In defense of biotechnology
When asked what they think is the most evil corporation in the world, many people immediately point to our very own Monsanto, a company which even has its name on a building on our campus. Amid growing support for organic agriculture, biotech companies such as Monsanto face a growing resentment, fueled by a public distrust of science. This distrust appears everywhere, from the anti-vaccine movement to climate change denial to homeopathic medicine. A growing number of scientific disciplines face a difficult challenge: explaining themselves to an audience that learns its science from blogs, Reddit and Huffington Post. Biologists are increasingly puzzled at the public’s lack of understanding of critical issues like genetic engineering.
Why don’t people trust genetically engineered foods? A review by researchers at the University of Perugia found 1,783 studies affirming that genetically modified (GM) foods pose no threat to the environment or human health (Nicolia et. al. 2013). They could not find a single peer-reviewed study that stated otherwise. However, this massive consensus among scientists is not shared by the public (an ABC poll found that 52 percent of the public believes that GM crops are unsafe). Sensationalist journalism has convinced the public that genetically modified foods can cause cancer, autism or even birth defects. Not a single peer-reviewed study supports any of these claims. Instead, scientists like Norman Borlaug point out that organic agriculture can feed a maximum of 4 billion people and its implementation worldwide would require massive deforestation.
Even when aware of this consensus, many people dismiss it, claiming that the studies in question were funded by biotech companies (in reality, only a select few were). The same crowd that gladly accepts the overwhelming consensus on climate change immediately changes its tune upon exposure to similar evidence about genetically modified organisms. Monsanto, through questionable business practices, has unintentionally convinced people that genetic engineering of any kind is harmful.
This disconnection between scientists and the public illustrates the need for young scientists to work harder to reach out to their constituents. Their audience is no longer fellow researchers. In order to inform the populace scientists need to be able to promote and explain their work to non-scientists. This is the goal of FameLab, an international competition of science ambassadors meant to promote science worldwide. Science doesn’t have to be dull and inaccessible, according to the project’s founders. It is the responsibility of scientists to communicate their work to the world in a way that inspires people to let them continue it. If scientists fail to do so, there will be disastrous consequences for human health and the environment.