By Jack Payne
While the public has embraced the latest technological advances that put ever more sophisticated smartphones into your hands, agricultural scientists feel there hasn’t been the same openness to technology that can improve what’s on your plate.
Kevin Folta, according to one of his colleagues, has done as much as anyone in the past decade to help the public understand the biotechnology behind its food.
His work in getting the public excited about science has been compared to that of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye and Carl Sagan.
Folta chairs the UF/IFAS Department of Horticultural Sciences and does pathbreaking research on the use of light to manipulate the color, flavor and nutrient content of fresh produce. He also crisscrosses the country to explain the evidence-based risks and benefits of agricultural biotechnology.
Few scientists do this as effectively as Folta. That’s why the Iowa-based Council of Agricultural Science and Technology is recognizing him with its Borlaug CAST Communication Award in October during a side event at the World Food Prize gathering.
It’s also why he’s been attacked relentlessly, from obscenity-laced social media messages to death threats.
Folta wants to help people conquer their fears. Because we live in an age of so much information, we also live in an age of misinformation. Oftentimes, I find, the very point of misinformation is to induce fear.
Activists and celebrities have wide audiences for their messages that biotechnology is a threat to healthy food – messages that are not backed by evidence.
Relying on misinformation can lead to unhealthy choices, food shortages and a drag on efforts to put a stop to 3.1 million children a year worldwide dying of malnutrition.
Folta wants to replace fear with fact. He’ll do this almost anywhere he can, from elementary schools to retirement homes. He has a highly rated science podcast on iTunes. He Tweets out science. He blogs it. He meets people where they are.
He does this because getting science out of the lab and to the people who can benefit from it is as important to him as discovery itself.
Fear is among the most powerful things of emotions. It’s up to scientists to help remove one of its leading causes – the unknown.
We don’t have enough scientists yet who have conquered their own fears of being targeted because they bring people the science to help conquer theirs.
It’s the hope of CAST, of Folta and of me that the recognition he’s getting in Iowa this month will inspire more scientists to talk more to the public and not just to their peers.
Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.