On Sunday, I gave a talk for the Ethical Humanist Society in Skokie, IL, on the outskirts of Chicago. Back in November, the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago asked me if I would be willing to talk about the benefits and risks of genetically engineered crops. The title of my presentation was Shades of Green, and I daresay it went well, especially considering that I have never given a talk of this kind before, and now I’m inspired to do more. I’m going to discuss a little of hat I talked about, what I thought worked, and what I thought needed to be improved.
First, I would like to thank the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago for this chance to speak at their first meeting of 2013. They are a community that provides a social environment for those who wish to live their lives in an ethical manner, and their members come from all walks of life. They covered my travel, and provided a little something for my troubles. And I was certainly made to feel welcome by my host, Evan Kane, who fed me some delicious barbecue on Saturday night, and took me in as his guest so I could rest up for the talk. He didn’t have to build a fire in his fireplace, but he did anyway! His friends Matt and Mariana engaged us some lively discussions of social definitions that I will never forget! Thank you.
Now on to the talk. What was supposed to be about 30-35 minutes long ended up being almost 45, as there was so much to say. But I think there was a little something in there for everyone. I started by first talking briefly about myself and BFI, and then dove right into a crash course on the plant breeding continuum. Too often, genetic engineering is painted as a dichotomy between simply rubbing flowers together and jockeying genes around. I covered plant breeding, wide crosses, protoplast fusion, grafting, polyploids, mutagenesis, and genetic engineering. I asked them to think about how weird or familiar, natural or artificial each technique seems, and when I was done with the list, I quizzed them on it.
They all knew that genetic engineering was not allowed in organic agriculture, but what about the other techniques? I promised a fantastic prize to whoever could guess which were allowed in organic vs not allowed. I tried this once (sans prizes) at a presentation I gave for a bee club meeting, and it was an eye-opener for everyone. On Sunday, no one got exactly the right answer. When the guesses started being “the even-numbered ones” I realized it was time to reveal the answers, and hand out two homemade beeswax hand salves to the two people who were the closest to being right. If the organic rules are so intuitive, why would it be so hard to guess this pattern? Because there is no rational pattern to it – it is a historical and political accident.
Now it was time to talk about benefits and risks, and I listed some of the kinds of traits that are being grown on farms and some traits to look out for in the future. Here, perhaps, if I had more time, I could have used a slide or two as “case studies” for the risks and benefits of each crop and trait. I mentioned the upsides and downsides to herbicide tolerance and insect resistance, but it might have been better another way. But this way they also got to see what else there is besides Roundup Ready Soy and Bt Corn. I ended this section talking about health concerns.
Next came Jeffrey Smith. It is difficult to condense all the different things that he talks about into a slide or two. One could spend an entire presentation on it. So then I decided, why not simply list all the health claims he makes about genetically engineered crops that I could find on his site on only 15 minutes? I took a deep breath, and read them out loud. When I was only halfway through the list, at liver disease, small body size and obesity, laughter came out. It kept coming until I finished with infertility and increased twin births! Clearly either genetically engineered crops are the worst possible thing imaginable, or Smith is throwing things up against the wall looking to see what sticks.
Next, I showed the graph that Smith brought to the Dr. Oz show to demonstrate that GE crops may have contributed to a rise in inflammatory bowel disease, and asked my audience what they thought about it. “It was already going up before GE crops” is what I heard (a very astute audience), and to drive the point home, I showed them the organic food sales vs autism graph that has been floating around the internet. I could hardly read the title. It had been somewhat of a mystery where this graph came from, so before my talk I tracked it to a denizen of BoingBoing who was apparently playing around with a graphing program and “accidentally” made a startling discovery. Since they included references to the data sources, I looked it up. The data is real – and I daresay few in that room will look at correlations the same way again.
We know from social science that even if you debunk claims, people may come away from it remembering the debunked claim – and may even think it was true. So I talked about the conclusions of the National Academy of Sciences as well as the decade of EU-funded research report. Next, I talked about our GENERA project, and just how vast the research literature is. I closed this section by discussing how some knowledgeable scientists may go too far in their claims about the benefits or certainties of GE crops. Now it was time for Vandana Shiva.
I introduced Shiva, and gave three of her most prominent claims:
- Says that GE crops are sterile due to “Terminator Genes”
- Believes Bt Cotton causes farmer suicides in India
- Believes GE ‘violates’ the integrity of life
I then quoted her book Stolen Harvest:
The “gradual spread of sterility in seeding plants would result in a global catastrophe that could eventually wipe out higher life forms, including humans.”
When I explained how seed sterility can’t spread through seeds, it was clear to the audience that this claim, like some of Smith’s, was quite laughable. Following this, I talked about the issue of farmer suicides, and the many factors that may contribute to it. But, as I said, published research has shown that Bt cotton has raised average farmer incomes, as well as reduced time spent in the field. Some pictures of Bt cotton later, and a discussion of the recent bovine-snake genome discovery, and the other claims were addressed. I talked about the complexities and ethical issues of cross-pollination, and shared Shiva’s recent revelation on that topic.
Here I would like to pause and reflect on this section, because I think it needed the most improvement. One audience member approached me after the talk and said that he was bothered by me making a joke out of farmer suicides. He was very polite about it, but I said that wasn’t what I did nor intended, and others standing around backed me up. However, there were funny things both before and after what is a serious issue, so I can see where the misunderstanding came from. I think if I were to do this talk again I would make it two slides, one for the laughs, and the other for what is not a laughing matter. It would also give me more space to talk about the complexity of that issue.
Finally, as my hosts were interested in the ethical dimensions of this issue, I talked about Golden Rice. I explained how it worked, that it worked, but that it is not yet available for farmers. I presented the precautionary argument, and the ethical dilemma of saving X number of people while potentially risking others. A real life Trolley Problem. Finally I closed with the role of science, and where values come in.
In all, I think people enjoyed it. One woman came up to me after the talk, and said that she was totally against GE crops but that now she was confused. Confusion is a good thing if it leads to reading and learning more, I said. In contrast to some of the kinds of discussions we get into online, people who disagreed did so with great civility, and everyone learned something from each other. I had some questions about Monsanto (I accidentally mentioned that they made NutraSweet when as one person pointed out it was saccharin), the safety of mutagenesis, and the difference in perception between biotech in medicine and in food. One question asked about permaculture, and one whether more food will just mean even more people. I had a good story about George McGovern that showed the opposite.
Afterward, I got to meet one of our readers, Dave D, who may have been more excited to be there than I was. He wanted to know how I got Jeffrey Smith to pose with Frank N. Foode, and it led to another tale I haven’t told on the blog about Smith, myself, some classes he has given online, delving into the source of just one of his claims, and the tricks of his trade he wanted want to keep secret. If you want to hear the tale, you might need to invite me to speak for your organization! (At least until I figure out the best way to tell this story.)
Some discussions about labeling, honeybees, and non-gmo soy milk later, I was done and it was time to go catch a train back to Madison. The last question I got was “Can you give me five words about Monsanto?” I responded, “Good Science, Bad PR, Lawyers.”
Evan brought me back to the train station, but before that, I got to see something for the first time ever – my name on a marquee! Way cool. I think whether someone agreed or disagreed with a little, some, or all of my talk, it was an enjoyable experience all around. I hope that a few minds were opened up, and that some new ideas will spring forth and give diversity to what is an important discussion. It is too important for it to become clouded by multitudes of anecdotal claims, bad scientific arguments, and overzealous promotion. I hope I will have the chance to do this again.