Broadening the GMO Debate

by Joan Conrow

September 14, 2015

Joan Conrow

After co-moderating the recent Alliance for Science Ask Me Anything About GMOs discussion at the Unitarian Church of Ithaca, I again found myself wondering how we can defuse the acrimony that swirls around this topic.

The format five of the nation’s top agricultural scientists volunteering their time to answer the public’s questions about genetic engineering was innocuous enough, and intended to share Cornell resources with the larger community. But GMO opponents seemed determined to derail it from the start, fostering controversy that resulted in a last-minute venue change, social media misrepresentations and audience members more interested in pontificating than participating in a dialog or gathering information.

The event was made more tense by the recent social media attacks and death threats leveled against Dr. Kevin Folta, one of the panelists, which prompted us to consider security measures.

How has biotechnology become so emotionally charged that it’s uncomfortable, even potentially dangerous, to discuss it in a public forum, especially in a generally progressive and collegiate environment like Ithaca?

Though I’m accustomed to such discord, having watched the GMO debate rancorously play out in Hawaii over the past few years, the intensity and rude tenor of the discussion took many of the Global Alliance Fellows by surprise. Constitutionally guaranteed free speech can be noisy and messy, but I felt a bit ashamed that their introduction to American public discourse was marred by such disrespect and discourtesy.

Still, I was heartened by the perspective offered by the foreign members of the audience. They spoke passionately and knowledgeably about hunger, poverty and deprivation in their own developing nations, and biotechnology as one tool for addressing those key concerns.

We’ve already heard quite a lot from American and European anti-GMO activists. Indeed, they’ve set the tone for a debate that is becoming increasingly contentious, to the point where reasonable people are loathe to participate.

We need now to hear from global policy-makers who regulate this technology, international farmers who use it and the citizens of developing nations who are understandably aggrieved by Western-based efforts to dictate the terms of how they employ it.

Scratchy as it was, I hope last week’s Ask Me Anything event will be the first of many attempts by the Alliance to engage the Ithaca community and world at large in thoughtful discussions about agricultural technology, food security and environmental sustainability. We must keep talking openly about these tough topics.

Though the Internet capacity at the Church proved insufficient to support our intended live stream broadcast, Hawaii Fellow, Eric Cho ran with the ball, capturing and broadcasting the event in real time with his smart phone. For those who were unable to view the live stream, we offer this link to the recorded event.

photos by Shailee Shah