Kevin Folta on Leading with Our Ethics

An enormous amount of wonderful advances have been made in the genetic engineering of crops and animals, such that many global problems to can be tackled, mitigated, and solved. Lives could be saved in the millions. But too often, those solutions can’t be brought into the wider world because of the demonization of this kind of technology.

Kevin Folta wants to change that. He wants to help us figure out how to communicate to the general public the benefits and risks of GMOs as they really are. “We scientists…have not earned their trust.”

He explained not only the promising new developments in genetic modification, but also the big advances that have been blocked by paranoia mongering by opponents. There is so much potential for disease resistance, insect resistance, nutrition enrichment, and much more.

“Human beings have always had command of the genetics of animals and plants,” Folta pointed out, referring to how we have always influenced the evolution and genetic development of the life forms we deal with. The difference now is in the level of precision we can bring to genetic engineering, manipulating one or two genes at a time.

Folta is remarkably passionate about this subject, and like Michael Mann in the world of climate science, he’s been painted as a villain by the anti-GMO crowd, labeled as “Monsanto’s shill.” It’s pretty brutal.

Why is Folta so happy to be at an event like CSICon? “Who stepped up” when things spun out of control? The skeptic community. Coverage and defense from high profile skeptic figures spurred the wider community to get more deeply involved, and show a groundswell of support for Folta, and really, for reality.

“They go in with fear,” says Folta of the anti-science crowd, and scientists, “we go in with facts.” And that’s not enough. “We have to speak a language they understand. We have to lead with our ethics.”

Kavin Senapathy on the Food Babe and Fear Mongering

Kavin Senapathy came to talk about fear. First of all, she made sure we knew that Kavin is pronounced like “coven,” as in a coven of witches, so, more fear. But Senapathy is less concerned with being afraid of mispronouncing her name than with the fear that enriches food-purity zealots like “Food Babe” Vani Hari.

“Fear sells,” says Senapathy, “and charlatans like the Food Babe know it.” She isn’t trying to convince us that “organic” or “non-GMO” food is bad for us, but she is raising an alarm about how the organic/non-GMO industry needs to differentiate itself from the rest of the market, and one way they do that is through the fostering of unwarranted fear. It stands out by taking trivial differences, casting them as meaningful and virtuous, and “intentionally misleading and scaring the public to increase their own profits.”

The Food Babe is Senapathy’s target for the purposes of this discussion, and she’s a good target. For example, Senapathy explained a common tactic of Hari’s, wherein she identifies some chemical present in a food product that may be entirely benign, but is hard to pronounce and seems scary. She then shows how that same chemical is present in some other non-food item to make her point, and finally, identifies an alternate food without that chemical, that you can buy through her affiliates. Nice work if you can get it.

The problem arises when companies give in to the pressure Hari applies, as Subway has had to do with some chemical in its bread. Avoiding a PR problem, Subway legitimizes the quackery of Vani Hari, cementing her position as an authority and beneficent advocate.

But Senapathy also noted that the Food Babe, while an easy target, has value. Because her snake-oil act is becoming more and more apparent, she serves as a useful kind of example, a prophet that is known to be false, and therefore a subject we can learn from. Why are people taken in? We can watch the work in progress, and learn better how to push back.

Oh, and check out this trailer for an upcoming documentary with Senapathy, Science Moms.