By: Emily Petrus, PhD
Photo by Scott Bauer, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
You Say To-mae-to, I Say To-mah-to
The debate over genetically modified (GMO) foods is a constant reminder that science reaches into our everyday lives, and our stomachs. A bill introduced last year under the Obama administration supported labeling of foods containing GMOs. While some policymakers support the “right to know”, they argued the bill did not go far enough, as companies can put their information in the form of a QR code, making packaging more confusing. Others argue that GMOs are safe to consume and the labels unnecessarily increase the public’s negative perception of GMOs. But what does all this debate mean when translated to the grocery store?
Tomatoes began as a small, multi-colored fruit, originating in Antarctica. They were domesticated in South and Central America, and currently grace the plates of people around the world. During the agricultural revolution tomatoes were selectively bred (some might say genetically modified) for color, size and toughness. Because flavor was not among the desirable genes during breeding, many strains of tomatoes became the tasteless varieties we find in the supermarket today. Luckily, for those who don’t mind a little genetic tinkering, researchers have identified genes responsible for giving tomatoes their delicious taste, which may be re-incorporated back into the tomatoes bred for other characteristics, giving the best of both worlds tomato.
When this technology arrives to the supermarket, the consumer will deal with a conflict of interest. There will be a choice between a tasteless non-GMO tomato, or a tasty GMO tomato. Neither option resembles the fruits which began near Antarctica, and both were modified by humans. As science continues to discover the characteristics which make food tasty or nutritious, there will be more instances like this one in the grocery aisle, and labeling policy must balance the scientific facts with the public’s requests to know how their food is made. (Michael Price, Science Magazine)
Trump and Science
New Administration Causes Worry Among Scientists
Just a few days into office, the Trump administration has ordered a freeze on all grants and public communication by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Although it is not uncommon to have temporary freezes on government hiring or other aspects of government functions in the first days of a new administration, the breadth and severity of these actions caused widespread concern among the scientific community. The incoming administration’s skepticism towards facts and the validity of government-funded research may be perceived as hostile. By January 27, $3.8 of the $3.9 billion EPA contracts had been unfrozen, however many science-public social media accounts remained locked. This led to a multitude of alternative twitter accounts, for example @AltNatParkSer, which focused on sending out climate change related facts. Within days a Scientist March on Washington was in the works, and a geneticist in California announced a senate run in 2018.
Leadership under the new administration is a mixed bag. The director of National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, has been asked to stay on, however the pick for science advisor, David Gelernter, is causing some alarm. Dr. Gelernter is a Yale computer scientist, but also espouses some concerning opinions regarding liberal elitism, climate change denial, and a disdain for higher education. Scott Pruit, the nominee for head of EPA, has sued the same agency over climate change. While it is encouraging that Pruit and the nominees for Secretaries of State, Energy and Interior all agree that climate change is real, their skepticism regarding the involvement of human activity in rising temperatures remained apparent. Overall, choosing people who are aligned with the administration’s policies is nothing new, however when the policy is at odds with the mission statements of agencies, who can blame the scientists who depend on them for being an anxious group? (Rachel Erhenberg, ScienceNews)
Have an interesting science policy link? Share it in the comments!