Our inaugural Q&A blog series post shared the introduction and first half of our Q&A with Dr. Cami Ryan. Now check out the second half below!
OSF: You’ve done a great deal of research into the anti-biotech groups and their positions. In your opinion, what is it that makes them so fervent that biotech cannot be part of the solution? In other words, what makes myths about ag-biotech so appealing to activists?
Dr. Ryan: Mythmaking and the oral tradition of storytelling have been an important part of society. Activists use mythmaking as a way to influence public opinion on any one of a number of topics or issues. It is a way in which to create an alternate reality in the minds of the consumer by creatively blending images and words – and it works. You only have to think about the term “Frankenfood” and how visually provocative that is. For the activists and NGOs, mythmaking (and other activist activities) have bottom line goals as well. It attracts members, drives donation and is important in lobbying efforts.
Activist organizations will change strategies over time. Every organization or business has to in order to stay relevant to the member, consumer and/or market. The biotechnology industry became the focus for many NGOs in the 1990s (even before that). Agricultural biotechnology is appealing as a target in that you can readily identify a villain (i.e. “Big Ag”) and you can set your organization up as a hero (i.e. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, etc).
There’s nothing that people like better than a story; one with a hero and villain. As new innovative technologies develop, NGOs will adjust their strategies accordingly (for instance, synthetic biology has now made it onto activists’ radars). Again, this is about sustaining streams of donor dollars.
When engaging in discussions with those opposed to biotech crops, what points or strategies in particular do you find to be the most effective to help them see the other side of the argument?
Talking someone into something is never a good strategy. It doesn’t matter what you are talking about. The best conversations that I have with people start with first trying to understand where they are coming from and why. People’s fears (we all have them) – no matter how irrational they may seem to us – are real to them. Productive conversations mean listening more and talking less. I never go into a conversation looking to convert… rather, I go in prepared to learn. And I do. Every time.
Seek to understand first, then work to build trust. Find common ground; there is always common ground: children, health, sports, caregiving, or loss of loved ones. If you lead with the facts, you will lose them almost every time. If you lead with your story or your narrative, at the very least you will make a human-to-human connection and have the opportunity to build a relationship; the facts can come later. And, those facts need to be communicated in such a way that they are relatable.
Quoting digits or data by rote often fall on deaf (or uninterested) ears. A person will often forget what you said or did [or the facts you provided] but they will never forget how you made them feel (paraphrased from Maya Angelou).
Hundreds of studies support biotech safety, as do the leading global science and health organizations, yet many consumers seem skeptical. On a broad scale, what efforts should be undertaken to promote public education on the subject?
A continued dialogue is important in order to build trust in the food system. We live in an information-rich world where we will always be contending with misinformation about food and agricultural production. So, we need to continually work on countering misinformation – both from an individual standpoint and as organizations. There is a whole new set of stakeholders at the ‘figurative’ boardroom table now. And this new stakeholder plays by a whole new set of market rules.
As we have our conversations, we need to communicate better about some of the most critical problems we face in terms of food security (hunger, food storage and waste, disease, drought, pests, etc) and help people understand how biotechnology can play a role in resolving many of these issues. We need to reach our young people; those that are now two to four generations removed from the farm. We need to encourage our young people (and others) to think critically in this information-rich world we live in. And we need to develop (more) programs and initiatives that target persons of influence such as the teachers in our communities.
In our own experience, we’ve found that the more consumers learn about the science behind our nonbrowning Arctic® apples, the greater their support for them, particularly when they see the benefits with their own eyes. Do you think these findings would be consistent with any biotech crop?
I’d like to think so, yes. But we all value different things in different ways. So, “support for” a biotechnology crop would largely depend upon how an individual views the value of said crop; what is meaningful and important to the consumer. Traits that are perceived to have real or tangible benefits for the consumer – such as enhanced nutritional value – would likely be more readily accepted. The trick, however, is being able to communicate those benefits in a way that appeals to consumer values.
Regarding ag-biotech, what big changes do you anticipate, say, 20 years from now? Labeling? More consumer-oriented traits? Greater consumer education/awareness?
This is so hard to predict. I mean, who could have predicted that we would be dealing with the consumer backlash over GMOs that we have been? Labeling continues to be a ‘sore spot’ out there but the issue is often oversimplified, in my mind. Most people don’t understand that there is a big difference between mandatory and voluntary labeling.
Mandatory labels are reserved for those products that carry a documented health risk (allergen) or where products represent a substantive change in nutritional composition. Then, there is the whole matter of what constitutes ‘meaningful information’ on a label. Labels, by law, cannot be misleading. It’s complex; only time will tell how all this will all play out.
But, yes, consumer-oriented traits, for sure! We are working our way towards that now. In my “glass-half-full” view of the world, I like to think that society will have progressed in its general understanding of how science works and how it adds value to our world. The beauty of social media and the internet is that we do have access to more information and, in a perfect world, can self-educate on any manner of topic (as long as we can separate the ‘wheat’ from the ‘chaff’).
More and more farmers, ranchers and producers are online and available to answer questions about how they do their work. This, in theory, should help to alleviate that growing urban/rural divide over time. I would like to see more scientists do the same; to step outside the “Ivory Tower” and dialogue with people. These types of connections help to build trust in our institutions and our systems. The real question here is, is twenty years enough time? Maybe not, but we just need to “keep on, keepin’ on.”
Thanks so much for taking the time to share your wisdom and experiences with us!