Reason #2: Dialogue

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The Ashoka Changemakers GMO Risk or Rescue contest is about halfway through its final voting week, a lot has happened in this time, which I will fill you in on, and today I present the second reason why I think Biofortified deserves your vote: Dialogue.

One of the reasons why we started a group blog to talk about plant genetics and food is because of the many opportunities it allows for dialogue, of several kinds.

First, it allows scientists to start talking about their work and the work of others in a manner that people without a background in genetics can access. Most people in this country, and many around the world, have access to a computer that is internet-capable and can read about it. Scientific Journals are the primary go-to place for the latest science and the most complete summaries of knowledge and issues, but these are often behind a registration wall that limits its access to only a small part of the population. On a science blog such as Biofortified new research can be presented where almost anyone can access it, and in a language common to non-scientists.

But more importantly, it allows those members of the public to be able to respond with comments, criticisms, and write their own blog posts linking back. Now the one-way flow of information can be two-way, which is how most people discuss issues they find important. This is the second type of dialogue that we hope to encourage.

Third, dialogue between scientists who agree on these topics can also occur in a place such as Biofortified. We currently have four bloggers who are scientists lending our time and energy to writing what we each independently think about the field. But now with an open forum to bounce ideas back and forth, it allows for new opportunities for us to discover things that we each hadn’t considered, and collaborate on turning those new ideas into reality.

Fourth, scientists who disagree can be a part of this dialogue. By email, I am currently interviewing a scientist who is critical of genetic engineering about a recent report they wrote. It is not yet finished, but there is ample opportunity for scientists who are supportive and critical of genetic engineering in agriculture to discuss issues on this blog. We often seek out guest posts from other people we can think of, but what many of you may not know is that anyone can write a guest post – all you have to do is contact us about your idea, and send it along! Even those critical of genetic engineering can apply – but so far there have been no takers.

I wish I could say that Biofortified is still in the lead in the Changemakers contest, but we are not. A last-minute entry appeared on Tuesday before the contest deadline: the Non-GMO project. This is an organization that was founded by non/anti-GE companies such as Nature’s Path, Seeds of Change, Organic Valley, etc. The purpose of the organization is to provide a means for producers to voluntarily label their products as not containing genetically engineered ingredients, and to have a certification system in place to guarrantee that to the people that really really don’t want to eat them. There are some good things to say about the Non-GMO project, which I will be certain to get to soon, as well as some questionable ones. But the function of this organization is not to raise the standard of dialogue about genetic engineering at all. If you ask them, it’s about democracy, but at the same time its very much about marketing. Whole Foods recently made a big announcement that they are using the non-GMO project’s standards to certify their products.

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The executive director of the Non-GMO Project, Megan Westgate, has left a prolific number of comments on our entry page, raising various questions. I will talk about the most troublesome one in another post, but I would like to elevate part of this comment of hers about dialogue for everyone to see:

You say here that with your site “Discussion is two-way,” but all the links you have up are pointing one way only: towards GE. (…) I think that a blog like yours could be a really useful complement to our labeling program IF it actually was a two-way discussion that gave just as much coverage to the cons as the pros. If your site did that, even I might vote for it!

The links she was talking about are the links in the sidebar. Although her comment was trying to clear up a misunderstanding of a different kind, in this comment she made a different misunderstanding – linking to sites that play fast and loose with the facts to achieve a sort of ‘link-balance’ in the sidebar is not dialogue. Nor is inviting someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about to be a member of the blog – I would like to point everyone to my hilarous April-Fools prank this year, where the blog was taken over by a fictitious mouthpiece for Greenpeace and wrote several posts promoting common fallacies and falsehoods. I even had the people at the Monsanto Blog fooled for a while!

There is a reason why you don’t see a link to, say, Jeffrey Smith’s site – The Institute for Responsible Technology in the sidebar. When I set up the site initially, I realized that just sending people over to a site written by someone who frequently makes statements that have no basis in fact would be irresponsible – without having some information on this site to warn readers about this tendency. There are indeed a great many anti-GE sites out there, as well as a bunch of pro-GE sites that have not been added, but before we add them to the normal sidebar we want to take the time to see how responsible the writing of those sites is. This isn’t Crossfire.

(Why not add some ‘balance’ to the Scientific Journal section, too, anyone want to offer up some anti-scientific journals?)

For the first year, we’ve just been trying to blog, with our tight schedules as they are, but in the background we are sifting through resources getting ready to build up the extensive information resource pages we have only just begun. There’s going to be a lot more here than mere links!

It is not to say that there aren’t pros and cons involved in genetic engineering, or that we are ignoring the cons, either. But there is a difference between the real cons and the made-up cons. For example, Guest Blogger Raoul Adamchak wrote a post for us about the restrictions on research that come with the patents on GE crops. Anastasia has also written about issues with Genetic Use Restriction Technologies, and I have made critical comments about some stuff at the BIO conference as well. There are real issues involved in genetic engineering, and one of the things we hope to do here is move the discussion to discussing those issues that are real and are being ignored due to other distractions. If we were going to talk about whether or not GE soy caused soy allergies to skyrocket in the UK, that would fall under a different category (and post) – Debunking.

To close in talking about dialogue, I would like to point out that we have recently added a new way for people to talk about these and other issues – the Biofortified Forum! Anyone can register and start a discussion about whatever they want. This is something that you will not see on the non-GMO project website, nor Jeffrey Smith’s operation.

Case-in-point: NJ Jaeger, Smith’s PR person, has a blog, and when I posted a comment that demonstrated that what she was saying in her blog post was demonstrably false – it was deleted. So I tried again, this time saving a screenshot. (Hover for the date.)

July 14 1_45 pm

Days later, I checked back, and my comment was gone again.

July 18 11_25 pm

Tell me, who is committed to dialogue here? I take it as a compliment that Megan Westgate is holding Biofortified to a higher standard than her own organization, or those it links to.

The current vote tally is as follows: Biofortified is at 66 votes, and the Non-GMO project is at 150 votes. The voting ends Wednesday at 6pm Eastern time, so there is still time to turn this around! Go here to register, and here to vote for Biofortified in the name of dialogue. For more details, see Vote for Biofortified.

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.