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The Biotech Agriculture Communications Challenge: How can we Bridge the Gap?
By Graydon John Forrer
Graydon Forrer is a communications professional and a close observer of trends and developments in the healthcare, biopharma and biotechnology sector. You can follow him on Twitter: @gradyforrer
Being more effective in communicating about biotechnology’s contribution to modern agriculture was a big focus of the agricultural track at BIO2015 in Philadelphia.
One insight into the on-going communications challenge that may help inform future efforts came out of a question posed in the “Overcoming Global Obstacles to Acceptance of Food Biotechnology” session. What, if anything, can the recent controversy over vaccines and the public and medical profession’s rallying to the science tell us about biotechnology in agriculture?
Jerry Bowman, the Vice President of Communications at the Institute of Food Technologists, fielded the question for the panel. He noted that the public’s reaction to the vaccine controversy is useful but that there are telling difference between the challenges of communicating about vaccines and good science and communicating about biotech agriculture and good science.
Specifically, patients and their doctors often have a very personal relationship that makes it significantly easier to bridge the communications gap. Patients trust their doctors and listen to them on the science and the health attributes of vaccination. Indeed, a patient in doubt about vaccines can often can speak directly to a physician and receive good, authoritative information.
By contrast, for too many consumers – especially in economically diverse and developed countries – the link between grower, producer and consumer may be very tenuous. Most consumers don’t know an actual farmer. They know little of farming, less of the history of agriculture and agricultural science. In other words, there is a direct trust and information gap that can be difficult to bridge.
Ironically, perhaps, this may provide real opportunities for communicating about the value and promise of biotech agriculture in developing agricultural economies where consumers remain more connected to agricultural production and are more likely to know of life on the farm and how their food is grown and processed.
However, the challenge in an economy like that in the U.S. remains huge. Fewer than two percent of Americans farm and most consumers are well removed from agriculture. The chain of trust and authority is, if not broken, increasingly tenuous.
Forging new relationships between consumers, producers and farmers must be the goal. The assertion of good science well conducted and good agricultural practices as well as the realization of the promises of biotech agriculture – including both nutrition and environmental benefits – will otherwise only be words unless biotech agriculture’s proponents can reconnect to end-users: the consumer.
This will mean looking at relationships with consumers in a new way and stepping out of their traditional business comfort zone. But there is also much to learn from many of biotech agriculture’s opponents. While big organic manufacturer’s are as likely to be as distant from their consumers as other food manufacturers, their marketing helps to bridge the gap by specifically evoking trust and images of a earlier time when farmers, producers and consumers were more intimately connected.
For some useful information on consumers’ attitudes about food, nutrition and health, these reports by the International Food Information Council Foundation may be helpful: