Society’s views on biotech are often in conflict. Take, for example, a conservative farmer from somewhere in the Midwest: growing some sort of genetically engineered crop (GE: familiarly "GMO"), but may also vehemently disagree that climate change is real. Now, consider the views of a top celebrity: they will likely publicly campaign for climate change awareness, yet at the same time bash GE crops as a danger to society (see a current controversy over the popular GMO smearing done by Smirnoff here). Now think about the views of a scientist, who is just as likely to fight for enhanced crop biotechnology (including GE crops) as they are climate change awareness and will likely even tell you that work on GE crops may directly aid in the fight against climate change. So what’s going on here? As we have seen time and time again in America, social perspectives are edging out scientific ones. However, whether we like it or not, social pressure is a factor in molding our biotech and we must be understanding of the fears society harbors.

            Fear of the unknown is OK. In fact, it is very important for biotechnological advancement to have those checks and balances in place. In the same breath, however, science’s job is to probe the unknown and uncover any opportunities and dangers as it paves a way to the future. While fear is understandable, fear mongering can be dangerous and unfounded. Many articles are not meant to inform but rather to dissuade you regardless of facts. Take a look at this article on the Non-GMO Project webpage which, at one point, instead of backing any accusations up with research, simply asks the question, “Superbugs, anyone?” to no doubt rile up us readers against modern biotechnology.  Yes, we must advance our biotechnology carefully, but in the end we must advance.

So, what happens when America is split on an issue like this? Over saturation: articles, blog posts, status updates, documentaries… all trying to persuade you. If you performed a Google news search for "GMO" in the past week (yes, just week!) you'd get back 16,600 results (in .2 seconds—we get it Google, you’re fast)!  There are articles explaining what a GMO is, articles arguing for GE technology, articles against, even articles updating you on the local GMO-free restaurant names in town. So the information is out there, but the stasis will likely remain. It’s what we Americans do best: digging ourselves into our own opinions until we only see them as fact and anything other must be a conspiracy.

What’s the solution—probably a little understanding from both sides. Anti-GMO doesn’t mean insane. Perhaps you are scared of a sliding ethical scale. Perhaps you are thinking that modifying crops is only a step away from modifying humans (a feat already attempted through gene editing) or it is unnatural or unethical.  Maybe you think we will unintentionally harm our crops. These are valid fears. On the other side, feeding the ever expanding human population is a valid fear, as well as doing so without a large environmental impact—both with large ethical implications.

Does it just come down to whichever fear you subscribe to, or whichever fear affects you the most? The truth is, moving forward with this technology in a way that truly helps our human population will require all of these fears occupy our minds. But the key is: we must move forward.

It is true that traditional crop breeding has advanced traits greatly throughout the years, but as the population numbers rise and new pests, pathogens and weeds arise, is this technique enough to keep humans fed? Although some argue yes, there are other occasions where a solution is needed on a much quicker timescale. Walter Suza, a researcher at Iowa State University, has recently coauthored a paper in which they review 58 scientific studies of Bt corn (GE corn with pest resistance) and they found that the corn variety was safe for both humans and the environment.  Suza’s goal in his work is for African nations to recognize the safety of these crops and implement them in their country as they are dealing with the spread of a pest called the fall armyworm and Bt corn could provide immediate relief as one of several strategies needed to fight this persistent pest. 

The good thing about technology is that it never sits—it moves, it changes to the needs and fears of the people. A fairly new technique called CRISPR allows scientists to edit genic sequences within a plant species and those edits better mimic the natural editing process (no DNA is introduced from other species). This is an example of moving forward with those fears; developing new technologies that address not only the global needs of humans, but also our fears—using fear as a guiding hand, not a wall. CRISPR is neither the first nor the last biotechnology that will change our world. Biotech will get smarter and safer as we move forward, but we will need your fears to get there—just make sure you come along with us.

This does not mean that CRISPR biotechnology is always the best way to generate the right crop for a particular crisis: sometimes it may be necessary to use GMOs or even classical breeding, but most important is that we have multiple tools in our repertoire so we can deal with each problem as they arise.