In March, National Geographic published an issue called “The War On Science,” and of all the cities in the entire United States, can you guess which city was called out in the very first paragraph of that article for its anti-science tendencies? Oh yes: it was Portland. The article went on to say, “We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge … faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts… And there’s so much talk about the trend these days … that science doubt itself has become a pop-culture meme.”
Nowhere is this culture more alive than in the city where I live. We’re one of only a few major American cities that don’t fluoridate our water, despite the scientific and medical consensus that it is a cheap and safe way to improve dental health for everyone. We also just narrowly avoided being one of the first states in America to label GMOs; the vote literally came down to less than half a percentage point – I’m almost certain it will return to the ballot and possibly pass next time. There’s a county in Oregon that has banned the growth of GMOs, and there’s another county currently trying to do the same on a ballot measure next week, even though the state has passed legislation to prohibit county-by-county bans. To get around that, Benton County is trying to give legal rights to plants.
While all this is going on, I’m sitting here shaking my head. And sometimes, shaking in my boots. Why? Because when I’m at the bus stop talking to another neighborhood parent and they say to me, “What did you used to do before you became a stay-at-home mom?” I get this sinking feeling in my stomach. Do I tell them that I used to work for the very company that created GMOs? A company that many Oregonians consider representative of all that is evil and wrong with our world? Sometimes I just say, “Oh, I used to be in public relations” or “Oh, I’m a photographer.” Neither of those are un-true. But sometimes I just say it: “I used to work for Monsanto.” Every single time I’ve done that it stops people in their tracks. I mentioned it to my dental hygienist the other day, and she literally pulled her tool out of my mouth and looked at me, “Oh…. oh. Really?!” Yes, really.
And the thing is, in all honesty, I’m freaking proud of it. I loved working there – I got to go to work every day and do something I feel passionately about. I got to help people better understand a technology that I think holds immense promise to change our world for the better. The people I worked with were awesome, and the company was great – I got amazing benefits and reduced summer hours! Sometimes I still kick myself for ever leaving. If Monsanto had an office in Portland, I’d be knocking down their door trying to get a job.
But I don’t talk about that here. There’s a very real reason I don’t share my last name on this blog – I know Monsanto employees who have been threatened in climates similar to Portland. I don’t wear my Monsanto jacket here (even though it’s a really nice jacket.) And I certainly have never shown up at a March Against Monsanto.
Except maybe that’s changing. Why? Because there’s a new grass-roots movement that’s standing up to March Against Monsanto and making an effort to help people better understand GMOs. Next Saturday, for the first time, there will be a group of pro-GMO people (YES! Pro-GMO people in Portland!) standing up for science. They’ll be standing right next to a horde of protesters carrying posters with sculls and crossbones, blaming GMOs for every health problem under the sun, and accusing Monsanto of controlling the food supply and killing bees, butterflies, and everything in between. The pro-GMO group will be holding signs that say, “I heart GMOs” and “Ask me about GMOs.” They’ll be handing out leaflets that talk about all the amazing things GMOs have actually done: like resurrecting the American chestnut tree from the brink of extinction, saving the Hawaiian papaya, and reducing carbon emissions associated with agriculture equivalent to removing almost 12 million cars from the road for one year. They’ll be approachable. They’ll be honest. And they’ll be accurate. They’ll be everything that March Against Monsanto isn’t. They’ll March Against Myths About Modification. (That’s their name, MAMyths.)
Now that is the kind of movement I can get on board with. And it couldn’t come at a more necessary time. I really believe that in my lifetime, we’ll be facing problems that have the potential to make or break our species. I could give you a bunch of statistics here, but the bottom line is that we have too many people for this planet to support. We’ll need to make some drastic changes if we want to stay on this planet at all. There are lots of ideas about how we’re going to make that happen, but one thing is for sure: we already have a technology that has the potential to help address many of those problems. Is it the magic bullet? No. Can biotechnology feed every starving person in Africa? No. But it can help. If only we’ll let it.
How can we convince people that GMOs are not evil? How can we convince people that the story is not about Monsanto, or chemicals, or patents? The story is about the next generation of GMOs and their potential to help. Here are some examples of what I mean:
- rice with beta-carotene that could help the 124 million children in the world who are chronically deficient in vitamin A, a deficiency that accounts for about one-quarter of the total global burden of disease from malnutrition
- insect-resistant eggplant that would allow farmers in Bangladesh to spray less pesticide where pesticide poisoning is a chronic health problem
- cassava (a staple for millions of people in developing countries) with increased protein, beta-carotene and other nutrients
- crops that are self-fertilizing that would allow farmers in developing countries who don’t have fertilizer to grow more productive crops
- crops that can photosynthesize better and produce 50 percent more food per acre
- drought-resistant crops that can produce more with less water
Some of those are ten or more years away from development, but some of them, like Golden Rice and Bt eggplant, already exist but are being blocked somewhat in part to hysteria fueled by activists like March Against Monsanto.
That brings me back to next Saturday in Portland. This is where we can help. This is right here, right now. For a long time, academics and scientists have been doing what I call the “soft sell.” They’ve been rather quietly and calmly explaining the science, the safety, and the benefits of GMOs and hoping that eventually it catches on. And maybe for some, it is working. But it’s not working fast enough. We are badly losing the information war on GMOs. Perhaps now is the time to be a little more forceful, and that’s exactly what MAMyths is doing. They’re standing up proudly and loudly to say, “I support GMOs and I want to tell you why.”
Of course, that’s a little scary. Especially in a city like Portland where people might get a little riled up over that. But the good news is they have the facts on their side. And, even better, they’re real people who aren’t backed by industry. They’re people just like me: with children whose health we care about, who have a very serious vested interest in the sustainability of our food supply.
Maybe you should go. You could always go get a beer or some dried GMO papaya afterward. Or, if you don’t want to go, I understand. But you can at least join the movement online and use your voice to support science.