21ST CENTURY MODEL T
COUNCIL JUMPS INTO BIOTECH REVOLUTION DRIVER'S SEAT
Barb Baylor Anderson, Contributing Editor
What do the Model T and biotechnology have in common? Look under the hood and you may discover that challenges faced by Henry T. Ford are not unlike challenges facing the biotechnology industry today. Road commissioners and horse breeders were probably not pleased when the Model T rolled off the assembly line. Yet when society looks back at how the Model T revolutionized their lives, the view is mostly positive. The Council for Biotechnology Information hopes the same scenario follows the life sciences revolution.
"There are a great number of people who don’t know about biotechnology and the opportunities to educate them are deep and very long-term," says Ted McKinney, Dow AgroSciences public affairs specialist for biotechnology, Indianapolis, Ind. McKinney uses the Model T analogy when talking about biotechnology. "The need for information is why the Council for Biotechnology Information was created. Several companies recognize that like the Model T, biotechnology will benefit consumers as it moves forward."
SHIFTING INTO GEAR
The Council for Biotechnology Information was formed earlier this year, and consists of seven major companies with a vested interest in biotechnology, along with the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). Members include Aventis Crop Science, BASF, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis, Zeneca Ag Products and BIO.
Key Messages of
"Good Ideas Are Growing" Campaign
Biotechnology has the potential to deliver:
• Benefits to the Environment. Discoveries in biotechnology all for some key crops to have their own protection against insects and disease and, therefore, they can be grown using fewer crop protection chemicals. This allows farmers to choose the best combination of tools to control harmful pests and diseases.
• Nutrition, Quality and Taste Benefits. The list of foods enhanced by biotechnology is growing. Today, research into numerous other improved food products includes food crops with higher levels of nutrients that may help reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers.
• Benefits for a Growing Population. World hunger is a complex issue that biotechnology alone cannot solve. However, it can help. Thanks to developments in food biotechnology, we’ll not only be able to grow more food but also better food on land already being farmed.
"There is a gap in the public domain about the benefits of biotechnology," says Lori Fenimore, manager, sustainability and biotechnology communications, DuPont Co., Wilmington, Del. "We are trying to fill that gap."
On the surface, crop protection competitors may seem strange bedfellows, but together the companies and a collective $50 million intend to become an effective force in providing information about biotechnology based on sound scientific research, published reports and expert opinion.
"The goal is to grow support of the technology and to do it collectively," says Fenimore. "Specific biotech product promotion is the responsibility of each company."
Outside the council’s realm, for example, DuPont has created an advisory board made up of people ranging from an African activist to a French scientist. The board will monitor biotech issues and provide an independent annual report about DuPont’s efforts. Dow, on the other hand, is working on long-term biotech applications for industrial, agriculture and pharmaceuticals.
"Each company has different products and varying degrees of outreach efforts. The council lets industry speak as a single, cohesive voice," says McKinney.
D.C.-based BIO Vice President Dan Eramian agrees. "BIO got involved because we represent all of biotechnology from agriculture to pharmaceuticals," he says.
"There is a real need to communicate with U.S. consumers about biotechnology because it is not an issue consumers are dealing with on a regular basis. They already believe in our strong regulatory system and are not afraid of new technology," Eramian continues. "But opposition groups have jumped on this issue. We have a tough job ahead of us in educating the public."
To craft accurate messages and coordinate the program, the council hired Washington, D.C.-based BSMG, the same agency that has helped the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) address several controversial food issues. "We needed expertise in a broad range of communication areas; public relations, communications and market research," says Fenimore. "BSMG has expertise in all of those areas."
Together with BSMG, the council has developed the "Good Ideas are Growing" information program. Fenimore says the program has three key components; public relations, outreach and advertising. PR efforts include media relations, a speaker’s bureau and consumer-oriented publications. The council also created www.whybiotech.com, which Fenimore says is already receiving 1,500 hits per day. A toll-free consumer hotline, 800/980-8660, directs callers to additional biotechnology resources.
Industry Gets Green Lights
Efforts by the Council for Biotechnology Information to educate consumers may be long-term, but several recent activities should help move the program full speed ahead.
• Thirteen governors joined the effort to persuade the public about the benefits of biotechnology. The governors hope to coordinate their message with the council to counter criticism of the industry.
• "Seeds of Opportunity: An Assessment of the Benefits, Safety and Oversight of Plant Genomics and Ag Biotechnology" was released in April by Nick Smith, chair of the House Subcommittee on Basic Research. BIO vice president for food and agriculture, Dr. Val Giddings, praised the report for its affirmation of biotechnology and noted the council’s formation meets the House request that industry share responsibility with government and the scientific community to improve availability of biotech information.
• The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the agency would make the approval process for biotech foods more transparent and would provide more guidance to the industry with regard to voluntary claims on food labels. To that end, the www.whybiotech.com site publishes safety data for specific products.
Outreach efforts include dialoguing with influencer groups and organizations such as farmers, food companies, government and academics. "We want their input," says Fenimore. "Such groups add credibility to our messages."
One of the ways the council is reaching farmers is through farm magazines where the message is, "Farmers know about the benefits of biotechnology. So we asked an expert in his field to share them with consumers." The copy in one print ad describes the information program, talks about the makeup of the council and explains why a Nebraska farmer, Rod Gangwish, was chosen as a spokesperson for biotechnology. The ad also informs farmers about other steps the council is taking to educate consumers.
The third component of the program is paid television and print advertising. Time slots and magazines have been chosen that will allow the council to reach consumer opinion leaders; a group Fenimore describes as the percent of the population that votes regularly, reads the paper and is generally informed. Secondary reach is to female consumers that presumably make most food-buying decisions.
"Television advertising is designed to raise awareness of biotechnology and direct people to sources for more information," says Fenimore. "Based on third party research and our own research, we selected three messages to share with consumers in North America; less use of chemicals, feeding a growing population and better nutrition. Those messages are effective in the U.S. and Canada, although they might not work in other countries."
The council launched the "Good Ideas are Growing" program in Canada in May in both English and French, about one month after it began in the U.S. The Canadian version is similar, using the Web site, a focus on the science of biotechnology, a toll-free consumer number, television and print advertising and outreach to influencers.
"Our North American effort is not just advertising," says Fenimore. "It employs all of the tools of communication, from face-to-face discussions to Web casts. We need the whole spectrum of tools to reach such a massive audience."
THE ROAD AHEAD
The council also needs time to reach consumers and plans to invest three to five years in the program. "We hope it doesn’t take that long to educate consumers, but this is a big country and it is hard to get the message out to so many people," says Eramian. "Once we get biotech products on the market that have direct benefit to consumers that will buttress our message."
The council intends to measure its effectiveness as well, a process McKinney considers the fourth component of the program. "Right now we are receiving feedback on the Web site and getting positive comments," he says. "Later we will also do formal opinion research with consumers, policymakers and opinion leaders that is both quantitative and qualitative in nature."
The council is set up to handle negative feedback. "It is too early to speak yet about what consumer reaction will be," says McKinney. "But as with any public affairs effort, we have a response team that responds to questions. We are also willing to engage in dialogue with ‘the other side’ to try and understand their concerns. We want to look back in a few years as members of the council and know that this information program was done very well."
Eramian sums, "We are experiencing a major technological shift in the world from using chemical processes for such tasks as crop protection to biological processes. Our job is to provide accurate information about the processes, watch for reaction to the revolution and then be ready as consumers demand biotech products." AM
Barb Baylor Anderson is a freelance writer from Edwardsville, Ill., who covers a wide variety of ag issues.