Did NPR Miss the Point When Reporting on Our Food System . . . Again

Josette Madonia March 11, 2013 1

By Josette Madonia
Arizona Community Press | www.azcommunitypress.org

Recently on Morning Edition, NPR posted a story about biofortified rice, In A Grain Of Golden Rice, A World Of Controversy Over GMO Foods. This rice is fortified with vitamin A and is supposed to help poor people in Asia and undeveloped countries who suffer from vitamin A deficiency and are therefore at risk of going blind. The story mentions that proponents of the rice think that this product will silence GMO food critics.  However, there are many reasons to be skeptical of “golden rice” or biofortified rice.  For one, the claims that it will save lives and is capable of saving lives has not been proven.   According to Michael Pollan, “an 11-year-old would have to eat 15 pounds of cooked golden rice a day—quite a bowlful—to satisfy his minimum daily requirement of vitamin A.”

Why are people hungry?  The reason why people are hungry all over the world is related to poverty.  Individuals and families that do not live paycheck-to-paycheck also do not have to worry about going hungry.  In the United States, the food system is subsidized and big agriculture businesses are on corporate welfare.  This started in the 1930s after the Great Depression when farmers needed government handouts to stay in operation.  Yet these handouts did not end and agriculture business has changed dramatically.  Now large agricultural companies rely on monocultures, producing a large amount of one crop, which are usually genentically modified.  In effect, these crops, corn for example, are used to produce many products cheaply.  The result is cheaply-processed food made with corn starch or corn sweetners, as an example.  These products are high in calories and low on nutrition and, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), their production “generate[s] large greenhouse gas emissions and promote[s] marked alterations of ecosystems such as biodiversity loss, deforestation, soil erosion, chemical contaminations, [and] water shortage.”  Now these same biotech companies want to produce “golden rice” and the cause for concern is understandable.  Who will benefit the most from the production of the biofortified rice?  In the case of other genetically modified foods, the answer is clear, Monsanto.

The story on NPR mentioned one leader in the golden rice project, Gerard Berry: “He’s listed as first inventor on some of Monsanto’s most valuable patents. He found the gene that made crops immune to the weedkiller Roundup. That gene is now in soybeans, corn and cotton grown on hundreds of millions of acres.  But along the way, Barry also got interested in rice. “It was very exciting. It was probably my favorite crop to work on,” he says. “Because you got to meet really passionate people. Rice is something that’s vital to large numbers of people. I mean, a couple of billion people eat it.”  One only needs to tune into NPR for a short time before Monsanto and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are mentioned as sponsors.  The Gates Foundation is a big supporter of Monsanto and genetically modified crops as evidenced by their connection with AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa).

In effect biofortification is a distraction promoted by large agricultural companies which diverts the public’s attention from the real problem, food justice.  This is not the first time NPR has not given the public the full story on food.  In September of 2012, Talk of the Nation did a story that claimed there is no nutritional difference between organic food and conventional food.  The story set up a straw man argument that supporters of organic food had to defend.  There are many reasons people choose organic, among them are:

  1. to avoid ingesting pesticides, particularly a concern for children,
  2. to avoid pesticide use on land and deterioration of insect, particularly bee, colonies,
  3. to avoid genetically modified foods that have not been properly tested and are suspect for health concerns.

It seems that considering its ties to Monsanto and the Gates Foundation, NPR listeners need to wonder, is NPR a reliable source when reporting on the food industry?