Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 8.48.01 PM

redefining our dangerous use of “pro-” and “anti-” gmo

(Original article and its response can be found at the Genetic Literacy Project)

After watching the National Research Council’s recent webinar on Social Science Research on GE Crop Adoption and Acceptance, I am quite puzzled and disappointed by the high degree of criticism it received in GLP’s follow-up feature story, Anti-GMO sociologists mute attacks on biotech, urge greater sensitivity to cultural impacts” on February 6. If nothing else, Sherwood’s instinct to label the social science experts as “Anti-GMO” certainly proved the event’s collective argument that we are in desperate need of including sensitivity to culture in the repertoire of science. Perhaps we should be taking these experts’ feedback as constructive criticism, not attacks.

It’s important to first note the conclusions from each speaker’s presentations: Continue reading

1. Profile Icon

a challenge: breaking out of the GMO echo chamber

A version of this blog was originally posted at the Cornell Alliance for Science

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.

The GMO debate is far more complex than this simple dichotomy, as was reiterated during the National Academies’ recent workshop in Washington DC, When Science and Citizens Connect: Public Engagement on Genetically Modified Organisms. Continue reading


the american chestnut tree: a case study

In January, I had the opportunity to participate in the National Academies’ Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences workshop, “When Science and Citizens Connect: Public Engagement on Genetically Modified Organisms.” I served as a case presenter for the breakout discussion sessions on the second day, where I presented the case of the American Chestnut Tree.

The transcript of my presentation is located here, and the accompanying slides can be found here.

Continue reading


I^2 GMO debate as a microcosm for STS critique

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

Unknown-3 copy

media, mood manipulation, and morals

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


that time it took a comedian to call out top doctor’s fraud

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.

I think the only way I can preface this is that John Oliver is the most highly underrated comedian around, because this is pure gold: Continue reading

Photo courtesy of Kevin Folta, University of Florida

biotechnology literacy day — university of florida (2014)

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)

Continue reading


hunger: “a disease of the soul”

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


framing the future of food

“A person who has food has many problems.
A person who has no food has only one problem.” 

[A written response to the film, The Future of Food, assigned for my “GMO Debate” course]

As Per Pinstrup-Andersen, World Food Prize Laureate and Professor at Cornell University, implies by sharing the above Chinese Proverb to open his book, Seeds of Contention, the debate over the future of food has become the epitome of a “first world problem” in the United States. This idea is unintentionally demonstrated in the film, The Future of Food (2004), through a framed, nuanced presentation of the major issues surrounding transgenic crops. In the broadest sense, such issues include patenting of intellectual property, as well as the flaws in government agency oversight and the associated regulatory processes.

I have concluded that this film is framed from the perspective of an Anti-GM (genetically modified) food plug, but it is refreshing to see an Anti-GM campaign that paints their picture using facts, rather than solely fear mongering rhetoric—as the “Anti” side has become known for in this incredibly polarized public discourse. The first major issue considered by the film’s director is the concept of patenting of living intellectual property, which is particularly unique for seeds and crops. Continue reading

“what is a gmo?” (“gmo debate” part III)

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

global rifts over biotechnology: dimensions and contention (“gmo debate” part II)

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

“the GMO debate: science and society” (part I)

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

(Credit: Shutterstock via Grist)

the oscillating GM debate: when will it get anywhere?

My post was originally published by the Genetic Literacy Project, under the title: “Grist vs. GM Watch: Is there a middle in the GM debate?” (9.27.2013).

An excerpt: 

GM Watch, a well-known anti-GMO website, has critically responded to Nathanael Johnson’s efforts to find the middle ground in the GMO debate. In a scathing critique, managing editor Claire Robinson contends that Johnson, a food writer for Grist who, in an ongoing series of articles over the past two months has taken a fresh look at the GMO controversy, is “falling for Pro-GM spin” in his series. Continue reading

generation anthropocene: what happened to the middle in the GMO debate?

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

(Credit: GMO Journal)

GM labeling debate returns to new york with even more at stake

In the wake of Connecticut’s passing of a GM food labeling law, pro-labeling activists are ratcheting up pressure for similar legislation in New York State.

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

chipotle, and now panera: the advertising fiend

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:

Continue reading

a primer in genetically modified organisms

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.”


science communication: whose job is it?

“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

engineering proposition 37

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


my new favorite word: “hedging”

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


creativity examined! genetics vs. environment

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