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Science Marchers — Let’s Support Some Science!

A few weeks ago when the internets exploded with news of a March for Science in DC, I wrote that I would not be joining. My feeling is that such things are important, but not for me. I’m using other channels on a daily basis to help broaden the understanding of science issues and improve trust in scientists. I’ve been doing that for years.

This sentiment brought me angry emails and hostile tweets. Not many, but a enough to realize that my inflammatory statements like, “Not the most effective use of my time in supporting science” are not always well received with a group poised to descend on the nation’s capital.

My point is a simple one. Protests and marches are fine, but are rather empty if we don’t follow up with sustained commitment to standing up for science.

So as you start to put ink to poster board for that April 22 march, know that science needs your help now. Right now. Actually yesterday. Your comments are needed in support of sensible Gene Editing regulations in crops. Or against it. The FDA is in the middle of a public comment period. Your voice needs to be there.

Support Gene Editing

Gene editing (or genome editing) techniques allow scientists to install precise changes in genetic sequence, conferring a new trait. The techniques are not classical genetic engineering (familiarly “GMO”), which installs new genetic material and associated regulatory regions— frequently with other non-native goodies as well. Gene editing uses precisely guided enzymes that digest DNA to install precise changes to genetic sequence, typically by removing a few little bits of information that disrupt the function of the gene. It is like cellular surgery, precise, effective and testable.

These technologies have been used with astounding success in medicine and animal agriculture. Gene edited cells have brought infants into remission from leukemia and produced cattle that don’t grow horns, or don’t catch tuberculosis. The applications in these areas are endless.

Gene editing can also be used to tweak genes in crops, particularly those that lead to unwanted characteristics. Genes affecting post-harvest decay, undesirable flavors, susceptibility to disease—these all are intuitive targets for gene editing. It is happening everywhere from the developing world to multinational seed companies, universities to small businesses. Most importantly, the plant products produced by this technology are identical to those obtained by traditional breeding.

Request Realistic Regulation

Traditionally bred (plant sex) and gene edited crops cannot be discerned from one another using any available technology. Therefore, there is no reason to regulate them differently. Based on these findings, Sweden has indicated it will not regulate gene edited products, and the USDA/FDA appears to be leaning in that same direction.

However, the anti-biotech interests have started a campaign to malign this technology. They want to defeat it, keep it our of our crop-improvement toolbox. Their fear is that companies might use it and make money, even if it could help the environment or the poor. They don’t want this technology just regulated, they want it stopped.

The FDA has opened a Public Comment Period. As of 12:45 pm EST on 2/9/2017 there are 36 comments, all firmly opposed to this revolutionary technology and none of them espousing a sound scientific rationale for their objections. Some of them are sadly hilarious.

Public comment ends on April 19, but do it now. Try to stay within the framework of the questions they would like answered, as described here.

Where are the protesters and science marchers? It’s stand up for science time! This technology will inevitably revolutionize agricultural genetics. Can you please stand up, be counted, and comment?

It does not matter if you want to mention the need for testing, the need for some regulation. I agree and that’s great. The point is that this technology should not be hampered by the same strangling regulatory system that burdens new crop variety development with standard genetic engineering approaches.

The ball is in your court. Stand up for science, study this issue and make your voice heard!

And if you add the hashtag #standupforscience in your post, we’ll know that you are responding as part of a commitment to driving policy with evidence and reason. That is the spirit of the proposed march in Washington DC!

And all of my funding is freely visible online, including what I am personally paid for written work and lectures (zero). This is science, glad to share. Ask those opposed to this technology that write at HuffPoBlogs to meet the same standard.

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