Genetically Modified Food Panel – Science, Policy, and Passion….

GPSS FOSEP panel 2While Washington state aready has results on I-522, the Initiative to label GM foods, we still wanted to review the GM food panel a few weeks ago co-hosted by GPSS and FOSEP.  (See the video link if you missed it).

We had a full house with a diverse repGPSS FOSEP panel 6resentation from various University Departments, as well as people from the general public, reflecting the general passion about this issue.  Paraphrasing one of our panelists, Flavia, GM food and issues surrounding it are convoluted with some of our deepest values.  The panel had a goal of presenting a scientific discussion of genetic modification.

The panel was modified by Alice Popejoy, a GPSS member and graduate student in Public Health Genetics.  It featured Dr. Eugene Nester, a Professor Emeritus of Microbiology at the University of Washington and the Washington State Academy of Sciences Committee Co-Chair GPSS FOSEP panel 4for the white paper on I-522; Flavia Chen, a graduate student in Public Health Genetics interested in GM regulation and public perception of risk; David Roach, a medical student  in a Genome Sciences looking at infectious disease and connections with Genomics and evolution; Luke Esser (Yes on I-522), a former Washington State Senator (LD 48) and was chairman of the Republican Party of Washington from 2007 to 2011; Dana Bieber (No on I-522), who has  worked in government affairs, communications and grassroots outreach as an advocate for business, health care, transportation, and education.

While I won’t be recapping the panel here, what struck me was the difference in this conversation and others that I saw up to the election.  We have been using GM technology for a long time.  There is always an inherent risk in new technology, and what it might mean. How do we talk about that risk? How do we talk about our research and our use of GM organisms, such as genetically engineered bacteria or other types of plants?  As scientists, much of our research is complicated.  How do we talk about it so that people understand it?

I felt as if the scientists on the panel presented the research that presented the review of 30 years of research that has not found significant risks for GM food for human health (see the great Special Section on GM food in Nature).   However, that was not what most people in theGPSS FOSEP panel 5 debate seemed to be concerned about.   Essentially I-522 was a debate between “you have a right to know” and “this will not provide us useful information and will be burdensome”.  Panelists and the audience brought up issues of effects of what substantial equivalence meant, effect of the GM crops on the environment, and the intersection of business and corporate-funded research in the debate.

Questions that linger for me after this debate (and the way the Initiative was advertised by both sides):

  1. How can we present the complexities and caveats of our research in a clear way that can still help the public see the validity of science?  Is there a way we can get the science to sound-byte / Twitter size without compromising it?
  2. Do the facts and figures of our research really matter in highly charged emotional issues that get at people’s passions? Should we as scientists try to connect to that passion / emotional side, or is that “selling out”? (Food has definite connections with family, friends, and culture for people all around the world).
  3. What is the best way for us to communicate risk and uncertainty?  I think about this in connection with GM foods, but also with climate change, vaccinations, fluoridation of water, behaviors and disease risk etc.
  4. Who is responsible when the results from scientific research are misconstrued or simplified so much by the media or policymakers? Do we have the responsibility to “correct the record”?

Please add more questions and continue the discussion in the comments!

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