by Carol Lynn Curchoe
“Fed” up with the aggressive and damaging marketing tactics of the $45 billion dollar per year organic industry, academic scientists and teachers are biting back, despite being ill-equipped for the personal and professional risks of taking on a well-funded industry.
For three decades the organic industry and anti-biotechnology extremists have worked to deploy and further a very poignant and specific narrative: that opposition to genetically engineered crops (“GMOs”) is based on corporate greed and dangerous pesticide use, and that organic products are safer and more nutritious than conventional varieties.
The scientists, professors, and teachers that are working to feed and clothe the world through agricultural biotechnology have been horrified that their life’s work is being vilified and turned into a marketing tactic, so they have turned to social media to communicate the story behind their work directly to the public.
Concurrently with this movement, several genetically modified organisms have also gone “off patent” (their corporate patents have expired), several GMOs have been developed, which are free from any corporate ties, nonprofit crop trials have been destroyed- catching the attention of the media, and lastly, over 2,000 independently funded academic studies have proven the safety and utility of GMOs over the last thirty years, most recently cumulating in a “trillion-meal” study. This study by University of California-Davis Department of Animal Science, is the most comprehensive study of GMOs and food ever conducted. While the sheer size of the dataset was extraordinary (more than 100 billion animals covering a period of nearly 30 years, the findings were not- the authors showed zero extraordinary impact on animals fed GMOs.
In other words, the tightly controlled organic industry narrative of “corporate greed and dangerous pesticide” use has been disrupted by the scientists and teachers that make up the agricultural “science advocacy” (sometimes called agvocacy) community as well as further developments in the field.
Disconcertingly, the “agvocates” who engage in public discourse through social media have been underprepared to delve into the sometime troubling waters of digital activism. Their jobs, families, research, and property have been threatened and harassed.
A few examples illustrate this point well.
In 2015 Cornell University, with funding primarily from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, began a fellowship program called the Cornell Alliance For Science with the goal of “reclaiming the conversation around agricultural biotechnology so that science- and evidence-based perspectives drive decision-making.”
The organic industry funded blog GM Watch has targeted Cornell Alliance For Science in a string of coordinated attacks. They accuse Cornell University as “complicit in a shocking amount of ecologically destructive, academically unethical, and scientifically deceitful behaviour.” Followers of the blog have been encouraged to harass a coop where Cornell was hosting a talk in order to cancel the event. Another anti-biotechnology blog, Agra Watch, has specifically assigned an individual to “investigate” Cornell University and their public relations activities.
Agra Watch also waged a campaign against Iowa State University’s biofortified banana, disrupting publicly funded research, which has the potential to prevent blindness in thousands of people in Uganda.
Kevin Folta of the University of Florida is a well-respected scientist, who has worked since the dawn of GMO technology 29 years ago in academic laboratories, producing dozens of Ph.D. graduates and mentoring over 120 undergraduates, while making significant contributions to the field of plant nutrition.
Folta has been a target of these attacks for years, starting first with a FOIA requests on his emails, and progressing to cyber bullying and real-life breaks-ins and threats against his family. Anti-biotechnology activists were encouraged to call Dr. Folta’s employer to complain about him. Recently, he garnered the wrath of the activists with a podcast discussing the success of GMO eggplant (bt-brinjal) in Bangladesh. This crop variety was developed to resist the endemic pest called fruit and shoot borer, and therefore requires drastically less pesticides than is conventionally applied by farmers. This is South Asia’s first GMO food crop, and has been developed in the public sector for distribution by the government to poor smallholder farmers, so that they can use up to 80% less insecticide.
Folta said of the incident:
“It appears that science has hit a nerve. Some of the poorest people are growing food and eating, sustainably. You’d think that critics would be celebrating. But to an emotional and science-free movement, when the technology they oppose serves others, they are caught between acknowledging that it is doing good and abandoning their sacred belief that this technology can do no good– ever.”
Greenpeace has a long history of disrupting GM research in foreign countries, and most recently Greenpeace activists destroyed publicly funded research in Australia- test fields of a new strain of GM wheat developed with a lower glycemic index and increased fiber content to improve bowel health.
It is clear that universities and public research institutions should provide a framework of best practices and an established support mechanism for scientists who are engaging directly in science advocacy through social media. Additionally, storytelling is an essential component for nonprofit communication, and may be especially important for effectively communicating complicated and emotional stories about science and the food supply and environmental sustainability.
Carol Lynn Curchoe is the founder of 32ATPs LLC, a clean energy biotech company and the co-founder of EduPaper Products (STEM Education). She is a biologist whose work has been published in Biology of Reproduction, Stem Cells, and The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and the former Utah State Science Advisor. Dr. Curchoe is a scientific communication community thought leader, whose articles and memes regularly exceed hundreds of thousands of views and thousands of shares (We Love GMOs and Vaccines, Medium, Huffington Post), as well as a mentor to others in STEM fields.