"Talking Biotechnology in the Community"
Peggy G. Lemaux, Ph.D.
University of California, Berkeley CA
Scientists can play a role in shaping and contributing to the dialogue and debate relating to agricultural practices and technologies, but they must be prepared. As scientists, it is not always straightforward to move from the laboratory bench to the park bench to discuss "your science" with your neighborsSLIDE 1. Such discussions require that you reduce the complexity of what is done to something that can be understood by those not involved in the scientific profession. Scientific jargon, the BACs, the YACs and the SNPs, has to be left behind in the office and laboratory. Even concepts as commonplace as millimeters and milliliters, backcrossing and genes are very foreign to most people.
The Biotechnology Debate: A Scientific or Social Issue?
While once optional, communicating with the public about what we do is now a necessity for scientists. But, it is important to realize that the debate is not strictly scientific in nature; it has become a discussion that focuses on social issues as well.SLIDE 2 This was confirmed for me by a recent study by Eric Abbott at Iowa State. Studies in the early 1990ās of media coverage showed that in the area of agricultural biotechnology scientists and industry representatives were most often used as sources. SLIDE 3 Since that time, issues surrounding GM crops have moved from being a scientific or technical issue depending on scientific journal articles, papers and conferences, to a social issue with discussion covering a much wider range of issues, like economics, politics, and social consequences. The study showed that while scientists may have opinions on these latter issues, they are not the sources sought out by the media to address these issues today. The media asks politicians, activists, clergy and citizens.
This evolution in the debate has been seen before. For example, in the case of pasteurization of milk, the debate came to be focused on social issues, like its perceived "unnaturalness".SLIDE 4 After an initial period, the public came to accept the safety and advantages of pasteurization and the focus moved away from social issues and back to scientific ones. An example of a technology debate that turned out differently is nuclear power. SLIDE 5 In this case, social issues, not scientific ones, guided in large part regulatory responses and development of the technology. This issue never returned to a scientific one, as was the case with pasteurization; it still remains a social one nearly 50 years later.
Role of Scientists in the Debate
Does this mean that, as scientists, we have no role? No, I believe that we must be involved in the public dialogue. It is imperative that we get out and talk to people about these issues.SLIDE 6 It is our obligation to be there to provide accurate, science-based information and to talk knowledgeably about benefits and risks, based on scientific data. We must be looked upon as trusted sources of information, individuals who are willing to recognize both the up-sides and the down-sides of the technology.
How do you start?
So what do you do? Before embarking on your quest for consumer and end-user education, it is important to learn a bit about your target audience and its needs. If you get into this arena, you will find that there is no lack of opportunity to provide information. And each audience will be different; each will have its own needs. It will not be like standing up in front of a classroom full of students. Depending on the needs of the target audience, different communication strategies should be used. These include the following categories.
š Strictly informational:SLIDE 7 People just want to know what products might arise from the technology and how they will differ from what they see now. Groups like this might include community organizations and even groups outside of your discipline within the university. Such strictly informational presentations used to occur with some frequency, but now such presentation are rarely without some questions on controversial issues, such as Monarch butterflies or Starlink corn.
š Strategic:SLIDE 8 Government agencies or state or national organizations need information to make appropriate public-policy decisions. While one would like ideally to think that our state and national legislative and regulatory bodies have all the information necessary to make informed decisions, they do have areas in which they need to be informed. Also members of the media, journalists and T.V. and radio reporters need accurate information to impart to their audiences. Increasingly these groups want answers based on what is known about issues. GM foods may not be high on their list of topics to know in-depth and some of the concepts involved are technically complex. Therefore, they are often in need of individuals who are knowledgeable about the scientific data and who are available to address issues of concern to their constituencies.
š Enabling:SLIDE 9 An industry needs information to determine whether biotechnology provides appropriate tools to address a problem. They may want to know how they can utilize these technologies to solve the problem. They might need information to provide their professionals so they can interact effectively with their clientele. This type of involvement requires not only a consideration of the science, in fact that is often the least difficult of the problems to solve. It is necessary to consider intellectual property considerations, regulatory issues and international trade aspects that are related to GM crops and foods.
You need to consider that the public debate relating to genetically modifying foods and crops has many dimensions, potential benefits and risks to human health, ecosystems, farmerās profits, food security and the control and loss of control over decision-making in the food system. SLIDE 10 Some aspects can be approached with scientific data that relates to the validity of an opinion and we can interpret that for the general public. As scientists, we can bring this perspective to the debate. To me it is our duty to dig into the literature to try to find answers to some of the questions being raised over food safety and environmental effects of the new GM foods and crops.
But the perception of risk, or acceptable risk, is quite a different thing from scientifically based risk. Acceptable risk is called safety and this is determined by the individual, based on his or her own value system. Air travel, when it first became possible, was considered "unsafe" by many. Over the years data has been gathered from which we can specifically estimate the risk of air travel. Now, most individuals consider the practice "safe" and accept the risks (and there are some) because of the benefits. The benefits of trying to get from San Francisco to New York for a meeting the next day far outweigh the risk of air travel and the person taking the flight voluntarily accepts that risk. SLIDE 11
So, we might be able to determine the scientific risk of GM crops and foods, but this is only one aspect of the decision-making process for most people. We, as scientists, likely have opinions on the social and ethical aspects of the debate, but they are just that, opinions. SLIDE 12 I believe that we, as scientists, should present peer-reviewed, scientific facts, when available, and offer opinions, clearly stated as personal opinions, when they are not based on scientific facts. It is an important distinction.
What do you need to tell them?
So our mandate is clear, but what do we need to provide to our audiences and how? First, information must be communicated in easy-to-understand terms, remembering that others do not have the expertise to understand complicated technical explanations and in most cases they donāt need to. But there has to be at least be a rudimentary understanding of the role of genes and genetics in the evolution of the foods we eat today. Additionally audiences must understand the differences and similarities in the methods we use today versus those used for centuries. Without this, it is difficult to discuss risks and benefits.
As a public-sector communicator of over 10 years, I have developed strategies that help me communicate with varied audiences.
šA general introduction to the history of foods and agriculture. SLIDE 13 Biotechnology is not the first technology to impact the food supply; other technologies have been used over the years to change our food supply, e.g. domestication of plants and animals, mechanization, chemical inputs and these too have raised issues involving risk and benefit. Most people in North America don't appreciate how the food in restaurants and groceries came to look and taste like it does. This general lack of understanding makes it extremely difficult to communicate about how foods for tomorrow's table will be generated. Classical breeding and improvement in agricultural practices have led to dramatic improvements in crop yields. This is demonstrated when you look at the acreage required to produce food for the U.S. in 1987. SLIDE 14 When expressed in 1929 productivity, the area required to produce the same amount of food is dramatically increased. SLIDE 15
šAn explanation of the genetics behind classical breeding and genetic engineering using easy-to-understand analogies. I explain that the genetic information in a cell is made of recipes that determine what the cells do and imparts on the plant or animal its characteristics. That recipe, the genome, is made up of chemical units. If each unit in a wheat plant is represented by an alphabetic letter, it takes 1700 books, each of 1000 pages, to hold all that information. Or, if I represent the genes in a plant with a string of pop-it beads, that string would be approximately a half-mile long.SLIDE 16
šWhat happens when crossing or genetic engineering is performed. When two plants are bred by crossing or a single plant is genetically engineered, this is easily explained with either analogy. In classical breeding two plants are crossed but only half the information is retained and which beads or pages are retained is random.SLIDE 17 Also you can enrich the amount of information from the commercial variety by backcrossing, but the breeder cannot read the pages and therefore cannot be assured that no negative effects will occur. With a genetic engineering approach, it is possible to move just a small amount of text (equivalent to half of a page or a single pop-it bead) and that text can be read before it is moved.
Using these analogies it is possible to show that there are some similarities between the two methods and some differences.SLIDE 18 The biggest issue for most people, of course, is that classical breeding can occur only between related species, when with genetic engineering the source of the half-page or the pop-it bead can be any living organism. This is made possible because all information in all organisms is written in the same language.
šA look at how biotechnology is already impacting agriculture, including those products currently in the marketplace. In considering these products I try to look at the potential benefits and risks critically.SLIDE 19 SLIDE 20
šA look at the biotechnology pipeline highlighting products being developed and the incredible diversity and power of the technology.SLIDE 21 I use many examples, ranging from strategies to protect against pests SLIDE 22 to using plants to make tailor-made vaccines for curing human cancers. SLIDE 23
šA look at the regulatory structure.Claims are that GM foods are untested. This simply is not the case. SLIDE 24 There is a lot of data relating to food and environmental safety issues. Admittedly, companies produce some of it themselves, but public sector scientists publish some of it in peer-reviewed literature as well. SLIDE 25
šInterject a little humor when you can. Hopefully we do not take ourselves so seriously that we cannot poke fun at the situation.SLIDE 26 This can tend to diffuse some of the friction, but whether or not you can interject humor depends on the audience.
In some talks, I cover some of the issues that are currently of concern to the public; this can be a scary prospect for someone who has not followed all of these issues closely. How do you talk knowledgeably about the impact of B.t. pollen on Monarch butterflies or the safety of Starlink corn. It takes some effort and I recognize that. Because of this I have spent the last few years developing tools to help scientists to assume a role in the public debate.
At our website, ucbiotech.org, are tools to make your jobs easier.SLIDE 27 First is a resources section in which the text of nearly all of my talks resides, along with in many cases, downloadable slides. But perhaps the two most helpful sections are the Biotechnology Information section and the Scientific Database. The University of California, in collaboration with the ETH in Zurich, developed a keyword searchable issues and responses section of the website in which some 120 issues that have been raised over the years in public venues are addressed. SLIDE 28 The responses to these issues are linked to peer-reviewed scientific literature SLIDE 29; you click on a scientific reference and this takes you to the reference as well as an abstract or summary. SLIDE 30 This has been an incredibly difficult undertaking but, as it is evolving, we believe that it is a useful resource for scientists to prepare themselves for their role in presenting scientific facts during the public debate.
SummarySLIDE 31 In summary, we, as scientists, need to be able to communicate with consumers and clientele about the nature of genetic engineering and how it is similar and different in some ways from classical methods of genetic manipulation. We also need to give people scientific, peer-reviewed data on risks and benefits when it is available, but realize that there are many issues that relate to an individualās feeling of "safety" besides scientifically measurable risk. We need to have an informed public and informed policy-makers who make decisions armed with the information on scientifically measurable risk.