How to temper an anti-GMO blogger: My story

Series:  The Benevolent Side of GMOs

My last post marks the beginning of and introduction to my new series about the Benevolent Side of GMOs.  In this post, I’m telling my story, the story of exactly how I went from dogmatic, card-carrying member of the anti-GMO movement to someone who has taken a step back and said hold on, who and what am I going to believe?

I started poking around the movement back in September, 2012, and launched Sleuth4Health right after I first learned what GMOs were.  At first I thought I would take a balanced approach and present both sides but that didn’t last long.  I was outraged and out to educate the world.  My archives tell the story.  Hook, line and sinker, I bought into the anti-GMO movement.

Early on in my participation, I began to notice that while the movement was long on rhetoric, it was short on reliable information.  There were videos and lots of literature, but much of the content was repeated over and over and the sources, again, did not appear to come from mainstream science.   The few reports that were cited also came across as fringe to me,  and I wasn’t surprised that mainstream science didn’t stand behind those either (I will talk about some of these reports in later posts).

This was a realization that I ignored, for the most part, but it festered beneath the surface and would whisper in my ear when I came across something really silly, like a propaganda video or graphic, of which there is no shortage of in the movement.

Sure, a university scientist would be quoted here or there, but it seemed to me that these scientists were also a bit fringe, either because maybe they were retired and hadn’t published in a long, long time or because their strong views were just that, views.  Again, I was still a believer, still committed to the movement, but these, lets call them uncertainties, were adding up and they were bothering me.

One day I stumbled upon a blog called Random Rationality and specifically, a post titled The Lowdown on GMOs.   Authored by Janabe Fourat, it was a Q and A with a plant scientist about transgenic technology, a Ph.D. who currently researches in the field in a university.  Curiosity got the best of me, as it so often does, and I jumped in with both feet, as they say.  I sort of knew, honestly, at first sight of what I read on that fateful day in March, that it was going to change me, but outwardly I remained steadfast.

Before I started reading that blog post, I assumed that there was big controversy about GMOs in the science community, that the whole debate was heating up across the country’s universities because of the growing hullabaloo and all the evidence of harm caused by GMOs.  Surely there were university biologists solidly in the anti-GMO camp, bantering with their pro-GMO colleagues daily over bagels and coffee from a campus kiosk.  Instead, I found words that said, in effect, there is no debate whatsoever in plant molecular biology and crop science. No debate whatsoever.  GMOs are safe.  Cómo?!

After I got over my shock, I found that I was aggravated.  The nerve!  I posted comments on the blog, questions actually, about what I had heard was unsafe or wrong with GMOs, and wasn’t surprised to get a comment back from Fourat, the blogger.  But after a day or two passed, the scientist who had been interviewed, Dr. Kevin Folta from the University of Florida, contacted me directly and in a slightly snarky way, wanted to set me straight.  Yes, he came across a bit surly and sharp-tongued but I immediately sensed his deep frustration as a scientist.  He was doing comment battle with a lot of folks that day, much of it mud-slinging, name-calling and just plain ugly, but I still paid attention because it was clear he knew what he was talking about.  (And hey, if you want some entertainment, check out the comments on Fourat’s post!)

I was floored, and impressed, frankly, that this UF Gator horticultural sciences department chair would take the time to direct a message at me.  As I looked at all the comments on Fourat’s blog and how many of them Folta had also participated in, trying to be the voice of reason, I saw that he generously offered his email address to anyone who wanted to ask him questions about GMOs.  The only caveat was that science be the chosen language.  Well, I did, indeed, have questions so I boldly went where no anti-GMOer has gone before.  I emailed him and so began my conversations with Kevin Folta.

For about a month now, he and I have been emailing back and forth.  It has mostly been in the form of me asking questions and him providing answers.  He has taught me a lot, challenged my way of thinking on this issue, and ultimately, has been the catalyst for my, well, my almost one-eighty about GMOs.  Everything he has said has held up as I’ve done my own research.

Folta loves science and it is clearly his passion.  Make no mistake – if you step on the hallowed ground of science, he’ll step on the hallowed ground of you and it will smart a little.  As I said in my last post, when I published the infamous corn report, I got a cyber-lashing.  But at the end of the day, there was and is mutual respect.

When he is not pounding his fist in the name of science, and even sometimes when he is, Kevin Folta is down to earth, funny and likeable.   Most surprising were some of his views.  For example, he is as disgusted as any of us are with what happens in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) and was hard-core vegetarian for 16 years.  He believes in fewer inputs for crops, not more, and wants to use his expertise to help make this a reality.   He enjoys sharing his knowledge at organic co-ops, volunteering his time to speak at retirement homes or with youth about biology, crop domestication or even climate change.  Most importantly for this blog, he thinks GMOs, can truly help the world.  He does NOT work for Monsanto or any other similar corporation.

Kevin Folta
Kevin Folta, Plant Molecular Biology

In the next several posts, you’ll get to know Dr. Folta too.  He is a far cry from the evil corporate scientist many of us have come to believe is the face of GMOs.

Coming soon:  what the science really says.

~JuleeK@Sleuth4Health

Note:  This post was updated on 4/28.

30 responses to “How to temper an anti-GMO blogger: My story”

  1. I very much enjoyed this post, and your mental fortitude in overcoming the biases our brains commit us towards. I quite understand the visceral response you refer to, I had it myself for quite some time. Looking forward to your continued information gleaned from Dr. Folta. 🙂

  2. Julie, I come here through Folta’s blog. I’ve been following him for awhile. You found the right person to “illuminate” your views of GMOs.

    It’s nice to see others doing what I did–questioning prevailing organic dogma.

    A few deciding points for me, for what their worth:

    My partner, and probably future spouse, owes his life to the fact that scientists have figured out how to insert a human gene into an E. coli bacteria and make readily available Humulin, an analogue to human insulin.

    The rescuing of Hawaii’s papaya crop by Dr. Gonsalves, who developed and GMO called Rainbow Papaya, is one of the great agriculture stories of our times. http://www.biofortified.org/2012/06/rainbow/

    I think it’s very cool that vaccines will soon be delivered through bananas!

    On labeling…I don’t care one way or another. I will not be supporting the measure in Maine, because it’s sponsored by MOFGA, a dishonest organization whom I have come to detest.

    My one problem with GMOs, speaking as a small market farmer: there aren’t nearly enough of them. I would love to have a potato that was engineered to resist early and late blights, and Colorado potato beetle. That way I could spend more time on the porch, playing banjo and drinking beer.

    Mike

    • Thanks Mike. This has been quite a journey of one month. I suspect my views will continue to moderate as I learn more, but the horses are out of the gate and rounding the first turn. I’m well on my way! Good luck on your banjo playing and beer drinking!

    • I would want there to be a plant that can carry vitamin b12! (if ever possible) I’ve also heard it could be possible to make allergen-free nuts!

  3. This is so wonderful and gives me so much hope. Science has such a big PR problem right now, and direct communication like this, on a very human level, is the solution. The work of Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak at UC Davis also goes a long way toward integrating biotechnology and sustainable (even organic!) farming practices. We need everybody on board. This is the start! Thank you.

    • I just happen to be reading that book right now! Thanks for your thoughts. It was all Dr. Folta’s idea… to build a bridge between the two worlds.

  4. Julie I am not convinced. Yes, Folta is funny, but there is another side. Google Dr Michael Hason or Dr Michael Antoniou for another perspective/

    • Sam – it is your prerogative to not be convinced. I’m not trying to convince anyone as much as I am telling my story and want to present the benevolent side of GMOs, based on the preponderance of scientific evidence worldwide. I feel that with all the anti-GMO literature I have posted, it’s time to the turn the table, just to be fair if nothing else! My intention when I first started this blog was to present both sides but I got totally enraptured by the GMO naysayers and started posting downright propaganda. Of course there are other perspectives and there always will be. This is a personal decision I have made to follow mainstream science because those in biology, agriculture, horticulture, etc., ARE the experts, the ones who publish peer-reviewed reports that have real data that go into respected scientific journals. They know what they’re doing. They live this stuff on a daily basis.

  5. I see you have not seen the two year study done in France on GMO corn.

    http://www.ogm-alerte-mondiale.net/?lang=en

    As for science understanding what they are doing they have given use such great work as:

    VOIXX
    THALIDOMINDE
    AGENT ORANGE
    NAPALM
    COREXIT
    And other wonderful things.

    Remember Hilter and how he used science.

    Not all science is bad but some of it certainly is and we need to remember that very fact,

    Science: Use with caution, believe with doubt.

  6. Science has also brought us, um, where do I start? Sulfa drugs, polio vaccine, organ transplants, prosthetic limbs, electricity, the internal combustion engine, the PC and all personal electronic devices, the internet, facebook, youtube, television, radio, the ability to record music in beautiful high fidelity, pianos that are perfectly in tune, rockets, stunning views of space with all its wonders, the ability to determine if planets outside our solar system could sustain life, high-speed rail, skyscrapers that can withstand an earthquake… Where do I stop?

  7. I think you’re a candidate to actually go take a tour of Monsanto, if you have not already done so. You should face the science, and the scientists, head on. It’s a remarkably open company and the smart young people working there will surprise you. I’ve done the tour as an ag journalist, and regardless of how you feel you are struck by the pervasive sense of mission and purpose, and by the notion that you are always the dumbest person in the room. Great blog!

    • @Paul Well I do have a sister who lives in KC so maybe the next time I go see her we’ll take a day trip over to Monsanto’s HQs. That would qualify as the place I least thought I’d ever visit, without a picket sign, 9 months ago!

  8. Perhaps i can cheer Kevin Folta over his problems with the good Dr. Mercola through song.

    To the Tune of Officer Krupke (Westside Story)

    ACTION:

    Dear Dr. Mercola,
    You gotta understand.
    Your potions are just cola
    Your quackery’s out of hand!
    Your patients are all junkies,
    for Holistics, should be banned.
    Holy, Moses ! You’re a scheister upon the land !

    ACTION AND JETS:

    Oh, Dr. Mercola, we’re very upset!
    You gives us magic tonics in place of what we should get.
    We ain’t no dummies, it’s really understood.
    Deep down, you know they’re no good !

    ACTION:

    They’re no good ?

    ALL:

    They’re no good, they’re no good
    They are no damn good !
    They never do anywhere near what they should !
    They should put a halt, to your himalayan salt!
    Cause, deep down, you know it’s no good !

  9. Julee, this was an amazing post. I really admire your courage and fortitude in challenging your beliefs, and even more importantly, changing them when the evidence contradicted what you thought you knew. it makes me very hopeful. it makes me feel like the people who are trying to communicate science are not fighting a losing battle.

    • @LE: Well, sometimes unfortunately it IS a losing battle because science in the form of manna from heaven wouldn’t change some minds. BUT there are folks who WILL listen, as I did, and those are the ones to focus on. I am telling my story over and over with hope that a firsthand “conversion” will get noticed by a few “fencers”. Thanks for your comment!

  10. This is so cool! I am happy for you. I worked in a lab for years and studied genetics but did not understand the antigmo hoopla but there was so MUCH of it I started attempting to research what people were so upset about. I hate to say it but they are upset because they are being fed tabloid style sensationalized journalism from people who are not interested in science at all. And most are too busy or don’t’ know anything about the subject to know that what they are shouting about is nuts. I hope that your blog helps quell such innocent people’s fears and..more than that, educates them so that they can address real concerns when they arise. Thank you!

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