Public willing to talk about GMOs

Cami Ryan, an ag biotech expert, says the public is ready to accept genetic modification.  |  Ed White photo

Educating customers | Agriculture industry 
told to inform ‘middle ground’ about its values

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Members of the public are more willing to learn about biotechnology than cynics give them credit for, says agriculture biotechnology and consumer psychology expert Cami Ryan.

However, farmers and the rest of the agricultural industry need to be willing to talk with them and tell them true stories in their own language if they want to be believed.

“Leading with the scientific facts is not going to get us anywhere,” Ryan told the Canola Council of Canada’s annual convention Feb. 26.

“You have to lead with your values first.”

Ryan said the industry shouldn’t be spooked by polls and surveys that suggest much of the public doesn’t like genetically modified organisms and modern technology.

Most people are still open minded and willing to consider GMO issues fairly.

“There’s a really broad middle ground that we need to pay special attention to,” said Ryan.

“I think they’re a group of reasoned thinkers, that part of the public, and they’re still trying to decide now what they think about GMOs and genetic engineering.”

The respect that scientists and experts traditionally enjoyed has been replaced by mistrust and sometimes hostility. Scientific education and literacy have greatly declined, so many people don’t understand fundamental concepts.

As well, Ryan said the traditional language of science doesn’t help bridge the divide. The rationalistic, top-down, patriarchal manner of informing the public now get’s people’s backs up rather than making concerned people feel mollified, Ryan said.

Farmers need to talk about who they are and why they think technology such as genetic modification is good rather than trying to win people over by explaining the complexities of the underlying science, she added.

As well, they shouldn’t spend all their time arguing with activists who aren’t likely to change their views. Rather than they should focus on more open-minded people: women in general, “mommy-bloggers,” educated young people and young people in general.

Ryan said activists and opponents of genetic modification and other types of science are experts at using social media to spread their message. As a result, farmers and others in the industry need to use those methods, too.

She said they need to talk to members of the public in the way that they think, but they have to make sure they don’t compromise the truth to appeal to them. The message needs to be accurate, accountable and authentic, she added.

“Behind all these stories is good science,” said Ryan.

“Industry, and I mean everyone along the value chain, needs to take a more direct role in discrediting those erroneous claims that are out there.… When science and industry don’t step in and proactively anticipate and manage issues, it leaves things wide open for those with political agendas and ulterior motive to fill in those gaps.”

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