Reason #1: Science

posted in: Science | 1

As of Wednesday afternoon, the entry period for the Ashoka Changemakers contest is over. Everyone has had a chance to enter the contest since the deadline was extended, so now it is down to a week’s worth of voting to decide the winner. Each day, I will post a reason why I think Biofortified deserves your vote. The reason for today is Science. We bring lots of it to the site, and we would like to bring more.

Understanding the issues involved in genetic engineering in agriculture means that you have to understand some of the science. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to have an opinion on the topic (it sure helps), but like any important issue it pays to do research first. Would you buy a car without researching your options? Maybe you don’t need to know exactly how a four-stroke wankel engine works, but knowing the difference between a V6 and a V8 might be important if you want to make the right decision for your driving needs. Wouldn’t it make sense to treat the genetics of the food you eat (and the clothing you wear) with the same information-oriented approach?

That is one of the primary reasons why we started this blog almost one year ago: To build a resource for people who want to learn more about plant genetics and genetic engineering, to be confident that they can contribute to the discussion of genetically engineered crops and make decisions for themselves. There is a huge body of relevant knowledge tied up in arcane language in peer-reviewed journals, which needs to be made accessible to everyone. Here are some of the posts that we have written in the last year that are intended to help readers understand some of the underlying science:

  1. Cotton like Candy,  by Karl Haro von Mogel. Want to learn how RNAi works?
  2. The sugar beet saga, by Anastasia Bodnar. The biology and politics of beets.
  3. Transposons, Browsers, and Annotation, oh my! by Karl Haro von Mogel. Hooked on helitrons!
  4. What does GMO really mean? By Pam Ronald. What does it mean to genetically modify something?
  5. GM Soybeans giving you a healthy heart and arteries and making you brainy. By David Tribe. Says it all.
  6. Tuesday at BIO, by Karl Haro von Mogel. Lots of nifty discoveries!

Science is more than just information that we know – what makes it different from other methods of knowing is that it involves a rigorous process of isolating variables, building theoretical frameworks, and testing ideas systematically against reality. When you forget that scientific knowledge is more than just opinions held by scientists – that there is a methodology involved, you may undervalue its importance. We have written some on how science works  and how it is done, here are two examples:

  1. The Inadequacy of Anecdotes, by Karl Haro von Mogel. How do you know what you think you know?
  2. Maize Genetics, by Anastasia Bodnar. How do maize geneticists do their stuff?

Next, there’s more than just understanding current scientific facts and issues, if we are to discuss the future of genetics in agriculture we need to keep an eye on things to come. For example, in the Cotton Like Candy post above, I discussed an ongoing development that could turn virtually inedible cottonseed into a protein source sufficient for half a billion people. In a post that I just finished, Biofortified lettuce is no Bitter Pill, I describe advancements in enhancing the nutritional quality of produce through genetic engineering. Many of the things that we try to bring to this site are about things that have yet to enter the wider debate over GE crops. Who else is making a dedicated effort to bring these new discoveries to you to learn about but us? We are trying to keep you aware of what is on the horizon in addition to what is beneath your feet. Almost no one is talking about it, least of all the orgnizations that are opposed to the technology.

It is as if someone is telling you not to buy a car because V6 and V8 engines in regular cars are too inefficient, and they’ve never heard of hybrid cars like Priuses.

Science is a basic building block for discussing genetic engineering in agriculture, but it is not the only one. Our values often determine the decisions we make, but we can only choose amongst options if we know about them in the first place, and can understand the implications of each decision. Through communicating science, Biofortified is making a positive contribution to the discussion of what foods we are to grow and eat. We would like to bring even more science to this site, which winning the Changemaker contest will help us do.

I hope you will consider taking a couple minutes of your time to support this effort by registering and voting for our entry in this contest. For a step-by-step guide to voting, go here.

Science is just one reason to vote for us, stick around for the next week and there will be more reasons on the way. We are currently tied for the lead with 34 votes, but other entries are also gaining votes.  Let’s keep them coming and thanks for your vote!

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:

Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.