Addressing biosafety research’s ‘communication problem’

By Justin Cremer

April 10, 2019

Tarragona, Spain is both a strange and fitting location to gather nearly 300 biotech researchers, regulators, NGOs and farmers from around the world.

Strange in the sense that attendees of the 15th International Society for Biosafety Research (ISBR) symposium met in the shadows of 1st century Roman ruins built at a time when the sophistication and sheer scale of modern agriculture would have been utterly unthinkable. And yet fitting, given Spain’s status as the only country in the EU growing GE crops on a significant scale.

Since 1998, Spanish farmers have cultivated over 1.2 million cumulative hectares of maize genetically engineered to resistthe destructive corn borer. This accounts for around 90 percent of all Bt maize grown in the European Union, making Spain both an exception on the continent and the envy of many European farmers whose national laws do not give them the same freedom of choice.

Esther Esteban Rodrigo, director of Spain’s National Institute for Agricultural and Food Research and Technology (INIA), opened ISBR 2019 by addressing the ironies of Spain’s outlier status, especially considering that the restrictions that EU member states put on growing GMOs do nothing to actually stop the consumption of GM crops. Rodrigo pointed out that around 85 percent of the soybeans consumed in the EU are imported, the majority of which have been genetically modified. In other words, the EU is eating GMOs while not being allowed to grow them.

But despite Spain’s two decades of large-scale Bt maize cultivation, Rodrigo said that most consumers there still look negatively upon GM crops.

“Spanish society is not very enthusiastic, but the authorities have decided to trust the science,” she said.

That disconnect between what the science says and what the general public believes was a major theme at the ISBR conference. The scientists involved in GM research are acutely aware that they are currently losing in the court of public opinion. The ISBR, after all, assembled for the first time in 1990 in an effort to “alleviate the communication problem within the GMO biosafety research community.”

Reflecting that goal, the symposium’s first plenary session put communications and engagement front and center with keynote speaker Jack Bobo telling attendees they need to “change the conversation” about ag biotech in order to win over consumers who “have never cared more nor known less about how their food is produced.”

“Today the public believes agriculture is the problem to be solved, when in fact agriculture is the solution to our problems,” Bobo, the vice president for global policy and government affairs at Intrexon, said. “How do we change the nature of this conversation?”

Bobo, whose company is behind the genetically-modified non-browning Arctic Apple and AquaBounty’s fast-growing salmon (“we do all things controversial,” he joked), said that many of the popular arguments used in defense of GMOs simply don’t work. Pointing out their proven track record of safety, that they allow for significant reductions in hazardous chemical applications or that they are going to be a necessary component of feeding a rapidly growing global population are all true –but they fail to connect with most people.

“If you lead with science, you will lose with science,” he told the audience.

This was echoed by Ben Durham, the chief director in charge of bio-innovation at South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology, who warned that science and facts are no longer the winning argumentative tools they may have once been.

“The truth is not actually very important. Society has a much different perspective on truth than science,” he said.

John Besley, who studies public opinion about science at Michigan State University, added that the way the ag biotech community communicates may not be helping.

“Many of those choices make us seem cold, closed, weird and dishonest. Being a jerk doesn’t work,” he said, empathizing that scientists shouldn’t talk down to concerned consumers even if their concerns aren’t grounded in reality.

Mahaletchumy Arujanan of the Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre also stressed the importance of speaking to the public in language they can understand and focusing on “what’s important to them.” Following her presentation, Arujanan tweeted her appreciation for the symposium’s focus on communications.

“Perhaps this is the first scientific conference where science communications took the stage as the keynote and plenary session. Usually scicomm is the ‘by the way’ session in conferences. Great to see realization that scicomm determines the success of science,” she wrote.

But of course, the science itself also matters a great deal. Over the course of the next several days, ISBR 2019 turned its focus to some of the most promising technological advancements of recent years, including how gene drive technology is combatting malaria and how gene editing is improving animal welfare and producing new consumer products like high-fiber wheat.

Industry leaders like Mitch Abrahamsen of Recombinetics and Chloe Pavely of Calyxt focused on how gene editing is meeting consumer demand for improved animal welfare and healthier food products. In the case of Recombinetics, that means using gene editing tools like CRISPR/Cas9 and TALENs to breed polled cows that no longer have to undergo the painful ‘disbudding’ process of dehorning and male piglets that don’t need to be castrated. For Calyxt, it’s providing high oleic soybean oil as a healthier alternative to trans fats and more sustainable alternative to palm oil.

While Jeffrey Wolt of Iowa State University hailed a rapid rate of progress within the development of gene editing tools that probably means there will be “a new kid on the block” by the time ISBR convenes again in 2021, the symposium also highlighted the enormous imbalance in access to the latest biotech tools.

Donald MacKenzie of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center lamented the fact that a full 19 years after Golden Rice graced the cover of Time magazine under the headline “this rice could save a million kids a year,” “not a single child has eaten a single grain” of the genetically-modified vitamin-A fortified rice due to anti-GMO hysteria.

A session organized by the Cornell Alliance for Science comprised farmers from Ghana, Nigeria, India, South Africa and Bangladesh as a way to highlight the vast chasms between “the haves and have-nots.” Ironically, some of these farmers from developing nations were denied visas to visit Spain, requiring them to participate remotely or through video.

Meanwhile, many Europeans bemoaned the European Court of Justice’s decision last summer to subject gene-edited crops to the same onerous regulations as GMOs, something Rodrigo feared “could paralyze funding and force an exodus of talent from Europe.”

Alison Van Eenennaam, who heads the Animal Genomics and Biotechnology Laboratory at the University of California-Davis, said she feared that the global patchwork of regulations for gene-edited plants and animals is so daunting that many promising young scientists may opt to leave the agricultural field altogether in favor of human medicine.

Bringing things full circle, Van Eenennaam used her final-day address to say that while precision plant and animal breeding has paved the way for a dramatic reduction of agriculture’s environmental impact, that message is not reaching the public.

“Plant and animal breeders have perhaps the most compelling sustainability story of all time,” she said.

The problem, though, is that environmental improvements that have been ushered in by improved genetics remain what she called an “unsung song” that is often drowned out by louder voices.

But for four days in Tarragona, pro-science voices were not only exchanging success stories that can be shared with a skeptical public and global regulators, they were also learning how to raise their voices above the din in the hopes that the “communication problem” identified by the ISBR nearly two decades ago will one day be solved.