FFVA 2016 takes on the GMO debate

Science writer Kavin Senapathy on mommy bloggers, critical thinking and more

– A science communicator who tackles myths on science, health, and food will lead off the Issues Forums at FFVA 73rd Annual Convention with a presentation on how to discuss GMOs.

Kavin Senapathy is co-founder and director of international pro-science, pro-biotech organization March Against Myths, and co-author of “The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House,” a book discussing popular food misconceptions and why they proliferate in the face of mountains of evidence against them.  A young mother and critical thinker with a passion for refuting misconceptions popular in the tangle of misinformation known as the Internet, she is a regular contributor to Forbes and Grounded Parents. Her work has also appeared in Gawker, Slate, Genetic Literacy Project and more.

The Harvester spoke with Senapathy recently.

FFVA: What is your background and how did you become interested in genetically modified organisms?

Senapathy: I have always been a science enthusiast. I grew up with a molecular biologist as a father, and so we always talked about science. I’m not a scientist. I first became interested in the food and GMO issues when I became a mother about five years ago. I’ve also always been into communication and writing. So I started contributing to an evidence-based parenting site and I also realized at about the time I got pregnant with my daughter that a lot of marketing and fear and misinformation is targeted at parents — especially mothers. Of course, we all want our children to be healthy and happy and successful. So I started getting a lot of advice about avoiding certain foods and choosing organic.  I have nothing against organic farmers, but I was being told it would be safer for my children and that buying conventional produce could harm them and could jeopardize my pregnancy. So I started looking into this issue mainly to write about it for that parenting site.

FFVA: What did you discover when you started looking into GMOs?

Senapathy: Genetic engineering is simply another plant breeding tool. It results in a targeted genetic change or adds one or a few carefully chosen genes to a plant. Genetic engineering has been used for decades to make life-saving medicines including insulin, and rennet, the enzymes used to make most of our cheese today. I found that hundreds of studies show that the process used to create GMOs, and the GM products currently on the market are safe, and that scientific bodies around the world agree.

FFVA: What is the basic message you’d like to communicate?

Senapathy: I tell people – including celebrities who are scaring parents into avoiding feeding their children foods containing genetically modified ingredients – that I know their statements come from love and concern for their children, because mine do, too. I feel that it is a science communicator’s responsibility to clarify misconceptions about GMOs. We want to provide insight into why we feed our families food containing ingredients derived from GMOs and explain why we oppose mandatory GMO labeling.

FFVA: What is your position on labeling for GMOs?

Senapathy: I believe that the “right to know” argument is a subterfuge. We all have a right to know relevant information about our food, like whether there are allergens, or nutritional information listing protein, fats, fiber, sugar, vitamins, and minerals. This information empowers parents to prepare safe, nutritionally balanced meals. Labeling whether a product contains ingredients derived from a GMO crop tells you nothing about what is ‘in’ the food. Genetic engineering is a process, not a product. It isn’t an ingredient to scoop into a bowl. People also don’t realize that “GMO vs. selective breeding” is a false dichotomy. There are other breeding techniques, like mutagenesis and wide-cross hybridization, that are wholly unnatural, occur in a lab, and are arbitrarily considered “non GMO” and can be used in organic.

FFVA: What do you tell people who simply won’t listen?

Senapathy: I like to say that swaying people, especially when they’re already mired in myth-based beliefs, is a marathon and not a sprint. I really don’t have a magical solution, but I try to address those concerns with respect because usually those concerns come from fear and caring and worrying. And rather than respond with a statement, I like to respond with a question and have an ongoing dialog, leaving it open for future conversation. I write about these issues a lot, obviously, but when I have conversations with real people, it takes time and patience. There are tactful and compassionate ways to let people know they’ve been misled. You have to realize that when a person finds he or she has been misled, it’s rather alarming and kind of puts them on shaky footing. It isn’t effective to hit people over the head with too many facts that make them feel they’ve been wrong about everything.

FFVA: What do you think about the recent study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on GE crops and technology?

Senapathy: I think the impact has been great. One of my favorite pieces on it is Nathanael Johnson’s article on Grist.  He treated it with some nuance, which is important. I always hesitate to say X method or chemical or additive is always safe. He communicated that there is the concept of risk vs. hazard and risk vs. benefit and that everything that we do in life and everything that we eat or drink isn’t 100 percent safe all the time.

Read the NAS study here.

FFVA: What do you plan to talk about at the FFVA convention issues forum?

Senapathy: People at the convention will know about breeding methods and ag technologies, so I’ll focus on how people in agriculture can speak with the public — how farmers can get involved with social media and how they can communicate their expertise without confusing people. I want to help them to get their message across in an effective way.

FFVA: Do you have hope that people will start to come around? Do you think it will take until a new generation comes of age?

Senapathy: We all get discouraged, but I have hope. The tides are slowly turning. There’s a growing group of people on social media who are working on communicating reason and deflating the hype around food. I hope we won’t have to wait until a new generation comes along. I really think this is the era of biotechnology and genomics not only with food, but also with medicine. I find it all very exciting.

See some of Senapathy’s work in Forbes here.

Follow Kavin Senapathy on Twitter here.

And on Facebook here.

Read the March Against Myths blog here.

Tap on the logo to register for FFVA 2016 and learn more about the convention.


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