Trust vs. facts in debate over agriculture

We have often championed the virtue of good communications about agriculture to consumers, but Kevin Folta, a professor in the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, has outlined a process to ensure the targets and the messages are effective.

Folta, who spoke at the Global Institute for Food Security conference in Saskatoon last week, urged those who communicate to open minds by first establishing trust before diving into the facts. “Facts don’t change minds. Facts don’t matter — until you have trust,” he said.

Ag organizations must earn a “social licence” before new technology will be adopted, he said. “It breaks my heart to (see the solutions that are available), especially in the developing world, that don’t get to their target, that don’t serve the people they were meant to serve.”

To that end, he has some advice.

First, make sure you’re speaking to the right audience. Most consumers are eager to learn about new technologies, but some communicators often end up debating with those who are there to stir up controversy.

So make sure you’re discussing agriculture with those who want to know more to help them make decisions.

Then, build a rapport and establish trust — and that’s not where the facts and statistics come in. Instead, share values with consumers so they understand where you’re coming from.

“As scientists we’re trying to talk to their heads when we really need to be speaking to their hearts,”Folta said.

He advised people to develop a method of active listening. The idea is to understand — rather than to debate — why people feel a certain way.

“That’s so important as a first step in terms of changing someone’s mind.”

By the time communicators share evidence-based arguments, they should do so to re-enforce shared values, he said. “Talk about examples of technology that relate to values that you share.”

He also advised communicators to amplify their content online. Write blogs or distil information from scientific journals for the public. And discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the information.

Above all, when you’re on social media such as Twitter, handle criticism with class rather than provoking them, he said.

“The internet is a spectator sport … everybody who’s watching that exchange is saying, ‘I trust you because you’re the one who’s taking the high road.’ ”


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  • Stuart M.

    Kevin Folta is a great scientist and tireless proponent of biotechnology. He personally has suffered smear campaigns against him and his university because the “other side” is vicious in furthering their agenda of turning back the agricultural clock. Taking the high road, as he suggests, is hard to do when your opponents resort to every dirty trick in the books. I am not convinced that social media users can be impressed with politeness and rational arguments. From politics to science, it seems as if tribalism “trumps” facts in this day and age. We live in dark times indeed.

  • Neil Batchelor

    The presenter makes several assumptions that I do not believe are entirely based in an accurate assessment of the situation that the Agriculture industry finds itself in. I agree with his premise that facts are irrelevant when trust is wanting. That is a sword that cuts both ways in this issue. The presenter is counseling that consumers, who are clearly demanding a Non-GMO food supply (at the very least, if not organic) extend their trust to growers on social media, who will then build a trust relationship and lead them gently down the path of enlightenment to a state of mental nirvana, where GM technologies become normal and a new sun rises daily to shine upon millions of acres of ripe GM crops being harvested by the hands of vestal virgins. Well, okay I get the concept, and as a concept it has one fatal flaw. It’s not growers that consumers don’t trust. Its corporations. Specifically corporate control of the food supply and the commensurate reduction in the ability for a consumer to choose for themselves. Kind of like what is happening in Agriculture right now – even growers don’t trust corporations, so this should come as no surprise. While I agree that technology has a place, and there are well-defined examples of where GM crops can bring specific benefits to certain populations, I do think we are about 30 years too late to start having this discussion with the wealthier segment of consumers – whom, incidentally, are the ones we will be interacting with on the internet. Indeed, I think they have made their preferences quite clear and that trend has been identified by grocery retail organizations who have in turn put pressure on the Nestle’s and Unilevers of the world, who are in their turn pressuring their suppliers (that would be us). To counter that trend with an argument that soccer moms should continue to feed their kids GM-based foods that a shareholder-driven corporation says are okay, runs counter to natural protectionist instincts and the highest of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Right or wrong, I sincerely don’t think we will win that argument under those conditions.

  • richard

    The internet is not a “spectator sport” , it is a participation sport…..a sport that allows the complexity of issues in agriculture to be brought forth….. Which is why the monothematic, monocultural dogma of biotech can never find traction in the court of human opinion…. It is trapped in its own reductionist mantras that dictate blind faith in technology….. Misplaced technology does not liberate it enslaves…..just watch any “smartphone” addict for ten minutes, the net result of blind trust and deficit of critical faculties…..And that’s not where the inquiring mind in 2018 is gravitating.

  • Welderone

    How can facts build trust when the facts are not true. All false facts do is build no trust in some grain farmers or grain farmer groups. There is enough food to feed all the people in the world. Yet some fly by night farm groups try to spin numbers for their own financial gain at the expensive of the taxpayers leading people to believe there is a shortage of a grain like wheat in the world. When the truth is we have a wheat price decades old because of massive overproduction. When it comes to round-up being sprayed on grain crops. How can anybody trust Canadian scientists when European scientists are banning this chemical in Europe.

    • Happy Farmer

      Facts are truth. Truth comes from facts. False facts don’t exist. There is no such thing as “false facts”. People today are falling prey to beliefs based on feelings and emotions. Scientific facts just can’t compete with this thinking. How sad.

      • Welderone

        Sorry, Happy Farmer. False facts do exist. One farm group in Canada said scientists around the globe have found roundup to be a safe product. Nothing could be farther from the truth. This farm group wanted the readers to believe this was a fact and true. True facts have shown otherwise. And people today do not have beliefs passed on feelings and emotions. But on research and study from multiple sources.


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