🎙Interview: Dr. Lauren Crossland-Marr & Corinne Ruff
A CRISPR Bite - Host
Dr. Lauren Crossland-Marr is a cultural anthropologist, who currently teaches at the University of Delaware. She previously worked as a postdoctoral researcher with GEAP-3, a network of social scientists exploring the application of CRISPR technology to agriculture and foodways. As part of the project, she wrote, hosted, and researched the podcast A CRISPR Bite. She lives in California with her husband, daughter, and Great Pyrenees, Kiss Kiss.
A CRISPR Bite - Producer & Editor
Corinne Ruff is a freelance audio journalist, producer and editor with nearly 10 years of journalism experience. She co-wrote, edited and executive produced the podcast A CRISPR Bite. Corinne previously worked as a public radio beat reporter in St. Louis covering economic development. She lives in LA with her husband and two silly dogs (who are best friends).
You can reach Corinne at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter/Instagram @corinnesusan.
You can also visit the show website which has the episode transcripts. And you can learn more about the GEAP3 network behind A CRISPR Bite here. Any feedback and questions can be sent to email@example.com.
Dr. Crossland-Marr: You are a cultural anthropologist who does research and teaching. What was it about podcasting that drew you in to host a show about gene-edited food?
Ever since I listened to Serial in 2014, I knew that podcasting can be a really impactful medium. I have learned so much through podcasts and I even assign them in my courses. They are a great way to engage a broad audience. For me, I was excited to break out of my academic shell and create something meant for a large audience because people need to know how these technologies are being used in our food system.
Corinne: You’ve worked on different pieces about racial and economic inequality. What made you interested in joining a science-focused podcast?
Lauren and I actually got to know each other during COVID when a mutual friend suggested we all bubble up together. At the time, I was a business reporter in St. Louis, where there are a lot of big agri-tech companies – the biggest being Bayer (previously known as Monsanto). I’m always drawn to stories that lack public awareness, and I was fascinated that CRISPR was something I’d never heard of but that is actively being used to manipulate the food we eat. So when Lauren asked me to join the project, it felt like an interesting opportunity to investigate a new topic and help explain to people what’s going on.
Doing science communication well is typically difficult. Did you all find anything challenging about putting together a show like this?
Absolutely, it’s not easy! From the start it was our goal to make the show as accessible as possible. We each leaned on our expertise to make that happen – which looked like many hours of conversations where Lauren would explain her research and how gene-editing works, while Corinne would ask basic questions to break it down to be as simple as possible while still accurate.
In public radio, there’s a general rule of one idea per sentence, so when it came to scripting the show, we tried to stick to that rule and cut out or explain all the technical aspects of the topic. Another huge help in overcoming this challenge was bringing on an editor with a public radio health and science reporting background for live edits. Jake Harper reviewed every episode and offered lots of great edits for restructuring, simplifying and signposting.
Dr. Crossland-Marr: You all established from the outset that you were going to look at the pros and cons of CRISPR technology. Before you got into preparing for the season, what did you expect to find?
Personally, based on what I know about the history of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), I was suspicious about CRISPR use in the food system… especially since it came with similarly grand promises like addressing climate change. I found that it is way more nuanced than: is this a bad or good technology? Technology is a human system and that means it has great potential, as well as great potential for misuse.
Did anything surprise you?
I was really surprised to learn about the movement led by winemakers using North American grape varieties in wine. Wine is such a traditional arena, it was really cool to learn about small producers creating cool wines from native US grapes in our wine episode. And, of course, it was also fun to taste them!
In response to the last question, given what you know now, what are the top concerns the public should be aware of so they can advocate to their policymakers?
I think we need to be aware that the technology just isn't as precise as many of its promoters say. It is more precise than GMO technology that came before it, but that doesn't mean it is 100% accurate. We grapple with the potential issues that can arise with off-target changes in our last episode, about hornless cattle. With this knowledge, the public should be more involved in how the technology is being used both in food and in medicine. The first step though, is advocating for better, clearer labeling. As we discuss in our first episode, research shows that the majority of the American public wants to know if their food was created using gene-editing technologies.
Dr. Crossland-Marr: In the third episode about soy, you talk about CRISPR foods and climate change. As we know, agriculture and cattle farming have huge impacts on climate (especially the latter). You looked at the tradeoffs of using CRISPR for agriculture, and I was curious if you have anything to add that you didn’t get to highlight on the show?
There’s always so much that gets left out! For the soy episode, I really wanted to highlight that we need to think about our responses to climate change beyond simple equations. Yes, cattle farming is really bad for the environment, but the issue within the broader food system is so much more complex than the amount of methane released.
If we want a more sustainable food system we need to look at solving issues that expand beyond our plates – like worker’s rights, waste management, and animal treatment. I always tell my students that yes, beef is the worst thing you can eat for the environment. However, local, small cattle farmers contribute a lot to the local economy and community. Thinking about climate change beyond simple equations like CO2 in and out is really important.
Tomatoes created using CRISPR technology. You can learn more in episode 2.
Corinne: I was curious if after working on this show, you saw any intersections between gene-edited foods and your reporting on economic or racial inequality?
Definitely. Inequality and who wins in the gene-edited food race is a really important angle of this story that we ultimately didn’t have time to center in this series. Early on, we’d hoped to interview farmers about their thoughts, experiences and challenges with gene-edited crops, but we had limited resources for field reporting, as we were grant funded. CRISPR has so much possibility to solve really important problems, but based on the history of how companies have previously used gene-editing, it appears there’s a huge disparity in which types of projects get funding.
While making this show, I couldn’t help but wonder: Do we really need to edit cattle to not have horns? mustard greens to be less pungent? or tomatoes to relieve anxiety? I don’t think they are bad ideas, but they are certainly not ones that are doing anything to alleviate deep racial and economic inequality in the world.
Dr. Crossland-Marr: I know this is a limited series, but what more would you want to explore in additional episodes?
Corinne and I talk about this a lot! As we were wrapping up the series, we learned about Pairwise, a company that is as we speak releasing mustard greens modified using CRISPR to grocery stores on the west coast. It would be really neat to meet with scientists there and explore their facilities. The altered mustard greens are less pungent; I would love to learn more about the market for this product, especially since personally, I seek out mustard greens when I want that intense flavor. The same company has more products in the pipeline – seedless blackberries and pitless cherries. And an additional episode could explore what they're up to at length, and what decisions consumers will be facing at the grocery store.
Corinne: What is one thing that got left on the cutting room floor for the current season that almost made it in?
So much! To make a narrative podcast you need to collect so much tape in order to hone and shape it into a captivating, focused story. We really wanted to build an episode around research out of the University of Illinois (Corinne’s alma mater!) about hangover-free wine thanks to CRISPR technology. Now that’s a use case a lot of people could get down with, right!? But unfortunately, the timing didn’t work out to connect with the researchers at the center of that project. But because we were both so interested in the wine industry, we kept digging and Lauren found research about CRISPR being used to edit pest plaguing California’s wine grape industry. While it wasn’t what we had envisioned, our pivot still led to a fascinating episode.
Corinne: Since you wrote, edited, and produced this season, what is a piece of advice would you give to others that find themselves managing these different workflows?
The biggest piece of advice I can share with other indie producers is to lean on your network, and join podcasting groups. Ask for advice and resources for the aspects of the project that aren’t your strong suit. For me, reporting, writing and revising is my bread and butter, but there is so much more to do beyond that to make a great podcast from scratch.
The most important thing to think through early on is: how will people find and listen to my show? This is a lot for one person to manage, so I highly recommend outsourcing when you have the budget to do so. And if not, talk shop with as many people as you can about where you are struggling. Build in time to learn (and fail) at aspects that are newer to you. I am so grateful to all of the people who lent an ear, gave advice and provided connections to help me bring this series to life, and I happily pay that forward to others. Please reach out if I can help!
Is there any new or upcoming work that either of you would like to share with us?
While our 5-part series ended, we have started to release a 3-part bonus mini series of episodes from other shows that explore food, science and technology we love. We highly recommend taking a listen and following along with those podcasts to learn more. You can also listen to upcoming interviews with Lauren discussing her research and the podcast on Gastronomica, Indecent with Kiki Andersen and on KCRW’s Good Food, so look out for those later this month!
🎤 Pass the Mic
If either of you could pass the mic to someone about a social issue you care about, who would it be and what would they talk about?
We have to say that the GEAP-3 team of social scientists, which backed the podcast, is made up of incredible scientists working on issues of inequality in the food system. Matthew Schnurr, the director of the project, has asked a lot of the same questions we do in the series but in sub-saharan Africa. We would love to envision a show by him that could dig into the racial and economic inequities connected to the gene-edited food discussion.
If this show’s topic interests you, you might also want to check out the guest curation from Quinn Emmett of Important Not Important podcast called “The Changing Impact of Climate on Our Food”.