World Federation of Science Journalists

Chinese journalists sign up for GM workshop as Olympics squeeze news space


October 20, 2008

In August as the world turned its attention to the Beijing Olympics, Zhou Xinyu, the science editor of China Youth Daily’s popular supplement Bingdian Weekly, found herself suddenly very relaxed among busy colleagues.

“Since the Olympics, our science pages have all been used by sports or other Olympics-related events,” Zhou said.

She added that after some reporting prior to the games on how scientific and high-tech the Olympics would, there little incentive to report the event itself from a scientific angle. “The readers during this time didn’t care very much about science reporting,” she says.

No room to spare as Beijing journalists cram into a workshop on GM stories. Jia Hepeng is second from left in front row.


So as the pressure came off and everyone relaxed, she and other science journalists in China – unless they were recruited into Olympics reporting teams – could view the games without worrying about deadlines.

And beyond that, this break allowed more journalists than ever to attend an informal workshop organized by the China Science Reporting Network (CSRN) on the science and business of genetically modified crops.

“I had worried that few reporters would come because of the Olympics,” said Jia Hepeng, director of CSRN and the major organizer of the August 12 event. “But actually the room was full, with nearly all active science journalists in Beijing there.” Others came even if it meant missing out on the Olympics.

“I had a ticket to an Olympics match, but I think it is more important to come to communicate GM prospects here,” said one of the speakers, Huang Jikun, the director of the Centre for Agricultural Policy Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The team under the direction of Huang – who had to miss a track and field event – has published several long-term studies on the benefits of GM cotton, and the projected benefits of GM rice – which has not been commercialized yet in China – in Science and other top journals.

Strong opposition to GM crops has arisen because of worries that the benefits and profits would mainly go to big companies. But Huang’s studies of the GM cotton market showed that more than 50 per cent of the added value went to farmers who planted the crop, while consumers got a 30-per-cent saving because of lower prices. Companies obtained only 10 to 20 per cent of the profits.

The former director of the Institute of Biotechnology in the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences also spoke about the safety of GM crops. Huang Dafang said that after more than 10 years’ of raising GM cotton and up to five years of field trials of GM rice, there is no evidence of a biosafety risk, although potential risks must monitored.

Jia gave suggestions for reporting in this area. “I think when we talk about GM crops, we journalists must be realistic. We are not defending or opposing something, but just reporting science. One key issue is to find scientific evidence for or against GM crops before we do any reporting.”

Li Hujun of Caijing Magazine, and another organizer of the Chinese network, said the workshop helped him clear up his uncertainties about GM crops: “As a longtime journalist, even I had some misunderstanding, let alone average reporters, so I think our event could be highly beneficial.”

Li Hujun was not alone. Li Guolin, a reporter for Dasheng, an agricultural news magazine, said, “I think the event not only helps us better understand the science of GM crops, but also the right attitude and skills on how to report controversial issues. I hope there will be more such activities in the future.”

A reporter from the 21st Century Business Herald, though not a science journalist, followed up her workshop experience by reporting on China’s plans to invest more than US$3.5 billion on GM crops for the years to 2020. Both Huang Jikun and Huang Dafang have been advisers on this project.