This is Genetic Engineering 2.0!

Susan Gerbic

Kevin Folta (Pictured Mid-Left) is a professor at the University of Florida and the chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department. He will be speaking at CSICon on Friday October 27, at 1:30 pm. His lecture is titled “Genetic Engineering of Plants and Animals: Hot New Techniques, Same Old Resistance.”

Susan Gerbic: Kevin, what a blast CSICon 2016 was! It was so fun to see so many people hanging out, making new friends. You spoke about the vitriol you have had to endure with your work with GE (genetic engineering). It was very moving, and I heard this from many other people as well. This year you are speaking on Friday. Can you give us a quick preview?

Kevin Folta: In 2050, we will look back at this age as a time when our command of biology changed. From being able to manipulate viruses to attack cancer, to precision-change genetic information in a cell, to tweaking a gene and making a crop immune to a disease—breakthroughs like this are real and gaining momentum. This is genetic engineering 2.0!

In my talk, I’ll discuss the way we use “gene editing.” Gene editing is this method of changing a single base (or maybe a few bases) of targeted DNA in an amazingly precise way. And unlike the old methods of genetic engineering that left some of the hardware of the process in the cell, the new methods can yield tiny alterations that solve a problem with a precision change.

While scientists celebrate the technology and see it as a way to precision-breed new plants and animals, activists call it the most “dangerous and insidious form of screwing with nature known to man.”

The audience of skeptics needs to understand this technology. Countries like China are pouring funding into these approaches while we’re trying to figure out how to regulate it to death. People need to know what this is and what it isn’t, and that’s what I’ll talk about.

Gerbic: Catching up from the interview we did last year before CSICon 2016, what’s new?

Folta: I still take a lot of flames for stepping into a public discussion of technology, agriculture, and food. Food is such a hot topic, which is great. People are asking honest questions and they don’t know who to trust. Scientists and skeptics can carry this conversation, but we have to do it with skill and sensitivity. Over the last year I’ve probably done one hundred seminars, workshops, and interviews on the subject. It is clear that we don’t have to beat people to death with information like we usually do. We win with building trust, and we’re getting better at that.

In the octagon of public communication, I’ve been through the most painful defamation campaign activists could muster, and while it has affected me and my career negatively in many ways, it now allows me to take the fire for others. They can’t hurt me any more than they did. So now when I see others undergoing the same activist-inspired defamatory attacks, I can step in and make noise on their behalf.

When I was in my ground zero moments after a horrible piece in the New York Times, I felt very alone. It was folks in the scicomm and skeptical communities that spoke out on my behalf. I needed that. You did an amazing job at taking Wikipedia back from evil people and giving me my name back. Others that stepped up will be at CSICon 2017, and I’m going to give them stinky bear hugs and buy them those big weird novelty Vegas cocktails until they scream uncle. I was going to quit science and would have if it was not for that support.

[Note from Gerbic: The GSoW was unaware of the ugliness happening on Folta’s Wikipedia page until the drama was mostly over. The cleanup work was done by normal exceptional Wikipedia editors that fight every day to keep Wikipedia up to standards. The GSoW does not work alone; if not for the average editor, Wikipedia would be Conservapedia in months. There is far too much work to do.]

Gerbic: I see that you are still walking the walk when it comes to the “Ugly Food Movement” with your recent blog on rescuing bananas. Did you end up making banana bread? I know you said that some grocery stores give food others normally throw out to food banks, but it takes the will to do so. Do you have any tips that we consumers (besides just buying ugly food) can do to help grocery stores “find the will?”

Folta: The best thing we can do is learn about our crops. Learn their wild genetic stories. Learn about where they are produced now and what it takes to bring them to your plate. When you understand the time, fuel, human toil, and environmental impacts that go into making a tomato, a banana, a potato, you treasure it. Then reflect that so many people have nothing, and that blemished tomato still looks really good. It is a change in our expectations and a push to be grateful for every fruit and vegetable we have and celebrating the tiny number of farmers that produce them.

Gerbic: Last CSICon Halloween party you came as a clown. I was really hoping to see something from your Insane War Tomatoes days, but I guess you were worried about getting the outfit through security. This year the theme is zombie disco, and I know you can nail this one. What have you got planned? Not dressing up as a zombie banana or something I hope.

Folta: Funny you should ask. I’m hoping to stick around for the party, but I need to zip out to Chicago because we are having an Insane War Tomatoes reunion concert on Halloween night. First time we’ve played together since 1993 I think. I’m not going to look pretty in my 1980s spandex pants, but I still can make a guitar projectile vomit a stream of sound, so I’m looking forward to it.

Gerbic: I’m sure I’m going to regret asking you this, but one of my GSoW editors, Sharon Roney, follows your blog pretty closely and said, “I hope to hear his karaoke version of ‘Hell is for Children’ at CSICon.” What is that all about?

Folta: I’ve had a long history of bringing upbeat karaoke nights to a screaming halt with good performances of songs with buzzkill content. A fifty-year-old guy singing “You’re Sixteen” gets a lot of disgusted looks. There’s a collection of standards that put a chill in the room. It is kind of a social experiment—performance art! People are torn between the lyrics in their traditional context and their modern interpretations. It makes a room super uneasy. Why be the life of the party when you can be the death of it?

I recently wrote about them for the Huffington Post.

Gerbic: One last thing: as a science communicator, what’s your argument for “preaching to the choir” at conferences like CSICon where most in the audience are going to be supporters of GE foods?

Folta: I don’t usually think of this as preaching to the choir. I think of it as preaching to other preachers that have a different command of the scripture, and certainly different scriptures based on their personal values. I’m an oddball because I’ve spent the last thirty years learning about a little sliver of information, and I know a lot about it. The trick is to distill that information into nuggets that others can appreciate. Perhaps I can spark their interest, or even better yet inspire them to share the information with others.

In the days of social media networks these moments like CSIcon are so valuable. It is a chance for us to arm other science enthusiasts with the information they need to effectively communicate the strengths and limitations of any technology or idea. It trains us to think critically and answer questions with tact and grace. That’s what I loved about CSIcon 2016. The best conversations were in the hallways, in the casino over beers, and via emails in weeks to follow. Sharing science with others so that they can more effectively share science is my real passion. I’m grateful that CSIcon 2017 gives me a platform to do this.

Gerbic: I look forward to seeing you again at CSICon, Kevin. I wish you could stay for the Halloween party, but I completely understand why you would want to hang out with Insane War Tomatoes for an reunion concert. That sounds like a blast!

For readers, if you haven’t already got your tickets to CSICon 2017, make sure you get them soon. This event will mostly likely sell out; the venue is limited, and last year we nearly reached that limit. If you are on Facebook, please follow this page as it will allow you to know where people are hanging out and what events are happening outside the normal schedule. I and the other speakers are looking forward to meeting you there.

Susan Gerbic

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.