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Since I started writing this column four years ago, I've focused my attention on completed public relations programs, describing the good, the bad and the ugly of those programs. Kind of like a post-screening critique of a movie. A review of sorts. Thumbs up or down.

Well, I've done a little writing "outside the box" myself this month because of the controversy surrounding biotechnology, especially in agriculture. As all of us in ag struggle to come to grips with the emotional issue of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), Novartis is tangibly doing something about it right now to consumers.

Novartis U.S. Foundation has granted almost a half-million dollars to two consumer-driven programs - one for the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and the other to the Biotechnology Institute in Washington, D.C. - to get the biotechnology message to kids.

I've been hearing the argument for years that it's impossible to get environmentally related messages on ag to consumers. Too costly, too inefficient, with garbled messages to consumers that are too difficult to quantify and measure effectiveness for the industry. The basic manufacturers of crop protection products tell me that consumers deal with issues like biotechnology too emotionally, not analyzing or learning through science-based information.

Well, Novartis, which was the first company to market a Bt corn with built-in resistance to European corn borer, has a lot at stake here. Both its seed and crop protection affiliates are big players in the industry. The crop protection group is the world's leading supplier of crop protection and specialty products. The seed group is in the top three in corn seed sales worldwide and also sells soybean, alfalfa, wheat, vegetables, other ag crops and flower seeds.

"The philosophy of the foundation has been to focus on innovative education programs that advance life sciences, especially those where we have business interests like agriculture," says David French, spokesperson for Novartis U.S. Foundation, Summit, N.J. "We need to educate the public on the promise biotechnology holds. From a public relations standpoint, these two programs help independent organizations assist us in telling our story. We're excited about this potential."

In information released by the company announcing the grants, Novartis Seeds head of North America Ed Shonsey made the point that public education is critical as biotechnology becomes "mainstream" around the world. "It's clear that biotech crops will be the rule on American fields," he says. "As an industry, we've done a great job of telling our story internally. But we need to work harder in making the benefits of plant technology clear to the general public."


Cynthia Sharpe is the lead developer of the Chicago museum's "Farm to Plate" exhibit, scheduled to open in the fall. Approximately 7,000 square feet will be used for the exhibit.

Sharpe is proud to say the museum gets more attendance annually than the Chicago Bulls (even in the Michael Jordan days) and Chicago Bears combined. "We have 2 million visitors per year, including 400,000 kids and school groups," Sharpe says. "Our basic audience is in a 60-mile radius from Chicago, which gets us students from Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana. During spring breaks and such, it's not unusual for us to get student groups from as far away as Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas."

The agriculture exhibit, with biotechnology as one important component, will be a working scale model of agriculture, from planting to how the end products are used globally. "I'd turn the whole museum into agriculture if I could," Sharpe says proudly. "There's this antiquated notion of farming as somewhat derogatory, with a romanticized notion - fresh air, mom baking apple pie in the kitchen, dad in the yard, milking cows by hand. We're hoping to change all that."

The exhibit will focus on corn, soybeans and milk. "All vital to Midwest ag," Sharpe says. "Consumers have little understanding about the importance of ag to Illinois, the nation and the world. "We're going to highlight technology, focus on nutrition along the way and make 'contextual sense' of it all to visitors."

Sharpe's vision for how to work biotechnology in the story line started with Shonsey and Novartis Seeds at its corporate offices in Minnesota. "This exhibit will be a real boundary breaker," she says. "We're going to have a real combine, real tractors in the exhibit, for example. We also want to educate kids on careers in ag. They have such a narrow understanding of the range of jobs in the industry."

The exhibit's story line will be told through the eyes of a farm family. An older set of parents lead the family, with oldest daughter Beth and husband Rob managing the farm. A middle daughter is a genetics researcher at a state university. "She'll tell people the biotechnology story through her eyes," Sharpe says. The third child is a son, attending college. He plans to come back to the farm after graduation.

"From a public relations standpoint, this exhibit will be good for the museum and Novartis," she concludes. "Our overall mission is to inspire inventive genius. This project is a gimme. I've been here three years and we've done lots of 'real' things in our exhibits, and this is another step on that boundary-breaking path, taking things a bit further than we ever have before. This exhibit will put a human face on genetics, dealing with real decisions by farmers."


From humble beginnings several years ago through the Pennsylvania Biotechnology Association, Jeff Davidson is now going national with Your World magazine, a semiannual publication on biotechnology sent to middle and high school science and biology teachers. Davidson is doing this through the newly established Biotechnology Institute-a nonprofit partner with the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Thanks to the Novartis grant, 50,000 U.S. teachers have recently received the publication for the first time. Up until now about 2,500 teachers, mostly from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Utah, had been receiving Your World for eight years. The grant will allow most U.S. biology and science teachers in high schools and some middle schools to receive the publication for three years.

"We're trying to produce a publication to help science and biology teachers more efficiently teach students about biotechnology," Davidson says. "Each issue takes on a certain aspect of biotechnology. We don't want to overwhelm teachers, but bring them to the intersection of biology and biotechnology so students can understand the issues."

A goal of the Biotechnology Institute is to 'create a national coalition on bioscience education," Davidson says. "We are trying to create a big tent and focus on students in seventh through 12th grade. We are looking for companies like Novartis to come into the tent."

Well, Novartis stepped in with its checkbook.

French says the foundation likes the idea of getting science teachers talking about biotechnology. "This is purely an educational program," he says. "Consumers need to know what biotechnology is and what it isn't. One of the best ways to do that is by getting information in the hands of high school students through teachers. The question we have to ask ourselves is: How do we connect with consumers? This is one important way to respond." AM


Den Gardner is with Gardner & Gardner Communications in New Prague, Minn.

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