Thomas R. O'Donnell

Documentary draws lines in GMO debate

In Government, Industry Research, University research on November 5, 2017 at 2:49 pm
The "Food Evolution" movie poster, courtesy of Black Valley Films.

The “Food Evolution” movie poster, courtesy of Black Valley Films.

Given Iowa’s reputation as an agricultural state, it would be no surprise to find we’re in the middle of a debate about the use and safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Odds are, the corn and soybeans you see farmers picking as you drive down a highway or country road (or that you’re harvesting yourself if you farm) this fall are GMOs. Most probably were genetically altered to tolerate herbicides, resist insects, or both. In many cases, these tweaks have let farmers grow more grain with less cost, often with lower environmental impact.

These products have been in the field for decades. (And one could argue that virtually every plant we eat has been genetically modified through cross breeding.) We’ve all eaten them with no ill effects. Yet arguments continue over their safety, whether their presence should be disclosed in food labeling and whether they’re tools of money-grubbing corporations.

All these issues come up in “Food Evolution,” a documentary making the rounds and presented last week at the Iowa State University Memorial Union in Ames. It asks important questions: How do we make the most informed decisions about what we eat? And what if, in rejecting GMOs, we get it wrong?

Iowa makes several cameo appearances, with scenes shot in Ames and Des Moines and in the credentials of activists and bystanders on screen.

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What’s ahead for the March for Science Iowa; what sparked dissent at the event

In STEM on April 27, 2017 at 11:50 am
The science commandments, from a March for Science Iowa participant: Thou shalt: Question, Research, Hypothesize, Test, Analyze, Conclude. Thou Shalt NOT: Jump to Conclusions on "Alternative Facts," Illogical arguments, Ideology instead of Reason.

The science commandments, from a March for Science Iowa participant. He had his wife and child with him, too.

I wasn’t sure what would happen last Saturday. More than 1,300 people were committed via Facebook and more than 900 people followed the @MarchForScienceIA Twitter handle, and we got some press on WHO-TV and in the Des Moines Register. Nonetheless, I couldn’t guess how many actually would show up for the March for Science Iowa at the Capitol.

I contributed (in money and time) to the march and was there to help (my job, with my wife and son, was to man the barricades at each end of Finkbine Drive on the Capitol’s west side). If a thousand people gave up a beautiful Saturday afternoon to support science, I would be thrilled.

As the march started, I stationed myself at the corner of Finkbine and Grand Avenue and used a handheld clicker to count the passing participants. At times it looked like the troop of colorfully dressed, T-shirt-bedecked and sign-bearing activists would peter out, but a new horde would appear. I clicked furiously to keep up.

When the last had gone by, the readout was 2,025. I know I missed dozens more and organizers put the crowd at 2,500, give or take a couple hundred.

It was a great event – an enthusiastic and orderly crowd and a gorgeous day. Participants heard energizing speeches (at least one with some controversy sprinkled in) and educational talks. Organizers already are considering how to capitalize on the momentum.

Stepping up in Iowa to support science, facts and evidence

In Government, STEM on March 15, 2017 at 7:13 am
A postcard to President Trump from Deborah Bunka, via the March for Science Iowa Facebook page.

A postcard to President Trump from Deborah Bunka, via the March for Science Iowa Facebook page.

I authored this post, which first appeared on the Iowa Starting Line blog. – TRO

Even before he was elected, commentators and experts noted a strong anti-science streak in Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Now that he’s been inaugurated, they’re calling him the most anti-science president ever. Trump is enacting an agenda that, at best, selectively supports scientific evidence and research.

With the appointment of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency, it’s clear that climate change will be downplayed or dismissed in the Trump administration. Pruitt took a moderate stance in his nomination hearings, but now is proudly revealing his anti-science views. Earlier this month he said he disagrees with the overwhelming evidence that carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global climate change.

Trump and Pruitt are putting their words into actions. The administration has offered a plan to cut the budget for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development by 40 percent. The EPA as a whole would get a 24 percent cut. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a major climate research agency, also would get a severe reduction. Other proposals under consideration would roll back Department of Energy financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy and for research on reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Trump’s disdain for sound science goes beyond climate, however, and spans political parties. He’s given credence to the disproven notion that vaccinations cause autism and met with noted anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (of the famed Democratic family).

It’s easy to pick on Trump, but in truth his election and views are just the culmination of years of attacks on science, evidence and research – attacks that aren’t solely from conservatives. Now, scientists and those who value research and evidence as a foundation for sound public policy are fighting back.

Mary Murphy

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