Dr. Michael Neff: Renovating our food system

We are pleased to share a guest blog from Dr. Michael Neff, who is the Director of Washington State University’s Molecular Plant Sciences Graduate Program. Also an Associate Professor of Crop Biotechnology at WSU, his expertise and experience with agricultural biotechnology is matched only by his passion for education. Dr. Neff has recently applied to present a TEDx talk on agricultural biotechnology, much like OSF President Neal Carter did last October, and here he shares what his talk will be about and why it’s such an important subject:

On June 1st Western Washington University will host TEDxWWU, which has a very intriguing theme: “Renovations: Building Our Future”. Upon hearing this, I couldn’t help but immediately think what a perfect fit a talk on agricultural biotechnology would be. Renovation is the process of taking an existing framework with “good bones” and updating the infrastructure to improve sustainability and efficacy while taking advantage of modern advances – and that’s just what ag-biotech aims to do!Dr. Michael Neff

As a professor at a land grant university, I have seen that many agree modern agriculture is in need of renovation, but it’s difficult for them to agree on the framework that should be built upon. Some call for a push towards organic agriculture, which, by current definition, excludes crops produced through biotechnology. Others emphasize conventional agriculture and taking advantage of technological advances, including the benefits biotechnology provides.

The driving force behind my proposed TEDx talk is that these two standpoints do not have to be mutually exclusive and also that the current anti-biotech approach, which is fueled by fearful images of syringes, biohazard signs and mutant plants, is counterproductive. I believe that when choices are made based on knowledge instead of emotion, we can draw from both camps to develop a renovated agricultural approach.

My talk will discuss the science behind biotech crops including the methods, pros and cons, and the importance of developing evidence-based opinions. I am not interested in convincing people that one side is right and the other is wrong. Instead I’m interested in opening up a civil dialogue on the benefits and drawbacks of crop biotechnology.

I have given similar talks many times before, including to over 200 organic farmers with the TILTH Producers of Washington, and have found a useful place to start is asking the audience “how many people here know or are related to someone who is an insulin-dependent diabetic or is fighting cancer?” I then point out that biotechnology is now used to produce inexpensive human insulin, which is far safer than when the drug was purified from pigs. In the case of cancer I discuss the origin of the chemotherapy drug taxol, which originally came from the bark of the pacific yew tree. Biotech-enhanced bacteria are now used to produce inexpensive taxol as well as for developing newer versions of this drug. Without biotech approaches to manufacturing taxol, we would run out of pacific yew trees as well as taxol.

I believe this helps put biotechnology into perspective and sets the stage for meaningful dialogue, especially regarding the value of merging the best farming practices from both traditional and organic agriculture. It’s my hope that this TEDx talk will help facilitate a civil discourse that will ultimately lead to building our food production future by renovating modern agriculture, and I encourage you to watch my application video here:

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