I want to write about Science Pub again this month, but this time I am going to focus on my own experience as a learner. I don’t attend these events every month, but as a person interested in science literacy, I feel like I should go more often. I happened to be free again for the April one, so decided to go. The topic was also one of personal interest to me- “Finding Our Way Through the Controversy over Genetic Engineering in Agriculture: The good, the bad, and the righteous.” Before we start, I will own up to my own biases, I am, in general, opposed to most things like GMO’s. Now, some of this is a knee jerk, liberal, environmentalist bias- I will be honest. However, I was not really sure what the talk would cover, besides the title, and I thought I would be open minded and listen to what the speaker had to say. I have not done extensive research on this topic, and my information all comes from popular press type media- magazines, newspapers, attending local events about food issues, and such, so I thought, as a person who identifies as educated and rational, I should hear more from someone who actually does research in this field. One more disclaimer though- the talk was being given in Eugene, Oregon, at a local, independent venue that hosts lots of music, dance, and benefit types of events, as well as the monthly Science Pub, so I did assume that it would at least be a balanced discussion. However, as we were finding seats, my partner did say that he was surprised I wanted to come as I would probably just hear a lot of things that made me mad. Hmm….
The evening started out with a pretty broad overview of the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s). The speaker structured it in three parts as things he felt the field had gotten right, “bad calls”, and then delved in to the more emotional aspects. And, I did learn things. My experience with GMO’s is on the controversial end, inserting genes that make plants able to withstand more pesticides and such, but I didn’t realize the variety of ways this technique is used. For example, I had not heard about it being used to suppress a single gene that was already in a plant to make it more “suitable” for purpose. The example for this was how a gene in Ash trees can be suppressed to decrease the amount of lignin in the plant, so it can be used more efficiently as a biofuel source. I could see some value in this- I know corn as a biofuel source is not sustainable, and we need other options if this more renewable energy source is going to be developed. And then he told stories about some of the ways plants can be augmented genetically that don’t throw up as many red flags for me. He talked about research on the East Coast to insert a gene from wheat into Chestnut trees to hopefully protect them from extinction due to the devastation caused by the blight they suffer from. The speaker stopped at this point and asked the audience how many people would support that kind of use of GMO’s and only one person raised their hand to vote “no” (I didn’t raise my hand for either, because I felt like I needed to think about it more- but I was leaning “yes” myself). Then he talked about crops like “golden rice” where the scientists are inserting genes in staple crops often grown in developing countries that make them a richer source of beta carotene, which would have serious, positive effects on curbing blindness due to high rates of Vitamin A in these areas.
At this point, the speaker had me questioning my own black and white views on the topic, which is probably what most educators, particularly when talking about controversial issues (hey Laia!!!), hope for in their audience.
If only he had stopped there. Unfortunately, his next topic was about how is was unreasonable to expect labeling of foods around GMO, and it started to feel like he was defending the GMO industry. He talked about how it would be an unfair burden on the companies to keep food sources separated to prevent cross-contamination, be too much work for the infrastructure of food transportation and such, and raise food prices too much for those who are already living more subsistence level. This last one felt almost like a slam on the audience, as most of us present could truthfully absorb higher food costs, if it came to that, but that our “demands” would be a hardship for others. And then he ended by showing a pair of videos. The first was of a protest in the Philippines, where a group of local people tore down the fence around a plot of “golden rice” and pulled it all up to stop the experiment. The second was of a spokesman from some rice research institute reacting to that event. And the speaker was telling us that the only reason the local people were participating in the protest was because of outside environmental groups “like GreenPeace” telling them that it was dangerous. It may be my own biases, but it felt like propaganda! Furthermore, it came across as possibly insulting to the local Filipinos, who may have come to their own conclusions about the matter- lots of indigenous groups around the world take on large corporations from their own beliefs and understandings of issues, and their own desire to preserve their way of life and their local environment.
Sadly, I left feeling more righteous in my beliefs than when I arrived. I did come, with what was my best attempt at an open mind. And, the speaker did have me for a while- I was willing to question some of my assumptions. I was willing to sit with some of the “grey” between the black and white I normally see. A question from the audience might best sum up the night. A professor at the community college here asked about how, as science educators, they could educate people about these types of issues, where people tend to base their opinions and actions more on their feelings than information. And the speaker flat out said that you just can’t. It was like he has given up even trying to have a rational dialogue with people who held different beliefs than his own. However, I think he almost had it. If he had stopped his talk after the part about the science and research, more people would have left that night, more open minded on this topic. Remember, only one person said “no” about the Chestnuts- and this is Eugene! Yet, when he got to what felt like his own personal, political agenda, most of us went back to our corners, entrenched in our righteousness.
Yet, I am trying to hold on to what I was thinking from the first part of his talk- maybe there are some aspects of GMO’s that I am open to learning more about, and debating- and (gasp) maybe even allowing “in my backyard”. And, from his mistake, I think I have a better understanding of how we can, as science educators, keep dialogue going. It is not hopeless!
PS- and if you remember my blog post from last month- I will say that a lot more women participated in the Q & A this time, although it seemed like most had points to make based on their own beliefs than questions about the science. More data needed to understand this! I guess I will have to go again next month…