By Matt McIntosh, Farm and Food Care Ontario
Few issues get me fired up like biotechnology and GMOs (also known as genetically modified organisms). Biotech interests me scientifically, concerns me socially, and confounds me to no end. It’s a subject where speaking out in favour can land you in a minefield of hateful conversations, and a topic that remains hotly contested despite thirty years of discussion.
It is also, however, a subject which the scientific and agricultural community must resolutely continue discussing with the public. The catch is, it needs to be approached in a specific way — it needs to be approached with less science and more stories.
To be honest, and if you haven’t guessed already, I’m a bit of a biotech fan.
I see biotechnology as one of a great many tools that societies around the world can use to overcome significant agricultural, economic, and environmental challenges. Is it the scientific be-all end-all? Of course not. Should it replace things like traditional breeding? Of course not. But when used in conjunction with the practices, varieties, and lessons acquired over thousands of years of agricultural history, I can’t help but be awestruck at the astounding potential this technology has.
Why, then, does the opposition to biotechnology seem more combustible than ever? The answer, or part of the answer anyway, is simple enough – biotech supporters are great at explaining, but not-so-great at connecting.
“Biotech is a battle between fear and fact, between heart and head, and heart always wins,” says Dr. Kevin Folta, a prominent biotech proponent and professor who chairs the Horticultural Sciences department at the University of Florida.
“You can’t pound people with science and expect them to accept it. You have to show that you have interests in problems that align with theirs, and how your solutions are viable mechanisms to fix them.”
I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Folta speak at the Farm & Food Care Ontario conference this past April. I fully support his message that establishing shared values and actually speaking-out is absolutely critical if we want the public to understand and accept this incredible science.
The unfortunate bit is Folta’s sentiment is not new. Indeed, the idea of communication through shared values has been one of the central themes discussed within agriculture for years. As progressive as this industry can be, though, it’s a theme that agriculture as a whole has in many ways failed to address — much to our detriment.
Personally, I can say I’ve bore witness to how effective a shared values approach can be (Farm & Food Care, my organization, has quite a few outreach initiatives). And really, if anti-GMO activists can successfully use this method – and they do – why can’t we?
For his part, I would suggest that nobody knows the highs and lows of public communication like Dr. Folta. His is a real roller-coaster tale.
During his presentation, and again in a follow-up email conversation, Folta explained that he, like many, had spent years reiterating the science behind biotechnology, but to no avail. In 2013, though, he started focusing on values and trust (what the Ancients called “pathos and ethos”), discussing how biotechnology impacts individual farmers, the goals of researchers, how communities cope and recover from diseases, and so on.
A change was noticeable almost immediately, and Folta began “changing hearts and minds” with much more success. Unfortunately for him, that success attracted the ire of characters with rather sinister intentions.
At that point, folks, the manure-slinging really started.
Through the American Freedom of Information Act, anti-biotech activists seized Folta’s email records (his research projects at the University of Florida make use of government funds, and thus he is publicly accountable). Using those records, a false narrative purporting him to be a payee and puppet of large agro-chemical companies was manufactured and spread from Vancouver to Pretoria. The incident forced Folta to defend his career, his science, his institution, and most significantly, his own credibility.
His name sufficiently tarred in the eyes of millions, Folta was worried his career was over.
Thankfully, the blatant lies were exposed soon thereafter, and he eventually rebounded both personally and in his career. Now, he actively discusses his passion through a number of different mediums, including a podcast (Talking Biotech), blog (kfolta.blogspot.ca), as a speaker, and as a contributor to www.GMOanswers.com – a public-facing site providing information, resources, and news on biotechnology.
On a personal level, Folta’s experience really hits home for me. It is a grand example of my significantly more minor-league experiences. I myself have been called a “shill for big ag” while in university, working as a journalist, and even in social settings.
My experience isn’t unique either. Discussing GMOs anywhere can be both frustrating and stupefying. The willingness to over-simplify complex science into tweet-sized falsities, to blindly argue correlation automatically means causation, is astounding. Most notably of all, though, is the level of personal and sometimes even violent vitriol hurled between opponents. Just take two minutes and read the comments under a GMO-focused news article and you’ll see what I mean.
The whole business is a sickening state of affairs, and one that has consequences in ways most of us wouldn’t even consider. One that has stuck with me personally is how Folta’s unfortunate experience as a target of anti-GMO activism has turned people away from pursuing science.
“It breaks my heart,” says Folta with very visible emotion during his conference presentation. “I have potential students emailing me asking if their names would be included in public records if they work with me. They are not going into the field because they are afraid for their future. It’s absolutely devastating. “
Now, I may be a writer by trade, but I’m also a farm kid with career aspirations. I want to get back to my family’s farm. I cannot fathom being forced away from that goal by fear. The fact that fear keeps prospective scientists from pursuing their interests, from pursuing a career in which they see value for themselves and others, is abominable.
Amidst the negativity, though, it’s important to remember that recovery is possible, and that the public is actually open to what biotech supporters have to say. In fact, Folta specifically identified farmers as key players in the biotech debate. Farmers are, after all, the prime users of biotech crops, and the public wants to hear their stories.
“Get your online real estate. Register your farm as a Twitter handle, start a blog and just share personal experiences,” says Folta. “People like me can be smeared to death (but) you’re immune from that. You’re the most competent and trusted, but we don’t talk to (the public). Right now the people that want to take out tools away are filling the void.”
Misinformation is a reality impossible to escape from, but laying down and letting misinformation macerate good, honest fact is an option no one can afford to take. As Folta’s experiences so blatantly illustrate, repeating the same-old communication strategies does not suffice. Saying nothing does not suffice. Speaking together and from the heart, however, has the potential to really tip the scales.
My dad often imparts the phrase “might as well do it now” whenever there’s a tough job to be done, with the understanding that procrastinating only makes the job more difficult. A lot of us, myself included in many ways, are way past due for taking our turn in the trenches.
Science needs good spokespeople and good stories — and agriculture the world over has both in spades.