This is a guest post by Kristin Bergman, a moderator at the “Ethics of GMOs: A Panel Discussion” Research Ethics Lecture Series Event.
A man quickly moved over to me and whispered “Is this seat taken?” I nodded my head yes and the man shuffled away twice as fast as he had come. He settled into a spot in the back of the room and joined others, standing, waiting. All of the seats were taken. They had all come to hear a panel of four professors with diverse backgrounds and diverse investments in genetically modified organisms (GMOs) discuss the issue of GMOs and the environment.
The issue of GMOs is hotly debated, so we were not entirely sure whether the event would be met with cheers, jeers, or a combination of both. The room was full and bustling, the energy of almost 200 people filled up the room until, suddenly, a quiet settled over the crowd. Dr. Jonathan Beever seized the moment, got up, and the event began.
In addition to the crowd in Foster Auditorium, there were also people following the event online via the Rock’s Twitter feed. Both of these audiences were invited to submit questions to us, the moderators, with the promise that as many of these questions as possible would be woven into the discussion. We opened the event’s discussion by asking the panel generally what issues they found to be most pressing when discussing the topic of GMOs. After this initial question I felt a tap on my shoulder and collected a batch of audience questions. I was surprised and delighted at how quickly people had drafted their questions. Then the other moderator was tapped and he got a batch of questions as well. Then another tap, and another, and we were off. Integrating the audience questions in with our own questions was exhilarating and Dr. Beever did an excellent job keeping everything running smoothly. This integration allowed the audience to be involved in this panel discussion. This incorporation of their questions was a critical aspect of the panel’s successful presentation because community education was part of why the panel was organized in the first place.
My favorite question asked the panel whether a plant or animal’s genetic code has inherent sanctity and, if so, whether the use of GMOs would threaten this sanctity. I like this question because it starts to pull in broader philosophical topics such as speciesism and inherent value. Our final question asked each panel member whether they could think of any positive ways to educate the public about GMOs and the environment. Every member of the panel agreed that events such as this evening’s discussion are the key to bringing better quality information regarding GMOs to the public. This answer felt very affirming and it took all of the time that we had spent in preparation meeting, reading, and organizing and it made it feel like we had done all of that successfully. Working with Dr. Beever and the Rock Ethics Institute was an incredible experience and I plan on continuing to be involved with them as much as possible in the future.