Science plays an important role in U.S. foreign policy -- and the State Department has a deep bench of scientific and technical experts who work the full range of such issues from climate change to basic research cooperation to pandemic disease detection and protection. But not everyone knows that U.S. embassies often host scientists called Embassy Science Fellows for short-term projects where they share their scientific expertise and advice.
As part of the Embassy Science Fellow Program, and in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), I teamed up with the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City this past fall to promote education on genetically engineered (GE) crops. Genetically engineered food can be an emotionally charged issue in many parts of the world, including in Mexico. Those kinds of debates are important and healthy -- I see my role as an academic is to offer information so that such debates can be scientifically informed.
My research focuses on how GE crops can help address food safety, food security, and reduce the amount of pesticides used on crops. GE crops can be an important tool for Mexico to reduce pesticide use (a major health hazard for the farmers working in the field), and can bring economic and environmental benefits to farmers and surrounding communities. As part of my fellowship, I engaged Mexican government agencies and the agriculture industry about the science behind GE crops and the role they can take in addressing these issues.
One of my most interesting and rewarding experiences as an Embassy Science Fellow was when I addressed a seminar at the Comisión Intersecretarial de Bioseguridad de los Organismos Genéticamente Modificados (CIBIOGEM), a commission that coordinates the biosafety of GMOs, about the benefits of biotechnology and the magnitude of insect resistance in GE crops that use Bacillus thuringiensis (otherwise known as BT crops). The audience and I had an interesting and lively exchange on the science behind GE crops, common misconceptions about the effects of GE crops on the environment, and how the regulatory system works in the United States. Lastly, I discussed how my home institution, Michigan State University (MSU), provides short courses in biotechnology, and how MSU collaborates with the government, farmers, and industry to create public-academic synergy. Overall, the audience had a very positive response to my presentation on Bt toxins and refugia strategy to dilute resistance, and by the end of the meeting they left with a different outlook on the issues.
Through activities like this, the Embassy Fellows program helped Michigan State, the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Government create substantive exchange and promising relationships with key stakeholders from Mexico’s industry, growers associations and government on an issue of great importance to Mexico’s economic security and sustainable development, and to our two countries’ economic and broader bilateral relationship. My short time at the Embassy has created a foundation for continued collaboration -- including in just a few weeks from now. For my follow up visit as an Embassy Science Fellow this March, I will present seminars on the effects of GE crops in non-target organisms e.g. bees, ladybeetles, and other natural enemies at the Mexican federal environmental agency Secretaria de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT). My Mexican counterparts and I see great promise in continued dialogue and information exchange on biotechnology and GE.
About the Author: Dr. David Mota-Sanchez serves as an Embassy Science Fellow, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City for fall 2013. He currently serves as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Entomology at Michigan State University, and co-director of the Arthropod Pesticide Resistance Database.