Reason #4: Michael Pollan

Today, Biofortified gained another 120 votes in the Ashoka Changemakers contest, coming in at 812 at the time of this writing. It would be great if in the last day of voting, if we could top 1,000. To help to that end, I will present the fourth reason why I think we deserve a little of your time: Michael Pollan.

When I first heard about the contest, the grand prize was a ‘social media training’ session and a conversation with Michael Pollan. As I noted on my personal blog, I have been waiting to do an interview with him for almost three years. Back in 2006, I participated in a panel discussion (available here on UCTV) with him and others on Food, Farming, and Genetics, as part of the Community Book Project at UC Davis, which focused on The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pam Ronald was also the moderator of the discussion. Our group conversation left more questions than answer in my head, so I asked him if I could interview him sometime on my radio show and he agreed. A combination of timidity, lack of radio show after moving to Madison for grad school, and the sheer amount of demand on Pollan’s time, it hasn’t yet happened.

In the interim, more questions have piled up. Not just about genetics, but even about the philosophy of science, the future of agriculture, and whether he thinks that health food stores like Whole Foods have the highest concentration of contradictory food philosophies or if he didn’t notice the food supplement aisles. I could write several pages of questions, always thinking that I will have to jettison most of them to make for a radio/podcast interview someday that will will have continuity and make sense. Over time, questions related to The Omnivore’s Dilemma slid away to be replaced by questions related to In Defense of Food. A few questions about plant genetics held steady in the heirarchy of importance.

I initially entered the contest so that I could win the conversation with him and see if he wouldn’t mind adding a microphone to it as a podcast interview. I assumed that it would be a conversation over the phone as well. The other part of the prize, the social media training, didn’t have much appeal considering I’ve been doing social media for years! You could pretty much say I entered us in the changemakers contest to talk to Pollan. But then after I entered, the contest deadline was extended and a $1,500 grant was added to the grand prize. This was going to change the dynamics of the contest dramatically, and it did.

We haven’t yet mentioned what happened in the background since the contest extension. Anastasia and I collaborated on perfecting our entry, given the amount of space allowed, and we also set to upgrading and improving the site, and mapping out a future for Biofortified. Frank started twittering (there were requests for it from readers, too), and I installed the new forum. Lists of resources are being put together, along with more information about the site. There are more improvements being planned that all of us are working on in the background to turn the idea of Biofortified into a reality.

Consequently, it was not my entry of this site I started anymore, it is our entry of the site we’re building. If we win this contest and thus the conversation with Pollan, it will be our conversation, and according to an email I got last week the winner gets to meet him, which implies a round-trip airplane ticket for someone. Without going into too many details, it is quite possible that several of us may be able to meet him in Berkeley later this year. And my guess is that collectively, the conversation would be about the topics we discuss on this site, about genetic engineering, food, sustainability, intellectual property, and journalism. A few people on PZ Myers’ blog wondered why we would want to talk to Pollan about genetic engineering?

I can certainly speak for myself, for instance in 2001 he called Golden Rice, the humanitarian project about biofortifying rice with pro-vitamin A to combat malnutrition and blindness, “The world’s first purely rhetorical technology.” Only five years ago, he said in an interview that “I don’t think in ten years we’ll be talking about GMOs. I can easily see the industry withering away.

That doesn’t sound like someone who doesn’t think much of genetic engineering.

But then, look at this:

That’s right, Michael Pollan is expressing his opinion that he would be open to “Open-Source” genetic engineering. This is something that I have been meaning to bring to this blog but I have not yet been able to enlist the help of a particular proponent of open source genetics to be a guest author. But imagine Linux and Creative Commons applied to plant genetics. This is a dramatic turnaround from predicting that the industry will wither away. As you can see, there’s a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to Michael Pollan’s views on genetic engineering in agriculture, but he still has not said much in recent years. Perhaps we can get a good dialogue going.

franknpollan

Frank 'n' Pollan

But if you paid attention to the interview above, did you notice that he said that genetic engineering has not increased yields, that only plant breeding has? He may be referring to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report, Failure to Yield, which actually found that genetic engineering has increased yields, although the report de-emphasized it.

Moreover, Pollan said “A lot of GE is being sold to us based on a future promise, that I don’t even think they’re working on it.” Is this another gut opinion that will it take its place alongside the ten year prediction?

The most important thing that he said in the above video is that he is open to learning about it. There are probably a great many things that we could talk about with Michael Pollan, places where we agree, disagree, and perhaps don’t yet know where we stand. A conversation with him would promise to be very interesting in the least, and we will ask him if we could tape our discussion and put it on the net. Naturally, we have to win the contest first!

How interesting of a conversation would the Non-GMO Project have about GE crops? Or how about any of the other anti-GE entries? Would you hear an exploration of ideas that you haven’t yet encountered, or a rehash of the usual topics in this debate? Perhaps this may be a worthy appeal to those who are not keen on genetic engineering – if you vote for us, as a result you may get to see or hear an interesting, dynamic, and focused conversation with Michael Pollan on GMOs. We can’t promise it because a lot of it depends upon him (and the specific details of the prize that are not quite clear to us at this point), but this is what we would like to do. Can any other entrant say they’ve thought this far ahead?

Although the changemakers site had a countdown this evening that suggested the voting would be over at midnight, in a bizarre fashion it was counting down the minutes to the last day to vote. Weird. But this means that you still have a chance to pitch in and be a part of this voting effort. The polls close at 6 pm EST on Wednesday, so please take a few minutes to pump up our numbers just a little more. Let’s get to 1,000 votes before this ends!

Thanks for your support, and keep an eye here in the next week as we watch the end of the final day of voting, and await the official announcement from changemakers!

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Karl is a Ph.D. Candidate in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison. In addition to his research on the genetics of sweet corn, he is also completing a minor in science communication and is working on several media projects about plant breeding. His favorite produce might just be squash.


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2 comments to Reason #4: Michael Pollan

  • Pam Ronald

    great post Karl. I had not read his article about golden rice.

  • I like this idea of open source GM. Open source software is great but all you need is time and a computer. Now, I have both those things and I am also in Bio-informatics, but I know that it takes alot more resources to get to a useful plant variety out to farmers. There are many hurdles that would need to be over come. I just am not sure how that might happen on a large scale.

    Particularly it would take money, people and some support from the public. All three of which seem hard to come by these days.

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