Champion of science comes to Illinois

Alison Van Eenennaam, Ph.D., University of California-Davis Extension specialist in animal biotechnology and genomics, opened IFB’s Farm Income & Innovations Conference held in Normal. (Photo by Catrina Rawson)

Alison Van Eenennaam, Ph.D., University of California-Davis Extension specialist in animal biotechnology and genomics, opened IFB’s Farm Income & Innovations Conference held in Normal. (Photo by Catrina Rawson)Published on: Jul 31, 2019

By Mike Orso

She changed the mind of Bill Nye, the so-called TV “Science Guy,” about the science of biotechnology. She’s trying to change a few more minds.

University of California (UC) at Davis animal geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam, Ph.D., kicked off the Illinois Farm Bureau’s Farm Income & Innovations Conference (FIIC) Tuesday night with a pre-conference address about how “alternative agriculture facts” threaten sustainability of agriculture – financially and environmentally.

“We need to get out there and tell compelling narratives,” said Van Eenennaam, a native of Australia who runs the UC-Davis animal genomics and biotechnology program.

Alison Van Eenennaam, right, said she has participated in at least 40 screenings of the “Food Evolution” documentary with film creators and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the film’s narrator. “Technology eventually gets adopted, it’s just a matter of time for the most part,” she said during a pre-conference interview. (Photo courtesy of Alison Van Eenennaam).

In an interview prior to her address, Van Eenennaam, featured in the 2016 documentary on biotechnology entitled, “Food Evolution,” said she has spent much of the last decade focused on science communication.

“The last decade has seen such a change in media and how people get their information and the kind of tribalism that has developed,” said Van Eenennaam. “You have this affirmation bias where you only listen to information that agrees with what you already believe. The thing about science is it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

Van Eenennaam has received numerous awards for internet videos on GMOs. In 2014, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology recognized her with its “Borlaug Communication Award,” named for the late agronomist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Norman Borlaug.

“The data is what the data is and sometimes that goes against what people believe,” said Van Eeneenaam. “So, you have this kind of clash of, ‘My ideology isn’t aligning with the facts, therefore I am going to try to malign the fact-teller or the facts themselves.’”

In “Food Evolution,” Van Eenennaam, participating in a New York City debate on GMOs, convinced Nye and others to take a closer look at the prevailing science on the technology.

“What has been exciting is that it has been at places such as the (United Nations) Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome, the National Academy of Sciences, film festivals, universities, a lot of places where you are touching an audience that is not the normal crowd that you might be speaking to as an agricultural scientist,” she said. “Audiences there have reacted very positively to the movie…and have come to me and have said, ‘You know what, that movie made me think, I’m going to go and investigate this more.”

The UC-Davis scientist notes that after more than two decades, scientific data tracking the use of approved biotech products has demonstrated the technology’s safety and benefits. She cites insecticide use that has been cut in half as a result of GMO cotton, and GMO papayas that fight the deadly ringspot virus.

“That’s a win for the environment, that’s a win for farmers,” she said.

Content for this story was provided by FarmWeekNow.com.

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