Scientist Alison Van Eenennaam discussed GMO crops and the world of “parallel science” that is filling the public with falsehoods and slowing agricultural innovation. | Andrea Korte/AAAS
Scientists are using technology to expand global food production and ease its environmental impact, but advances are being challenged by claims that lack scientific evidence and raise public distrust, a leading agricultural scientist told an American Association for the Advancement of Science audience.
Alison Van Eenennaam traced the advent of campaigns against agricultural innovations related to areas from cattle and chicken production systems to plant biotechnology. The impact such efforts are having on agricultural advances was the focus of the ninth annual AAAS Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Lecture on June 5 at the AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C.
By way of illustration, Van Eenennaam examined the controversy over the adoption of genetically modified crops, known as GM crops or GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and the emergence of a “parallel science” that has led to public opposition and misconceptions about the safety of GM plants.
“There is just example after example of this as it relates to agriculture where bad decisions are being made that ignore the evidence, based on some people’s worldview and gut instinct that there must be a better system,” said Van Eenennaam, a Ph.D. animal genomics and biotechnology cooperative extension specialist and researcher at the University of California, Davis. “But there is no discussion of the really important trade-offs.”
Controversy over the use of GM crops persists today, decades after they were first commercialized in the mid-1990s and despite widespread use of the technology. In 2017, 92% of planted corn, 96% of cotton, and 94% of soybeans grown in the United States were GM varieties, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
GM crops are developed to express specific traits such as disease and insect resistance and herbicide tolerance, alterations shown to protect crop yields and decrease the use of insecticides and herbicides necessary to grow the crops. In the United States, such crops are largely used for animal feed and as ingredients for some consumer products, including cereals and corn chips. Slowing integration of the technology, Van Eenennaam said, dents production levels and requires additional acreage and more fertilizer, pesticide, and insecticide use.
Provocative in defense of agricultural science, Van Eenennaam said many scientists avoid jumping into topics like the safety of GM crops out of a “fear of isolation.” Yet, leaving false claims unanswered creates a “spiral of silence” that GM opponents leverage, she said, widening the perception gap between scientific knowledge and the general public.
“We need to defend these objective truths around science, irrespective of the subject area,” she said. “Quite often with agriculture it’s a lonely road out there if you’re trying to correct misinformation.”
A 2015 Pew study, for instance, found that 88% of AAAS member scientists consider GM foods safe to consume, while only 37% of the general public consider them safe and 57% deem GM foods unsafe to eat. The resulting 51% gap between the views of scientists and those of the public on GMO food safety amounts to an opinion difference greater than divisions over other controversial issues such as climate change, childhood vaccines, and human evolution, study authors reported.
AAAS has defended the validity of scientific evidence on GM crops. The AAAS Board of Directors issued a statement on October 20, 2012 describing GM crops as safe. “Indeed, the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe,” it said.
“The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: Consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques,” the AAAS Board stated.
Despite such endorsements of GMO safety, opposition remains. Marcel Kuntz of the French National Centre for Scientific Research authored a paper in 2012 getting at why. He examined the disconnect between scientists and the general public, using the debate over the safety of GM organisms to show how the split “is starting to threaten and question the foundations of the scientific approach.”
In the paper, published by the European Molecular Biology Organization, a professional group of life scientists, Kuntz said parallel science “serves political goals and describes itself with positive-sounding terms.” Such an approach seeks, he wrote, “to substitute apolitical scientists, especially for risk assessment, with ‘experts’ sympathetic to the cause” regardless of whether scientists accept their views or whether the underlying “research methods and conclusion are trustworthy.”
Despite these challenges, modern agricultural science incorporates the disciplines of genomics, biotechnology, meteorology, and engineering. Many scientists in the field see emerging technologies and approaches to food production as vital to feeding the world’s population, particularly in the fastest growing populations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and as the best way to address food and nutritional shortfalls while minimizing damage to the environment.
A scientific panel highlighted agricultural innovations helping meet the challenge of feeding people around the world in this year’s AAAS Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Lecture. | Andrea Korte/AAAS
Global population projections represent a significant data point for agricultural scientists. The United Nations’ 2017 outlook estimates that world population will increase by over 1 billion people in a dozen years, reaching 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100. Such population growth will require global food production to increase by 60 to 70% by 2050, according to a Food and Energy Security review by Rattan Lal, who participated in a panel discussion that followed Van Eenennaam’s lecture.
Lal, a soil scientist and director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University, was joined by Jay Akridge, an agricultural economist and provost of Purdue University. Lowell Randel, president of The Randel Group, a government relations firm that represents the agricultural research community, moderated the panel discussion.
Water, soil, and environmental resources are already under stress in expanding nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Lal noted. Food cultivation requires arable land, water resources, and quality soils, but by 2050 such land and water resources will be scarce.
Soil restoration practices tailored for a specific location can build food production systems able to meet a growing population, Lal said, even with less allocated land and fewer water resources. The key to improving soil health is conservation agriculture, a method that calls for leaving fields unplowed and crop residue in place after a harvest, and, in the offseason, growing cover crops to keep soil nutrients from evaporating or getting washed into streams.
Such a practice transforms soil into “a sink for carbon dioxide and other atmospheric gases,” helping mitigate climate change, Lal said. Pointing to an Ohio State University research project under way since 1962, Lal said findings show that “soil across the world can store carbon gases perhaps by as much as one and a half billion tons, a gigaton of carbon taken from the atmosphere into the soil.”
The rapid advances taking place in the agricultural sciences are not well understood by the public, Akridge said. To address this, scientists, universities, and research organizations need to make their “research much more accessible to the public, taking the time to understand public concerns, recognize that they have real questions, and then try to respond to those questions in their language and through a medium that they want to access.”
“Food is necessary for life. Food is a fundamental part of our culture. Food is intimately related to human health. Food is directly tied to economic development,” Akridge said. “As a result, interest in anything related to food and agriculture is high, and societal and personal values are front and center … all of this combines to create a public that is hungry for information and susceptible to parallel science.”
A version of this article appeared in AAAS News & Notes in the June 29 edition of Science.
[Associated image: Oticki/Adobe Stock]