I’ve been invited to take part in a daylong workshop to discuss the societal impacts of genetic modification of plants. The workshop’s organizers, plant scientists who often work closely with corporations to further their research, see the event as a first.

As they wrote in a memo asking participants to allow them to record portions of the proceedings: “While the field of plant targeted genetic modification continues to advance, a concerted effort to examine the field’s oversight issues has yet to take place.”

The request prompted a quick reply from a scientist seeking clarification. Who would have access to the transcript? Clarification followed forthwith. Only the organizers would have access, and the transcript would reflect general themes. In other words, participants’ personal opinions would not come back to haunt them.

The consent form itself outlined the risks and benefits of participating as follows: “The risks from participating in this workshop are no more probable or severe than those you encounter in your everyday experiences as a professional working with or on genetically modified organisms.” It added: “There are no benefits from participating in the workshop.”

The nonmonetary social and intellectual benefits to society are beyond measure, and the organizers modern-day heroes. Kudos to these scientists for acknowledging that there are legitimate concerns about GMOs that until now those benefiting financially have chosen to either discredit or ignore.

That negotiation over a recording captures perfectly what I see as a chilling effect that’s gripped not just those who work for large institutions but American society in general. The most elephant-in-the-room issue of all is the concentration of corporate power. Why can’t we talk about it? Well, on one level we know we’ll be exposing ourselves to unpleasantness or ridicule. That’s no fun.

But mainly we’re afraid our loose talk will cost us our job or that of a friend or relative. In these hard times (i.e., in this global economy) jobs have replaced things like clean air and water, affordable health care, decent public education, and freedom of expression as our nation’s most precious resource.

The conventional wisdom has it that our political discourse is robust. Too robust. Just watch Sunday-morning TV. But we conflate intensity of debate with decibel level. As a result it’s become a winning strategy not only to turn down the volume but to turn off the discussion as well.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar is exceptionally adept at this. She has made her distaste for confrontation a campaign theme that she hopes will take her all the way to the White House. Better to “get things done,” as she puts it, than to engage in partisan bickering.

Translation: Better to attach your name to a no-brainer bill protecting military women from rape than to lead on an extremely divisive topic like the Keystone pipeline or farm subsidies.

The chilling effect is most insidious when it grips working people who happen to be employed by organizations, public and private, that are changing the world through scientific innovation.

What could a low-level employee at Citigroup do or say in protest when not even the CEO dared to question those fancy algorithms showing that home prices would always go up? It didn’t take a Ph.D. to see that a person with no job shouldn’t be buying a house, but simple arithmetic was laughed out of the room by science-based magical thinking.

A recent Supreme Court decision showed the limitations of that august body in weighing scientific innovation’s pros and cons. Its unanimous ruling against a farmer in Illinois who’d planted Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans hoping they were no longer patent-protected was an open-and-shut decision affirming intellectual property rights.

Is GMO seed depriving farmers of their economic independence? Could be — but hypothetical what-ifs don’t guide the Supreme Court. Precedent does.

Congress is too polarized and the media too fragmented to be an effective forum for debate on these issues. A casual barbecue isn’t the place either: Who knows who might pass your opinion on to your boss?

We even dumb down our dinner-table conversation — why give voice to our creeping ambivalence (if not resentment) over what our jobs entail? Our children are the biggest losers. Studies show that family discussion more than any other form of communication teaches a child to think and also to care about right vs. wrong.

An e-mail just landed in my inbox. Citing “concerns raised by several participants,” the organizers have decided not to record the workshop. “We very much want to foster an open discussion and feel that recording the sessions may hinder the dialog.”

Let the dialogue begin!



Bonnie Blodgett is a writer in St. Paul.