. Bush had made drilling in ANWR part of his proposed energy policy, the Post became concerned about whether “the oil to be gained is worth the potential damage to this unique, wild, and biologically vital ecosystem.” The New York Times similarly reversed its position on the issue between 1989 and 2001.
As strong environmentalism is one of the defining characteristics of the modern liberal, it should come as no surprise that the media lean toward environmentalism in their coverage of key issues.
Hence the pivotal role of Britain’s leftist bible, The Guardian, in so many recent stories. Now that the Internet has made it possible to read other English-language papers daily, the Guardian has become a regular stop for those who find the New York Times too conservative. Given the highly politicized nature of most British papers, it is hardly surprising that its combative style has won many admirers on the American left (just as a whole new audience of American conservatives has come to appreciate the stance of The Daily Telegraph).
So, when Fortune magazine ran a story in January about the Pentagon’s investigation of the potential security impacts of global warming, no major American newspaper picked it up. On February 22, however, nearly a month after the Fortune story, the Observer—the Sunday sister paper of the Guardian—ran with the preposterous headline: “Now the Pentagon tells Bush: climate change will destroy us.” The sub-heads ranted, “Secret report warns of rioting and nuclear war”; “Britain will be ‘Siberian’ in less than 20 years”; “Threat to the world is greater than terrorism.”
This is appalling journalism. The Pentagon had judged that the $100,000 report did not “meet its needs” and so rejected it. In any case, the report was not secret and was by no means “suppressed by U.S. defense chiefs and obtained by the Observer”—presumably by the furtive and dangerous method of asking the Pentagon for it. The report’s only mention of Britain relates to its being a nuclear power; and the comparison to terrorism is actually made not by the Pentagon, but by British scientists on their own crusade to terrify America into adopting the Kyoto Protocol. Far from concluding that global warming “will destroy us,” the report actually concludes that such a dramatic event as the sudden onset of an ice age would present “new challenges” for the United States.
It was only after the Observer’s scaremongering that environmental groups over here noticed the story. After they made a fuss about it, it entered the journalistic lexicon to the extent that it seemed every other review of the silly disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow contained a reference to it. The Guardian has gone on to break other environmental scare stories later picked up by the American media, such as allegations against the effectiveness of genetically modified rice in preventing blindness in the Third World.
Yet politics cannot be the whole answer. Sensationalism and ignorance are also to the fore. In 1995, for instance, New York Times science writer William Broad publicized speculation by two Los Alamos physicists, Charles Bowman and Francesco Venneri, that nuclear-waste materials stored beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada might explode. Their view was dismissed by other researchers as fanciful, and in any event, would not occur for thousands of years. The front-page treatment by the times was clearly inappropriate. Why did they do it?
One important insight comes from the admirable environment correspondent of the Times, Andrew Revkin. He says, “Environmental issues—at least the most profound ones—are generally the antithesis of news. They are subtle, slow-moving, complicated shifts that often hide in plain sight.” To get the news value out of the issue, sensationalism is always a tempting option.
Just as egregious was a series of investigative reports in The Tennessean in 1998 that alleged “mystery illnesses” were plaguing people who lived near, or worked at, nuclear-weapons plants. Yet the evidence provided was a self-selected, self-reported sample. Just this year, as the Statistical Assessment Service has pointed out, The Tampa Tribune has been doing something similar in no fewer than 119 articles about Coronet Industries, owners of a phosphate plant in Plant City, Fla. The paper’s claims of elevated health hazards associated with the plant have not been borne out by the state’s independent scientific review. The Tribune’s response was illuminating: Its campaign had been “an exercise in journalism, not science. We wanted to know what ailed people, not what caused it.”
When journalists are happy enough to junk the well-established scientific tools that help us separate truth from fiction in favor of their own methods, there’s a problem. Whether they are motivated by politics, sensationalism, or a strange mixture of ignorance and arrogance, journalists the world over are painting a misleading picture of the environment. Small wonder that the issue is of little importance to Americans. In a Gallup poll for “Earth Day” this year, they ranked it second-last in importance from a list of no fewer than twelve major political issues.