Redefining our dangerous use of “pro-” and “anti-” GMO

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 the Genetic Literacy Project’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:

Mary Hendrickson, Assistant Professor of Rural sociology from the University of Missouri concluded that it is not just science’s capabilities, but also social, economic, and political structures that shape the adoption of any technology; as a result, knowledge of actual farmer practice and of the farming systems in which they are embedded is critical to understanding a technology’s impacts. For example, Hendrickson says that patent protection in the United States is a significant barrier to entry. We need to re-think such a system to allow for more public work on GE based on an understanding of real farmer needs.

For Dalhousie University Associate Professor Matthew Schnurr, “Context matters!” It is undeniable that in cases like the matoke banana in Uganda (the focus of his extensive academic research), there are biotechnologies able to accomplish successes not possible in conventional breeding. However, as Schnurr points out, values and preferences, including those towards local varieties and colors, very much matter. If scientists and/or NGOs fail to take such ideas into consideration, it can result in lack of acceptance by farmers or consumers.

And finally, Associate Professor Abby Kinchy, of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Science and Technology Studies department, highlighted the fact that current modes of “science-based” decision-making and governance fail to account for these cultural and economic contexts, often forcing critics to seek alternative venues for defending their voice, including disruptive protests and legal actions. Such a system often stifles discussion, instead of encouraging it.

We don’t need to necessarily agree with these scholars on the nuances of some of these conversations, but it’s difficult to disagree with a single one of these above conclusions if we—the scientific community—are truly willing to be self-reflexive about our own work.

As I wrote recently, “Maybe it is possible for one to remain critical of corporate culture, of regulatory issues, of consumer choice and ownership issues, etc., without risking being ignorantly labeled as ‘anti-science’ or ‘Luddite?’” If we require everyone who supports biotechnology to abide by this impossible standard we are setting ourselves as “pro-science” and “pro-GMO,” we will quickly lose support for our own causes, and even worse, our credibility.

As advocates for this technology, I’m quite unsettled by our collective inability to be critical thinkers. Since when does “expressing reservations about the use or potential misuse of the technology,” as Sherwood wrote in her article, make one “anti-GMO”? To put it bluntly, labeling someone anti-GMO simply because we do not like what she has to say is part of the problem; it is the easy way out of a discussion, and is in no way productively influencing the conversation.

By the framing laid out by Sherwood in the February 6 article, I would be considered Anti-GMO. If you know me, or know what I stand for, the problem here will become a bit more obvious if it wasn’t already.


Photo via National Research Council #GECropStudy
(Original article and its response can be found at the Genetic Literacy Project)



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