Jayson Merkley — a recent Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership fellow, co-founder of the Vegan GMO campaign, and biotech, agriculture and food science communicator — gave a talk Dec. 20 in Portland about genetically modified organisms and biotech advocacy.
The event was presented by PDX Skeptics in the Pub, which hosts a monthly meetup of science- and skepticism-minded folks in a Portland pub.
Science in Portland shared a preview of the event in an earlier post.
In case you weren’t able to make it to Merkley’s presentation, here are some points from his talk that were live-tweeted under the hashtag #biotechadvmatters, following the presentation title Merkley used: “Biotech Advocacy Matters.”
Merkley began by describing the Cornell Alliance for Science, which is supported by a $5.6 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and his time at CAS as a fellow. He met several scientists and others involved with the alliance or the fellowship. Among these were Kevin Folta, a food and agriculture science professor at the University of Florida, and Steve Strauss, a forest biotechnology professor at Oregon State University.
You might recognize Folta as being the target of a Freedom of Information Act request, much like climate scientists in the past have been in situations where anti-science groups or individuals used FOIA to look for connections to industry and conflicts of interests. Others have characterized these activities as harassment of scientists. You can read more about the background of Folta and FOIA in Forbes, Wired, The Scientist and a blog by Folta himself.
Folta appears to have become a target for being an outspoken communicator of biotechnology and GMOs, explaining biotech science to the public. Merkley touched on Folta and the general issue of FOIA being used to harass scientists around the GMO debate.
(On a separate note, Strauss also has done a bit of public outreach on GMOs, doing a Q&A with me via The Oregonian in October 2014. It and Strauss were met with some of the typical anti-science, pseudoscience and anti-GMO vitriole that comes up in the debate.)
Among the activities during his fellowship, Merkley described an “ask me anything” panel event that was put on by the Cornell Alliance. The event drew lots of GMO opponents, but what surprised fellows at the event the most, he said, was the hostility expressed by opponents.
Merkley also talked about the interesting bedfellows he found during his fellowship at CAS, in one case a British politican who’s pro-GMO but denies anthropogenic climate change. This was an example of how science advocacy can be complex, he said. Not everyone advocates for science overall or for scientific knowledge and findings across the board.
As for biotech advocacy, Merkley then discussed science communications and finding new approaches to framing the benefits of biotech, especially in light of the fact that unfavorable opinions of biotech surged in 2014 after holding steady from 2008 to 2012. One example he gave was presenting GMOs and other biotech as tools for addressing issues of social justice, with this angle being one that can appeal to the values and emotions of segments of the general public, thereby making the information more accessible or acceptable for some recipients to hear. Merkley spoke about three aspects of the social justice angle:
GMOs/biotech can help address “hidden hunger,” also known as malnutrition, which leads to stunting in kids, mostly in the areas of Southeast Asia and Africa. Vitamin A deficiency is one cause of stunting, and that deficiency is the target of the GMO known as golden rice. In talking about the issue of nutrition and malnutrition, Merkley discussed a divide between the developed versus developing worlds, noting that nations where GMO debates are raging are often in developed nations where malnutrition and stunting issues are rare.
However, the GMO rhetoric and policies of said developed nations can influence access to and adoption of biotech in regions faced with rampant malnutrition. And often perspectives on food access differ between the developed and developing worlds, with nations facing hidden hunger more receptive to tools, including biotech, that could improve nutrition. On that note, Merkley said GMOs might not solve all issues of access and nutrition in and of themselves, but people should be allowed to use all tools that may be of help. Those tools can range from GMOs to organic methods, which makes the polarization of “big ag” versus “big organics” unhelpful.
“Both of these are dumb,” Merkley said. “Why can’t we use the best aspects of both?”
The bottom line of biotech’s potential as a tool for social just was summed up in language on one of Merkley’s presentation slides: “The reality: GMOs could significantly reduce poverty and inequality.”
Dengue fever: Genetically modified male mosquitos are being used to combat this viral illness that’s spread in the tropics and subtropics by skeeters. A gene is altered in male mosquitos in the lab that affects cellular activity in such a way that the altered males would eventually die if not for being fed the antibiotic tetracycline in lab. These males are released and live long enough to mate, yielding offspring with the altered gene. However, in the wild, there is no tetracycline to be had, and the young mosquitoes die before adulthood, reducing mosquito populations and lowering the risk of catching dengue virus. Besides reducing skeeter populations and lowering the risk of exposure, the use of the biotech also results in the benefit of reduced spraying of insecticides meant to control their numbers, Merkley said.
GMOs can be tools to slow the impacts of climate change, Merkely said, and it has to do with the agricultural footprint necessary to maintain food production and feed an increasing human population despite the effects of a warming climate.
GMOs, for example, could be engineered to be more resilient in the face of pests and pathogens that are spreading fast or becoming more virulent themselves because of increasing global temperatures, changing weather patterns and other ecological conditions.
Biotech tools also can target and help reduce the need to use synthetic nitrogen fertilizers (made from natural gas, which includes the greenhouse gas of methane) and petroleum-based products, Merkley said. On the latter, this can involve creating crops that require less tending with agricultural machinery that burns gas and emits carbon.
Merkley is a co-founder of the Vegan GMO campaign, which aims to establish a 1,000-member-strong, pro-science vegan activist group by 2017.
Vegan GMO and its founders want “to disrupt the anti-biotech echo chamber that dominates the vegan community,” he said.
To that end, the group wants to do outreach that includes tabling or having another presence at events, talking to people about GMOs and their fears, including sharing information from science to help allay those fears.
Finally, Merkley took audience questions, which included queries on how to get people to better evaluate information based on the merits of evidence and not preconceived notions.
Speaking more generally about how to communicate scientific topics, Merkley said that appealing to emotion can help you reach people. Framing GMOs and biotech information in a social justice context is one way to appeal to common interests and emotions when doing advocacy.
Another audience question pertained to what standard should be used in evaluating and talking about the safety of biotechnologies.
Many people adhere to a version of the precautionary principle in their daily lives, which involves preventative actions when faced with uncertainty and putting the burden of proof for safety on those advocating for a product or activity.
Science, as with all endeavors in life, comes with degrees of uncertainty and error. Scientists attempt to design research to minimize these issues, perform statistical tests to measure the level of uncertainty or error in their work, and are transparent in reporting the degree of uncertainty or error present (e.g. p values). In a well-designed study with a chance of error or uncertainty well below 5 percent, confidence in a result being true and accurate can be high. In other words, if a study like that (or better, that study plus several others with similar confidence in similar results) demonstrates something is safe, you can feel secure in accepting it as evidence of safety.
However, where most people live — which is in a land not knee deep in the minutiae of scientific methods, research design and statistical analysis — 5 percent or less doesn’t necessarily translate to confidence but rather to “room for doubt.”
And so when communicating to mixed audiences that include individuals who lack an understanding of science and how it deals with uncertainty, anything short of 0 percent uncertainty might not convince them to accept something as safe.
As Merkley said in his answer to the audience question, you might never find a standard to satisfy everyone.