EDUCATION AND UNDERSTAND: KEYS TO THE FUTURE OF BIOTECH
Barb Baylor Anderson, Contributing Editor
Actually it depends on what you believe. According to U.S. government regulations, a rose is a rose is a rose, as long as the composition hasn't changed. Whether it's a hybrid rose produced from traditional plant breeding techniques or it's a rose produced from biotechnology, it's still a rose.
But if that rose is in Europe or the hands of anti-biotech activists, the issue becomes a little thorny. Which is why the biotech industry has joined forces to offer strategies that agri-marketers can use to nip potential U.S. problems in the bud and grow support for the use of food biotechnology.
THE BLOOM ISN'T OFF
While European consumers are skittish about biotechnology because they've been inundated with scare-tactic headlines and demonstrations, their fears have not really crossed the ocean. American consumers are still open to biotech's benefits.
"The vast majority of American consumers still place a great deal of confidence in the benefits of and current regulatory climate for agricultural biotechnology," says Sylvia Rowe, president, International Food Information Council (IFIC), Washington, D.C. "A threefold increase in media coverage of food biotechnology and confusion in the marketplace have raised questions with some consumers. But most remain positive and look forward to the benefits of biotechnology."
Rowe's comments followed the release of the results of a national survey conducted by Wirthlin Worldwide on behalf of IFIC, the nonprofit organization that is supported by the food, beverage and agricultural industries. IFIC communicates science-based information on food safety and nutrition to health and nutrition professionals, educators, government officials, journalists and others providing information to consumers. The survey was first done in March 1997 and was updated with subsequent survey findings in February 1999 and again in October 1999.
"Since the survey was updated in February, there has been some slippage of support for biotechnology in the U.S., but the survey findings are still very favorable," explains David B. Schmidt, IFIC's senior vice president of food safety.
The October survey found that 73 percent of Americans have heard something about biotechnology and 63 percent believe it will provide benefits for their families in the next five years. Seven of 10 Americans support the current FDA labeling policy for biotech foods, which requires that foods produced through biotech be labeled only if the food has been significantly changed.
Additionally, four in 10 Americans reported they are aware that some products in the supermarket are produced through biotech, and more than two-thirds say they would be likely to buy a variety of produce if it had been modified by biotechnology to provide protection against insect damage, resulting in less use of pesticides.
"When Americans are given complete information, they endorse the scientifically grounded approach of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration)," says Schmidt.
A new question on the October IFIC survey found 81 percent of Americans agree that rather than labeling products as containing biotech ingredients, "it would be better for food manufacturers, the government, health professionals and others to provide more details through toll-free phone numbers, brochures and Web sites."
PERCEPTION STEMS FROM MEDIA
Indeed, Schmidt says experts need to present the benefits of biotechnology so that consumers do not solely formulate opinions based on activist propaganda.
"This survey shows Americans have great faith in the promise of biotech, but they need to hear about the benefits from credible experts," says Rowe. "Some groups have frightened people with one-sided information about a complex topic. But Americans are able to sift through extreme information on all sides of an issue."
Communicating the benefits to consumers has largely been done through media, says Schmidt, and is more of an education process with reporters than a public relations campaign.
"In general, reporter knowledge is all over the map," says Schmidt. "Outside of the ag, business and science press, there are more unknowns. Fortunately, we have not had anyone taking the tabloid approach that we have seen in Europe.
"There are some reporters that have picked up the mantra of activists promoting organic and natural foods over biotechnology as the best way of adding value to foods, but our survey indicates the mainstream public is not listening," he continues.
Schmidt recommends agri-marketers walk reporters through the benefits, the process, the safety and regulations that govern food biotech. "Remind them of the benefits and why the products were developed in the first place," he says.
When working with reporters, it's best to go slowly and not assume that they know anything about biotech, adds Gene Grabowski, vice president, communications, Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), Washington, D.C.
Grabowski currently spends 60 to 70 percent of his time talking with reporters about biotech issues. "When you are totally involved in this issue, you tend to speak in shorthand and make assumptions. But you have to remember that even if a reporter works in ag or on environmental issues, it doesn't mean that reporter understands biotech. They, too, have preconceived notions, and that is why talking about biotech is more of an educational process than public relations."
In addition, Schmidt says, ag reporters typically deal with biotech as a production issue, not a food issue. "Farmers have been most concerned about the economics of biotech, and now right or wrong must also focus on meeting consumer demand for the foods they want," he says. "The ag media need to remind them that actions they take now can affect the long term."
Some reporters outside of ag have been quick to criticize biotech, and Schmidt encourages agri-marketers to set the record straight as needed. "You cannot completely ignore bad press, but you don't have to go blow by blow to refute outlandish charges," he advises. "Instead focus on biotech's use in agriculture as an opportunity to provide a series of individual tools that help provide a safe, abundant food supply."
Don't get sucked into false arguments, either, suggests Grabowski. "Frequently, I am asked where the long-term studies of the use of biotech in foods are," he says. "My answer is that long-term studies about food safety do not exist for any food. Some reporters are asking for a level of study for biotech foods that has not been done for traditional, organic or natural foods. In fact, FDA has done more pre-market studies on biotech foods than on any others and found them safe."
The best way to answer such questions is one on one, adds Grabowski. "You can undo some damage without insulting the audience. Repeatedly, I correct the misconceptions. I tell reporters that biotech is an offshoot of traditional hybridization and does not involve chemicals. The process is not mysterious or dangerous or random. Once reporters understand that, it is hard for them to oppose it and no PR is needed. It stops the propagation of fear of the unknown."
What little bad press is circulating is largely not being absorbed by Americans, Schmidt reiterates. "Consumers do not see biotechnology as a big issue in their lives," he says. "But we continue to press for features talking about the benefits and encourage credible sources to write op/eds."
Inevitably, Grabowski anticipates biotech will become more of an issue in the U.S. "But we are optimistic about what we are seeing in the press," he says. "The coverage has been fair and balanced and the headlines are responsible. It is only a matter of time before we see widespread acceptance of biotech."
COMING UP ROSES
To gain widespread acceptance in the U.S., both Schmidt and Grabowski recommend agri-marketers focus on key talking points and use appropriate language to keep the biotech message consistent.
GMA coordinates the Alliance for Better Foods, a consortium of farm groups, food manufacturers and retailers, health professionals, land-grant researchers and others, that are providing biotech information to consumers.
The alliance has developed an information packet and uses the Web site www.betterfoods.org to deliver key messages about food biotechnology, including its safety, consumer, farmer and environmental benefits.
Remember the monarch butterfly? IFIC provides general information agri-marketers may find useful in working with the media on biotech research, including tips on how to help reporters fully understand issues.
IFIC's publications provide suggestions on how to help the media understand and interpret food- and health-related scientific studies, as well as guidelines for how the industry can improve public understanding.
IFIC surveys suggest, "The high volume of media coverage has not brought clarity to or improved understanding of a topic of such obvious impact. More has not always meant better. How emerging science is communicated by scientists, journals, the media and many interest groups that influence the process can have powerful effects on the public's understanding, on its behavior and ultimately on its well-being."
"When consumers have access to the right information so they can make an intelligent decision, then common sense prevails," adds Grabowski. "We need to keep the faith."
But both Schmidt and Grabowski know the industry will face challenges in communicating with consumers here and abroad.
"What happens next in the U.S. in terms of acceptance hinges on several things, including producer planting decisions and whether food manufacturers introduce more non-biotech foods," says Schmidt. "If those parties shy away from biotech, it would place a stigma on biotech foods and agriculture would lose in the long run."
However, Schmidt does not necessarily think that will be the case. "There is a lot invested in biotech," he continues. "Biotech now has bipartisan support in Congress and major universities have invested in biotech centers to improve foods.
"Biotech holds great promise for consumers, and that is the message we need to deliver," sums Grabowski. "So far, farmers and companies are the ones benefiting. But in a couple of years when consumers see direct benefits also, there will be no argument about biotech - even in Europe. We went through the same process with the polio vaccine and pasteurization. In the end, consumers just want a better life for themselves." AM
Barb Baylor Anderson is a free-lance writer based in Edwardsville, Ill.
Available from IFIC: "Food Biotech: A Communicator's Guide to Improving Understanding." Agri-marketers can also order IFIC'S food biotech resource kit at www.ific.health.org.