About 15 minutes into scientist Kevin Folta’s recent lecture at Iowa State University (ISU), he was interrupted by an outburst from an anti-biotech activist.
The activist claimed that "90 percent" of what Folta, a horticulture professor from the University of Florida, said so far in his presentation was wrong.
Folta replied that he would welcome a debate anytime — but first he needed to finish his lecture.
"This goes to show that (the GMO debate), it’s not about the science. It’s about discrediting the scientist. It’s about speaking louder than the scientist," Folta told the audience of about 70 people, mostly ISU students, researchers and a few activists looking to confront Folta in a public venue.
Folta was invited to the ISU campus to explain the science behind GMOs, or what he prefers to call transgenic crops, because it better describes the process used to create them, he said.
However, Folta’s lecture ended up becoming a real-world lesson for the ISU ag students about how to respond when activists use emotion, instead of science, to argue against biotechnology.
Target for activists
In recent months, Folta himself has become a target for anti-GMO activists. He spoke up in the press against Vani Hari, who calls herself the "Food Babe," when she gave a lecture last fall at the University of Florida. Hari is a social media celebrity who rallies her blog followers to oppose GMOs and any ingredients in processed foods that she doesn’t understand.
Since then, activists have accused Folta of being a "shill" for agribusiness giant Monsanto because he is one of many expert sources for GMO Answers (www.gmoanswers.com), a website sponsored in part by Monsanto.
The activists have gone so far as to make a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to obtain Folta’s emails on his university account to prove a link with Monsanto. In response, Folta said on his blog that he has nothing to hide, but worries about the precedence set for other scientists working in the public sector.
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During his ISU lecture, Folta said activists are using the public’s lack of knowledge about transgenic crops—how GMOs are created and their true benefits and risks—to spark fear in the folks "in the middle," those who don’t have an opinion one way or another.
"Everyone wants the ‘new’ technology. So why are people standing in line for the new Apple computer, but not the new (GMO) Artic apple that doesn’t turn brown? Why is one technology acceptable but the other is not?" Folta asked.
Folta noted that hundreds of studies have proven the safety of GMO foods. Leading health organizations worldwide, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association, have confirmed GMO food safety.
And farmers plant GMO crops because they see the benefits of the technology, Folta said. Because of GMO seeds, farmers can use fewer chemicals and reduced tillage.
"There is consensus among scientist (about GMO safety). It’s not a scientific debate. It’s not a farming debate. It’s a social debate," Folta said. "And the social debate is driven by people who are making money off of fear and mistrust about a technology that has a lot of benefits, while the farmers and scientists don’t push back."
Citrus under threat
Folta explained that GMO technology may end up saving the citrus industry in his home state of Florida. Citrus greening disease, an insect-borne bacteria, is now present on 100 percent of the state’s citrus trees, he said.
"When I first came to Florida, I could see green, healthy (citrus) trees on either side of the highway," Folta said. "Now the trees are gray skeletons."
Folta predicted that next year may be the last for orange juice production in Florida, because there won’t be enough oranges to keep the processing plants open.
Traditional plant-breeding methods can’t produce disease-resistant trees fast enough to save Florida’s citrus industry, he said. That’s why researchers are testing transgenic orange trees. So far, the transgenic trees in research trials have been disease-free in the five years since they were planted, Folta said.
Later in his lecture, Folta got into another back-and-forth discussion with a second anti-GMO activist in the audience. After about 20 minutes of debate without a resolution, Folta finally asked the activist: "Is there any instance when you could accept a GMO crop?"
The activist didn’t answer directly at first, saying she was against "industrial" agriculture in general. But then, surprisingly, she admitted: "I guess I could support saving the oranges and helping those farmers." Folta smiled and thanked the activist.
He encouraged the ISU ag students to speak out on social media and share stories about how and why they plant GMO crops on their family farms.
"Your words as farmers are the most credible," he said.
And when the students see something on the Internet about GMOs they know is incorrect, they should feel free to respond, but try to keep it civil, Folta said.
"You have to keep your cool. What changes hearts and minds for people ‘in the middle’ is telling people about your farm," Folta said.