When Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" was taking the country by storm 50 years ago, it was a puzzle to scientists and farmers who did not see the cultural future looming in front of them. Scientists dismissed it as anecdotal evidence while farmers recognized that if you don't use a pesticide according to instructions, bad things happen. Both knew that without pesticides, yields would be devastated.
But farmers also recognized that as America became less agrarian, there were more opportunities for misinformation about their work to spiral out of control. Today, environmental activists are experts at fundraising but know very little about agriculture. They instead spread fear and doubt about food and mythologize a world they wouldn't recognize and would be ill-equipped to survive in.
Even some farmers have embraced this mythology about the past. Organic food is a $29 billion industry dominated by giant conglomerates. Whole Foods is the kind of monopolistic juggernaut ADM and Monsanto executives can only dream about but they successfully market their products as being dominated by small family farms that use no chemicals.
Most conventional farmers don't fantasize about the past, they recognize that they have dematerialized in a way that is absolutely startling - they are growing more food on less land with fewer pesticides than was ever thought possible outside science-fiction. And they want to stay on top of the latest science. That's no easy feat.
In February, plant pathologist Dr. Jenny Rees gave a talk at the Nebraska Women in Agriculture Conference in Kearney and most of the 300 attendees had similar concerns - how to address questions about food and safety and science.
Dr. Jenny Rees, University of Nebraska-Lincoln plant pathologist. Credit: UNL
Farmers want to farm, they don't want to have to be PhDs in biology, and they recognize that some anti-science efforts are just framing - 'you can't prove GMOs are safe' and 'GMOs have not been tested long enough' arguments are easy enough to rebut by inserting every product in existence. Yet really understanding the science is difficult. Rees advises that rather than trying to learn all about biotechnology, it is better to understand people's attitudes about biotechnology.
It isn't just farmers under assault by framing. Everyone from academic scientists to those at drug companies to those at chemical companies are under a default 'you make money, you must be unethical' cloud of suspicion. It's typical to say 'follow the money' when science disagrees with a political or cultural world view.
And so people may have a negative attitude towards GMOs if they think they were invented 15 years ago by some evil corporation. Instead of trying to argue about the particulars of GMOs, it is worth noting that ears of corn once had 10 kernels and a tomato was the size of the tip of our thumbs - genetic modification made their roles as common food possible. It was done using trial and error far less efficiently in the past, they used the science available to them then just like we do now. Today, rather than waiting 15 generations and also getting a whole bunch of genetic modifications that we don't want, science can precisely get just the desired trait.
From a practical point of view, Hawaii was on the verge of losing its $45 million papaya industry from papaya ring spot due to the old way of doing things. GMOs fixed that, and the technology has accomplished a whole lot more. “It took millions and millions of tons of pesticides out of our environment,” Rees said. “Some of them are very, very dangerous.”
That's not to say it is a cure-all. Rees notes that relying on biotech crops and moving away from disease and pest protection using time-honored crop rotations is as bad an idea today as believing overuse of DDT would be better for pest control 50 years ago.
There is a reason organic food has been found to have more pesticides than conventional food. Organic farmers picked one point in time and declared science came to a halt then. If we want to keep millions and millions of tons of pesticides out of the environment, we shouldn't go back to the olden days when that was the most advanced technology available.
Read more: Rees explains GMO crops at Women in Ag Conference by Lori Potter, Kearney Hub
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