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IFT keynote: Galileo is turning in his grave. But is Matt Damon the answer?

6 commentsBy Elaine Watson , 13-Jun-2011
Last updated the 15-Jun-2011 at 19:27 GMT

If food scientists really want to stop the ‘lunatic fringe’ from hi-jacking the debate on topics from nanotechnology and irradiation to GM, they should stop wringing their hands and blaming the media and seize back the initiative, according to the author of a book challenging ‘irrational’ thinking.

Delivering the keynote speech to delegates at the IFT annual meeting and food expo in New Orleans yesterday, New Yorker journalist Michael Specter said the lack of scientific literacy characterizing much of the debate about food and farming issues would have “Galileo turning in his grave”.

However, instead of railing against arts graduates in the media, ignorant consumers and ‘nutters’ on the internet, food scientists should go on the offensive and actively engage with consumers and journalists about the benefits of food science, he said.

“Academics can be condescending and arrogant," said Specter, who has writtten a book called 'Denialism: How irrational thinking hinders scientific progress, harms the planet and threatens our lives'.

"It’s all very well saying, we know this; the scientific method works. Take it or leave it. Well guess what? They’re leaving it. So you’ll have to do better!”

Bring in Matt Damon…

And if this meant wheeling in a few celebrities to fight the cause, why not, he said. “It’s probably appropriate that celebrities work with us. Look at what Matt Damon has been doing on access to safe drinking water. They want to help.”

Meanwhile, in some cases, engaging with consumers might have to mean more comprehensive labelling, even if food scientists did not see the value in it, he said.

For example, even if the industry saw little value in GM labeling given that there was no food safety risk from consuming foods from GM plants, consumers did not like the idea of a cabal of ‘experts’ making decisions as to what the general public ‘needed’ to know, and preferred to make their own choices, however ill-informed, suggested Specter.

“You can be right all day long, but [if consumers do not agree with you] you’ll go out of business. So label GM. Maybe they’ll realize they’ve eaten 263 million doses of it and they are still alive. But if people think you’re withholding information, you’re going to lose.”

He added: “If people are afraid of GMOs, of science, of the food you are trying to make, you need to tell your story and go out and educate people, fight on the internet.

“And get out of your lab! If you can’t explain what you’re doing [to the general public or consumer media] you’re not going to get to do it for long.”

Get off the back foot and play the lunatics at their own game …

And while engaging with skeptical or ill-informed consumers via twitter, blogs or other online forums might not be top priority list for food scientists, standing aloof from such discussions was not the answer, he said.

“What do you expert reporters to do if they have people [on the opposite side of the debate] screaming, coming out with great quotes, and then you have a bunch of people [food scientists] that won’t speak. You have the same access to the internet as the lunatics do.”

Starbucks: Get off the back foot!

Mary Wagner, senior vice president of global R&D at Starbucks, who joined Specter in a panel debate after his presentation, added: “The food industry does tend to go dark [when a storm blows up in the media about a food science-related topic ] sometimes, we don’t get involved.”

The food industry was also overly reactive, and was constantly on the back foot when food-related stories hit the headlines, she said.

“We’re too defensive, we have to go on the offensive, and be more out there…

6 comments (Comments are now closed)

"Lunatic Fringe"?

The plain and simple fact is that the debate is completely lost if you are refering to the opposition as the lunatic fringe. Talk about arrogance! Adopting this posture in the debate says that scientists are arrogant in the extreme and refuse to look at reality. The history of science is repleat with examples of unintended consequences from great ideas that were put into practice only to find out that it was the wrong thing to do and in the long run had the opposite effect of that which was intended.
If you want to point your finger at me and call me a "lunatic" because I question the the call to leap into production of new technologies for food I will consume, just remember you have three pointing right back at you. History ALWAYS repeats itself, and at some point one of these new technologies will come back and bite us hard and cause massive problems for society, just like the internal combustion engine.
If you fail to understand these simple truths then YOU are the "lunatic fringe". People have both a right and, IMHO, a responsibility to question everything from any and every authority be it the military, the government, scientists, or clergy.
BUT, once the questions are asked and answered, rationality must be observed in reaching conclusions and there are way too many who have a complete knee-jerk reaction to food processing. I am not one of those, but refering to me as a lunatic because I am willing to stand up and voice my concerns only ensure that I will ignore anything else you have to say. You couldn't work any harder against yourself and you goals if you tried.

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Posted by Steve Rutherford
14 July 2011 | 17h32

Fatter pockets and a fatter consumer

This is all about money and not about healthy consumers. SHAME ON YOU!!!!!

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Posted by Linda
12 July 2011 | 18h27

On GM safety

There's plent of safety data. For example, read EFSA (yes, Europe's) report on 10 years of research on the matter: http://ec.europa.eu/research/biosociety/library/brochures_reports_en.htm

Bear in mind, that the EU has massive data requirements, and they are only one such world region. Korea, Japan, China, Brazil, the US, Canada, Australia, etc. must all be similarly convinced of the safety (environmental and nutritional) before saying OK. Particularly for soybean, ALL of these approvals must come before a GM seed is sold, otherwise unacceptable effects on int'l trade could occur.

Now bear in mind if you naturally interbreed two sexually compatible plants you completely rewrite the DNA in the offspring v. the parents and all sorts of wholesale changes occur and none of the above regulations apply- and nor should it.

Finally, soybean allergies are caused by exposure to a myriad of proteins in soybean before the age of 3. Exposure after this time will not incur such a effect. Now, think about all the formula being sold today (none of which is GM)- I'm willing to make an uninformed bet that use of formula in developed countries is on the rise.

Consider that a scientist (who's name I've forgotten) who has been able to solve the problem using biotech has had an allergen free soybean ready to go to market for years, but baby formula makers know the public would (unnecessarily) freak out (there were some NYTimes articles on it). It's a shame.

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Posted by Snacky Onassis
27 June 2011 | 13h16

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