Saturday, January 23, 2016

A True Story of Food and Family

The story is real.  The names have been changed to protect the innocent from frivolous public records requests.

I have a colleague that is one of the world’s experts in food safety.  He is an encyclopedia on foodborne disease.  He knows how to safely handle food.  He understands foodborne toxins. This guy knows about genetic engineering.  In short, if you want to understand food and food risk, you talk to this guy. We’ll call him “Steve”.

It was Thanksgiving, 2015, and Steve and his wife joined the family at her mother’s house for a traditional dinner.  Among the family members in attendance was his brother-in-law, an accomplished concert pianist who is widely recognized for his expertise. We’ll call him “Richard”.

As the family took their places at the table and began to pass the dishes, Richard took the opportunity to comment on the items on the table.

“That turkey is oozing with antibiotics and hormones, you’re crazy if you eat it,” Richard said.

Steve jumped in, “That’s not true, these birds are bred to grow rapidly so they don’t need such things.”

But Richard knew better.  “That’s not what I read online.”

His gazed moved to the sweet potatoes. “Those genetically-engineered sweet potatoes make deadly insecticides that are destroying our insides, just look at the rise in leaky gut!” he said.

Steve replied, “Richard, there are no genetically-engineered sweet potatoes, even though they contain natural transgenes, and there's no such thing as leaky gut.”

“That’s what Monsanto wants you to think,” Richard replied.

He then zeroed in on the corn.  “That stuff is soaked with roundup, and studies have shown it will give you cancer, Alzheimers, diabetes and Parkinson’s.”

Steve said, “You are reading too many websites, that’s just not based on any real evidence.”

Steve’s mother-in-law had enough.  She chimed in, “Look, can we stop talking about it and just enjoy our meal together?” 

Everyone nodded in agreement. 

"How 'bout them Bears?" someone yelled. 

***

After dinner Steve’s mother-in-law suggested that her son make his way to the piano and treat the family to a few songs. 

Richard stepped with authority to the family piano he learned on as a child decades before, and sat down like he had been doing it his entire life.  In fact, he had.

His fingers met the keyboard with a flurry, producing beautifully synchronized notes from a challenging classical piece.  The notes filled the room in beautiful harmony.

Steve yelled above the music, “STOP!”  

Richard looked surprised.

“You really hit that transition too soon, and the whole thing is too fast, not as the composer intended,” Steve said.

Richard stared a hole through Steve and didn’t say a word.  After a few seconds he started back to the keyboard, exploding back into the same number, maybe with a little more authority.

After about thirty seconds Steve yelled, “STOP!”

Richard banged the keyboard in disbelief.

Steve said, “There’s way too much sustain on your bass notes and you’ve completely misrepresented the feel of the piece.”

Richard took a deep breath.  “You have a lot of nerve to criticize my playing, you know nothing about this instrument, the songs I play or how I play them.  I have been educated in the finest schools and performed with the finest musicians.  What gives you the right to even criticize?”

Steve let a pause build.


“Let’s just say your expertise in piano is like my expertise in food. Aren't critics that know absolutely nothing annoying?"

Monday, January 18, 2016

Forward.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. 
-- Dr. Martin Luther King


Dr. King would not be proud of me.  I'm not proud of me. My decision to disappear from an important discussion was made from misery and expediency, pragmatism and convenience. I experienced many pressures to seek silence, from evil people and friends alike. Much of it was being sick of fighting. Some of it was the threats and hate. Much of it was being tired of reading about myself on posts with thousands of likes and shares-- knowing that what I was reading was not true.

The time off was valuable in that it taught me to refocus. Teaching the science of agricultural innovations is not going to happen in discussions with Vani Hari, Mike Adams, Nassim Taleb or Jeffery Smith.  These folks have empires built on misinformation, and accepting science harms their brands. 

The changes will not come from rehashing tired fables spread by lazy or corrupt journalists that want to cash a check before accepting reality, even if their spin hurts real people.  I will not talk about Monsanto, donations to my communications program, Vern Blazek or any other failed experiment. 

It also is nice to be able to say that I now have absolutely no relationship with Monsanto, at least outside of a few friends that work for the company.  Big Ag is running from science communicators, thanks to the abuse of important transparency laws, and deliberate misinterpretations of emails. 

Someone told me that they were at a dinner with Big Ag company people and someone said, "The irony is that science communicators like Folta are worth more to us if we make sure they are 100% independent."  Essentially they are saying that communication efforts should be done on the public dime, despite the potential benefit of an informed public to their industries.

Back to King's quotation above.  Forced silence destroyed me more than participation in a vicious dialog. It broke my heart to know the answer and not be able to respond.  It was horrible to get my wrist slapped when I thanked someone publicly for a kind comment.  

Most of all, it was painful to not be able to interpret new, cool science.  I wrote a dozen blogs over the silence period, all about breakthroughs I wanted to share.  I don't know that they'll ever be published here.  I had to write about science, because that's what I do, even if I was the only audience. 

The silence did teach me to use the "mute" and "block" buttons, as well the joy of not feeding a troll.  I learned that some folks can't be changed and that there is sweet peace in remaining above a mindless fray.

What you can expect from me going forward:

Improved podcasts with great guests on the Talking Biotech Podcast.  Not a day has passed where I didn't hear its theme song or think of a cool topic.  The new ones are wonderful, starting February 20. 

Big, visible outreach around plants and food.  I'm planning to send test tubes and seeds to kids, along with experiments they can do.  They'll watch seeds develop into plants and then foster their care into the garden, then hopefully will care for the plant and enjoy the products. MyScienceGarden.com starts soon, and will be done with some donated materials and other costs I'm personally covering.

Continuing unprecedented transparency.  It was not enough to be compliant, I have to be obvious. All of my speaking activities, reimbursements, etc will continue to be posted online and updated quarterly. 

Sustained leadership.  Working as Chair of a leading department in crop sciences, I work with the world's best scientists doing top-flight research. 

More articles about food and farming in popular press, helping the public understand their food, its genetics, and challenges to production. 

Big research, and a surprise!  My students and postdocs will keep working on improving flavors of fruits and vegetables and finding ways to improve product quality and nutrition with light. BUT we have a new technology that will make waves.  It is somewhere between trash can and Nobel Prize, probably closer to the former. However, there is enormous potential that hopefully will be published in 2016. 

***
I just returned from a conference where dozens of scientists asked me how I survived the abuse, and why I want to continue in science communication.  It is clear the community is not interested, maybe avoiding it.  However, we need to remember that we're telling the truth and that time will be kind. 

It also is good that 2015 had a few solid mistakes that I learned from, and won't repeat going forward.  I'll leave that open for new mistakes!  

The last year has been a challenge, posed mostly from evil people with a despicable agenda.  But for every mean email I receive, every hate-filled tweet, there are a dozen kind messages of support. The words of complete strangers have been comforting and revitalizing.  That has been amazing.

After all of this, I am not a victim.  This attack was a strange gift, giving me a bigger stage and refined message. We will create the changes we want to see together.  While silence was painful, it was helpful, and going forward I think I will be more effective as a scientist, communicator, and person. 

Kevin Folta