New technologies have emerged that could bring the era of food safety concerns to an end, but the opportunity to communicate their safety and benefits in positive ways is slipping away. During the session “From CRISPR to Syn BIO: How to Explain the Benefits and Safety of the Latest Food and Agriculture Technologies to the Public” on Monday, speakers discussed how hesitating to communicate effectively about the technologies poised to revolutionize food science puts technological advancement at a disadvantage.
Quoting Warren Buffet, Sally Squires of Powell Tate said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and only five minutes to ruin it.” Scientific terminology often gets besieged in popular culture, she pointed out: for example, ‘genetically engineered foods’ became ‘GMOs’ and ‘frankenfoods,’ and ‘lean, finely textured beef’ became ‘pink slime.’ The world has transitioned from publishers of media to platforms that distribute media (e.g., Google, Facebook, Twitter, and so on). As a result, 72% of consumers receive their news from mobile devices. She emphasized that consumers today rely less on facts and more on emotions. Moreover, in today’s environment, pictures work better than words, and video rules. Eight billion videos stream every day on Facebook, Squires declared. The sweet spot for effective communication, she said, involves hitting something that is emotional, relevant, and popular. To communicate about new food technologies, she advised scientists to think like a consumer brand, empower like a public education campaign, and act like a news organization.
Christine Bruhn of the University of California, Davis, agreed, pointing out that consumers constantly receive information about food through television news; social media; food, nutrition, and health programs; and supermarket signs and food-package labels. Bruhn believes that the interest in GMO-free products developed because scientists did not dispense positive information about biotechnology. “I think the failure to communicate has left an open slate for those opposed to innovation,” she said. As a result, people question accurate information that conflicts with their preconceived notions. To be proactive about using new tools for genetic engineering, Bruhn suggested exploring consumer attitudes toward genetic engineering of foods, assessing consumer response to specific genetic engineering, and crafting messages that address these issues and explain the benefits of new technologies to consumers. Messaging that emphasizes benefits is more effective than authoritative messaging. “If those who know don’t communicate, those who don’t know will,” Bruhn said. Otherwise, innovations without effective communication may be lost or significantly delayed, she warned.
“When you’re late to the table, you get leftovers,” added Marianne Smith Edge of the AgriNutrition Edge, emphasizing that scientists have been late to the table when it comes to communicating about food technologies. For example, CRISPR-Cas9 is an emerging technology that replaces older, slower, and more costly genetic engineering methods. Scientists must be at the table, creating the conversation, engaging the audience, and being transparent. Transparency is essential, Edge said, but it involves more than simply providing more information. The factors that affect perception of risk are worry, concern, fear, and anxiety. If scientists can be among the first to communicate positive aspects of new food technologies, “today’s new can become tomorrow’s natural,” concluded Ken Lee of Ohio State University.