GMO files – Following the results of a failed trial in Europe

Leader of the state trial farm at Tystofte, Gerhard Deneken and former minister of agriculture Eva Kjer Hansen shows the story on GMO corn. Photo: Danish Ministry of Agriculture.

Leader of the state trial farm at Tystofte, Gerhard Deneken and former minister of agriculture Eva Kjer Hansen shows the story on GMO corn. Photo: Danish Ministry of Agriculture.

Sometimes investigative reporting is just luck.

For me, it happened with a story on Monsanto and a trial in Denmark on genetically modified organisms. GMOs are an especially controversial topic in Europe, as several people fear that the modified genes of crops might have long-term health effects.

Because of this, Monsanto and other companies have found it difficult to sell crops that have been genetically altered. The trial would, reportedly, test the safety of these crops.

The trial led to two stories:

  1. Monsanto stopped using GMOs in the European market.
  2. Authorities and Monsanto kept the test results of the trial secret.

Preparing a couple of environmental stories

It all started in 2013 when I was part of a group building the Danish Center for Investigative Reporting. We were quite confident at the time that we would get funding. Then the plan was to prepare a couple of environmental stories, which could be published quickly.

I did  background  research  on  several environmental topics, one of them being GMOs.

I hadn’t covered it before, so it was all very new to me. One of the top hits in my search was a four-year-old picture of the Danish Minister of Agriculture Eva Kjer Hansen walking in sunny cornfields with the press, claiming trials would open Denmark for GMOs three years later.

She visited Monsanto three months earlier, published a so-called report on the truth of GMOs, and then presented these new trials for growing genetically modified corn in Denmark.

The stories in the press were covered with these sunny pictures.

The main findings on GMO

Three years passed, and I planned to do a story on the trial outcomes, where farmers in Denmark actually grew the genetically modified corn and how they were adjusting to the new crops.

I couldn’t find much on the web. Some hits came up, but they only reported that the trials  expanded. There was nothing about the results.

So, I called the test center and asked for the results directly.

Soon after, the Danish State Authority for Farming — a branch under The Danish Ministry for Agriculture and Food, run by Eva Kjer Hansen — called me and asked for a meeting.

I got three takeaways from the meeting.

  1. I received a lot of files and documents on the trials, stating how the test failed.
  2. I was denied access to the actual test results.
  3. The authority stopped all work on CMOs.

There was no plan at all to introduce them in Denmark, and no interest for it any longer, they said. No employee in the authority worked with GMOs any longer.

Reaction fom Monsanto

From here I thought it would be easy. I would just battle the case on getting the test results, and then I’d ask Monsanto to comment on it all.

It wasn’t as simple as I had hoped. A Monsanto spokesperson was based in Brussels, so when I was going to a conference in Brussels in beginning of May 2013, I made an appointment to meet with him.

He told me Monsanto decided not to push any further for GMOs in Europe. They would only sell it where there wasn’t resistance, which meant they could only sell it in three countries in Europe.

I also asked him for access to the trial results. He refused, but told me that Monsanto would publish the results later (they have not).

iPhone ran out of space under an interview

After all that, I had another hiccup with the interview. I planned to record it on my iPhone, but I had forgotten to check one thing: the storage. I quickly ran out of space (keep in mind I was an associate professor teaching students how to use smartphones for interviews).

The spokesman very kindly allowed me to use his iPhone for the interview. After the interview, I deleted my iPhone’s entire music library. I would not face the same situation again.

The battle for the trial records was even more difficult than the interviews. When the Authority for Farming denied my request, the Ministry for Food and Agriculture backed them up. I even petitioned the help of the Danish ombudsman, but he supported the Authority’s decision too.

I never received the results from the trial.

Regardless, we went with what we had and published the GMO story. It instantly went around the world. Our reporting on agriculture was picked up by Reuters, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and the Columbia Journalism Review.

A lot was left unsolved, and the potential for follow-ups is abundant. We want to know the outcome of all trials on GMOs, not just the ones that are published, which are normally pro-GMO.

We also want to know the strategy for selling GMOs.

Handout on everyday digging

In April 2016, I was at the investigative conference in Norway and together with the editor-in- chief at Jysk Fynske Medier, Bruno Ingemann, we taught a training session in daily digging. This case with GMOs and Monsanto in Denmark is a rather good practical example of how this can be done.

  1. Do background research on important topics and see which stories have not been followed-up. It’s really checking how much is never checked.
  2. Plan your own follow-ups. Keep a calendar where you make note of when you will check a story that you’ve previously reported.
  3. Have some FOI cases running. Sometimes you can easily get a result. Sometimes a denial is a better story than actually gaining access.

Bruno Ingemann and I did a handout: 25 Tips for Everyday Digging.

See the original story: GMO lose Europe – victory for environmental organisations

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