Why I’m Going To Hawaii: Simply to Share Science

Folta300It is the best of times. Science has improved our communications, medicine, transportation, and security. It has taught us about the large and the small and taught us about the fundamental building blocks of life’s information- the genes that define human form and function. As a scientist I still get goosebumps when I read about a new disease therapy, a new finding in how plants respond to pests, or an improved way to see exo-planets. I feel overwhelmingly privileged that my parents exposed me to science early and cultivated my interests. I’m grateful for the ability to attend college, grateful for my mentors throughout graduate school, and grateful for my colleagues, postdocs and students in my lab today. It is a great time to be a scientist.

But the road to a career in science is rigorous and oftentimes unattractive. Low pay, insane hours, experiments that fail, all in preparation for complete career uncertainly at the end of your training. Those that weather this trail show unbridled commitment to the discipline, and more times than not, they are not interested in sharing their work beyond the peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. The discipline does not select for enthusiastic public communicators.

Maybe I’m a little different. Science is so important and exciting that I have to share it. I want you to know about it. I want you to understand it. Over the years I’ve talked to hundreds of public audiences, from 1st graders to retirees, about issues like water conservation, crop domestication and growing plants in artificial light environments in space. That’s fun.

But there are issues that are perceived to be controversial in the public that are not a controversy among scientists. Here I insert myself as a steward of science and someone that tries to connect and communicate with traditionally non-scientific audiences. I’ve spoken publicly on the value of vaccination, the evidence that man is changing climate, the evidence for evolution rather than creation, and the importance of biotechnology and utility of transgenic (GMO) crops. All of these issues bring me into forums where opinion sometimes differs from the scientific consensus. My job is to bring the finest evidence, communicate the science and maybe edge others toward that scientific consensus. At the very least a dissenting listener my learn to de-prioritize certain unsupported opinions or accepted myths. Small victories.

While monitoring the news about pesticides and GMOs in Hawaii I’ve witnessed a familiar pattern. A handful of activists seek to affect seed companies. Period. How do they do that? They generate fear and generate suspicion and infect the public with it. They generate fear and suspicion by embracing low-quality activist science and hearsay. They exploit graphic images and tout fake reports that are obtained from the internet. Sometimes they flat out lie. They appeal to emotion, they use children. They tell well-meaning academic and government scientists that they are not scientists at all, but instead are paid stooges on a corporate payroll. All of this is deplorable. Most of all, it is an increasing common retreat for those with an agenda and no capacity to discuss hard science and evidence.

While all of this is bad, what mobilizes me is when the rules and regulations of science are bastardized and distorted to push an activist agenda. The rigorous discipline of hypothesis-driven science that has solved so many problems, is twisted to promote political ideals. Unacceptable.

In the age of the internet the kernels of misrepresented or distorted science rapidly become a malignancy. They filter into all facets of a population, promulgated by fear and promoted by the devious and the ignorant. Malevolent activists use fear to manipulate those that have not yet developed a critical understanding of these issues. The goal is to harm seed companies. Deep inside it is not a ‘right to know’, it is not an interest in environment. It is to cause harm to seed companies and the farmers that support them.

Fear works. It works because we are dealing with food, something essential for our survival with deep social and cultural significance. It also works because the science is not simple. Development of transgenic plants and assessment of safety and efficacy is a complicated process. Together the scientific complexities and the primal fear conspire to produce a perfect forum for frightening the credulous or the scientifically unsophisticated. This is where I step in.

I don’t want to confront them, I want to comfort them. I want to take the whole anti-GMO movement and give it a hug, and assure it that everything is okay. I don’t feel anger; I feel sad pity. I’m sad that they are so steeped in a fabricated, misguided hate for corporate science that they can’t share in biotech’s successes or potential. I know this science, I’ve studied this science for 25 years, and I understand the strengths and limitations of the technology. The people most likely against biotech are people like me in so many other ways. We vote the same, are concerned about the environment, worry about the weakest among us, and allegedly value education. We differ on this one issue.

Talk to me. Let me answer your questions & address your fears. Education has a sparkling habit of making fear go away.

I’m not telling anyone what to think, but I do tell people how to think. It is about having the tools and perspective to think about an issue in a fresh, evidence-based, emotionless way. It is about learning who the real experts are and then having the courage to try to understand them. It is not about abandoning skepticism. Instead it is also turning skepticism inward to assess self deception, and accepting what we find.

I’m here in Kauai as a resource. I’m receiving no financial compensation for five days of my time. I’m here because I’m a teacher that sees science being convoluted and exploited in a selfish activist push to tarnish the sound extensions of recombinant DNA technology. My hope is to be a resource for those that have not made up their minds, to softly influence their perspective, direct them to good information and provide a contact for future interaction. A well placed seed can grow into something wonderful.

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Frank & Folta

As the Chairman of one of the nation’s preeminent plant science departments I represent faculty that work in all areas of crop biology. I have a substantial breadth of experience from lab to field. From those that work with DNA at the bench, to those that study organic production, to those that seek to heal citrus disease, to those that grow plants on the International Space Station, I am honored to work among such great scientists with broad impacts. I come here with an understanding of the challenges of food production. GMO technology is at least part of the solution to make better products for the consumer, the farmer and the environment. To really make it work for us we have to understand it, appropriately criticize it, and think forward to how it can serve us best. We have to do this making personal and policy decisions based on science rather than fear and emotion.

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Kevin is a public scientist that enjoys illuminating hot-button scientific issues for non-scientists using an evidence-based approach. Kevin is always uncomfortable referring to himself in the third person.


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10 comments to Why I’m Going To Hawaii: Simply to Share Science

  • John Diaz

    Wow. I thought we heard it all during Prop37. Much more Orwellian here since Monsanto started it’s Pr Campaign. Big bucks is what at stake here. Monopoly of patented seed, Pestacide tread mill. Enough!

  • Good luck to you, Dr. Folta. I feel though that it is a bit simplistic to portray their motives as just to hurt the seed companies, though that is part of it. Their hatred of the Rainbow Papaya and of Golden Rice betrays their true motives. There is a deep vein of anti-capitalism and anti-technology sentiment running through the anti-gmo movement. Many anti-gmoer’s don’t merely want to stop GE, but to have us regress to 1800′s techniques and tools, regardless of how many will starve if we do so. And many still want to destroy capitalism in whatever form and see the anti-gmo movement as a toehold to do so. Profit is evil, all corporations are evil, souless entities (never mind they are made up of people, even your neighbors) and Nature is perfect and cannot be improved upon nor should we attempt to do so and Science is evil for doing so. This is also why there is a fairly large overlap of people and techniques between the anti-gmo and anti-vaccine groups. Big Ag, Big Pharma, Big Chem, Big Etc., are their eternal cries.

    You certainly hit the handmade, artisan nail on the head when you say this isn’t a right to know issue. The anti-gmo movement is at least fairly honest about this one. Many, many have stated it as either a temporary fallback from banning or just a stepping stone to banning, a tool to orchestrate shunning and boycotts. This is also evidenced by the wording of some of the labeling law proposals and bills put forward of late, requiring a GMO declaration to be front, conspicuous and center on the packaging of said product. A, “may contain GMO’s”, on the back with the ingredients is not good enough to produce the scalett lettering they crave for GMO’s.

    So, again, i wish you well and luck. Don’t let those infected with, S.A.S, Shill Accusation Syndrome, get you down !

    • First Officer,

      I like that acronym, SAS!

      • Thanks! Use it as often as you like.

        Shill Accusation Syndrome, SAS, strikes those who just can’t believe others can independently arrive at a different opinion or conclusion than themselves. It has been correlated to a lack of GMO’s in one’s diet.

        I was thinking of starting a non-profit foundation to help combat this mysterious and spreading ailment. Maybe even a super-pac ! :)

  • Keith Reding

    What the opponents of GM crops don’t seem to understand is that if the technology was harmful, main steam scientists would be the first to stand up and say, “this is harmful”. Instead, exactly the opposite is happening. Independent scientists are standing up for the science and saying these crops are not only safe but provide a tremendous value to global good security. What benefit would Dr. Folta gain by promoting something other than the truth?

    • Keith, good points and a good last question. I’m here with Kevin in Kauai and having finally met him I know more than ever that his agenda is just about the truth and the science. I’m glad he is so willing to be the sort of communicator to society that has all too often been all to rare among scientists.

  • Starlight Kauai

    I see alot of misconception here and for being against labels alot of labeling what anti-gmo people do and think… there are many, and they different, like Pro people too… And now I will defend what I love, the Island and its people of Kaua’i – what people on Kauai experience in a daily life is not made up, and because the biotech company does everything to prevent that it could be linked to them, fly in more bloggers of this website to kauai, with all respect does not make it not happen, cause like Kevin experienced, mainland numbers may not help on a small island that gets sprayed four times more than any other place in USA, so how can numbers compare that work for a fourth of what we experiencing here? You can hide Kauai in mainland numbers, and it does hurt the families alot to here how they get ignored and watered down by numbers that not count them in. that may be statistics and charts, but true science would take peoples concerns and look at it, would be wondering what the effects are to the environment and people that not even live 25 ft away from fields that get sprayed 4 times more, cause we got more growing seasons. thinking this has no affect is just stupid. Ignoring the doctors and nurses that recolonize cases of not normal illnesses for where we life, ugly is pretty healthy to life in Hawaii, wanna details contact me. Anyway. Learn about Kauai if you wanna talk here, if not don’t wonder if the people are little not happy with ya. People wanna talk pesticides and effect, if this is not what you can talk about, what people want here? talking about gm as food, yes a whole other topic, but also not our major problem in the moment, so please dont wonder if people get pissed off, is like you expect a lesson on pestecides and one comes to talk about food. our major problem is that people cough, kids have asthma, nosebleeds, people get sick with unknown causes on a part of an island that is dryer and should have less asthma symptoms than the wet north shore, but its not that way… People are tiered when they drive to work that they have to close their window in their cars do not smell the pesticides… Is there a real interested in finding truth or is this all a big game of protecting something?

  • Jack Weber

    “The rigorous discipline of hypothesis-driven science that has solved so many problems, is twisted to promote political ideals. Unacceptable.”

    I agree. So, let’s throw out the studies produced and overseen by biotech companies and their revolving door employees, and the new laws passed allowing biotech firms to produce their own science for GMOs, which is all “twisted to promote political ideals.” Besides, there are many peer-reviewed studies showing the harm of RoundUp and precious little showing the effects of 2,4-D and RoundUp together. Fact: no food system that relies on increased and persistent pesticide use, decreased yield, the promotion of pathogenic superweeds and superbugs, with no long-term studies, is safe for the public or the environment. Here is some science for you. And please don;t do what I watched you do on the Elle article site, where you were criticized and never responded to that criticism for calling all science that does not fit your agenda poor, pseudoscience or “activist science.” Nor did you respond to the questioning of your academic affiliation with scientists in your department who cut deals with Monsanto. Here is some science, among them peer reviewed studies:

    1. “Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases”, Entropy,
    http://action.fooddemocracynow.org/go/975?t=13&akid=907.427771.Em2rIy

    2. Pesticide Tolerances: Glyphosate (Document ID EPA-HQ-OPP-2012-0132-0009), EPA, Regulations.gov
    http://action.fooddemocracynow.org/go/976?t=15&akid=907.427771.Em2rIy

    3. “Glyphosate Herbicide Found in Many Midwestern Streams, Antibiotics Not Common”, USGS, Toxic Substances Hydrology Program
    http://action.fooddemocracynow.org/go/977?t=17&akid=907.427771.Em2rIy

    4. “Weedkiller Found in Human Urine Across Europe”, Friends of the Earth Europe
    http://action.fooddemocracynow.org/go/978?t=19&akid=907.427771.Em2rIy

    5. “Glyphosate Induces Human Breast Cancer Cells Growth via Estrogen Receptors.”, Food Chemical Toxicology,
    http://action.fooddemocracynow.org/go/979?t=21&akid=907.427771.Em2rIy

    6. GMO does not produce higher yield, produces more pesticides.

    http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14735903.2013.806408 – .UdHiFuBCcfN

    7. Due to Superweeds: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/02/us-usa-study-pesticides-idUSBRE89100X20121002

    8. Organic outdoes GMO/conventional:

    http://www.cornucopia.org/2013/07/organic-methods-hold-water/

    • You don’t get to throw out science that you disagree with just because you don’t like the funding source. And it is also not true that all the independent science out there either finds problems or is somehow tied to company funding. Check out our GENERA project (tab at the top of the site) to find out more about how much science exists.
      1. The Entropy publication is pseudoscience. Just try defining “Exogenous Semiotic Entropy”
      2-5. You appear to have copied the same link over and over and over again.
      6. Bt corn and cotton have produced measurably higher yields because they are protected against insect pests. GE papaya has restored the yields of papayas in Hawaii which were being devastated by the ringspot virus.
      7. “Superweeds” is not the proper term. Just resistant weeds, which is what you get when you overuse particular herbicides.
      8. Evidently not. Organic farming produces, on average, 20% less food. Experiments that stereotype conventional and compare it to a complex organic management system are not representative and aren’t terribly useful.

  • Mlema

    If people want to say “superweeds” I think they’re entitled. We’ve never seen anything like the pigweed that’s evolved in the south, in response to roundup ready crops.

    The studies on yield are variable. In general, there doesn’t appear to be good evidence that GE crops increase yield. It’s difficult to compare and there are many variables. Since organic provides other benefits (less pesticide residue and more nutritious), and comparable yields (if not better) – no reason to run faster on the chemical treadmill.

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