Written by Nikolai Braun
I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area watching Redskins football with my family. I haven’t seen a Redskins game since I moved away from the area in the early 2000’s, and now I couldn’t name more than 1 player currently on the team. But I have a strong opinion about them: I think they suck. They are terrible and their incompetent owner has destroyed the team.
Why do I have a strong opinion on something that I know almost nothing about? I read about it on the internet.
I regularly read the news in the Washington Post, and occasionally open a Redskins story. These stories are usually opinion—not reporting on facts and figures—just entertaining screeds about the incompetent owner of the Redskins torpedoing yet another opportunity.
Is my opinion correct? Possibly. I looked up the Redskins record for 2014, and they were 4-14. But is there more to the story? Do they have the best pass rush in the league, or special teams, or attendance, or something like that? I don’t know. There is almost certainly more to it than my understanding of the situation, because I don’t know very much about the Redskins. But I am the proud owner of this opinion, and good luck convincing me to change my mind.
So what would change my mind about the Redskins?
The most unlikely scenario would have me watching all the Redskins games and learning all the players’ stats so I could form my own independent opinion based entirely on empirical data. This just isn’t going to happen. I already have weekend rituals that involve me actually playing sports, hanging out with friends and being outdoors—no time to invest in a new hobby.
A slightly more likely scenario is if I hung out with a sports nut who talked about the Redskins all the time. He backs up his informed opinions about sports with statistics and elaborate theories. If his opinion of the Redskins was different from mine, I might argue my position at first. But I can’t cite any relevant facts to support my opinion, other than my general feelings on the topic. After a few discussions, I would probably change my mind about the Redskins and adopt the sports nut’s arguments as my own.
My opinion could also change if the general feeling of the Redskins performance around me was different. If my friends made comments about their personal opinions that the Redskins are okay, or if my Facebook feed occasionally had something positive about the Redskins, or my Dad called me up and said how much fun going to the Redskins game was, I could change my opinion. Rather than knowing one sports nut who is an expert, it would be many different people in my life who all had little pieces of a story, and I took a bit from all of their opinions and experiences to form my opinion.
GMOs also suck
I’m not deeply entrenched in a “the Redskins suck” lifestyle. I don’t go to those clubs, I’m not on their email list, I don’t see many of those Facebook updates. I just read a newspaper article now and then. The vast majority of people are in the same boat when it comes to GMOs.
Genetic engineering is really complicated. I’ve been a plant scientist for over a decade and there are always new things (and old things) that I need to read up on. Understanding biotechnology is my job. We can’t expect non-plant scientists to put in that kind of time. Most of the public has more important things to think about, so they just take the closest available opinion to them: a meme in their Facebook feed, a sign at the natural foods store, or an opinionated family member, for example.
While the media is sharing more positive, neutral, and informed stories, anti-GMO misinformation is pervasive. There are very few people fighting this battle, but they are making a lot of noise.
How can we change this opinion?
When people do expose themselves to new perspectives, there is a dramatic shift in opinion. For example, in the recent Intelligence Squared debate on GMO food, the pro-GMO position resoundingly won the debate. But that only reached a small segment of the population. Who has seen anti-GMO misinformation show up in their Facebook feed in the last week? I know I have.
Most papayas are GMO. But when was the last time anybody (on the US mainland) ate one of those? Are they even food, or are they decorative, like a gourd? I can appreciate the good that GMO technology has done for the papaya industry, but that story has no relevance in my life. Every American has eaten GMO corn or soy as an ingredient in processed foods. But not knowingly. They didn’t knowingly make that choice.
A farmer made a choice when they planted the seed. But I don’t know any farmers. I don’t know their thoughts about pesticides, fuel costs, discing, amaranth, commodity markets… nothing. While there are more and more farmers on social media all the time, most farmers are too busy feeding the world on razor-thin margins to get out there in the media and chat about their feelings on GMOs.
I think we need to start approaching this conversation differently. Both my business partner Keira Havens and I are biotechnologists by training, and we want the promise of biotechnology to be fully realized and democratized—using all the tools of nature to sustainably develop the food, fuels, medicines, and other undreamed of innovations that we need and want. But that means we need to get people outside of farmers and scientists involved and engaged with biotechnology.
What if GMOs became a normal part of people’s daily existence?
Gardening is a popular hobby in the United States. Everyone loves a pretty flower. What if there were GMO flowers that everyone and their grandmother could plant in their front yards? A genetically modified flower that changed color, available at any garden store. You could water it, care for it, watch it grow, bloom, and change color. You could make opinions on GMOs based on your first-hand experience. People would talk about it at work, or not. It would show up in pictures on Facebook, or not. The personal experiences one has with these GMOs would enter the public consciousness.
Everyone would see that the pretty GMO flower next to their mailbox is just a flower. It needs water just like every other flower and it dies off in the fall just like every other flower. There’s nothing frightening about it, it’s just part of a beautiful garden.
That’s why I’m excited to be working with Revolution Bio to make beautiful biotechnology that anyone can buy and plant in their front yard. We want to expand the conversation about GMOs, with a flower that gives people a new set of experiences to associate with GM technology: appreciation, wonder, and delight.
Written by Guest Expert
Nikolai Braun is an experienced synthetic biologist, scientific group leader, and biotech product developer. He has a PhD in biophysics from UC, Davis. He is interested in networking, business opportunities, and fun new ways to make the world a better place. Nikolai co-founded Revolution Bioengineering, the beautiful biotechnology company, and now is the leader of the micro- and molecular biology programs at Luna Innovations.