Terry D. Etherton
Ag Progress Days (APD) was held a few weeks ago at Penn State. Ag Progress Days is a 3-day event that is hosted by the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State University. Typically, APD attracts about 50,000 attendees (for additional insights into what APD is, please see: How I Spent a Summer Day at Penn State’s Ag Progress Days).
This year, the College hosted a program that involved short presentations by various Penn State employees about a variety of scientific topics and agriculture. I was invited to speak about Biotechnology in the Barnyard…a topic near and dear to my heart. An important aspect of my talk addressed the issue of how are we going to feed a growing world population? I believe that the development and application of science will play a role in trying to feed the world in the future. While I have given versions of this talk countless times over the past 30 years, this presentation, actually the question and answer session, turned out to be very different.
Different in what way?
At the conclusion of my talk, an individual in the audience asked if I believed in God. That has never occurred before! The closest I had come have been conversations about God and Science but never in a formal meeting.
My response was: “I believe in a Higher Power that many individuals elect to call God.” Her response, was that I didn’t answer the question!
I immediately started processing the thought that the attendee must be concerned that scientists don’t believe in God. I didn’t speak to this issue, however, in the question and answer period.
Her subsequent comments veered to her story about deep prayer and “clean” food accounting for her recovery from a serious health condition. She shared words to the effect “that the biotechnology-based food was dirty…”! At this point, I thought “oh oh”!! Viewing certain food production practices as resulting in “clean” or “dirty” food is not a position supported by any science. We didn’t have time to elaborate on the details of what she meant by using the word “dirty”.
Over the years, I have had more than a few opponents of science and biotechnology in agriculture attack the topic in many ways, ranging from “it isn’t safe” to “we don’t need/want it”, etc. However, I have evolved a response to the question about the safety of science and biotechnology by asking the person posing the question the following: Heaven forbid if you have a child with a catastrophic illness…would you take them to the best and brightest physician and use the latest medical science and biomedical biotechnology to help? Or, would you prefer to use medical technology and healthcare practices from the 1850’s? For those who answer the question, I have never one individual select “1850’s healthcare”!
Of course, there have been a slew of individuals who have dodged the question. In fact that attendee at APD said, “what do you mean” and “hmm, that is hard question”, without answering. I didn’t press for an answer.
My question is intended to “force” a look at a different value system (appreciation) for science. It is clear that individuals differentiate their value for science in a manner that depends on the application, i.e., ag biotech versus medical biotechnology. The scientific methods are the same so safety is the same; however, some in society make value judgments about science and technology without truly understanding the underlying science. We all do this…I don’t have a clue how my computer works but I make value decisions about what to buy based on perceptions.
Confusing isn’t it?
I am grateful that God created the scientific method and scientists. Imagine where society would be without all of the goods, products and services we use that evolved from science. Fortunately, the cohort who is concerned about science in agriculture are a vocal, small minority. And, for that, I thank God.
Speaking of Communicating
The fact that the cohort who questions or doubts the need for science in agriculture is small should not be interpreted that scientists should stop communicating about the need for ag science in feeding a growing world.
I have spent about 30 years traveling down the “road” of trying to communicate science to the public. It has been an interesting journey. I launched my blog, Terry Etherton Blog on Biotechnology, in 2006 for many reasons, including the idea of providing science-based facts for consumers about many public discussions around food biotechnology in which activists and activist groups try to scare consumers.
During this journey, I have come to appreciate the need for scientists to become more proactive in communicating science. Specifically, the scientific community needs to be much better at conveying what they do and how science and technology benefit consumers. I have written about this, most recently in Please Explain: Training Scientists to be Better Communicators imploring scientists to get involved.
In my travels down this “road”, I have become sensitized to the issue of how the information I present is being “heard” by the audience. This can be a real adventure, especially when some in the “audience” share “they don’t believe the message(s) or messenger” (i.e., me). This raises the interesting question of what to do?
Yes, there are those who do not believe in science and technology.
Here is a good example. A colleague (Dr. Ann Macrina) and I wrote an article, Hormones in Milk – Are they Causing Early Puberty in Girls? that was posted on the Best Food Facts blog in June. Recently, a consumer, “Rachel”, submitted a comment for posting: “I don’t believe all the information in this article. I think the facts are skewed. There is a great milk lobby out there. Not all they say is true. Hormones are indeed causing younger girls to mature ahead of time. This is true for girls that are not even heavy. I have seen this with my own eyes. More than once.”
Not a shred of what Rachel shared in her post is true based on science. Our blog clearly presented the facts that hormones in food are NOT the cause of early onset puberty. Rachel, however, obviously elected to not believe this! I have no idea what the basis for her decision was.
And, with this comes the question: What to do when clear scientific evidence is not believed?
The answer? We keep communicating – it works. Here are some examples.
It is clear that many Americans value science and technology. In 2010, the National Science Foundation released a report, Science and Engineering Indicators: 2010, showing that Americans overwhelmingly agree that science and technology will foster “more opportunities for the next generation”; about 89% of respondents agreed with this statement (see: Chapter 7, Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding).
In the 2010 Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology Survey, conducted by the International Food Information Council, only 2% of respondents listed biotech when asked: What, if anything, are you concerned about when it comes to food safety?
Another recent report, Making Safe, Affordable and Abundant Food a Global Reality, that was posted on the Plenty to Think About Blog presented compelling evidence that 95% of survey respondents are either neutral or fully supportive of using technology to produce their food.
With this, I shall get back on the “road” and keep communicating what science is and the benefits that science offers to the public. And, as always, do so with great appreciation for the fact that there are different opinions for how best to feed the world, and with immense gratitude for learned minds in science who strive to do their best to develop science-based solutions that are of benefit to the world.