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Most Americans celebrate the latest innovations when it comes to their smartphones, cars or shiny kitchen appliances. Anything goes if it makes life better, right? Not necessarily.
When it comes to innovation in food production, public skepticism has reached a fever pitch, particularly around the issue of GMOs — despite overwhelming scientific consensus that GMOs are safe.
Now, with $3 million allocated as part of the recent government funding bill, the Food and Drug Administration plans to launch a public outreach campaign regarding the benefits of agricultural biotechnology and biotech crops. The government understands the importance of biotechnology, as well as the confusion and angst surrounding it — and hopes that embarking on a communications campaign, in some way, will help effectively bridge the gap.
How do the agriculture and food industries find themselves in a place where advancements aren’t celebrated like the new Wi-Fi touch-screen refrigerator door panel? Largely because of the way they’ve traditionally approached the conversation.
For example, when farmers talk about “efficiencies” and “productivity,” it falls on deaf ears. The public sees those messages as self-serving. Sure, the farmer takes advantage of technology to make more money, but what’s in it for me?
Whether it’s a government agency, a farmer or food company executive, engaging in conversations about the benefits of biotechnology for people, animals and the planet is what resonates in the context of our ethical obligation to do what’s right. And there’s plenty to tout.
Genetically modified seeds allow farmers to produce more food, on fewer acres of land, using fewer resources — making farming more sustainable.
Scientists are creating genetically modified foods that contain nutrients to help fight disease and malnourishment.
By simply blocking a protein, we can help pigs become resistant to one of the deadliest swine diseases in the world, preventing animal suffering and premature death. Who would oppose that?
Food and agriculture also tend to resort to “educating” consumers with facts, figures and science under the assumption that the more information they provide, the more likely consumers are to understand and support biotech. That strategy alone doesn’t work.
While facts and science can’t be discounted, research from The Center for Food Integrity shows that finding common ground — and communicating with a focus on the shared values that connect us — is what earns trust. It’s the approach that our research demonstrates can have impact with those who are skeptical of biotechnology — even those who are unsure why other than it symbolizes “Big Ag,” which they inherently mistrust.
Communicating shared values is 3-5 times more effective when it comes to earning trust than the default information dump. In fact, when we’ve provided study participants with information alone on a controversial food topic like GMOs, without the ethical underpinning, it simply galvanized their opposition.
Communicating the “why” makes for a more meaningful conversation.
With a growing population and finite natural resources, the challenge to produce more with less while protecting the environment is real, and advances in biotechnology are one tool to help us get there.
Connecting with consumers to gain broader acceptance of important innovations is not out of reach; we know from our research that the opportunity exists. The question is, will policymakers and the food system seize it and commit to a long-term, values-based dialogue to earn public trust? Our planet and its people will be better off for it.
Terry Fleck is executive director of The Center for Food Integrity, a nonprofit organization that helps today’s food system earn consumer trust.
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