A single comment helped turn an opponent of this GM rice into a proponent.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A single comment helped turn an opponent of this GM rice into a proponent. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Back in December I wrote a blog post asking scientists to comment online more often. I had noticed that some commenters were getting away with comments that were scientifically wrong (“vaccines don’t prevent illness”) and I was worried that if these comments remained unchallenged, readers would conclude that these scientifically inaccurate statements were actually true. Or at the very least that there was some debate on the question.

A number of scientists got back to me on why they didn’t bother to comment and one of the biggest reasons I heard was that they didn’t think their comments would matter. They felt their comment would be one of many that got lost in the fury of the comments section. As one put it, “There would be too little return on his investment.”

A recent case shows that a well-timed comment can radically change someone’s viewpoint. A journalist named Mark Lynas has been a harsh critic of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) from the get go. He regularly argues against GM foods in the press and has had a huge impact on the debate about the safety of these crops.

Now, after much soul-searching and scientific investigation brought on by a reader’s comment on one of his stories in the Guardian, he is no longer opposed to GM foods. In fact, he has become pro-GMO!

It might seem hard to believe, but this is what Lynas himself is claiming. Here is the comment that caused the radical rethink:

“One does not fight the corporate misdeeds of the automotive industry, for instance, by demanding that the wheel must be banned.”

This comment was the push Lynas needed to investigate GMO's more thoroughly which resulted in a complete about face on his views.
This comment was the push Lynas needed to investigate GMO’s more thoroughly which resulted in a complete about face on his views.

This was one snippet towards the end of a longish, ~530 word comment, but it got Lynas to thinking about why he was opposed to GM foods. As he thought on it, he realized it wasn’t because of any scientific evidence. No, it had more to do with a gut response against a big, evil, American corporation tinkering with the food supply. Or, in his own words:

“When I first heard about Monsanto’s GM soya [soybeans] I knew exactly what I thought. Here was a big American corporation with a nasty track record, putting something new and experimental into our food without telling us. Mixing genes between species seemed to be about as unnatural as you can get – here was humankind acquiring too much technological power; something was bound to go horribly wrong. These genes would spread like some kind of living pollution. It was the stuff of nightmares.”

The comment on his Guardian article made him realize that this was not a reasonable foundation on which to base his opposition to GM foods. It prompted him, for the first time, to take a deeper look into the science of GMO’s. He quickly realized that his reasons for opposing GM foods were not based in any fact. His list is as follows:

“I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.

I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs.

I’d assumed that Terminator Technology [which was meant to make plants produce sterile, unusable seeds] was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.

I’d assumed that no one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton [which grows its own pesticide to fight bollworm and other pests] was pirated into India and Roundup Ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them.

I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way.

But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and the tomato? Turns out viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us – it’s called gene flow.”

As you can see, once he did the legwork to understand the science that had been done, he realized that his reasons for opposing GMO’s held no water. And in fact, as an environmentalist, he realized further that he should be supporting GM foods as a way to increase yield and so decrease the amount of land that needed to be cultivated. All from a single comment!

Of course a big question is why he changed his mind when he did. After all, he had undoubtedly received similar comments to his other stories over the years. The answer lies in his newest environmental concern–global warming.

Unlike the debate over GMO’s, science is on the side of the environmentalists in the global warming debate. As Lynas wrote and argued about global warming, he became frustrated at commenters who ignored the science behind global warming. This prompted him to learn how to read and understand the scientific literature which in turn prompted him into investigating the studies that had been done on GMO’s. It was then that he realized that his opposition to GMO’s was not factually based.

So the comment wasn’t the whole story behind his changed position. But it did come right when he was primed and ready to explore the science further. It was the nudge that pushed him into his new stance on GMO’s.

Comments Do Matter (So Get Talking!) 15 February,2013Dr. Barry Starr

Author

Dr. Barry Starr

Dr. Barry Starr (@geneticsboy) is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition.

You can also see additional posts by Barry at KQED Science, and read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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