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Kevin Folta’s Crusade for Science
On Sunday, September 6, 2015, scientist Kevin Folta made the front page of the New York Times. The prominent article wasn’t recognition for his work in understanding which genes control flavor in strawberries or how light can slow down mold in blueberries. Instead, it was an article questioning his ties to Monsanto and whether or not those connections influenced his favorable views toward biotechnology.
Kevin Folta, the chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, has been an agvocator talking about biotechnology since 2000. Or, as he prefers to say, he is a science communicator.
“I don’t feel that this is agvocacy,” he says. “I don’t represent one technology or idea; I represent what the science says. It says biotechnology in agriculture is a good thing.”
However, the Times article took a different stance, pointing to a donation the university received from Monsanto to fund Folta’s GMO education workshops.
Despite the fact that the funding wasn’t used for research and that Folta met university requirements in reporting potential conflicts of interests, this didn’t stop people from questioning his credibility. It led to online attacks, to threats against his wife, and to having his lab broken into.
While Folta doesn’t gloss over the impact this harassment has had on his personal and professional life, he is adamant that this will not make him stop.
“Even though there are potential pitfalls in doing this, you have to have the courage to do it,” he says. “It’s too important of an issue. We are talking about people dying every day from malnutrition, a fragile environment that needs solutions, and farmers who are aging and aren’t making a huge profit – if they are making one at all.
“That’s the crisis. My personal problems are nothing,” he adds.
Despite the downside, Folta says there are many benefits to communicating about biotechnology.
“I recently went through all of the emails after the article came out. For every hateful one, there was one that was supportive. I didn’t pay attention to them then because I was falling apart. But now they mean a lot,” he says.
The positive emails are one of the great short-term payoffs, he says.
“Every day, I get emails from farmers, from mothers, or from kids in school who say I’ve changed the way they think about this topic,” he says. “I have moms who say their kids can have normal lives now because they aren’t freaked out about food anymore.”
The long-term benefit, he says, is “we are seeing a change in the way that farmers engage, in the way that scientists engage, and this is reflected in the broader conversation.”
Farmers don’t realize the power they have, says Folta. “To farmers, the story is about their daily business and operations – the perception of a mundane existence of here’s what I do and here’s my job. But to a world that wants to know more about farming and food, farmers’ stories are critical, and people are very excited to hear what they have to say.”
Folta advises farmers to keep telling their stories and sharing what they do.
“The most important thing for farmers is to participate in this conversation,” he says. “We all say talk to your representatives or policy makers, but it’s better to talk to the mom in the produce aisle or the mom online who is asking questions about food because she is worried. Those are the people who will make the change, and it’s much easier than we think.”
Name: Kevin Folta
Titles: Professor and chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida
Podcast: Talking Biotech