Kevin Folta: Share the Truth, Defend the Truth-Tellers

First thing, quick housekeeping note: Because I’m trying to churn out these posts in as timely a manner as possible, such that smoke rises from the unthinkably rapid collisions of my fingertips on my laptop’s keys, I’ve made an executive decision to use the lunch and dinner talks as a chance to get a break and regenerate in my cyber-organic alcove, even if only a little. I’m sorry. But despite all appearances, I am only human.

That means I was unable to report on the talk given by Steven Novella just now, but remember you can at the very least read along with attendees’ real-time responses, for these and all other talks, by following the #CSICon hashtag on Twitter. You know, where reasonable discourse usually takes place.

Onward!


Kevin Folta needs you to be a part of an army of Johnny and Janie Appleseeds, except the seeds you drop will be remarkably resilient to pests, remove allergens, and help alleviate starvation in developing countries.

When you listen to Kevin Folta, you can’t help but find yourself with very big feelings about things like gene editing and Vitamin A. You see, it’s so easy for cutting edge genetic science to be distorted and demonized. It’s unfamiliar territory, it’s complex, and it reminds people of creepy sci-fi scenarios. But Folta gives the science – and more importantly, the drive to advance that science – a human face and voice.

And that voice sometimes strains around sudden surges of emotion, sparked by his descriptions of the effort to use gene editing to protect and improve staple crops that can keep people alive and prevent diseases, only to have those efforts blocked by anti-GMO activists.

They’re not just a nuisance. Folta says the grassroots efforts in the U.S. to stop genetic modification of food also changes the attitudes of those on whose behalf the work is being done. We know too well the mistrust that people in many parts of the developing world have for the U.S., and the campaigns to stop gene editing and other innovations can turn the beneficiaries against the very thing that is intended to save them.

Folta is deeply affected by this dynamic, frustrating to no end, especially considering the good that could be done for children who are malnourished. But it’s also personal for him, having been the prime target of an anti-GMO propaganda effort to discredit him, resulting in, among other things, a damaging New York Times piece for which he was asked what it felt like “to be a tool” of the agriculture industry.

But he says he got through it because of this community. People like us. When academics were too spooked to rise to occasion, it was the skeptic movement that stepped up and pushed back. And this, says Folta, shows the best of what this movement can do. “The science and skepticism audience can really make a difference here,” he said, by doing what we do best: Share the truths that science tells us, and defend those who tell the truth.

And we’re needed. Folta described the example of a young post-doc colleague of his who works with birds, who PETA has tried to bully and harass. It represents a cynical new tack, says Folta. “They’re going after early career females with families,” knowing that they are particularly vulnerable to being pushed out of their work.

So Folta wants us to be part of the solution, to resist the bullying, and most importantly, to share the truth. “Science,” he insists, still holding back some tears, “can win.”

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