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.
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.
Note: This post was updated on 4/28.