Science in the Garden

What do plant biologists and community gardeners have in common?

It's not the setup for a (bad) joke. It's a question I've been asking myself a lot lately. I happen to be both a plant biologist, in training at least, and a community gardener when it's warm out. But despite the obvious intersection of an interest in plants, I'm not sure where else they overlap. That's not to say that I think the two are opposed--far from it. But I do think that plant scientists and gardeners don't think about each other a lot. I think they should.

After all, many plant biologists are, like me, gardeners. We certainly all have the requisite plant-in-the-window in our offices. Gardeners and plant scientists often have strongly overlapping priorities: developing a safe, sustainable and abundant food supply. They may approach this from different directions, but I think that's a core value that should bind these unlikely siblings together.

Yet somehow modern culture keeps us apart. Science has become increasingly specialized. My teachers have told me when they were students, a biologist could sit in on another biologist's meeting and keep up. Now that some of the "easy" discoveries are behind us, the new frontier requires deeper, highly specialized knowledge. Sometimes communicating with other biologists about our work can be hard, let alone the general science community. Let alone the public. And because it's hard, and doesn't tend to bring in grant money, communicating our goals and discoveries to the public is put on the back burner. 

Maybe then it's no surprise that one of plant science's largest contributions to modern life--genetically modified foods--is seen as arcane, suspect, even dangerous. Steven Mayfield, who just visited Washington University to talk about using algae in industry, including biofuel, sat with graduate students for lunch. The way he puts it: it's our fault. Scientists' fault. He points out--accurately, I think--that many scientists naively believe that if their work is good enough, right enough, it will diffuse down into the wider culture. It will become known, accepted and lauded. Obviously that's not the case.

Just look at the science behind climate change. For decades now, the scientific consensus has been converging on a clear answer: a human-induced greenhouse effect is warming the planet. And to punctuate that, 2012 was the warmest year ever in the U.S. It was an active campaign by those who stand to lose when we regulate carbon that led to doubt. 

We need to make this a priority. Yet I know many scientists doubt the public's interest or ability to understand their work. They blame journalists for bad stories, the Media for sensationalism and a culture of anti-intellectualism for tarnishing the reputation of Science with a capital 'S'. But the response to this is not to hide in a shell or retreat. The only solution is stronger advocacy for our work, for scientific literacy and for great public education.

I've been pondering all of this because in a couple weeks I will be speaking at the St. Louis Community Garden Summit hosted by Gateway Greening. I'll be giving a presentation about plant breeding and genetics. Fortunately I'll have some help from a professor at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. (Fun fact: according to the DDPSC website, St. Louis is home to the highest concentration of plant biology Ph.D.s in the world. That's thanks to them, WashU and Monsanto). 

I am still working on what to cover. The crazy genomes of plants for sure. How technology can improve conventional breeding. And of course, GMOs. I have been asked to make the presentation purely educational, and not to take a side on any controversial issues. I'll do my best to the respect that. I'm honored to be invited to speak at all.

But GMOs are an important topic. And I don't think the he-said/she-said approach to controversial issues is always valid. On the issue of the health of GMOs--in my experience the main concern of skeptics--there is a very real consensus: Genetically modified foods are completely safe to eat. We've been eating them for decades and they are intensively studied and highly regulated.

I think many factors have contributed to the widespread distrust of this technology. Ad hominem attacks against Monsanto (who might be reigning in the legal team a bit). A bad job of explaining the technology. And I think most importantly: a false dichotomy between natural and artificial.  I think many skeptics feel that the 'soul' of a food is changed more by inserting a single gene artificially than by manipulating hundreds of genes naturally. 

To circle this back to the beginning: I think community gardeners and plant biologists can only gain by coming closer together. Yes, many community gardeners will be skeptical of plant genetic engineering. But with their interest in plants and a strong food supply, they could very well be great advocates for the technology if they were persuaded by its benefits. And yes, plant biologists, like all scientists, can appear lofty and unable to speak in layman's terms. But only by practicing these skills in a supportive and interested environment can they improve.

I have plans for future efforts to bring these groups closer together and I will continue to ask: What do community gardeners and plant biologists have in common? A lot more than they think.