I firmly believe that a college/university campus should be an incubator for new, sometimes radical ideas.
GMOs aren’t altogether new or radical, at least in science circles. But rewind 40 years ago, and GMOs were chic and avant garde. Since then, we have a rigorous regulatory system in place, volumes of peer-reviewed research, and 20+ years of commercial products under our belt. Not so much as a wayward sniffle has been attributed to them.
With that said, as an enthusiast, practitioner, and teacher, I should be loath to say that “the science” attesting to GMO safety is 100 percent settled. We lab coat types aren’t supposed to make those sorts of pronouncements — since science is a never-ending road trip seeking to add to, refine, and reevaluate a body of knowledge. So I’ll cover my bases, rule out absolutes, and go out on a very confident limb. Based on my assessment of the literature, I can reasonably conclude that the likelihood that GMOs are safe is over 99 percent. I would gladly take those odds in Vegas. Certainly no more risky than the uncertainties associated with any other plant breeding method (which get the ho-hum treatment from the Feds).
Scientists are “information bookies” of sorts — but the currency that we take bets on (and pay out) is fact-based and for the collective good. No profiteering here. But sometimes the disconnect between consensus in the ivory tower and the lay public manifests in very harmful, inexplicable ways, like a tumor. I readily admit that scientists are historically bad communicators. And we’ve let this malignancy metastasize as hucksters who masquerade as “experts” and mislead the public. That means we need to play catch-up on the PR circuit.
As such, I organized a showing of the film “Food Evolution” at my college. After months of buzz and anticipation, it didn’t disappoint. Thumbs way up. It successfully injected humor with facts. Not only that, but it made an impassioned plea to consider the human costs of inaction.
A frequent point was that GMOs are not synonymous with Monsanto-brand corporatism, a popular punching bag for activists. In fact, there’s plenty of public sector work being done. Pioneering work in Uganda against bacterial wilt in bananas comes to mind. When cut, the innards of the plants ooze thick, mucus-like bacteria. Put simply, the bacteria gum up the plumbing. There’s no cure, except gene jockeying! The matriarch of a family plunged into food insecurity by this disease was brought to a research facility to see fully resistant plants in action. Thoroughly impressed, she inquired if she could take some home. Sorry. Though approved for field trials, the plants are not cleared for release. Her look of despair was real, and distressing. The facility itself had menacing signage, and was basically on lockdown. It literally looked like the border of a demilitarized zone. These are scenes that continued activist prodding — all in the name of “safety” to the n-th degree — has wrought.
The controversy surrounding GMOs in the developed world doesn’t dull to a whisper at national borders — it invariably spills over to innocents in the developing world who can least afford to be caught in the crossfire. They don’t want platitudes about boutique-priced organics, they want to survive to see tomorrow.
But for vocal activist detractors, the human equation is irrelevant. To budge one iota from their hardline stance opens up the floodgates! GMOs are just an obscenity laced tirade against nature. Frankenfoods. Some amusing clips (similar to Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” segments) from late night talk shows were shown, where the public is asked what GMO stands for. After stammering, most were stumped. Could they actually define a GMO if the need arose? Could the “authorities” that they probably flock to for their information (instead of scientists) follow through? Doubtful. They might as well define GMOs as thingamajigs. That’s a scathing and appropriate indictment of a scientific community reluctant to engage the public at-large.
The film frequently focuses on credentialing. The educational background of experts and non-experts alike are transparently spelled out to the viewer. Very few from the anti-GMO camp actually earned a degree in science, or a terminal degree for that matter. One well-known activist had a Bachelor’s in Fashion Design. Well, I’m sold. You are a veritable oracle of unbiased, authoritative information! That is jaw droppingly shocking and laughable.
I found it ironic that similar, self-anointed experts with questionable backgrounds are being invited to provide expert testimony to determine policy. For example, to determine the fate of the Rainbow Papaya in Hawaii. Developed and given to farmers free of charge, this plant “vaccination” literally resurrected the industry after being ravaged by ringspot virus. Puzzlingly, the legislative body that voted for a GMO ban granted a waiver specifically for this miracle technology in their own backyard. This would seem to endorse the idea that GMOs have some redeeming qualities.
In the words of science ambassador Neil deGrasse Tyson: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” By infusing facts with human interest stories, I’m hopeful that films like “Food Evolution” will continue to frame the GMO debate in an accessible way so we all can reap the rewards — and soundly condemn anti-scientism and its toxic merchants.
Tim Durham’s family operates Deer Run Farm — a truck (vegetable) farm on Long Island, New York. As an agvocate, he counters heated rhetoric with sensible facts. Tim has a degree in plant medicine and is an Assistant Professor at Ferrum College in Virginia.