On an uncharacteristically sunny afternoon in Salem, Oregon, Dr. Vandana Shiva came face to face with science activism. We, the protesters, were a self-described bunch of “science nerds” from MAMyths, Vegan GMO, and PDX Skeptics in the Pub. We gathered in front of Willamette University across the street from Oregon’s state capitol building around 6pm. One by one, our allies arrived in carpools assigned at the previous evening’s meeting in the upstairs lounge of a Northeast Portland pool hall. There, we had reflected on our experiences during a counter-demonstration at the March Against Monsanto last May. We had discussed communication strategies that a few of us practiced in the Alliance for Science’s recent course on Strategic Planning and Effective Grassroots Organizing in Mexico. We aimed to keep our message friendly, approachable, and positive. The next day in Salem, when car trunks popped open and our posters came out, our slogans reflected a theme quite different from the fear-mongering we often see:
“Don’t start a fight. Start a conversation.”
“Food Facts. Not Fear.”
“Ask me why I <3 GMOs.”
These signs provoked a variety of reactions from people headed into Dr. Shiva’s presentation. She’d been invited to speak at Willamette University as part of the Dempsey Lecture Series. Prior details about the specific topic of her presentation were scant. Dr. Shiva speaks on a wide variety of topics, many of which I find agreeable in principle. We were not there to argue against her philosophy or politics. We were there simply to counter the misinformation she’s been known to spread about genetic engineering.
Some of the attendees were angry to see us. Some were curious. But most seemed simply surprised to see a grassroots pro-GE demonstration. For many, this was the first time they had ever talked to someone who was excited about GE technology. They weren’t anti-science. A lot of them were casually anti-GMO, not by virtue of extensive study, but by default to an unexamined cultural assumption of first world progressivism. I believe that these people, like many of us who used to be in that camp, aren’t fully convinced. These are the most important people to find, and the most important reason to bring science communication to the streets. We want to show them that the benefits of genetic engineering have been flipped and subverted to demonize a safe and useful technology. That’s doublespeak that the anti-GMO crowd doesn’t want challenged.
Well, challenge accepted.
“What about the quality of the soil?” a woman asked me. “What about the water? What about all the chemicals in our foods?” Her list went on and on. I smiled and nodded as she finished her list of concerns. I didn’t feel angry or defensive. How could I? I care about all the same things she cares about. This was an opportunity to explain that these were the exact concerns I have that make me an advocate for the technology. We know GE innovations aren’t the problem. They’re part of the solution.
Unfortunately, Dr. Shiva herself demonstrated less interest in dialogue or finding common ground. She walked straight past us on her way into the venue. Her eyes remained steadfast on the ground where she would be sure not to see any pro-GMO slogans. That way, she could avoid locking eyes with anyone who might ask about the hundreds of thousands of children dying from preventable micronutrient deficiencies in India. That certainly would have been inconvenient to hear on her way to rail against tools that could prevent such tragedy.
What I’ve learned from all this is that yes, it can be scary and intimidating to stand up for science. But it’s a lot less scary when you recognize that you’re not that different from the people you’re standing up to, and you’re not alone. Start building group confidence with capacity-building activities. Invite your skeptical, science-y, and humanitarian friends to get together for monthly chats. We’re building on a group that started networking almost a year ago for the first March Against Myths About Modification in Portland. Additionally we benefited from a fantastic group of friends that participate in a group called PDX Skeptics in the Pub. And I have to give a shout out to the fledgling local Portland chapter of my organization, Vegan GMO. Having all this capacity in place allowed us to organize under extremely limited time constraints. I strongly recommend that all science advocates start building your local networks now rather than waiting for someone like Dr. Shiva to come to your town.
The term “science activism” is almost an oxymoron. Scientists like the process of discovery, something that happens in a controlled, predictable, and calm environment. Activism is uncontrolled, unpredictable, and sometimes a little chaotic. As science activists we have to be fluid enough to navigate both worlds. We need to combine evidence with a patient, compassionate outlook. Many of us used to be against this technology and have the same concerns about the environment and food safety that the anti-GMO crowd has, but the overwhelming weight of evidence has dragged us, sometimes kicking and screaming, to the other side of the fence. Science activism is happening more and more each year, and it’s not as scary or uncomfortable as one might think. Last week, our group did it again: we stood up for science and challenged Dr. Vandana Shiva the same way the anti-GMO crowd has been rallying against technology for years. Except we did it with open conversation instead of fear, which I believe is far more convincing.
What’s next for us? Our mood was captured perfectly when one of the guys in our group, Michael, got home after the protest and immediately got on Facebook to ask “Anyone interested in promoting biotech on a regular basis at Pioneer Square?” We invite our allies around the world to do likewise.