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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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Friday, July 28, 2000

Volume 8, Number 15

Kudos... to Timeís J. Madeleine Nash

Apart from a tiny minority of Americans who shop exclusively at organic whole food markets and who never dine out, all of us have been eating genetically-modified foods for years. In recent months, however, the controversy over whether some hidden dangers might lurk inside ears of corn, soybeans, and other basic agricultural products that have had their genes spliced has found its way from Europe to the New World, and into the mainstream media.

As with most so-called "consumer" issues, the media focus most of their skepticism on corporate interests while critics are painted as selfless public-interest advocates. In the case of genetically-modified foods, the media have given a great deal of airtime juxtaposing the corporations that have invested in researching and developing improved foods with groups such as the Center for Food Safety, a gang of leftist lawyers who have filed numerous lawsuits against government and business. 

Itís a media paradigm that tilts the debate against business. On the May 3 CBS Evening News, for example, reporter Wyatt Andrews framed it this way: "There are billions of dollars at stake in this debate. Beyond the high-tech crops, the next generation of these foods include gene-spliced animals, like trout. The biotech industry, in a fight for public confidence, has launched a slick $50 million ad campaign." Slick advertisers vs. consumer groups ó whom do you trust?

Additionally, this approach paints the two sides as debating a product that some people say is risky and that others (namely, the ones who will make the profits) say is not. A consumer might wonder why any risk, even if it is purely hypothetical and so far unproven, is either necessary or desirable?

Thatís one reason why Timeís July 31 cover story, written by J. Madeleine Nash, was so refreshing: she actually explained the potential pay-off ó to society, not just to big business ó of genetically-modified foods. Nash described one scientistís efforts to use genetic modification to create a variety of rice that would be more nutritional than conventional rice. Hereís an excerpt:

"At first, the grains of rice that [genetic scientist] Ingo Potrykus sifted through his fingers did not seem at all special, but that was because they were still encased in their dark, crinkly husks. Once those drab coverings were stripped away and the interiors polished to a glossy sheen, Potrykus and his colleagues would behold the seeds' golden secret. At their core, these grains were not pearly white, as ordinary rice is, but a very pale yellow ó courtesy of beta-carotene, the nutrient that serves as a building block for vitamin A.

"Potrykus was elated. For more than a decade he had dreamed of creating such a rice: a golden rice that would improve the lives of millions of the poorest people in the world. He'd visualized peasant farmers wading into paddies to set out the tender seedlings and winnowing the grain at harvest time in handwoven baskets. He'd pictured small children consuming the golden gruel their mothers would make, knowing that it would sharpen their eyesight and strengthen their resistance to infectious diseases.

"And he saw his rice as the first modest start of a new green revolution, in which ancient food crops would acquire all manner of useful properties: bananas that wouldn't rot on the way to market; corn that could supply its own fertilizer; wheat that could thrive in drought-ridden soil....

"[Golden rice is] the first compelling example of a genetically engineered crop that may benefit not just the farmers who grow it but also the consumers who eat it. In this case, the consumers include at least a million children who die every year because they are weakened by vitamin-A deficiency and an additional 350,000 who go blind."

To be sure, Nash included all of the typical criticisms of genetically-modified food, including references to "Frankenfood" (a scare term conjured by the European press), and quoted representatives of the far-left Union of Concerned Scientists and the Environmental Defense Fund. But she also included a fair description of the positive potential of improved food products, and itís more than the conventional media routine about more profits for big corporations. The ultimate beneficiary could be all of mankind; at one point, Nash quoted former President Jimmy Carter: "Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy; starvation is."

Kudos to J. Madeleine Nash for eschewing business-bashing and providing a balanced discussion of this important issue. You can read her full article, "Grains of Hope," on Timeís website.

ó Rich Noyes


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