I forever believed that there existed two types of people: Those who were anti-science, and those who advocated for GMOs as a necessary food production tool. I was a happy member of the pro-GMO camp, and saw educating the public as a means of solving this “debate.” But, transitioning from an undergraduate agriculture program into a social science discipline for graduate school has shown me the echo chamber I live in when it comes to agricultural biotechnology.
On December 3, 2014, the New York City Kaufman Center held a sold-out show for an installment of the Intelligence Squared US Debate series, this time asking the general question: “Genetically Modify Food?” Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Monsanto Robert Fraley and University of California Davis researcher Alison van Eenennaam argued for the motion, while Union of Concerned Scientists representative Margaret Mellon and Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources researcher Charles Benbrook argued against. The debate overview promised to address questions such as: “Are [genetically modified organisms] safe?” “How do they impact the environment?” “Can they improve food safety?”
The arguments and evidence provided by each side of the motion, in addition to the responses to audience and moderator questions—or, more notably, those topics not discussed at all—reflect perfectly the concerns scholars of Science and Technology Studies (STS) have spent decades writing about in response to the proliferation of agricultural biotechnology around the world. Continue reading →
On Wednesday, the United States House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology, & Foreign Agriculture heard testimony on the “Societal Benefits of Agricultural Biotechnology.” Below is an overview of such:
Dr. David Just, PhD: Professor of Applied Economics & Management at Cornell University and Co-Director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition.
Consumers have developed misperceptions regarding the benefits of biotechnology in part because the industry does not explain those benefits to them. Industry has focused understandably on marketing the benefits of growing these crops on farmers, leaving consumers with a latent understanding of why genetic modifications are introduced into the food supply to begin with.
At a biotechnology communication conference I was recently at, one gentleman raised his hand and said, “Current labeling initiatives are trying to use 19th century technology to label 20th century technology in the 21st century.” Take a second to think about that.
Based on a recent piece by The New York Times’ Andrew Revkin, the United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has had this same train of thought:
The way to go, long-term, is to embrace a 21st-century answer to this problem… — an extended bar code or some mechanism [through which] consumers who are interested in all the information about a product could obtain it fairly easily, either through their smartphone or through a scanner that would be available in grocery stores.
The F.D.A. and U.S.D.A. could help coordinate the compilation of information. That way you wouldn’t create a misimpression about the safety of a product, which could happen depend on how something was labeled.
If you read anything news-related, it’s likely you heard about last week’s ethics and privacy discussions surrounding Facebook and social science research. Essentially, a paper was published by a team of researchers from Cornell University and Facebook—”Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks“—through the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (June 2014), which says to have physically manipulated the news feeds of thousands of Facebook users to control the emotions of their perceived-networks, to ultimately analyze their not-in-person emotional responses.
The research findings are fascinating. They’re simply described in the following excerpt from the paper Abstract: Continue reading →
Although I’m a few weeks late to the party, I wanted to share John Oliver’s take-down of Dr. Mehmet Oz on his new show, “Last Week Tonight.” I don’t necessarily agree with everything Oliver says, though I love his eloquence at tackling our nation’s complex science politics, corporations, and risk communication/trust.
Is it a powerful punch of nutrients in one pint of delicious energy drink, or every nutritionist’s worst nightmare? Well, one of my friends posted this article, “10 reasons for serving flavored milk in schools,” on her blog’s Facebook page, and I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. My comment turned into almost a full-length blog post in itself, so I figured I would transfer my discussion here.
As a student with an animal/dairy science background, I agree with almost everything the article’s author, a registered dietician, had to say in support of flavored/chocolate milk. As the author writes, the United States Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, giving the Department of Agriculture more purview in controlling foods sold in cafeterias across the nation. Recently, there has been an increased emphasis on eliminating sugar from the American (kid’s) diet — with one significant culprit being the seemingly innocent, beloved chocolate milk. Continue reading →
This week I had the privilege to attend the inaugural “Biotechnology Literacy Project,” presented by the University of Florida, the Genetic Literacy Project, and Academics Review. After three productive days of interacting with some of the preeminent scientists, social science scholars, journalists, policymakers, and industry professionals in the space of agricultural biotechnology and genetically engineered food, several of the speakers came together in this public forum—”Biotechnology Literacy Day”—to address the communication of such technology. What follows is an aggregation of these speakers’ presentations and supplementary materials, courtesy of the University of Florida. (May need to download Silverlight plug-in or switch web-browser)
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Cornell’s International Programs, a group of panel discussions on “Food Security for a Vulnerable World” were held on September 12. I spent the entire day watching these discussions, which took place in the “Biotechnology” building at Cornell. I could not help but notice that it took 1 hour and 20 minutes for anyone to utter the “magic words” — genetically modified organisms. This was incredibly powerful — this discussion on food security was not about biotechnology, biotechnology was implied already. Continue reading →
After multiple friends and acquaintances expressed interest in a seminar I am taking at Cornell University this semester, “BSOC 4303: The GMO Debate: Science & Society,” I have received permission to incorporate details of our readings and class discussions into this forum. This is my third installment.
In this third lecture, Dan Buckley, a professor in the Crop and Soil Sciences department at Cornell University, came in to give a preview of the historical and scientific factors of the GMO. His presentation was catered to everyone in the audience, covering the most elementary science behind genetic engineering, but also discussing its implications.
According to Buckley, “What I think is fundamental to those [the GMO] debates is how the technology actually works, and what the impact is. I want to give you an introduction to the major technologies out there, and how they are made. ” Continue reading →
After multiple friends and acquaintances expressed interest in a seminar I am taking at Cornell University this semester, “BSOC 4303: The GMO Debate: Science & Society,” I have received permission to incorporate details of our readings and class discussions into this forum. This is my second installment.
The topic of the second class was “global rifts,” as an introduction to the social constructionist perspective on the GMO debate. Why are there global rifts in biotechnology, but not over things like, say … cell phones? According to my professor’s lecture, there are two types of global rifts: primal and secondary. In the case of GMOs, primal global rifts are between agricultural crops and all of their other uses: pharmaceuticals, medicine, industry/biodegradable plastics, etc. Why and how did this happen? Why agricultural crops and not other uses? For example, the same recombinant technology is used to create insulin, beginning in the 1970s. We now can use human insulin instead of taking it from the pancreas of pigs and cows. Continue reading →
After multiple friends and acquaintances expressed interest in a seminar I am taking at Cornell University this semester, “BSOC 4303: The GMO Debate: Science & Society,” I have received permission to incorporate details of our readings and class discussions into this forum.
An excerpt from the course overview section of the syllabus:
Biotechnology is a broad term for the tools used to alter living organisms for human purposes. Genetic engineering (recombinant DNA technology) is one class of methods used in biotechnology. Private sector firms are actively marketing transgenic crops and other products of biotechnology globally. The public sector has been somewhat less active, but is becoming increasingly involved in transgenic technologies, particularly in less-industrialized countries. Developmental questions begin with those we ask of all technologies: at whose cost, to whose benefit? Continue reading →
An excerpt from a thought-provoking, worth-while read on the polarization of the GMO debate:
The debate surrounding genetically modified organisms, often called GMOs, is an absolute mess. A huge part of the argument stems from genetically modified foods. Some people trumpet GM wheat and corn for its drought resistance and ability to feed more people in parts of the world that desperately need food. Others point to unwanted side effects like the creation of super-weeds and the potential loss of biodiversity as reasons to be wary of this new technology. But what drove my desire to do a GMO story for Generation Anthropocene was something entirely different and was born from two intertwined questions: how did the GMO discussion become so polarized and why does it continue to feel like the topic of GMOs doesn’t allow for a middle ground? Continue reading →
Connecticut’s labeling law, which requires labels bearing the words “produced with genetic engineering” on all foods partially or wholly genetically modified, will not take effect until four additional Northeast states pass similar legislation. More specifically, one of the four states must border Connecticut, and they must combine for a population exceeding 20 million people, explained Caroline Coatney, a contributor for Biology Fortified, Inc., in June.
This stipulation was included to address labeling cost concerns in a state as small as Connecticut. Continue reading →
I wrote a post similar to this last year, titled: “The Dark(ish) side of Chipotle.” I am saddened to find myself returning to this negativity while discussing another of my favorite college-student-hang-out places, Panera Bread. I’ve caught a few glimpses of Panera’s new marketing scheme on the television:
In a recent New York Times Editorial, the editors lambasted John Boehner’s lackluster, seemingly carefree attitude towards separating SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that feeds 47 million Americans, from the original Farm Bill.
I am by absolutely no means defending the House’s decision to strike out the SNAP program. I think it was irresponsible, potentially throwing away an important bargaining chip for agriculturalists to pass the “farm” side of the Farm Bill. However: Continue reading →
It does not take long walking through a field this time of year to realize that something is missing: Bees. The reason? Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Why? Nobody knows, but many scientists believe it to be caused by an invasive species of mites. Regardless, the mites certainly aren’t helping. What we do know, however, is that this is a BIG problem. Bees are absolutely vital to pollinating the plants that make our food.
For anyone interested in a brief overview of genetic engineering in our food supply — from someone a bit more “reputable” than a lowly agriculture-studying undergrad — I highly recommend taking the time to watch this lecture. Dr. Kathryn Boor, Dean of Cornell’s College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, along with Dr. Margaret Smith, Professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell, discuss the misconceptions and concerns surrounding the controversial use of genetic engineering in food agriculture.
(The lecture itself is barely half an hour, so no excuses!)
My favorite line, “In the world of marketing, the consumers always win.”
It’s really easy to play the blame game: Simply put, Washington, D.C. is currently maximizing its unideal partisan tendencies and getting nothing done. We can blame the left, we can blame the right (some more than others), but in reality, something — anything — just needs to happen. Continue reading →
“These are the general public. They are sincere, intelligent people who just don’t know the lingo,” actor Alan Alda told a sold-out auditorium of scientists at his recent lecture at Cornell University I had a chance to report on. They’re also the funders, and the people you go to in Congress to get money from for your project.”
As a student interested in science communication and policy, this really hit home: the “general public” is not dumb; our representatives in government — the ones who lobby for funding for our research — are not [typically] dumb. Continue reading →
In 1911, California became the 10th state to establish a ballot initiative political structure, under the pressure of progressive Republican Governor Hiram Johnson. Though amended since, this unique system has given Californians the opportunity to launch political agendas, predominantly surrounding morality and civil rights, which other states may not have the capacity or legal incentive to pursue. One example is Proposition 37, which placed the issue of labeling of genetically engineered foods, consumer rights, and transparency in the food system into the limelight in 2012. In this attached paper, Continue reading →
This summer, I finally participated in the one activity that most-defines every Cornell students’ stay far above Cayuga’s waters: I frequented the Ithaca Farmers Market. I had been to a farmers market before, but nothing like this. I am fairly certain that the culture shock even surpassed that in which I experienced in my first week at Cornell, seeing as I had never been to a “city” (yes, I think of this as a city).
I never quite understood why EVERYONE raves about the Ithaca Farmers Market. Continue reading →
Framing in the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) Debates —
Dr. Lillian Lee, a professor of Computer Science at Cornell University, recently contacted me to share her recently published study. She had out-of-the-blue read about my research interests on the Internet, and wanted to share this unique, interdisciplinary spin on my interests.
A researcher in the areas of natural language processing and information retrieval, Lee studies the ability for computers to use human language as a communication medium — accurately, robustly, and gracefully. Continue reading →
I recently covered a panel discussion hosted by Cornell’s veterinary college for the Cornell Chronicle. The discussion surrounded the theme of fostering creativity in science. The panelists, like the lecturers at Roald Hoffmann’s birthday celebration (previous post), held joint roles in advancing science and arts, non exclusively. Continue reading →
You learned it in freshman biology: Penicillin was originally created by accident, but has since been hailed as one of mankind’s greatest discoveries. Today, antibiotics are used to treat everything from bronchitis to tuberculosis. For decades, small doses of antibiotics have been fed to livestock; when used in feeds, they help maintain rapid growth and low levels of disease across herds, allowing for affordable food prices. However, controversy has recently erupted over concerns of antibiotic resistance and public health. Continue reading →
Beef has been getting a lot of, well…beef lately. Between the recently published study at Harvard’s school of medicine linking red meat to cancer, and now the “Pink Slime” hysteria, many Americans have finally started questioning what they are purchasing in the grocery store. Continue reading →
Over Spring Break, I was perusing the aisles of Wegmans in search of milk to stock my family’s refrigerator. Like many consumers, I usually just go for the cheaper brand, instead of paying attention to labels. In the midst of sending a text and referencing my shopping list, however, something caught my eye: A brightly colored decal on the glass, refrigerator door that read, “Our farmers have pledged to not treat any of their cows with any artificial growth hormones.”
I grabbed my milk — which also had this label — and hurried along with my shopping cart. Continue reading →
What do you get when you have two minutes on national television, buzzwords like “organic,” “local” and “sustainable,” an intricate set of hundreds of hand-painted model pigs and Willie Nelson singing a Coldplay cover? One Heluva-good Youtube video: Chipotle’s “Back to the Start.” Continue reading →