Science and the Press
by Alan Knight
AgWeb.com by Top Producer magazine's technology editor, Alan Knight.
ITHACA, NY - So now scientists say they have mapped the human genome.
Well, sort of. Almost. A rough draft, anyway. Close enough to throw a
party. The announcement of what is admittedly, in the fine print,
unfinished business says as much about human behavior as about human
genomes. It speaks volumes about the way science gets onto the public
policy agenda. Here at this Cornell University biotechnology short course
for journalists, Bruce Lewenstein, professor of science communication,
reported, "Sixty to seventy percent of all news stories begin with press
Cornell botanist Karl Niklas, editor of The American Journal of Botany,
told the small assembly of journalists from The New Republic, Gourmet, and
Nova/WGBH-TV that press releases issued by scientific journals have made
him mad enough to write letters of protest. Lewenstein said there are
about 2,000 academic journals of consequence, but three of them- Nature,
Science, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Science- are the most
"Nature and Science reject about 90% of the papers that are offered to
them for publication," said Niklas. "They tend to pick the glitzy ones,
the ones that will have impact. If you submit a paper with the words
'global warming' or 'first ever' up in the headline," said Niklas, "these
are virtual guarantees that you'll get published."
The American Journal of Botany, which Niklas edits, is sponsored by a
non-profit association of botanists. Nature and Science, on the other
hand, are published commercially, supported by advertising. Niklas flashed
upon the screen a flow chart depicting the relationship among the
scientist, the journal, the public and the news media. The press release
was depicted as the link between the journal and the media, and sometimes
between the scientist's university and the media. But why? To what end?
What end do these press releases serve? Are they to advance the cause of
public understanding of important science? Or are they to advance the
cause of the journal? Or of the scientist? Or the university?
Panelist Jon Losey, author of the now-famous report on monarch butterflies
and Bt corn pollen that knocked the biotech industry on its derriere, told
the group that he chose the journal Nature precisely because it has
But why would he seek impact?
There is, of course, the very human need to be needed, to contribute. But
there was more here. "It's important for a young professor to establish a
reputation," said Losey. "Hopefully, this would help in developing a
research program, attracting research dollars, or," he added with a
chuckle, "be reflected in your paycheck."
Losey said he first submitted his paper to Science, but was rejected.
"Hmmmp," said Losey. "I wonder what they think at Science now, after all
that has happened."
What happened was that Nature does what it always does: It selected its
hot story and fed it as an advance "inside tip" to science writers at the
New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, National Public Radio,etc.,
to achieve maximum impact. The university public relations writers are
invited to join the feeding frenzy. It's not a secret. The rules of the
Nature publicity game for professors are spelled right out on the Nature
Cornell professor Anthony Shelton received an advance copy of Losey's
monarch research report, he said, and recommended against publishing it.
It wasn't ready for prime time, in Shelton's view. It needed to be tested
to explore results under field conditions.
Shelton looked back on the monarch episode and the role of
advertising-financed, for-profit scientific journals like Science and
Nature and mused: "I wonder if we are being used."
Maybe everyone involved is being used, as well as using. For-profit
scientific journals use the science and the scientists to generate-in
Niklas's word-glitz that attracts attention, ambitious professors and
advertising support. Professors use the for-profit, high-impact journals
to advance their research budgets and careers. Universities use the media
to achieve notoriety that draws prestige, research funding and students.
It's a win-win situation that tarnishes truth in the very forum intended
to enshrine it.
Science is hot. It's sexy and the news media are tripping over themselves
to scoop the competition. USA Today ran the human genome article as a
cover story three days before the official announcement, the same day The
Ithaca Journal, its Gannett-chain cousin here in this college town,
announced introduction of a new daily technology section.
The human genome is not fully mapped. No matter. There are press releases
to write, new pages to fill, careers to advance.
Subject: Reply to Shanthu Re 'Moratorium on Biotech Squabble'
From: Klaus Ammann
Here also an answer of Carol Gonsalves to "SHANTHARAM, SIVRAMIAH"
(his comments see again as citation below)
I fully agree: Although I do not consider a moratorium of 5 years for
certain countries (of the developped world) a catastrophy, I believe that
it won't help at all. On a global perspective I believe we cannot afford
to loose time, not even one year. What we need is an intensive dialogue
among all proponents of all those various agricultural strategies, a
dialogue which starts with listening and trying to understand the 'other'
side. This is why we should listen more to the people who do risk
assessment research, who are practicing agriculture and who are interested
in pragmatic solutions.
My Dear Friends,
Although I fully sympathize with the sentiment expressed in Shathu's
correspondence, I must register an emphatic "NO!" to a moratorium on the
For one thing, it is not a mere squabble, and yes, maybe not even a
debate, but something 'unspeakable." At stake are the fate of millions of
people who will benefit from this technology. The shameful thing is that
the most of the potential beneficiaries in developing countries have no
"voice" in the debate. I too am distressed over all this controversy. But
we cannot afford even a moment of silence! I would like to encourage those
of you who have sacrificed your precious research time to contribute
thoughtful and helpful information in this forum and others like it (i.e.
AgBioView), to continue on, and not give up! Shanthu is right, no one is
winning. So we must all think of innovative ways to inform the public and
to try to help those who need our useful GMO products.
(In the laboratory of Dennis Gonsalves, Cornell University, who helped to
develop and successfully commercialize virus-resistant transgenic papaya
From: "SHANTHARAM, SIVRAMIAH"
For a long time, I have been a silent witness to the barrage of
This is not debate. It is cacophony. People are getting bored and tired of
all sorts of rhetoric. I feel it is time to change the tactic of trying to
brow beat each other and stop this meaningless one upmanship.
By continuing to squabble the way I have seen it so far, no one is
winning and is only vitiating the atmosphere. On the toehr hand, all of us
may be helping those people who are out to stop bitoech to firm their
resolve even more.
From: Andura Smetacek
To: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, leustek@AESOP.RUTGERS.EDU
Dr. Morris, Dr. Leustek & Mr. Appell:
I appreciated reading your comments on Donella Meadows posted to
AgBioView. I am constantly surprised to see her frequent articles
attacking biotechnology presented as informed commentary from an unbiased
I'm sure it would not surprise you to know that Ms. Meadows is an active
board member of a Natural Resources Defense Council group "Center for the
New American Dream" <www.NewDream.org -- registered to NRDC>, and someone
who's socio-poltical views are well published as an outspoken critic of
economic growth, free-trade, open-markets, and non-organic agriculture.
Clearly Ms. Meadows views examples, like that of communist Cuba, as models
we should follow for sustainability and equity.
As previously noted on AgBioView, NRDC is well known for their "scare"
tactics and misleading claims regarding science and health dating back to
the infamous Alar scare. A little research reveals that Ms. Meadows has a
similar record. In 1985 The Boston Globe characterized Meadows as an
environmental prophet of doom. (Cite: The Record, May 19, 1985;FOR
ENVIRONMENTAL PROPHETS OF DOOM, THE TIMES ARE LEAN, Special from The
In the early 1970's Meadows predicted a half-billion children would die of
starvation if the world did not stop the then (practically stagnant) pace
of growth and adopt "organic" production and growth and institutionalize
economic inequities within five to ten years. Meadows added that the world
would need some 24,000 nuclear breeder reactors by the year 2000 to meet
energy needs at then current consumption levels as oil, gas and other
energy resouces would be depleted. (CITE: NEW YORK TIMES, October 10,
The Globe and other reports clearly detail Meadows as a sophisticated
activist -- certainly not an unbiased academic -- well schooled in
manipulating issues to create public fears promoting her views and
affiliated activist group agendas. In her book, written with husband
Dennis, "Beyond the Limits" she admits that her previous claims were wrong
in asserting that economic growth would end because of a shortage of raw
materials. She conceded then that human ingenuity had postponed that
particular doomsday. Yet, she continues to deride and oppose this
ingenuity and promote an "organic society" with no-growth as the answer to
The Globe also reported that Daniel B. Luten, then president of Friends of
the Earth and a friend of Meadows as stating of her and her "gloom and
doom gang": "They predicted immediate crisis, because they were afraid
that the public's attention span wasn't long enough to look at the deeper
issues they felt needed attention. When there was no immediate crisis,
they were discredited."
Meadows herself acknowledged then her scare-based approach: "We sure
alarmed people," Donella Meadows acknowledged in an interview. "A lot
happened that we'd just as soon wish hadn't happened."
In addition to here NRDC ties, Meadows comes from a family of "natural
law" organic health supporters. Lucielle Meadows contributes to the
Alternative Health Watch Yoga Journal promoting natural and ayurvedic
alternatives for children as ways to avoid cancer and other scary
illnesses. Meadows husband and co-author Dennis, is also a well known
environmental doom predictor.
The Columbia Journalism Review has been even less generous, noting that
Meadows uses heavy manipulation in her columns for personal agendas and
has threatened reporters who write articles exposing her personal and
special interest ties. So, knowing this, why do newspapers continue to
publish her manipulative, fear-mongering?
From: "Julian Morris"
Thanks for your enlightening comments about Donella Meadows!
Newspapers publish much nonsense as I am sure you are well aware! I
suspect that they are willing to publish Professor Meadows agenda-riddled
diatribes partly because they gain notoriety for the scaremongering and
attract a certin species of reader, and partly no doubt because her
columns induce fury and vehement letter-writing amongst those who know
better. The Daily Telegraph in the UK for a long time carried a column on
alternate Saturdays by (Baronet) Jonathan Porritt, who had been head of
Friends of the Earth's Uk Chapter and now runs a thing called Forum for
the Future (which is more like Forum for the Past, but anyway) ... he was
similarly infuriating -- in fact it was only when his column became
inanely repetitive that it was axed (or at least I believe that was the
May I ask what your interest in all this is?
From: Andrew Apel
Thanks for the information on Meadows. I like to keep up to date on what
the activists are up to. Given Meadows' connection to the NRDC I'm not
surprised at her ability to get published, as the NRDC is a client of
Fenton Communications, a PR firm widely noted for effective consumer
From: Andrew Apel
Rabobank, the world's largest lending institution in the field of food and
agriculture, has developed a Code of Conduce on Genetic Modification. The
code will guide its lending decisions. It offers a much-improved version
of the Precautionary Principle; on the other hand, it eschews "Terminator"
technology. It insists on "consumer choice," and on "transparency" for
borrowers, and on other interesting things.
Perhaps its most interesting feature is that it is what it is:
international policy-setting for GM by a giant financial institution--such
things are potentially more important and influential than, for instance,
the Convention on Biodiversity, since the movement of capital ranks second
only to military power as a determinant of history.
The media are doing a poor job of interpreting this document. I highly
recommend a visit to: http://www.rabobank.com/default.htm . The Code and
explanatory texts are there in PDF format.
Ecology : Focus on organic food
by DAVID ADAM
Nature Science http://helix.nature.com/nsu/000831/000831-4.html
As arguments round the dinner table go, this one must have been a royal
treat. Just two weeks after Prince Charles rejected 'Frankenstein foods'
in May 2000 and called for greater investment in "traditional systems of
agriculture," his sister disagreed. "It is a huge over-simplification to
say all farming ought to be organic," said Princess Anne.
Charles has the public on his side. Recent polls suggest that almost one
in two people think that organic food is more nutritious than conventional
produce; still more believe it is better for the environment. And it is
big business. German consumers spent £1.2 billion in 1997 on organic food-
more than those in any other EU country. And the market grows 10% each
But are 'traditional systems' as pure as Prince Charles thinks? Organic
food is produced using principles and techniques pre-dating modern
agrochemicals and intensive farming. Artificial pesticides, fertilizers
and growth hormones are all banned; EU standards regulate this.
For UK consumers, the Soil Association (a charity promoting and regulating
organic issues) specifies that organic animals must be born and raised on
certified farms. But a shortage of organic feedstock means that 'organic'
chicken feed, for example, can still contain up to a fifth conventional
produce. Even food labelled as organic contains up to 5% non-organic
ingredients under EU standards, and over a quarter of 'tomato ketchup made
with organic tomatoes' can be made from the same stuff as conventional,
Organic food's strongest selling point to many is that it is grown on land
certified as 'pesticide free' for a number of years. But residues of a
chemical past mean that small amounts of pesticide still occasionally turn
up in certified organic produce. "Organic food can never be defined as
pesticide free," said the UK's Institute of Food Science and Technology
(IFST) in a 1999 position statement on organic food, but it almost
certainly contains lower pesticide levels.
The exact risks of eating pesticide residues are unclear. Long-term health
problems are possible says David Klurfeld, a food scientist at Wayne State
University, Michigan, and scientific advisor to the American Council on
Science and Health. "But the data are not consistent and available
information on eating lots of fruits and vegetables strongly suggests
there is no long-term risk," Klurfeld says. Emma Parkin, spokesperson for
the Soil Association, is not convinced: "If there are any doubts at all
over pesticides then why take the chance, especially with young children,"
Safe or sorry?
Bacteria on food pose a far greater risk to health, Klurfeld suggests.
Food-borne bugs kill thousands of people each year and organic farming is
an inevitable target for concern because it fertilizes with animal manure,
which can harbour deadly bacteria. Claims that organic fruit and
vegetables are more likely than conventionally farmed produce to be
contaminated with the potential killer Escherichia coli 0157:H7 remain
unproven, but studies have found more of other bacteria on organic
To reduce risks, organic farmers must compost manure but, "knowledge of
the critical times and temperatures needed to make composted manure
microbiologically safe is incomplete," the IFST statement warns. Animal
manure is spread on conventional farmland, though mostly on land not used
for horticulture, according to Brian Chambers, a principal research
scientist with the Agricultural Development Advisory Service. So does this
careful husbandry make organic food more nutritious? "Pockets of
research," suggest so, says Parkin, but Klurfeld disagrees. "Not a single
published study has shown any difference in the nutrient content of
organic food versus conventional farm products," he says. And the
scientific trial jury is still out on taste though organic fruit and
vegetables are usually fresher because they are rushed to market within
Genetically modified organics?
EU organic standards forbid genetically modified ingredients and-as well
as splitting the British royal family-the two issues polarize the food
industry. "I am disappointed that the organic community is unwilling to
consider GM crops. Genetic modification could address two of organic
husbandry's biggest problems: pest resistance and poor yields," says Paul
Davies, who works on conventional and organic methods at the Royal
Agricultural College, Cirencester, UK.
The Soil Association had "no strong feelings either way," about GM foods
until two to three years ago. But doubts over long-term risks mean that
they now have an "ideological objection," to the technology. "At the
moment I think it is very unlikely that our position will change. Maybe in
ten years, if it has been properly tested and we are convinced it's safe
then we'll reconsider," Parkin says.
Some scientists feel this position is unfair-and misleading. GM crops
commonly use genes from bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Dry
Bt spores are one of several 'natural' pesticides used in organic farming.
"I think it is disingenuous of organic farmers and [anti-GM] organizations
to vilify Bt plants while promoting organic farming in which the entire
genome of the bacterium is sprayed onto crops," says Glenn King, a GM
researcher at Connecticut University, USA.
Consumers have the right to choose, but could marketing organic food as a
'safe, natural' alternative to GM mask risks? "Unfortunately people seem
to think that organic food implies safe food, that is certainly not the
case. We don't have a system that gives us totally safe food," Davies
remarks. "I can't say to you that organic food is better than any other
food," says Parkin. The public doesn't trust scientists after BSE, she
says; but many scientists agree that current intensive farming practices
need to change. "The environmental effects of high intensity farming
increasingly haunt us," says David Tilman, an ecologist at the University
of Minnesota. "There is a great need to find new approaches."
And although science cannot yet agree that organic food is safer, tastier
or more nutritious, it does support other claims. A 15-year study2
suggested that organic farming is not only kinder to the environment than
conventional, intensive agriculture-but has comparable yields of both
products and profits. These results were announced in November 1998. They
are difficult to find in pro-organic literature and web sites beneath an
avalanche of anti-GM information. Perhaps this approach is why
some-Princess Anne included- still find organic food hard to swallow. web
The Soil Association: www.soilassociation.org Nature:
www.nature.com/nature Center for Food Safety and Quality Enhancement,
University of Georgia: www.griffin.peachnet.edu/cfsqe Institute of Food
Science and Technology: www.ifst.org Agricultural Development Advisory
systems have reduced carbon and nitrogen losses. Nature 396, 262-265