2013 23.2 Opinion

Organic Agriculture student reflects on last November’s annual conference and GMOs

Taya Brown is an organic agriculture student at WSU who approached Tilth Producers with a request to write an opinion piece about the Friday Symposium at the recent Annual Conference last November. The opinions presented here are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Tilth Producers of Washington’s Board or staff.

Informational Opportunity Lost: Let’s change the name of the game in the debate against GMOs.

During the Friday Symposium, “Seeding the Future,” at the November Tilth Producers Annual Conference, I was surprised by the ‘questions’ that were asked by the audience and the experience left me unsettled. Dr. Michael Neff was one of the speakers during this symposium and went in front of those in attendance as a molecular plant scientist and self-proclaimed locavore. He gave his presentation along with the other speakers, and then the floor was opened for questions. This is when I became increasingly disappointed. Not all of the dialogue during this time was focused towards Dr. Neff; however, I found most of that which was, to be negative, emotional, opinionated, and not inquisitive. I did not hear many questions asked, but instead witnessed an onslaught of emotional thinking and citation of non-scientific claims against GMO technology.

Here’s the thing — this kind of thinking actually hurts the anti-GMO movement. Making sure there is accountability and full understanding surrounding the implementation of GMOs is something I care a lot about and have spent hours and hours trying to understand. To see that so many of my peers on the anti-GMO side of the argument are comfortable accepting any argument that supports their pre-conception that all GMO technology
is bad all the time is very discouraging. What is even worse is that nobody attending the symposium took the opportunity to ask questions of Dr. Neff. Here we have someone who creates GMOs and at the same time follows principles that are core to the Tilth Membership, like supporting local farmers and eating foods produced in Washington State whenever possible. So, we have someone who performs the science behind the creation of GMOs sitting in front of us willing to explain anything at all about these how these processes work, and no one asks a single scientifically based question about it.

To give readers background history, I worked on an organic farm in Whatcom County for six years while going to community college. When I finished that degree I moved to Pullman to study in the Organic Agriculture program at Washington State University. During my studies over the past four years at WSU I have learned a lot about biological processes, soils, plant biology, and the scientific process. I have also come into contact with
many people — students and professors — who are on all sides of the fence when it concerns the topic of GMOs. To be honest I have learned the most from coming up against people that have a different opinion than I do. This is what has guided me to ask questions, to dig deeper, and read the published data related to GMO technology, the use of pesticides, patent law, and much more, to analyze results for myself. What this has done is given me much greater understanding of ‘the other side’ so that I am much more able to hold a conversation with them, demystified the science of transgenic technology and mode of action in pesticides, and helped to hone my arguments. Various assignments and debates have spurred me to do this kind of research, and I am much more informed today than I was before digging deeper. That being said, learning to separate opinion from fact, and learning about the scientific process that is behind all good science, have by far been the biggest gains.

To be heard, one must at least try to understand where the other side is coming from before throwing out everything they say. Making a blanket statement that all GMOs are bad, and we should totally ban them, no questions asked, is exactly the same tactic that is used by people who just don’t like Obama and oppose anything and everything he attempts, simply to be in resistance. If we can relate to how it feels when we encounter this kind of conduct, then we can understand what it is like for the scientists who are exploring GMO technology. If we vilify the people that work on GMOs, as I felt was done to Dr. Neff at the Friday Symposium, then we lost the opportunity to have a discussion, and lose the opportunity to gain insight, to learn from each other, and to make progress. I agree there are many reasons to be very hesitant about GMOs, but if we don’t break these things down, learn about and discuss each one separately, and simply ignore the knowledge of people who see there is some benefit to be gained from exploration and implementation of GMOs, we do not have a chance of moving forward or making a valid case. Because of the nature of GMO technology, being that it is entirely science-based, the people who produce and test them are always going to be serious scientists who (hopefully) value the scientific process that holds them accountable to presenting non-biased, straight-forward, clear data. In order to work efficiently in opposition, the people who think there is more harm than good resulting from GMOs must also utilize scientifically based information, and non-biased, fair, unemotional channels of sharing our results and conclusions.

I implore readers who oppose GMOs to read and promote only peer-reviewed, scientific articles and steer clear of inflammatory images and biased studies, and overall, never lose sight of the fact that we are all human and all trying to do the best we can with what we’ve got. If we are somehow led to conclusions that differ from one another, this is not grounds for disrespectful treatment or dismissal, this is simply a result of the fact that we are all individual and unique. There is more to be learned from each other than most of us ever take advantage of and it makes more sense to me to explore our differences, to pick the brains of people who are close to the issue, and to exhibit the kind of treatment and attention that we hope to receive from others. In my experience in being close to the source at WSU, this will get us much farther.

Tags: Editorial, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), GMOs, Opinion