Written by Kevin Folta
It is the best of times. Science has improved our communications, medicine, transportation, and security. It has taught us about the large and the small and taught us about the fundamental building blocks of life’s information- the genes that define human form and function. As a scientist I still get goosebumps when I read about a new disease therapy, a new finding in how plants respond to pests, or an improved way to see exo-planets. I feel overwhelmingly privileged that my parents exposed me to science early and cultivated my interests. I’m grateful for the ability to attend college, grateful for my mentors throughout graduate school, and grateful for my colleagues, postdocs and students in my lab today. It is a great time to be a scientist.
But the road to a career in science is rigorous and oftentimes unattractive. Low pay, insane hours, experiments that fail, all in preparation for complete career uncertainly at the end of your training. Those that weather this trail show unbridled commitment to the discipline, and more times than not, they are not interested in sharing their work beyond the peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. The discipline does not select for enthusiastic public communicators.
Maybe I’m a little different. Science is so important and exciting that I have to share it. I want you to know about it. I want you to understand it. Over the years I’ve talked to hundreds of public audiences, from 1st graders to retirees, about issues like water conservation, crop domestication and growing plants in artificial light environments in space. That’s fun.
But there are issues that are perceived to be controversial in the public that are not a controversy among scientists. Here I insert myself as a steward of science and someone that tries to connect and communicate with traditionally non-scientific audiences. I’ve spoken publicly on the value of vaccination, the evidence that man is changing climate, the evidence for evolution rather than creation, and the importance of biotechnology and utility of transgenic (GMO) crops. All of these issues bring me into forums where opinion sometimes differs from the scientific consensus. My job is to bring the finest evidence, communicate the science and maybe edge others toward that scientific consensus. At the very least a dissenting listener my learn to de-prioritize certain unsupported opinions or accepted myths. Small victories.
While monitoring the news about pesticides and GMOs in Hawaii I’ve witnessed a familiar pattern. A handful of activists seek to affect seed companies. Period. How do they do that? They generate fear and generate suspicion and infect the public with it. They generate fear and suspicion by embracing low-quality activist science and hearsay. They exploit graphic images and tout fake reports that are obtained from the internet. Sometimes they flat out lie. They appeal to emotion, they use children. They tell well-meaning academic and government scientists that they are not scientists at all, but instead are paid stooges on a corporate payroll. All of this is deplorable. Most of all, it is an increasing common retreat for those with an agenda and no capacity to discuss hard science and evidence.
While all of this is bad, what mobilizes me is when the rules and regulations of science are bastardized and distorted to push an activist agenda. The rigorous discipline of hypothesis-driven science that has solved so many problems, is twisted to promote political ideals. Unacceptable.
In the age of the internet the kernels of misrepresented or distorted science rapidly become a malignancy. They filter into all facets of a population, promulgated by fear and promoted by the devious and the ignorant. Malevolent activists use fear to manipulate those that have not yet developed a critical understanding of these issues. The goal is to harm seed companies. Deep inside it is not a ‘right to know’, it is not an interest in environment. It is to cause harm to seed companies and the farmers that support them.
Fear works. It works because we are dealing with food, something essential for our survival with deep social and cultural significance. It also works because the science is not simple. Development of transgenic plants and assessment of safety and efficacy is a complicated process. Together the scientific complexities and the primal fear conspire to produce a perfect forum for frightening the credulous or the scientifically unsophisticated. This is where I step in.
I don’t want to confront them, I want to comfort them. I want to take the whole anti-GMO movement and give it a hug, and assure it that everything is okay. I don’t feel anger; I feel sad pity. I’m sad that they are so steeped in a fabricated, misguided hate for corporate science that they can’t share in biotech’s successes or potential. I know this science, I’ve studied this science for 25 years, and I understand the strengths and limitations of the technology. The people most likely against biotech are people like me in so many other ways. We vote the same, are concerned about the environment, worry about the weakest among us, and allegedly value education. We differ on this one issue.
Talk to me. Let me answer your questions & address your fears. Education has a sparkling habit of making fear go away.
I’m not telling anyone what to think, but I do tell people how to think. It is about having the tools and perspective to think about an issue in a fresh, evidence-based, emotionless way. It is about learning who the real experts are and then having the courage to try to understand them. It is not about abandoning skepticism. Instead it is also turning skepticism inward to assess self deception, and accepting what we find.
I’m here in Kauai as a resource. I’m receiving no financial compensation for five days of my time. I’m here because I’m a teacher that sees science being convoluted and exploited in a selfish activist push to tarnish the sound extensions of recombinant DNA technology. My hope is to be a resource for those that have not made up their minds, to softly influence their perspective, direct them to good information and provide a contact for future interaction. A well placed seed can grow into something wonderful.
As the Chairman of one of the nation’s preeminent plant science departments I represent faculty that work in all areas of crop biology. I have a substantial breadth of experience from lab to field. From those that work with DNA at the bench, to those that study organic production, to those that seek to heal citrus disease, to those that grow plants on the International Space Station, I am honored to work among such great scientists with broad impacts. I come here with an understanding of the challenges of food production. GMO technology is at least part of the solution to make better products for the consumer, the farmer and the environment. To really make it work for us we have to understand it, appropriately criticize it, and think forward to how it can serve us best. We have to do this making personal and policy decisions based on science rather than fear and emotion.
Written by Guest Expert
Kevin Folta has studied biology and agricultural biotechnology for over thirty years. His research examines the role of light in controlling plant traits, especially those relevant to agriculture. His group is known for using innovative genomics approaches to identify genes associated with fruit quality, especially flavors and aromas.