"Biotech Critics Cite Unapproved Corn in Taco Shells," blared a September 18 Washington Post headline. National Public Radio's Market Place program made the claim its lead story later that same day. While there's no question that an apparent expose of secretly modified food will get a lot of attention, the real story has less to do with biotechnology and more to do with shoddy journalism.
The charge against those taco shells? A coalition of anti-biotech crop activist groups, calling themselves the Genetically Engineered Food Alert, had had some Taco Bell taco shells manufactured in Mexico tested by an Iowa laboratory, Genetic ID. Genetic ID allegedly found that 1 percent of the corn DNA in the tacos came from StarLink corn, which has been genetically modified to resist pests. StarLink has not been approved for human consumption because of concerns that it might cause allergies. StarLink is the only biotech corn approved for animals but not for humans.
The anti-biotech coalition comprises seven organizations including the Ralph Nader-founded Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), Friends of the Earth, the National Environmental Trust, the Organic Consumers Association, the Pesticide Action Network, the Center for Food Safety, and the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy.
And the presumably independent lab, Genetic ID? The Washington Post blandly described Genetic ID as a company in Fairfield, Iowa, "which does substantial testing of American products being shipped to Europe…[that has] in the past been publicly skeptical about biotechnology." NPR didn't even provide that much of a disclaimer.
But it turns out that Genetic ID is a bit more than "skeptical" about biotechnology. The company's president is John Fagan, dean of the graduate school at Maharishi University of Management. Formerly Maharishi International University, the school was founded by Transcendental Meditation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; the university's Web site cites "scientific evidence" for "yogic flying", e.g., disciples are supposed to be able to levitate. Fagan himself is the author of the book Genetic Engineering: The Hazards, Vedic Engineering: The Solutions: Health—Agriculture—The Environment. Vedic engineering? "Maharishi's Vedic Engineering use[s] the most fundamental laws of nature to naturally and thoroughly solve our health, agricultural and environmental problems," explains a 1995 Natural Law Party press release announcing Fagan's book. Fagan is an advisor to John Hagelin, the presidential candidate of the Natural Law Party, which has been waging a political and consumer campaign against biotech crops. Fagan told the Natural Law Party's newsletter that he opposes "genetic engineering [because it] manipulates isolated levels of natural law rather than working on the holistic level of natural law."
That said, it is possible that Genetic ID has found some StarLink corn in the tacos, although biotech industry officials warn that such testing is very sensitive and difficult to do accurately. And the Washington Post did acknowledge in passing that "[a]t least once before, the company came to conclusions about the presence of genetically modified material that were later proven to be inaccurate."
Certainly, it's a safe assumption that Washington Post readers and NPR listeners might be interested in the extreme anti-biotech bias of Genetic ID and its ties to other anti-biotech groups, not to mention some of the other novel beliefs of its scientists. If industry funds a study, the Washington Post and NPR would certainly not—and should not—hide that information from its readers.
Indeed, even Genetic ID's Fagan understands such things, telling the Natural Law Party Newsletter, "If a scientist is funded by a biotech industry–and most molecular biologists are, directly or indirectly–it's very hard for him or her to be scientifically unbiased and to give a balanced evaluation of this technology."
Don't the editors of the Washington Post and the producers at NPR think that that might also be true of a laboratory run by anti-biotech activists and paid for by anti-biotech activists? Why not wait for the scientific results to be confirmed by a truly independent laboratory before rushing into print or onto the air anyway?
Taking an alarmist press release based on a sketchy "scientific" report sponsored by activists and running with it is very definition of tabloid journalism. The readers of the Washington Post and the listeners of NPR deserve better.