The Tricky Terrain for GMO Communication

By Keith Kloor | January 16, 2015 10:31 am

Several years ago, the Boston Review published a forum called, “The Truth About GMOs.” Nine viewpoints were represented. All the authors, a number of them scientists and scholars, had different perspectives. Some were enthusiastic biotech supporters, others staunch opponents. Several had staked out a middle ground, acknowledging the technology’s benefits and risks. The truth about GMOs, it turned out, meant different things to different people.

To complicate matters, the science of agricultural biotechnology is a proxy battleground for many people with political or cultural objections to GMOs, much in the way climate science is a proxy for those who associate it with implied political and economic changes they view as a threat to their way of life. For example, activists and advocacy groups vehemently opposed to GMOs continue to emphasize food safety concerns that have no evidentiary basis. Nevertheless, enough doubt and fear has been sown among a subset of consumers that numerous countries require GMO foods to be labeled and a campaign to do so in the U.S. has gained momentum in recent years. Meanwhile, the issue of food security in a warming world has fueled anew the controversial potential of GMO technology.

Which brings me to a workshop held this week at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C. Its focus is on how to communicate about GMOs to the public. Thursday’s speakers were excellent, with many of them drawing on the findings of social science to show the tricky communication terrain that has to be navigated for charged issues like vaccines, climate change, and yes, GMOs. To get a sense of the take-home points, scroll through the Twitter hashtag #NASInterface. If you want to watch Friday’s panels, go here for the streaming video.

A few nuggets jumped out at me as I was listening intermittently to Thursday’s talks. Dan Kahan, near the end of his fascinating presentation, said that “people misinform themselves.” What did he mean by this? Well, people have go-to sources for issues they don’t have time (or the inclination) to research. Your go-to source on a contentious issue–such as climate change or GMOs–is likely to share your values. That affinity is what makes the source trustworthy to you. But that doesn’t mean your trusted source is necessarily going to provide you with correct information.

By the way, this is why I often focus on well known information brokers who influence the GMO debate. Groups like Greenpeace and thought leaders such as Michael Pollan, Vandana Shiva, and Bill Nye have enormous clout in their respective spheres. Greenpeace is a major player on the environmental stage. Pollan has the ear of foodies, Shiva is the patron saint of socially-conscious greens, and Nye is the geeky science hero that takes on creationists. Does it muddy the science communication environment for GMOs if a big environmental group and beloved thought leaders  traffic in inaccurate information? Given their reach, I think so.

Dominique Brossard, in her Thursday talk, said that “messages and frames from the media can have an important role” in science debates. This is certainly true, though some people tend to overestimate the media’s importance, especially when an issue like climate change is “wicked” and laden with political and cultural meaning.

But to Brossard’s point, consider one popular frame that I looked into closely: The GMO/Indian farmer suicide tale. In my piece from last year, I laid out Vandana Shiva’s role as the primary architect of this false narrative. There were others who played supporting roles, but she is the one who stayed on message with it for years. She is a prime example of an influencer creating and shaping a popular media frame that has undoubtedly polluted the GMO discourse.

Finally, some thoughts about one thing Tamar Haspel said in her NAS talk. Haspel, as I have previously noted, writes a terrific, thoughtful food column for the Washington Post. Yesterday, Haspel suggested in her presentation that perhaps the “biggest thing” anyone could do in the GMO debate is reach out to someone who sits on the opposite side of the issue:

This goes back to the idea [discussed by her and other speakers] that we evaluate credibility based on the extent to which people agree with us. So if you are a staunch GMO supporter, you are not going to have much luck persuading a staunch GMO opponent. But if you take someone from that person’s cultural affiliation, who may agree on other issues, like fracking and climate change, and nuclear power, and if you can reach over to an influencer who is more closely aligned with GMO opponents, and you can have a conversation, then that person can persuade their constituency. So I am pretty convinced that the key to peace in our times on this issue is getting people with various points of view all in a room together.

This sounds like something worth doing just as a means to become more tolerant of views that differ from our own. We should all try to break out of our mini bubbles and echo chambers. But I am dubious about this notion of opponents joining hands aboard the peace train. My sense with issues like climate change and to some extent, GMOs, is that lines in the sand are drawn for those with very fixed views. People who are dug in stay dug in (with rare exceptions, such as Mark Lynas).

To me, the real battle for hearts and minds, the real target audience is the fence straddler, the person who is noncommittal about GMOs. Not that we shouldn’t engage with GMO critics and those who reject genetically engineered foods. By all means, let’s do. But  my own experiences with friends and family who reject GMOs has opened my eyes to the communication challenges for the broader public discourse.

When the GMO subject has come up with people I know well–and who share my cultural and political values–time and again their strong feelings trump anything I say. There is no amount of scientific evidence I could present that would persuade them that GMOs aren’t harmful to their health. This happened again recently over New Year’s Eve, when I was at a dinner party with a bunch of smart and successful friends. Somehow, the subject turned to GMOs and one person raised his discomfort with the technology. The frankenfood meme had penetrated his consciousness. I tried to disabuse him of his concerns, but nothing I said mattered. “You can be a science experiment,” he finally said. “I’ll stick to organic food.”

You can count on the organic food industry exploiting this sentiment to increase its market share. As Marc Gunther noted in his piece for that Boston Review roundtable, large U.S. corporations (other than Monsanto) “have helped fuel the anti-GMO movement.” He writes:

Some brands seek to capitalize on consumer anxiety about GMOs, while others simply steer clear of GMO-related controversies. Both positions stand in the way of biotech innovations that, at least in theory, could make agriculture more sustainable.

How to reduce consumer anxiety about GMOs? Perhaps this week’s NAS workshop will offer some constructive approaches I can try out with my friends and family.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets.From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine.In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest.He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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