WASHINGTON, April 22, 2015 – Alison Van Eenennaam, animal genomics and biotechnology specialist at the University of California-Davis, made a splash last year with an exhaustive study showing that 29 years of feeding biotech crops to food animals produced absolutely no adverse health effects on animals or nutritional differences in food products (see Agri-Pulse, Oct. 1, 2014, p. 7). The study looked at data covering more than 100 billion animals following the introduction of biotech crops.
For her trouble, she was greeted earlier this year by a public records request by an anti-biotech activist group, U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) of Oakland, California, demanding all emails and correspondence relating to her biotechnology work, including correspondence with biotech companies and their trade associations and public relations firms.
Van Eenennaam is one of more than a dozen researchers at four U.S. land grant universities targeted under state disclosure laws. USRTK singled out academics who publicly opposed the California voter referendum campaign to require labels on foods with biotech ingredients and those quoted on the Council on Biotechnology Information’s https://gmoanswers.com/ web site.
“It’s an interesting dilemma for scientists talking about public policy subjects,” Van Eenennaam told a National Press Club audience invited by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST), which last year honored her with the 2014 Borlaug CAST Communication Award. CAST announced this year’s winner is C.S. Prakash of Tuskegee University in Alabama.
“I had over 75,000 emails to review. I’ve worked on a lot of controversial issues, not just GMOs,” she said. “I put my funding on my website so everyone can see it’s all funded by public funds.” The question facing researchers is whether the potential for such public records requests, which have also targeted climate scientists, would inhibit them from commenting candidly, she said. “It could have a chilling effect on the scientific process.”
Opposition to biotechnology is but one of several related challenges to agriculture and agricultural science, Van Eenennaam said. “Science has a problem, we have a public image problem.” Some the problem is stylistic: Scientists address their peers in “monotone, robotic, cerebral” ways, she said, while the “public audience is reacting with their guts” and emotions.
“Irrespective of production method, farmers face similar challenges,” she said. In animal health and welfare, “the voice of farmers is absent from discussions especially in large cities.”
Van Eenennaam compared the “impending livestock revolution” to the “green revolution” in crop production. She said that a huge increase in animal protein production is projected to be needed for a growing population and its “preferred diet, moving to animal protein.” Meeting the anticipated demand will require technologies.
“Are we going to be able to access these technologies,” she asked. “I fear some of the best technologies may be taken off the table.”
Adoption of technology in the face of organized opposition helped lead to an increase of more than 350 percent in milk production efficiency since 1944, she said, with about half the gain attributable to genetic improvement enabled by artificial insemination (AI). “If it had not been for this technological improvement we would have many, many more cows needed to produce the milk we drink.”
In the 1940s, the technology faced strong criticism. “Bull breeders opposed artificial insemination because it would destroy the bull market,” she said. The opposition was “basically overcome with science.” She wonders whether AI adoption would have been possible in an Internet age. “I may be envious of 1940 extension people who didn’t have to deal with Twitter.”
Likewise, technology is necessary to control pests and diseases, she said. “Pest control is a really important part of agriculture, plant or animals. Pests are always evolving to get around controls.” Weeds are among other factors that contribute to crop loss, she said, using water and nutrients and decreasing crop yields.
Van Eenennaam challenged those who advocate antibiotic-free animal production. “I wonder what would be their strategy to combat animal disease. Are we able to access that technology?” she asked. “We need to deal with pests. What’s the best way to deal with pests? What are the tradeoffs?”
Scientific issues are some of the most polarizing in American politics today, she said. “Climate change and evolution are widely accepted in the scientific community but questioned by significant portions of the American public.” Describing the dilemma, she quoted science writer Ben Goldacre: “You can't reason people out of positions they didn't reason themselves into.”
Van Eenennaam compared the “parallel science” advocated by contemporary opponents of accepted scientific consensus to the “peasant science” movement in the former Soviet Union led by Tromfin Lysenko, who “banished Mendel and Darwin as not in line with socialist thinking.” The failure of wheat production in the Soviet Union in the early 1970s has been blamed in part on Lysenko’s “pseudo genetics,” she said.
Today’s “parallel science is Lysenkoism around topics related to GMOs,” she added. “The conclusions of parallel science are invariably predictable. It does absolutely nothing to change their conclusion, contrary to scientific method, where the data leads to conclusion.”
“The Internet is very good at distributing parallel science,” she said, citing a Pew Research Center study published in January that found only 37 percent of the public believed GMO-containing foods were safe to eat, although 88 percent of scientists said they were safe.
On the positive side, she said, “The Internet and social media have opened up and can be used to help counteract the spiral of parallel science narratives,” she said. By speaking up for science, Van Eenennaam said, “I feel like I’m playing a constant game of whack-a-mole.” But in the GMO debate, “I feel like the meter is moving in the wrong direction at a rapid pace.”
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