Opinion: High time for scientists - me included - to look in the mirror

MSU AgBioResearch director Doug Buhler discusses GMOs and the relationship between scientists and the public.

Doug Buhler

Hardly a day goes by when I don’t talk, or at least think about, genetic modification and its scientific, political and societal implications. Regardless of the setting or occasion, this contentious topic seems to find its way into many of my daily conversations.

A little about me. I’ve spent my career in agricultural research as a scientist, professor and administrator. I work with farmers, scientists and the public.

I interact regularly with leaders of major domestic and international agricultural circles and with friends and family. Some of these people are hardcore carnivores, some only eat organic foods and some are vegans or vegetarians. I’ve always tried to look at all issues under discussion – especially this one – with open eyes and through a broad lens.

As we strive to figure out how to feed the world in the face of many challenges, I’ve tried to separate my personal feelings from the best interests of my employer and of the scientists with whom I work. But the more I read, listen and think about genetic modification, the more frustrated and confused I become. Isn’t learning supposed to enlighten and inform us? Well, it’s not working for me on this one.

I’m not confused by or frustrated with the technology or the science. I believe genetic modification can be a sound, powerful and useful modern-day scientific tool. While often depicted as strictly a black-and-white topic – you’re either for or against GMOs, there is no middle ground – genetic modification is inherently, and in my opinion, neither good nor bad. It has both pros and cons.

Instead, I believe that much of the public consternation about GMOs actually stems from a few early products developed with biotechnology – specifically, glyphosate-ready and Bt crops. If we want to debate the merits of these crops, let’s have at it. I think there are sound reasons for carefully examining glyphosate-ready and Bt crop varieties and their impacts on our landscape and food systems. But let’s not damn the technology entirely just because it was used to develop a couple of controversial products. Instead, let’s focus on developing new products that can improve the quality and quantity of our food while protecting the environment and enhancing both human and animal health.

Another part of the confusion surrounding GMOs appears to stem from the close association of the technology with the large multinational companies that control the genetically engineered products. These businesses hold significant, high-profile places in this controversy. Many in the academic world are labeled shills for these businesses when we speak in support of the technology. Again, this confusion isn’t about the technology. It’s about the high-profile end products.

A big part of my frustration is that I share some of these same concerns; however, the products and the technology have been horribly conflated. I strongly believe that advocating for the basic technology, while sharing my concern over it, is just.

The question we – the scientific community – should be focused on is this: Why hasn’t society turned to us for input on this divisive issue? Many people rely instead on information from friends, family and people who share their opinions. By the same token, we scientists tend to stay in our comfort zones while lamenting with our colleagues the emotion-driven, fact-lite arguments against GMOs. I suggest that it is high time for all of us to emerge from our bubbles and to listen to and engage in clear and thoughtful conversations with our critics.

Let’s be honest – we scientists have not been effective listeners. Consequently, society has lost trust in the scientific community. No one wants to be peppered with data and jargon that they don’t understand. And they certainly don’t want to be talked down to. To start shedding the stereotypical perception of scientists as being advocates of progress at any cost, we need to take a long look in the mirror. For real change, we need to start with ourselves, our actions and our words.

I encourage you to talk with consumers and critics, not at them. Work to understand their concerns and allay their fears about biotechnology and GMOs. Remind them that we – and our families – eat, too, and that we’re as concerned as they are about the safety and security of our food supply.

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