Rising above the high tide of anti-GMO misinformation in Africa: science experts and media join forces

Richard Wetaya

November 29, 2022

False media reports about GMOs continue to flood Africa, but experts believe the tide of misinformation can change if African science journalists and experts from the continent’s academic science groves consistently publish articles debunking the myths.

Speaking during a recent presser hosted by the Africa Science Media Center (AfriSMC) to launch and present a research article he co-wrote with Jordan Adams and Joan Conrow, Mark Lynas, Climate and Research Lead at the Alliance for Science, asserted that the onus was on African science journalists and the experts to join forces to dispel the widespread GMO myths.

“A significant challenge remains for Africa’s science community and media to check the widespread GMO misinformation. In the aftermath of Kenya’s decision to lift the GMO ban, for instance, some politicians have promulgated a lot of misinformation. The notion that GMOs cause cancer is not factual and is not based on scientific research. It is crucial that GMO misinformation is not spread by those in positions of authority. President Ruto’s decision to lift the ban on GMOs was right based on science. He had the foresight to see where the science was headed,” Lynas said, adding:

“The previous GMO ban in Kenya was Exhibit no.1 in the world as a policy based on misinformation. President Ruto acted correctly in removing it and did so in accordance with the science. It is vital now that others do not resort to misinformation in seeking to restore the ban by making statements which contradict or deny the worldwide scientific consensus that genetically modified crops are as safe as any other. With millions on the verge of starvation this is not a debate that should be conducted lightly or for opportunistic political gain. The lives of Kenyan citizens, who will be denied access to safe food if the GMO ban is restored, are on the line.”

According to the study titled “Misinformation in the media: global coverage of GMOs 2019” GMO misinformation is as high as 20% in Africa.

The study, published in the GM Crops and Food, a peer-reviewed journal, also found that one-fifth of the coverage of genetically modified foods in the African media was inaccurate.

“The paper found that African media had higher rates of misinformation about GMOs than any other region of the world, so it is vital that journalists report this issue accurately and in accordance with the science. We found a fifth (20%) of media coverage in Africa on GMOs has included misinformation, compared to only 5% for North America and 7% for Europe. This is not necessarily the fault of journalists, often misinformation is repeated by NGOs or politicians and reported without scientific correction.”

Speaking during the AfriSMC press briefing, Professor Phelix Majiwa, a Kenyan molecular biologist, who has been a Senior Specialist Scientist at South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council, believes that the continent’s science journalists must take the lead in explaining and debating GMO science in terms that the general public can understand.

“The science media’s agenda needs to be accurate, fair and expanded to cover all the relevant aspects of genetic engineering. Because the topic has typically been limited to food. The conversation has to be expanded. It is essential to give everyone involved an equal amount of time to explain the science to those who are indisposed to it.”

Dr. Andrew Kiggundu, a plant biotechnologist, researcher, and regular author of scientific articles from Uganda, concurred. “The media must broaden the debate from crops to livestock, and then to human diseases such as HIV and cancer. It is important for people to be aware of the developments in biotechnology that are allowing scientists to modify human immune systems, treat cancer and other diseases, and slow the effects of ageing.”

“The principle of alternative views that journalists use, however, sometimes defeats the purpose as the alternative views they seek and incorporate in stories are nothing but misinformation, lies and conspiracy theories.”

Jonan Twinamatsiko, a Ugandan researcher, believes that better science communication from Africa’s media fraternity and scientists will go a long way in tackling common unsubstantiated misconceptions about GMOs and changing attitudes.

“Sub-Saharan Africa needs science communication champions because people have for long been subjected to a lot of emotive anti-GMO propaganda. It is up to science journalists to dispel the nescience and lies that have been spread with more Africa-appropriate GMO information. There has to be a realization that gene technology will be an invaluable asset in the continent’s quest to achieve the Zero Hunger SDG and SDG 13.”

Dr. Murenga Mwimali, a Research Scientist with the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), who also attend the AfriSMC press briefing, asserted that media reports and factual scientific literature could counteract the current reactionary response to Kenya’s decision to lift the ban on GMOs.

In a recent report titled “Crop biotechnology and smallholder farmers in Africa,” researchers Endale Kedisso, Nicholas Barro, Lilian Chimphepo, Tahani Elagib, and Ruth Mbabazi, among others, proposed that science communication on the continent be strengthened and expanded with messaging centred on farmer and consumer benefits and contributions to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Joseph Kato, 44, a large-scale maize farmer in Kasaali Village, Buwama Sub-County, Mpigi District, Uganda, says that he would appreciate it if the media disseminated more accurate information about BT maize.

“According to the news I’ve heard, it provides better resistance and more robust yields. Studies that support this claim have been conducted in Uganda, but farmers are frequently kept in the dark yet they could make do with it in these times of climate uncertainty where many continue to lose crops. Journalists should publicize more information about this variety, especially here in Uganda.”

Last year, the New Vision, Uganda’s leading daily reported that the country’s scientists at the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) halted BT Maize after successful field trials.

Dr. Godfrey Asea, the principal investigator for the research and director of NaCRRI, was quoted to have said they could not apply for the environmental release of the varieties because the country did not have a law to guide the usage of GMOs.

Ann Tibamwendera, a 37-year-old banana farmer in Kasana village, Birere sub-county, Isingiro district, echoes Kato’s sentiments by expressing interest in learning more about the high-yielding, bacterial wilt-resistant bananas that Ugandan researchers at the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) have bred.

“Even if farmers aren’t yet growing these varieties on their farms, the media can help by regularly disseminating information demonstrating how smallholder banana farmers will benefit when they plant genetically modified banana varieties on their farms.”

“Better and improved science communication will result in informed scientific decisions that support precise and better regulatory guidelines and policies for the advancement of biotech research and innovations on the continent,” Twinamatsiko said.

The study “Misinformation in the media: global coverage of GMOs 2019” came to the conclusion that the scientific community must act quickly to enhance its communications about genetic engineering with the media and the general public.

The authors of the study cautioned that if false information was allowed to spread, it would have a negative impact on efforts to advance agricultural sustainability and global food security by leading to restrictive laws and GMO bans, among other policy measures.

The authors proposed that scientific communications be focused on Africa, a continent still plagued by food insecurity, in order to reduce the rate of GMO misinformation in media coverage and thus improve the accuracy of information reaching policymakers and citizens.

“Across every form of media, we are seeing a dangerous rise in misinformation that we cannot allow to grow. It will steal the gains we have made through decades of research and learning, and opportunities that are yet to be applied to many countries in the Global South,” the Executive Director of the Alliance for Science, Dr Sheila Ochugboju, said in a conclusive comment sent the newsrooms immediately after the release of the research paper.