Aug. 21, 2014

New Cornell Alliance for Science gets $5.6 million grant

A new international effort led by Cornell will seek to add a stronger voice for science and depolarize the charged debate around agricultural biotechnology and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Supported by a $5.6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cornell Alliance for Science will help inform decision-makers and consumers through an online information portal and training programs to help researchers and stakeholders effectively communicate the potential impacts of agricultural technology and how such technology works.

The project will involve developing multimedia resources, including videos of farmers from around the world documenting their struggles to deal with pests, diseases, crop failure and the limited resources available in the face of poverty and climate change.

“Proponents and opponents alike speculate whether biotech crops are of benefit to farmers, but rarely are those farmers engaged in the biotech discourse or their voices heard,” said Sarah Evanega, senior associate director of International Programs in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), who will lead the project.

“Our goal is to depolarize the GMO debate and engage with potential partners who may share common values around poverty reduction and sustainable agriculture, but may not be well informed about the potential biotechnology has for solving major agricultural challenges,” Evanega said. “For instance, pro-biotech activists share a lot of the same anti-pesticide, low-input, sustainable-agriculture vision as the organic movement.”

Evanega and her team hope to help engage such potential partners and foster more constructive policies about biotechnology as a useful tool to address major agricultural challenges.

The grant will allow the Cornell Alliance for Science to host annual conferences, short courses and semesterlong CALS certificate programs in biotechnology leadership, among other activities.

Evanega said the initial concept was informed by a February 2014 gathering at Cornell of 34 representatives from public sector and not-for-profit organizations in 12 countries that discussed a new vision for biotechnology communications.

“Like elsewhere in the world, African scientists still find it challenging to effectively inform the public about their work and its relevance to society,” said Barbara M. Zawedde, coordinator of the Uganda Biosciences Information Center at the National Agricultural Research Organization. “Our effective communication will enable African farmers and citizens to exercise their sovereign right of informed decisions on whether to adopt certain crops and technologies depending on their needs and priorities.”

In part because of its land-grant heritage, CALS regularly hosts forums and media events about various agricultural technologies and the role they could play in providing sustainable solutions to major global challenges.

“Biotechnology is a potential game-changer for farmers in less developed countries and an important tool in the toolbox for addressing global challenges, such as persistent poverty, a changing and erratic climate, and the challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050,” said Kathryn J. Boor, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of CALS. “Improving agricultural biotechnology communications is a challenge that must be met if innovations developed in public sector institutions like Cornell are ever to reach farmers in their fields.”

Stacey Shackford is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.