An image of an injection into a juicy tomato 'tomato syringe' or a huge cabbage with an elephant body are the most common illustrations used by the media on biotechnology stories.
It's dramatic, catchy, appealing and all about ‘hey-stop-pay-attention’ but can also be the opposite.
So the cabbage can have an elephant gene, yes it can because basically biotechnology involves movement of genes of interest.
These illustrations depicting biotechnology were first published in 2000 and have persisted much to the frustration of scientists, science communicators and not-for-profit organisations like ISAAA or the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Application which continuously tracks such stories and images.
“It gives the impression that scientists are injecting things into crops which creates fear, anxiety, outage and mistrust,” said Dr. Margaret Karembu an environmental scientists from ISAAA who said they have even written to the media houses that continue to use these illustrations to no avail.
She was speaking to media practitioners at a COMESA/ACTESA communication training on biotechnology and biosafety held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from 7th to 9th March 2017.
I can best describe it as the media wanting to keep biotech dramatic pictures, illustrations and stories while scientists want facts only. The India suicide story of BT cotton still continues to make rounds alarming people in African and not much is done to explain that these happened due to borrowers failing to pay their debts and it was thoroughly investigated.
The groups on either side of the debate are not very helpful as each feed exaggerated messages to the media that is not well trained. But Dr. Karembu maintains that even those pulling these technologies downward or disagree should argue from an informed point of view.
For the African media, of course minus South Africa, which is ahead of the pack in biotechnology, this reporting might be inevitable. After all, uptake of the technology is at snail-speed. The media can only move in tandem with upcoming laws and research as well skeptics seem to override the contest with the limited public knowledge.
But Dr. Karembu is still unhappy that the African media still depicts biotech as a foreign technology, that those illustrations show monsters trying to dump things in Africa yet more and more African scientists have been trained on biotechnology.
With this pool of trained African scientists, however, a few try to preach the biotech gospel some get disappointed after spending long hours with reporters only to get foot notes in controversial stories.
Biotech stories have to compete and if not relegated to science pages or publications are used as fillers in daily media. Writing them as ‘she-said-he-said’ without much analysis and investigation does not make them popular either.
ISAAA has noted that the African media continues to hype the risk factor alarming publics and not explaining the technology enough. I must say going beyond portraying biotech as a myth, mystery, superstition will take a while for the African media just as interchanging the terms GMOs and biotechnology continues.
Dr. Getachew Belay a plant breeder from COMESA/ACTESA says the word ‘hazard’ makes him uncomfortable in African biotech stories but how risk is overplayed and perpetually communicated remains bizarre to him. All technologies have risks and benefits - the balancing of the two sides alludes the media.
Biotechnology may be used in various industries including pharmaceuticals, but it is particularly controversial in agriculture because it is what we eat. That not withstanding it is a highly regulated technology with rigorous safety assessment.
It does not help that biotech terminologies have no local language translations yet community radios keep mushrooming everywhere in Africa and the farmers tune. But ISAAA has scientists who have been trying to define and find local dialect meaning for biotech terms.
But this it is not as fast as how science is developing and whose work is it anyway? “ You need a strategic approach,” said Dr. Karembu who links these stories to the African victim mentality, which delays grabbing of opportunity and fails to separate politics from technical issues.
“Encourage more of dialogue than debate. Shed off that mentality so you are not victims of the technology,” she said but it easier said than done and especially with writing biotech.
Nixon Ngang’a a science editor at Citizen Television and biotech media trainer said he would still use the illustrations to catch the attention of a six year old and his grandmother. Isn’t that what communication is all about anyway - visual attraction.
But he is quick to defend using these images. ‘It is not malicious. We want to catch attention of the audience,” he said.
I must also say that the narrative is changing albeit gradually. The African media has come a long way in reporting biotech. It is improving as some journalists exclusively becoming science journalists like me but the biotech trainings remain are far in between and some scientists remain media shy.
But we shall get there as the pool of more African journalists and trained on biotech and better pictures and illustrations are made available.
Cover Image: Dr. Margaret Karembu