connecting agriculture & #BlackLivesMatter

Almost exactly 3 years ago, I was enthralled by the coverage of the George Zimmerman trial. Not because I was outraged that an unarmed black kid was shot, but because I couldn’t understand why people weren’t accepting that the law as written requires a higher burden of proof than that which the prosecution was able to meet. Of course they wouldn’t convict Zimmerman of murdering Trayvon Martin.

Being able to sit there and not be outraged? That’s privilege.

That I didn’t have to personally fear for my safety after the terrible precedent that the case set? That’s privilege.

That it never went through my mind that this could happen to me or my sisters or my father? That’s privilege.

Privilege is a complicated thing. That “you are privileged” is sometimes a really hard pill to swallow. Continue reading

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

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

house ag committee: hearing on agricultural biotechnology

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.

An excerpt of Just’s testimony, which can be found in full here:

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.

Continue reading

secretary vilsack’s GMO labeling solution

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.

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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

school milk debate: it doesn’t have to be black & white … or chocolate & white.

Chocolate milk.

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

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

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

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

Mother Jones’s Philpott supports Pollan “talking points” attack on NYTimes GM orange story

My post was originally published by the Genetic Literacy Project, (9.7.13): 

The dust has yet to settle more than a week after Michael Pollan’s backhanded attack on Amy Harmon’s New York Times story on the GMOs, “A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA” — with Tom Philpott, writer for Mother Jones, now coming to Pollan’s defense 

Harmon’s analysis on the efforts by growers and scientists to save Florida oranges from a deadly bacterium received an enormously positive reaction from journalists and scientists; however, the story elicited an odd quote from Pollan, a well-known food writer and skeptic of biotechnology — and even more recently, from Philpott.

Pollan 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

farm bill mayhem: what about SNAP?

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

monsanto’s to bee or not to bee solution: RNA interference

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.

CCD was first observed in the United States in 2006; since then, commercial beekeepers have reported losses of over 30% of their colonies. In a Petition to Congress, 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.”

the human cost of the farm bill blame-game

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

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

india 2013: initial reflection

As you drive down the streets in India, it does not take long to realize that the dogs on the side of the road are a microcosm for much of the country: An incomprehensible population density, they float in packs, and seem eternally happy despite what an average American may expect in sharing their living conditions. Continue reading

milking the system — india days 5 & 6

January 9 & 10

At face value, the cooperative system of India’s dairy industry seems like an economically sustainable and just system: Individual farmers should have the power to make collective decisions. However, as demonstrated between our vastly contrasting visits to a dairy in Pune, and Schreiber Dynamix Dairies Ltd., also in Pune, the system literally can be milked. 

The two systems could not have been any different. Continue reading

1% of india = a business opportunity — india day 4

January 8

In stark contrast to Sula Vineyard’s slight pessimism about the 1% market for wine in India, FreshTrop Fruit in Nashik has a different perspective: 1%, or even 0.5% of the population in India is a business opportunity. Even a small percentage of one billion is still a lot of people! Continue reading

india’s disparity: from morning train station to region’s top vineyard — india day 3

January 7

I have seen countless horror photos of malnourished children and adults with arms the diameter of a broomstick, but never before have I stood face to face with them.

Because my group is so small — only eight students — our course coordinators opted to send us from Aurangabad to Nashik via train. The above was the sight we encountered in the train station that morning, just barely before 5am. Dozens of people buried under all of their belongings, trying to keep warm from India’s unseasonably cool weather.

I have only experienced a train once before, but that was last year in Italy. Continue reading

a [real life] picture says a thousand words: india day 2

January 5

Our small group had the privilege of joining Naresh Jain, an associate at Bhakti Soya Pvt. Ltd, for a few hours filled with analyzing the value addition of soybean processing: from the agricultural product market to the soy processing plant.

The morning began at Jaina market, where we observed the process by which soybeans and other locally grown crops are sold. According to Jain, India’s market infrastructure is owned and operated by the government; Continue reading

my textbooks definitely did not prepare me for this: India 2013

As a winter session course in Cornell’s International Agriculture & Rural Development department, I have had the opportunity to travel to India during the month of January to study their agricultural system. My particular group project is related to value addition of crops in India’s agricultural economy, and we have/will have the opportunity to see such first-hand. I plan to document a variety of reflections throughout the trip, as Internet access allows.  Continue reading

the eighth wonder of the world: the ithaca farmers market


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

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

the meds in your meat: antibiotics

[From my blog post with the Cornell Daily Sun]

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

#PinkSlime: debunking the media frenzy

[From my blog post with the Cornell Daily Sun]

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

bias is a two-way street: my rude awakening

As a dairy science student here at Cornell, I am often concerned that my views are becoming encapsulated within the walls of Morrison Hall, and not my own brain. While much of what I have learned about the food industry is from the dairy perspective, it comes from people who have been born in, and never have lived in the world outside of, the dairy industry. Studying Development Sociology has been incredibly eye-opening in allowing me to see society with a different lens. While I am not sure that my opinions have changed on a lot of the current hot-topic issues, it has been valuable to hear the other sides of such arguments. I had not realized how much my eyes were being opened to the food industry — as both a social motivation and a business model — until the day we were evaluating the milk price and DHI reports, and Daniel raised his hand and inquisitively asked, in regards to the negative profit margins: “Why be a dairy farmer?”

While I am not from a dairy farm, this still really hit home. Continue reading

the “got milk” paradox

[From my blog post with the Cornell Daily Sun]

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

the dark(ish) side of chipotle

[From my blog post with the Cornell Daily Sun]

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