Finding common ground on growing food

In the final minutes of a new TEDxCERN talk, Penn State biology professor Nina Fedoroff implores of her audience, “Will we have the wisdom to invest in the scientific and technological innovations that can give everyone a livelihood, a seat at the table, and enough to eat?”

Count yourself as a decent human being if you find yourself nodding “yes” because, as the former AAAS president says, food security is essential to providing stability around the world. But in the face of overpopulation, greater appetite for animal protein, and climate change, the way forward requires hard work that includes serious efforts into educating the public about agriculture.

Getting to informed decisions about anything requires a logical flow of information, civil exchange of ideas, and intelligent dialogue. But on the subject of genetically modified foods, too often the conversation unravels into one of over-generalizations, finger pointing, and ad-hominem attacks.

Journalists are as much to blame as anybody. Drawing readers by reiterating that there’s a fight going on, and exaggerating arguments, they stoke the flames of controversy without getting deep into substance and science. That needs to change. Reporters ought to look for “common ground,” science journalist Emily Waltz told attendees of the ScienceWriters2014 conference in a New Horizons in Science briefing titled “Navigating a minefield: Seeking and telling the truth about genetically modified crops” on Oct. 19, in Columbus, Ohio.

To create more fruitful conversation, Waltz said, journalists must do more “meaty, truthful” reporting on the research performed by plant scientists, as well as on its nuances and relevance. “We can’t put up with hyperbole and distortion of science,” Waltz said.

Otherwise, stories about research that get published will continue to contain oversimplifications that enrage critics and plant researchers alike, said Ohio State University professor of evolution and ecology Allison Snow. In the middle of the arguments, she also worries that researchers will be victimized. “If I was a grad student I’d think twice about staying in this field,” Allison said.

Science itself will suffer in the process, too, unless journalists can add more useful points to the discussion and give an accurate accounting of positive and negative impacts.

The history of genetically modified crops is a good place to start. As crop and soil scientist Carol Mallory-Smith of Oregon State University said, genetic engineering was the “fastest adoption of technology that agriculture has ever seen” because of the ease and efficiency of weed and insect control. But she added that it’s led to the over-reliance of these crops causing overuse of a single weed control method and evolution of resistant weeds. To a slower degree, the evolution of resistant insects has also occurred. And there are also ecological risks that include the potential of feral crop-weed hybrids and overuse of herbicides that may affect wild plants.

Greater investment into research on plant genetic engineering is needed to understand all benefits and risks. People may be skeptical of commercially funded research, Mallory-Smith said, but, that being the case, there ought to be greater calls for public investment and that entails getting the public on board.

Unquestionably, public education on all aspects of agriculture is a huge hurdle and needs to be a priority for food’s future, as explains Fedoroff. She’s taken a first step (in the form of talks, her book, her editorials, and interviews with bloggers), but seeking out “common ground” will require respecting good ideas that come from all sides of the table.

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