A Wiki for GMOs

posted in: Science | 33

At the Biofortified Blog, we get a lot of questions about the basics of genetically engineered crops. From time to time there are new and unique questions, but there is a certain set of questions that come up again and again. Questions about how GMOs affect pesticide use, yield, and health always seem to come up, along with questions about patents, companies, and more. Along with each question comes a number of pernicious myths, like claims about “Terminator” genes and tumors, autism and wheat gluten intolerance of all things. It can get frustrating to have a discussion when half of the conversation is spent skewering the same myths.

When I was just entering graduate school, I had thought to approach this topic with a wiki. Their simple and openly-editable nature works well for collaborating among many people. I started one in hopes that a general guide to genetics would be able to inform discussions about GMOs. But it didn’t get much beyond placeholder pages. Later, the inspiration for this blog came and all spare time went in that direction. (And it has been worth it!)

From time to time, on this blog and elsewhere, we have seen calls for a Snopes-like approach to debunking myths about GMOs. We’ve had some thoughts about how to do it with informative pages and periodic posts, but that has only addressed a few of these things. In the last week, however, such calls came from multiple directions, including from users on Reddit and on Twitter. In a few short days several people came forward to volunteer to start putting a resource like this together, and we started brainstorming names. Today there may be the kind of critical mass necessary to move such a project forward and make it really useful for everyone. And we can pay the costs of securing a domain name and creating some graphics to make it look unique. Who want’s in?

The goal

There are many reasons to build a wiki for information about GMOs, but it will be good to define what the main purposes of the site will be. The two goals that I think rise to the top are to provide easily understood and well-referenced background information for people who are seeking information about GMOs. The second is to provide careful and thorough rebuttals and/or confirmations of the claims that people make about them. A simple rating of True, False, “It’s complicated,” and “Unverified” can help those with little time on their hands, and longer explanations can help those who want to dig deeper. The claims can be organized by their status, who makes them, what topic they fall under, whatever you want – it’s a wiki!

What’s in a name?

The name for a wiki that does the above must be carefully considered. It should be memorable and descriptive, and set the tone for the site. While we can debate labels like GMO vs GE and GM, if visibility is the goal it should probably be based on the terms that most people use, such as GMO. Here are some suggestions that were made:

  • GMO Facts
  • GMO Tropes
  • GMO Fact Check

Personally, I like “GMO Fact Check” – it is unique, memorable, and will come up in searches.

Any other ideas? Let us know in the comments.

How to go about it

One of the aspects of debunking myths that you must always keep in mind is that there is the potential to accidentally reinforce the myths that you are trying to debunk. Experiments have shown that sometimes people remember the false claim as being true, despite all efforts at demonstrating that it is false. Therefore, you should avoid repeating the false claim too much, and focus on what is true and explaining that part carefully. Snopes.com has a pretty good format, and so I think the wiki pages should be structured something like this:

  1. Claim: Quote of exact claim being made
  2. Status of claim (with handy graphics): True, False, Complicated, Unverified, What else?
  3. Fact: What is demonstrably true.
  4. Explanation of Fact
  5. Variations & Specific Responses: For slightly different versions, lists will help with google searches.
  6. See Also: Other areas of the wiki that are useful
  7. References: Important! Peer-reviewed studies, news articles, sources of good and bad claims.
  8. Anything else?

See an example (with slightly different formats at the bottom).

How easy it is to get started

We know many of the claims by heart. A simple scan of websites by the usual suspects can dig up some more. There is an entire site, Academics Review, which addresses claims made by Jeffrey Smith in his book Genetic Roulette which can be used as a starting point for ideas.

There is also room with a wiki format to create pages that explain basic concepts more clearly, like transcription, translation, open-reading-frames, mutagenesis, etc. These can be linked to in individual wiki claim pages so you don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel.

I created a placeholder wiki while I was considering “GMO Tropes” as a name for the wiki, so you can see how it can be structured and play around. It is being hosted at WikiSpot, which is a nonprofit wiki-creating site that I helped with back when I was in Davis, and is really useful and reliable. Security and moderation is easy to manage, and some really great wikis have been built there. We can keep editing for registered users only, yet make it possible for anyone to submit a question. If things get too dicey with vandalism or editing conflicts then things can be tightened down, but I would like to start out as open as possible.

I propose that if enough people agree on a name, and a basic format idea, we can get started. People can become involved in any way they want, whether formatting pages, digging up links, or parsing arguments. There can be some more fabulous prizes offered for top contributors to this wiki, and in due time there can be a great resource made by a our expanding community to help society at large evaluate the many conflicting claims that are out there about GMOs.


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.