Genetically Modified Opinions

To start off blog post #2, I’d like to say that I’m sorry. In reading my last post I realized that I have become part of the problem of science communication. While discussing the issue of GMOs, I never actually properly explained what they are, and why people may- but probably shouldn’t- be afraid of them. As a high school kid that wanted to be a genetic engineer, I have a large base of knowledge about genetics that wouldn’t come standard for most readers, so it was pretty insane of me to have assumed so. Let’s face it; genetics doesn’t really make for some light enjoyable reading. So for those of you those who don’t know, here’s a crash course in GMOs:

First things first, those pictures that you see on the internet where a suspicious looking liquid is being injected in a plump tomato has literally nothing to do with genetic engineering. I’m not really sure why so many people still use images like that, but that’s an aside.

Pictures like this have nothing to do with genetic engineering.

Pictures like this have nothing to do with genetic engineering.

To understand genetically modified crops, you first have to understand genes. Genes are segments of DNA that code for different proteins. These proteins then dictate the ways in which the organism should grow and function. Simply put, DNA and genes are a blueprint for what makes us, us.

Genes are segments of DNA

Genetic modification is the process in which we actively tamper with this code. Arguably you could say that humans have been genetically modifying crops since the introduction of farming thousands of years ago. They did this through a process called selective breeding. In the case of crops, the plants that had the most desirable traits, such as bigger fruits or higher yields were cultivated, while the plants that didn’t perform as well were discarded. This meant that the genetic composition of the species slowly changed.

The reason there is so much controversy surrounding GMOs now is that in recent years we’ve made great leaps in our understanding of the genome (the sequence of genes) of different plants and animals. This has allowed scientists to directly change the genetic code of plants to create a more desired product. This is usually done by taking the genes from one plant or animal and inserting them into another. For example, there are genetically modified strawberries that contain the frost-resistant gene from an artic salmon. This allows them to grow in the winter, meaning we have strawberries all year around.

There is still a lot of publicly perceived mystery surrounding GMOs. Many GMO activists claim that not enough research to prove that GMOs are safe. From my point of view, genetically modified crops are one of the most researched areas in science. There are over 2000 articles that prove that GMOs have no observable negative health effects.

It seems that the biggest concern in all of the four countries examine, Japan, Thailand, South Korea and China was the fact that the GM crops could not be successfully controlled, leaving rouge seeds to germinate in the wild. This would mean the chance of cross contamination of the “pure” or “organic” crops. So I investigated this claim.

To say the least, the reports were extremely varied. In Japan alone, one report said that up to 33% of the products claiming to be organic (thus GMO free) were contaminated (although I hardly think contaminated is the appropriate word) with genetically modified DNA, while another source on the same website claimed out of the produce tested showed less than 0.1% contamination. In my investigation I think I finally understand why people are so confused. There is a wealth of information on the internet concerning GMOs, however none of it is consistent. Journal articles are convoluted and hard to read for the everyday man, however websites seem unreliable. I’m beginning to fully appreciate why it is that people don’t understand, little alone like, GMOs.

Through my research I now understand that maybe it’s not so much the purity of the crops that farmers and the public are worried about, rather the genetic diversity. Genetic diversity is what helps protect a species from different dangers. By having a variety of different traits, it is more likely that some of the crops will survive different environmental pressures. The great potato famine in Ireland occurred because there was very little genetic diversity in the potato crop, so once one plant got sick, they all did. By having GMOs spread and interbreed there is a chance they may ruin the genetic diversity of the crop, meaning it may all die at once. Understanding the reproductive behaviour of a GM crop and the function of its genetic modification is very important before introducing it into the wild. In saying that, there is little evidence to suggest that GM crops have so far impacted the genetic diversity of the environment at large, and most of the GMs used are sterile (unable to reproduce).

The anti-GMO movement is not going anywhere soon.

The anti-GMO movement is not going anywhere soon.

The Chinese public’s reluctance to adopt GMOs might also have been influence by a history of food scandals. Although they have always been wary of GM crops, banning basically all new crops from 2006, in 2008 the central government granted permission to a group of scientists to create a GM strain of rice that naturally wards off pests. This just happened to coincide with the revelation that due to corruption, powered milk being supplied to infants in the country was cut with melamine, a chemical used in plastics, which ended up killing six infants and hospitalising 54, 000. To the Chinese public, it seemed as if allowing the GM crop research was just another symptom of the corrupt government. This isn’t what I found most interesting however. Maybe naively, I assumed that people were more likely to reject GMOs based on a lack of education. In one survey done, it was found that 84% of Chinese people didn’t want GMOs, with the more educated being more against the crops. That was a result I certainly didn’t expect.

Another interesting discovery was that Thailand was mostly looking into employing GMOs in a time of crisis, namely a world war, to help feed a stricken population. However after massive protests of the ‘Biological Safety Bill’ the government decided that the threat of another world war was not yet imminent enough to justify passing the GMO bill.

I think throughout this experience I have learnt that I need to immerse myself in what someone without scientific training would see when they were trying to learn about the issue. It is all too easy to fall back onto research papers, all the while ignoring the fact that it’s unlikely that’s where the public would go for their knowledge. I need to clear the slate of what I think to be true, and learn to examine the evidence as if I were someone just trying to make up their mind, in order to be a better communicator. I suppose the best I can do it try.

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Science time- An Autoethnographic Perspective

In my last attempt at autoethnography, I spent more time trying to come to terms with the methodology- trust me, it took me a while- then I did interpreting my experience with the text. In order to address that in this experience, I will make very little mention of Ellis, other than to highlight that her work will dictate the research practices behind my own. I will also be drawing on the work of Steve Pace, and his concept of ‘analytic autoethnography’, which is based on the theory that artists can use “analytic reflexivity to improve theoretical understandings of their creative practice.” Whilst I do not consider myself an artist in any faucet, these ideas can be retrofitted to have a wider area of engagement. The final article I will be drawing on in order to inform my methodology is an article by Dwayne Custer, ‘Autoethnography as a Transformative Research Method’. This article is emotive, yet throughout it is possible to see the interaction between the authors scientific mind, and the emotional mind: “My rational mind could accept the need for “objective” science, and yet my natural mind spoke to me from an instinctual point of view,” a battle which, being both a science and media student myself, I understand all too well. It is refreshing and informative to read another person’s take on the struggle.

In my second round of authoethnographical investigation, I decided to stick with what I knew- science. Science is, for the most part, pretty universal. I had always assumed there isn’t a great deal of cultural influence on scientific knowledge. This is due to the nature of science- every theory that you prove, every experiment that you conduct must be done in such a way that it is re-creatable anywhere else in the world, as long as the same technical parameters are met. Scientific research also encourages scientists from all over the world to pool their knowledge to further advance their research. Instead of competing against each other, most laboratories work together for greater overall success. In some sense, science is the great unifier of cultures.

If it were a perfect world, we could leave it at that. Sadly the world is too political, and it affects the working of science in unexpected ways. For example, the lower levels of scientific literacy in the Australian Government has seen cuts to research programs nationwide, killing the chance of discoveries before they even got a foothold into existence. The historic boundary for women entering the scientific field is still, although much less severely, an issue. Alas, I digress.

 

 

Science appears to most of the public as an obscure thing, and this misunderstanding occasionally leads to irrational fear and restriction. My career goal in life is to make the world like science just a little bit more. Before I can properly do that, I need to have a strong grasp on the current opinions of science. For my individual research project, I will be exploring the legislation on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOS) in different Asian countries, and how this shapes and is shaped by, public opinion and the representation of them in the news.

I believe that I am in a somewhat unique position to conduct this autoethnograpic research as I have a fundamental knowledge of both how the communications world and the scientific world at large works. This will allow me to record an experience that critiques the deeper implications of the findings, and properly investigate the relationship between the social and academic institutions. Not only this, but I may be able to better understand how I can bridge the gap between society and science through this investigation.

To start out my initial research I wanted to grasp whether the legislation surrounding GMOs was similar to that seen in Australia- quite restrictive and surrounded by mystic- or if different countries had portrayed them in different ways. I started with Japan, and the initial findings were not encouraging. A quick search of “GMOs in Japan” came up with almost entirely anti-GMO pages, despite the fact that Japan is one of the largest importers of GMs foods. It seems strange that such a dichotomy is present. I suspect it is because as much as ideals are nice, they won’t feed hungry mouths, although a deeper investigation is needed.

gmo-bell-pepper-injections

Images like this are popular with anti-GMO sites, despite the actual process of creating GMOs having nothing to do with injecting whole produce with needles of various colours. Source.

South Korea was up next. To keep the investigation fair I googled “GMO in South Korea” and boy, South Korea doesn’t care for them at all. It turns out the South Korea has a ban on the cultivation of GM crops, however still imports all of the GMOs used for food and feed, and is apparently the second biggest importer after Japan. South Korea’s major concern is the purity of the natural wheat strains being polluted by the GM crops, thus destroying the natural lines forever. I’d argue that there’s hardly anything natural about crops that have been selectively bred for thousands of years, but that’s another story. I will have to investigate further to determine whether South Korea’s fears are grounded in fact.

Next up is China. They have yet again taken a completely different stance to what I had expected. From the government articles and news reports online it appears that a large portion of the Chinese public dislike GM crop, but the Chinese government is trying to change that. This is out of pure necessity. China has around a fifth of the world’s people, but only a tiny 7% of food-growing land. This means that trying to feed its population is a constant struggle. GM’s offer higher yield, better growth rates, and more resilient plants that would help increase food production to feed hungry mouths. It will be interesting to explore how the Chinese government plans to spread a positive message about GMOs to the dissenting public.

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 Picture from the protest in Thailand held last year. Source

Last up on the rounds of investigation is Thailand. The Thai public is, not surprisingly, against GMO cultivation. Thailand has taken a very similar view to South Korea, with the uncontrolled spread of GM crops being their number one fear. The public believe that the risk of contaminating pure crops is too great for them to risk bringing in the crops, and a bill proposed just last year to allow the cultivation of GMs was wildly protested.

Overall I feel rather vexed by my initial findings. I am fully aware that my opinion is heavily bias towards the more scientific outlook, however under the anger is a little bit of excitement. Through my investigation, I’m going to attempt to keep an open mind. I might even be converted to a non-GMO standpoint. At very least I’ll find out how to properly combat non-GMO arguments in the future. Let’s go investigate.

Autoethnography and The State of Play

Autoethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze personal experience in order to understand cultural experience.”

Carolyn Ellis

Today marks my journey into the world of autoethnographic research. From my best understanding, autoethnography is the practise of recording your own experiences with a form of media in order to gain insight into the cultural implications of both the work itself and your own social conditioning.

As a science based student, I find myself both comforted and disturbed by the intentional bias of autoethnography as a research practise. The futility of social science and psychology’s attempts to create research as unbiased as you would find in the realm of physics and chemistry is no doubt quite frustrating or both researchers and readers.

Autoethnography acknowledges that as long as you’re studying humans and the human experience, objectivity will never be achieved. Instead, autoethnography harnesses one of mankind’s greatest advantages when in comes to understanding the working of the human mind; their own experience. In doing so it allows both the researchers and outside observers to learn from the observations and assumptions made, and the culture structures that these assumptions are generated from.

I believe autoethnography should be seen as a cousin to scientific research.

It is similar, and with many grounding akin to that of chemistry or physics, however autoethnography is borne out of more artistic and creative ties. It is commonly used by artists as a tool to improve their work by reflecting on it, however shouldn’t be limited to that domain. By applying a critical gaze to my initial auto-ethnographic experience, I can develop it in a narrative that follows my path of learning and recognising the inherent assumptions that my cultural conditioning has allowed me to make, and in the process learn more about the culture and myself.

By encouraging the analysis of the outside world through the researchers own world view it is possible to have a diverse, while still ethical, platter of research data that openly acknowledges the inherent bias of the results, as opposed to other forms of studies that attempt to deny the existence of a bias that comes from researchers having their own personalities. In autoethnography, emphasis is put on the fact that there is no one definitive view-point or recollection, rather a collection of perspectives and biases to consider, none which holds more importance over any other.

My first autoethnographic experience was not of Japanese media, but South Korean, through the documentary “State of Play”.

Luckily, or unluckily for me I have had very little exposure to South Korean culture. This allowed me to view the documentary without any preconceived ideas on what to expect, however also left me open to falling into stereotypical assumptions in order to understand what I was seeing.

The documentary followed video game players at different levels, from amateur to professional, and their experiences of professional gaming. The documentary had very little actual game footage included. It wasn’t so much about the viewer watching the game itself being played, rather a chance to empathise with the experience of the players. Game sounds were featured out of context of the game to immerse the viewer-in the case me- into the experience of the game itself. It gave the game a more tangible feeling to it, and helped me invest myself into a game that I had no stake or particular interest in.

The greatest boundary I encountered in watching this documentary was the lack of female representation.

Any woman who featured in the film was either their to clean and cook or to hopelessly fan girl over the players. I acknowledge that there is a big cultural difference between South Korea and Australia, and yet this fact shocked me. I found it especially confronting being a female in a University course that is typically seen as a “male choice.” There seemed to be very strong gender roles in place, even up to the fact where it was seen as mind-blowing that one of the male players cried after a game, whilst the females were often seen in a highly emotional state.

I also found the contrast between the exciting nature of the commentary of each game as it was played, and the actual action that was occurring quite humorous. I would put that down to my lack of personal investment about the outcomes of the games. To anyone concerned with the games result I feel the commentary would have been fitting, however to an outside observer the whole thing seemed a tad melodramatic.

It wasn’t until right at the end of the documentary that I finally realised how different my life experience is to the players featured. For the most part I had assumed the unfamiliarity of the actions of the players came from the strangeness of the occupation and the difference in gender. I had assumed I would have struggled to connect just as much to an Australian Olympic swimmer, who would also live a very different life to mine.

At the end of the film the unsuccessful amateur player is filmed playing pool with his friends. It struck me that the pool table had no holes in it. I stared at him laughing and playing, fully realising that I couldn’t have even taken a guess at how the game worked. This was when I fully realised just how much I still have to learn. It was, and is, a completely different culture, with fine points of difference that I may never fully understand. I guess the best I can do is try.