Four Ways to Change the Conversation Around Biotech Crops

Four Ways to Change the Conversation Around Agricultural Biotech

By Julie Borlaug, Associate Director, Norman E. Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, Texas A&M University 

Next week, the global food and agriculture sector will convene in Rome for the Biotech Symposium organized by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). And, as is often the case at these events, we will talk to each other, say the same things, and leave without any meaningful change having been proposed.  Farmers and the industry will continue to press for greater acceptance of plant science; and activists will continue to insist that agricultural advances in biotech are dangerous and should be banned.

So how do we change the conversation?  Both sides agree that we must feed our most food insecure populations and protect natural resources.  Yet the continued impasse ensures that progress remains extremely slow. As long as each group talks only to themselves, nothing will change. So how can the agriculture industry change the conversation to promote progress?

Let’s start with science.  As comedian Andy Borowitz recently observed, Earth is being endangered by a new fact-resistant strain of humans. Science supports the safety and efficacy of biotech.  Yet, activists are successfully countering the science with fear and emotion. Step one for the agriculture industry – farmers and corporations alike – is to change the conversation.  We currently talk about science in terms of studies and increased yields, and frame the discussion around benefits to farmers.

In developing countries this focus on farmer benefits also means feeding farmers who previously could not grow enough to provide for their families, but many Western audiences are too far removed from this reality. So let’s talk instead about the benefits to the public.  A perfect example is Golden Rice  which has been developed to provide enhanced Vitamin A content in a serving of rice. Vitamin A deficiency is estimated to kill 670,000 children under the age of five each year. Let’s get it out in the market, as the benefits are truly focused on the public good, not corporations or even the farmers themselves.

The agriculture industry needs to engage new audiences.  Simply saying that we produce the food, so we know best is not enough.  We need to embrace, include and listen to the perspectives of those working in the fields of nutrition, health, climate change, foreign policy, infrastructure, technology, and finance.  They will help frame the science in their terms, extending the reach of our message.

We must also continue to move away from focusing primarily on scientific and industry arguments, and frame the debate in terms of choice. Much of the anti-science backlash against biotechnology in agriculture is driven by western activists who so are far-removed from farming that they really aren’t able to understand the ramifications of their choices.  But making choices for farmers in the developing world, whose realities are quite different, from the US or EU is problematic at best; paternalistic and dangerous at worst. We must be stronger and more vocal in making this argument. Farmers worldwide can and should have the opportunity to weigh all of the information and make their own choices. Let’s explicitly call out the groups that are taking away that right.

Finally, agriculture must use the tools – social media especially – that the activists use, to make our case as visible in the public eye.  We are making progress, but still need to move past industry speak, farmer benefits and the dry science to illustrate our story in an emotional and compelling way.

Too many of us feel that the upcoming FAO Biotech Symposium will be “more of the same.”  With a little bit of effort, we can come out of the event with a clear path for change in 2016, and a strategy for delivering our message to new audiences.  As my grandfather used to say, “Enough with the meetings!  Let’s get in the fields.”