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.’ ”

Contact brian.macleod@producer.com

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