By Joseph Maina
A new research paper shows increasingly favourable coverage of genetic modification (GMOs] in African media in recent years, suggesting a growing public acceptance of the technology in the continent.
This marks a visible detour from previous coverage that tended to be averse to the subject of GMOs in the continent.
“Positive favorability was observed in Africa, where countries are just beginning to adopt the technology,” states the report, published in the journal GM Crops & Food. “The (GMO) conversation is generally favorable in the US, Africa, and South Asia.”
The study examined the GMO conversation as it played out globally on social and traditional media between 2018 and 2020. It analysed 103,084 online and print articles published in English-language media around the world as well as 1,716,071 social media posts.
Kenya registered relatively stable favourability across the three years, whereas in Uganda, where a biosafety bill has been stalled for years, favourability was seen to plummet over time. In Nigeria, the favorability was greatest in 2019.
Kenya’s gross reach for the 2018 GMO conversation reached 116 million.
The researchers found out that while GMO coverage in conventional media increased during the period, social media posts on the subject dropped by over 80%.
This pattern, as the authors theorize, is suggestive of more favourable views of GMOs and agricultural biotechnology in general, characterised by less polarised conversations on the subject.
The COVID-19 pandemic is also seen as a possible cause of the slump in social media engagement on the subject, seeing as it occupied public attention particularly in 2020 when the plunge was most acute.
At the global level, the conversation is leaning towards positive, overall.
“We find that the overall tone of the GMO conversation is surprisingly positive, averaging 73% favorable if neutral and positive reporting are combined, and appears to have become somewhat more favorable over the time period studied,” state the authors.
GMOs have stoked public curiosity and controversy ever since they were introduced into the mainstream food pipeline in 1994.
The skepticism towards GMOs has largely been premised on concerns, many of them overblown, about food safety, corporate control of seeds and the food supply, potential pesticide use associated with the crops, and the welfare of smallholder farmers.
Kenya and Nigeria recorded increased positive conversations on GMOs in the period of study. The trend is said to possibly have been the result of recent legislations that have favoured agricultural biotechnology in the two countries, which have seen widespread adoption and growing public acceptance of GMOs.
The authors further hypothesise that the anti-GMO vibe tends to falter in countries that have adopted the technology.
“The favorable conversation in Kenya and Nigeria may be due to the fact that farmers have been able to witness field trials as well as plant GM seeds on their own farms. It may also be that anti-GMO activists lessen their activities in countries where the technology has been adopted, either turning to other issues or devoting their attention to countries that are still undecided,” states the study.
The researchers also observed an interesting twist: cyborgs and bots hog a significant load of the online debate and have been intensifying the offensive against GMOs. Cyborgs and bots were seen to be more virulent than human users and could in fact be the attack dogs deployed to skew the debate to the disadvantage of GMOs.
“Our analysis also found that cyborgs and bots represent about a third of the users engaged in the GMO social media debate. Furthermore, their posts are substantially more negative in sentiment toward GMOs than human accounts. This suggests that cyborgs and bots may be intentionally used by nefarious actors to sow dissent and make the GMO conversation appear more negative and polarized than it is,” states the study.
In their conclusion, the researchers charge that the science community still faces the task of aligning debate in both traditional and social media with relevant scientific information, such as the scientific consensus on the safety of GM foods, to help shape public opinion based on genuine scientific evidence.