Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report



Summary of research report

1. In January and early February 1999 the issue of "GM food" was a media storm waiting to happen. The combination of the BSE debacle and the rapid introduction of GM commodity crops into the United Kingdom market over the previous 2-3 years had "sensitised" the public to the issue; and a gap had opened up between governmental and industrial policy and practice, on the one hand, and public opinion on the other. In this situation, a single event—particularly one involving scientific dissent from the consensus view that GM foods were safe to eat—was sufficient to trigger a debate in which many newspaper editors, sensing that their readers were generally suspicious about the whole area, decided to campaign against agricultural and food biotechnology. The media campaign then drove the debate in ways that both the United Kingdom Government and significant sections of United Kingdom science and industry found extremely uncomfortable.

2.    In summary, the report finds that an extremely intense media debate on GM food took place in the United Kingdom in early February 1999; for a period of 7-10 days the subject was a front-page news story in the press, and a lead story on radio and TV.

3.  The "Great GM Food Debate" was triggered by a letter in the Guardian newspaper on Thursday 12 February from a group of 22 scientists, supporting the (then unpublished) work of Dr Arpad Pusztai on alleged harmful effects of GM potatoes fed to rats. For several weeks prior to this triggering event, coverage of GM foods in the British press was already on the increase; and just prior to the triggering event GM food became a party political issue when the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition clashed in the House of Commons.

4. Press (newspaper) coverage of the issue was of prime importance in shaping the debate. A press event triggered the debate, press headlines "set the agenda" throughout the most intense phase of the debate (11-20 February), and the broadcast media (especially Radio 4's Today programme) frequently took their cue from press headlines.

5. A significant feature of the press coverage was that a number of national newspapers—all the tabloids studied, and several of the broadsheets—chose to a adopt a campaigning rather than a reporting stance on GM food. While the absolute amounts of coverage of the GM food issue were similar in campaigning and non-campaigning newspapers, the form of the coverage was radically different. In general, the differences between campaigning and non-campaigning newspapers were larger than the differences between tabloid and broadsheet newspapers.


6. The campaigning newspapers entered the debate first, raised new "issues" first, made use of more "sensational" headlines, and devoted a larger proportion of their coverage to commentary (rather than news or features), especially in the early stages of the debate. From these facts, we may conclude that the campaigning newspapers drove the public debate by "setting the agenda", whereas the non-campaigning newspapers simply reported the debate.


7. Other striking features of the press coverage include the following:

  • the phrase "GM" came to be established in general parlance through the course of the Great GM Food Debate;
  • on average, 13 per cent of all press articles on GM food mentioned BSE (the proportion was much higher in the early phases of the debate);
  • on average, 13 per cent of all press articles on GM food mentioned organicfood/farming (again, the proportion was somewhat higher in the early phase of the debate).

8. Coverage by non-scientific (general, political, environmental) correspondents was extremely prominent, particularly in the campaigning newspapers. From the outset GM food was not seen by the campaigning press as primarily a "science/technology story".

9. To explain the nature (and, to some extent, the impact) of the media coverage, we need to understand why so many British newspapers decided to campaign (rather than merely report) on the issue. Relevant factors here include:

  • the steady erosion of public confidence in the United Kingdom food industry following the BSE debacle, particularly after March 1996;
  • the further erosion of public confidence in GM food following the import into Europe in autumn 1996 of the first batches of unsegregated (GM/non-GM) commodity crops (soya and maize);
  • the establishment in the period 1996-1998 of a powerful coalition of critics of GM food, including Friends of the Earth and other environmental organisations; the Soil Association and other supporters of organic farming; consumer groups (including the Consumers' Association); the Vegetarian Society; and a small number of highly influential public figures;
  • the existence of a small number of extremely prominent figures—a member of the Royal Family, a well-known and highly respected radio and TV presenter, and an equally well-known presenter of the Radio 4 Today programme—who were personally identified with or at least strongly sympathetic towards the critical campaign;
  • the existence of intense competition ("circulation wars") in the press, which attracted several newspaper editors to the idea of campaigning on what they took to be a populist cause.

10. Though the work of one scientist "triggered" the Great GM food debate, this work was not in our judgement the sole or even necessarily the most important influence on the shape and course of that debate. Rather, the shape and course of the debate were the result of the entire constellation of factors listed above.

John Durant
Nicola Lindsey
Science Museum, London

November 1999

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 2000