G.M.O. communication plan: Listen, engage, inform

by Jeff Gelski
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Roxi Beck, spokesperson for the Center for Food Integrity, suggests G.M.O. proponents should listen and engage with consumers before providing information.

GLADSTONE, MO. – Trying to win an argument based on science may be a losing game plan for gaining consumer trust in bioengineered ingredients/genetically modified organisms, said Roxi Beck, a spokesperson for the Center for Food Integrity, in a March 12 webinar.

Instead, G.M.O. proponents should listen and engage with consumers before providing information, she said. Understand why consumers are asking questions. Know the difference between “can” and “should.”  Science is “can” something be done while ethical is “should” something be done, she said.

“Society is questioning whether we should,” Ms. Beck said.

G.M.O. proponents finding shared values with consumers may lead to a “handshake” to introduce technical expertise, she said. Potential benefits of G.M.O.s include fighting citrus greening disease in Florida, reducing the amount of acrylamide in fried potato products and providing non-browning attributes to apples, which would help prevent food waste.

The Center for Food Integrity, a Gladstone-based, not-for-profit organization with members that represent every segment of the food system, conducted a survey to identify what groups of people may be best for sharing G.M.O. technical expertise. The organization considered “mom scientists,” peers and government scientists.

The mom scientist rated the highest in credibility among consumers before technical information was given. Her image was a “bit tarnished” during the technical presentation as people were not sure they wanted to hear her positive G.M.O. messages, Ms. Beck said. The mom scientist still scored the highest after the technical presentation.

Consumers initially ranked peers as No. 2 in credibility, but peers fell to No. 3 after the technical presentation. Government scientists, who were No. 3 before the presentation, moved up to No. 2 after the presentation.

Ms. Beck listed several factors that may influence consumers’ perceptions of G.M.O.s:

• Cultural cognition – A group of people may have the same view on issues such as the death penalty or climate change. People may position their beliefs on controversial matters around group values that define their cultural identities.

• Confirmation bias – People favor information that confirms their existing beliefs. The effect of confirmation bias is stronger for emotionally charged issues, such as how people choose to feed to their families.

• Tribes – The Internet and new digital technologies have revived the tribal social system. The Internet has created silos of interest where people find on-line communities who have the same values and interests as them. There is a “mom” tribe, Ms. Beck said.

• Mom guilt – G.M.O. proponents should recognize mothers are doing the best they can as they look out for their children. Avoiding foods with G.M.O.s may be a way to avoid mom guilt.

• And big is bad – People might be skeptical of large corporations, wondering if they put their private interest ahead of public interest.
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