There's no question that Kevin Folta is on the GMO firing line - and by the way he doesn't like GMO as a term, preferring genetically engineered as being more accurate. He's been personally and publically attacked for his stance on the tech - though he works and strives to provide objective information as part of his role as professor and chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department, University of Florida.
He continues that work, in spite of the attacks, and during the Agricultural Bioscience International Conference he shared his thoughts, and insights, that scientists and farmers can use to share the benefits of genetic engineering. As for his preference for genetic engineering versus GMO? He quotes a student who once said: "Would you like to drive on a bridge that has been engineered, or one that has been modified?"
Folta recalls his days as a post-doc student in Madison living in an area where there was an organic food cooperative, where they were talking about the evils of biotech. "They had a very bad stance on biotechnology, and I thought 'I can fix this' and tell them how they're all wrong," he recalls. He admits that conversation didn't work out well, yet adds that for the next 10 years he kept making the same mistake.
"I was thinking I could solve the problem by helping them understand the science," Folta says. "It was about four or five years ago that I started to understand how to better connect with a skeptical public. They are not my enemy, they are victims of bad information, but we can't just pound them with facts."
The key he says is how you connect with the public and he encourages scientists to not shy away from the process. But going in they should also know that it's not about facts and data, it's more about understanding the safety and answering questions, and listening, too.
He actively encourages scientists to get their own social media accounts. "You want to talk to the consumer where they are, and they are looking for information that they can trust," he says. "As scientists we have not earned [the consumer's] trust and developed a conduit for the information to flow, and that's part of the problem."
That social media work - where Folta is also active - can help you tell stories. Cross sharing tweets or Facebook posts on your own feed can connect you to a broader audience, where you can also engage.
Support needed to move forward
The advances in plant genetics so far, and the further work that's happening in this area will require a level of trust from the consumer, or this tech can't move forward. He adds that the consumer needs to know that the work being done is to make plant materials better for human consumption. He notes that consumers don't care about pest control with biotech, but they do understand the value of higher yields on the same land. "We want to peel away the fallacies and give the public an idea of what genetic improvement is," he says.
And sometimes that means going back to basics, like showing a map of where foods originally came from - noting that nothing is native and that we have been improving crops for thousands of years. Explaining hybrid corn, for example, is one way to show that farmers have done a lot to boost yields using those breeding techniques.
He pointed to the common practice of artificial insemination where a single sire can "father" millions of offspring. These are common practices used for years that consumers don't understand. And he points to the images that consumers see when genetic engineering is raised as a topic - syringes injecting fruit is one example.
"We need consumers to know that humans have always made in-plant genetic improvement," Folta says. "Genetic engineering is a precise extension of that normal breeding and an extension of that work. That all the genetically engineered crops are getting one extra trait that cannot be installed easily by breeding."
He adds that scientists need to help consumers understand that there's no more risk to these foods than conventional foods, and in fact there's less risk because they are extensively tested. "In 20 years, there has been no single case of illness from the 10 approved genetically engineered crops available."
Appealing to the heart
The key is to tell this story sooner, and get consumers on board. Because there are more extensive genetic technologies coming to market and consumer trust will be important. But how can a scientist, or a farmer, get that consumer trust without resorting to 'science'? Folta notes the need to appeal to the heart of the consumer versus the head. "Scientists have been using the head," he says.
He explains that you want to share the common concerns - one-on-one - with the consumer. Listen to what they're saying and then explain how this technology helps solve that problem. He used an interesting demonstration showing a picture of a "jumper" on a building ledge.
"In that situation, the scientist might say, do you realize that if you jump you'll accelerate until you reach terminal velocity of 54 meters per second when you hit the ground?" Folta explains. "The farmer might say, 'Why are you doing that you idiot!'"
But he explains law enforcement is taught to reach out - to empathize and work to understand. "They'll engage the person to better understand why they may be on that ledge," he says.
It's that reach for understanding that anyone promoting the new technology must embrace, he says. Find the shared values from caring about the environment to feeding the needy. He adds that the mother feeding her children just needs to know from a trusted source that these products are safe, and he notes that scientists and farmers can be that trusted source.
"The bottom line is that we need to be the trusted source that gives that information. First we need to listen, and then cater to those values so the consumer understands the benefits," he says. "I take my job as a public scientist very seriously."
He has a podcast called Talking Biotech. And he also blogs regularly about technology and interacts with commenters - though he advises not getting into "battle" with Web trolls whose minds won't be changed. He also has an active blog where he explores a range of science topics as well.