The hidden side of clinical trials

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Evidence matters to the public

Join us on 1st November at Parliament to make the case

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Plant Science Panel

Insecticides, biofuels, GMOs …

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'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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Next time GM is in the news, CBBC can turn to VoYS

Matt Audley

Matt Audley is a VoYS member, PhD student at Rothamsted Research and has an MSc in Crop Improvement from The University of Nottingham. Matt was one of five VoYS members who contacted CBBC about inaccurate GM content.

"Some weeks ago I was contacted by Voice of Young Science (VoYS) looking for help from early career scientists to contact CBBC Newsround about their webpages on GM foods. At first I had presumed the pages perhaps contained a minor scientific inaccuracy or some subtle false balance. However, I was quite astounded to find the CBBC website hosting some out-dated and inaccurate information on GM crops which seemed to have a strong negative bias against the technology.

I decided straight away to take part in contacting BBC about getting these pages taken down. Although they seemed about 10 years old and no longer part of the main CBBC Newsround website, they were still the first hit returned when searching GM in the CBBC search engine. I dread to think how many times these pages have been stumbled upon by young people looking for facts about GM. I was put in contact with two other PhD students, who were also studying plant science at UK research institutions, and we began drafting a letter.

Posting letter to CBBC

We started by going through the web pages to identify points that were false or misleading. It quickly became apparent the pages had too many myths and misrepresentations of GM to deal with them all in a single letter. We had to nail it down to one or two of the most pertinent examples of inaccurate or biased information.

We settled on using the example on the opening page of the site which introduced GM crops and why they're different to conventionally bred crops:

“GM foods have been artificially changed by scientists in a laboratory.

In the past, plants have been improved by breeding them with other, better plants - a natural process which takes years. But with GM foods, it's done quickly and artificially, and lots of people are worried about it.”

The suggestion that conventional breeding is a wholly natural process, free from any artificial intrusion, scientists or laboratories is completely false. In reality, successful modern crop breeding relies heavily on "artificial" methods such as the use of chemicals and x-rays to induce genetic variation and many other human interventions, all of which are unlikely to be classed by most as "natural".

We also highlighted that the webpages gave heavy bias to discredited health scares, inaccurate examples of GM technology and spurious claims that scientists insist that GM will solve all of the world's food problems. And there were no examples of the very real benefits available only through GM technology, such as Golden Rice. Overall, the webpages gave a one-sided and factually inaccurate representation of GM which would leave any reader with a highly subjective view of the issue. Young people actively seeking out GM resources deserve to be presented with evidence to inform their opinions.

Working with the other VoYS members to draft the letter was a great experience. When the final version was agreed upon, it was clear that the hard work, thoughtfulness and insights of each writer had come together to create a concise and compelling letter.

After much web searching, we found contact details for the editor of Newsround, Daniel Clarke, and two other senior executives responsible for online children's content. With five signatories – all early career plant scientists – we posted the letter from sunny Dundee. A short while passed before we heard back from Mr Clarke he said he'd look at the pages and true to his word, he came back a couple of days later on 16th August 2013 to let us know the pages would be taken down.

At the end of the letter we offered our services as young plant scientists should CBBC decide that more up to date and objective information about GM is needed on the website. For now they haven't got back to us on that but our primary objective of getting the pages taken down was achieved swiftly. Nonetheless, CBBC Newsround now knows that next time GM is in the news they can turn to VoYS to help ensure that their audience gets the objective and accurate reporting expected of CBBC."

For more information on genetic modification, see Making Sense of GM.

VoYS pinboard

  • Top tip 1: Ask for Evidence. If you’re being sold a product or asked to believe a claim then you deserve to know whether it’s based on evidence – or imagination.

  • Top tip 2: Detox. It’s a marketing myth – our body does it without pricey potions and detox diets.

  • Top tip 3: Superfood. There is no such thing, just foods that are high in some nutrients.

  • Top tip 4: Cleansing. You shouldn’t be trying to cleanse anything other than your skin or hair.

  • Top tip 5: If it sounds too good to be true… it probably is.

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