The farming industry needs to find new ways to talk to the public if consumers are to embrace innovation and science around food production, according to a leading political advisor.
Jack Bobo, the US Department of State’s senior advisor for agricultural policy, said consumers were naturally wary about changes happening in the food sector, so farmers, scientists and processors needed to work to build trust.
Speaking at the Cereals Event in Lincolnshire, Mr Bobo said innovation was vital in the food sector if the world was going to be fed in a sustainable way.
But he said it was difficult to explain science and innovation to consumers as they often see scientific developments such as GM as risky, and changing opinions once they had been formed was a difficult task.
“People are hard-wired to understand hazards, but they don’t understand risks,” he said. “People have a perception of how risky something is by the amount of media exposure a hazard is given.”
Mr Bobo said the issue was made even more difficult by the development of social media, as information spreads faster than ever before and people often built opinions on a Tweet rather than reading a whole article.
“We have a ‘Tweetification’ of risk, where people don’t know the difference between what is scary and what is actually unsafe,” he said.
Inaccurate information could also spread quickly, which meant that farmers and scientists needed to feel confident enough to engage with consumers and explain why they were developing certain technologies or doing certain things on farms.
While there would never be an ideal time to address issues such as GM crop technology, working to build trust around the subject would make people feel more comfortable about using it, he added.
“If the public thinks there’s a risk and changes its behaviour, and then policy changes as a result of that, then that’s a risk,” he said. “That means communication has to happen before those risks arise.”
Acknowledging consumers’ concerns and discussing an issue in a way they could relate to would create more of a bond, he added.
“People need to see tangible benefits,” he said. “Talking about blight-resistant potatoes doesn’t matter, because [to consumers] potatoes with blight are someone else’s problem.
“You have to educate them about the current problem the industry’s facing to educate them about the benefit of the technology.”