A new research study released by the Alliance for Science on Wednesday revealed that levels of misinformation about GMOs could be among the highest in the world in the Kenyan media.

The study discovered that 40 percent of GMO-related articles published by 14 of Kenya's top media outlets contained unrebutted misinformation over a three-month period, from October 2022 to January 2023, at the height of the recent controversy. 

The study assessed 376 articles, 151 of which 40 per cent contained anti-GMO misinformation. Pro-GMO misinformation was also found but in only 1 per cent of articles. 

An earlier Alliance for Science study found rates of GMO misinformation in the global media of 9 per cent during the survey period of 2019 to 2021, with rates in Africa as high as 20 per cent. 

However, a misinformation rate of 40 per cent would make Kenya potentially the worst in the world in terms of GMO media misinformation. 

While releasing the study on Wednesday at the Narobi's Safari Park Hotel, Alliance for Science executive director Dr Sheila Ochugboju, said the situation was concerning and would affect the decision making of Kenyans regarding GMO.

Dr Sheila Ochugboju. 

“This is extremely concerning. It will be very difficult for Kenyan citizens to make properly informed decisions about GMOs in the face of this storm of misinformation,” Ochugboju said.

“Let us be clear. Scientists around the world have assessed GMOs, and have reached a strong consensus that new techniques for breeding crops such as genetic modification are not any riskier than older approaches. Thus any claims about the negative health effects of GMOs are 100 per cent false and must be reported as such in the media.” 

She referenced to a November meeting of the Kenya National Academy of Sciences in which Honorary Secretary professor Ratemo Michieka said scientific authorities around the world have concluded that GMO does foods do not pose any risk to humans, animals or the environment.

“Scientific authorities around the world such as US National Academy of Sciences, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, World Health Organisation, American Medical Association for the Advancement of Science, have analysed thousands of scientific studies and concluded that GM food crops do not pose any risks to people, animals or the environment.” 

However, the authors of the Alliance for Science study are careful not to place the blame at the feet of journalists and editors.

The vast majority of the stories that contained misinformation were simply repeating falsehoods about GMOs that had been stated by prominent politicians and anti-science NGOs. 

Among the prominent offenders were opposition leader Raila Odinga, who made many false statements alleging the negative health impacts of GMOs, and Roots Party leader George Wajackoyah, who claimed that GMOs would make men grow breasts and women grow beards. 

Other institutions, including NGOs such as the Kenyan Peasants League and Food Rights Alliance also made scientifically unfounded statements about GMO health effects which were repeated without rebuttal by media outlets. 

Alliance for Science noted the problem is not unique to Africa because a previous research found that then-US President Donald Trump was the biggest single source of Covid-19 misinformation and that US media outlets were repeating his unfounded claims also without sufficient expert context or rebuttal. 

“We have not conducted this research to point fingers but to assist media in doing a better job of holding prominent persons and NGOs to account when they make unfounded claims about GMOs and other issues of scientific controversy,” Ochugboju said.

“It is no longer enough to simply report what someone said. Journalists and media houses must do more than simply report the controversy. In doing so they risk unwittingly spreading misinformation.”

“Just as with Covid-19 and with vaccines, media outlets must accept responsibility for not misleading their readers. Therefore when prominent people make false statements, scientists must be contacted to give proper context and readers must be informed in the same article if statements are false,” she added.

Ochugboju pointed to the recently established Africa Science Media Centre (AfriSMC), whose mandate is to more effectively connect media and reporters with scientific experts.

She also highlighted the role of the Alliance for Science in quantifying and combating misinformation across a broad range of topics, including food and nutrition security, global health and climate change. 

The Alliance for Science is hosted by the Boyce Thompson Institute in Ithaca, United States. It has a Global South Hub located in Nairobi. The study was conducted in partnership with the media analysis company Cision, which conducted the initial keyword searches using its global media database.