When was the last time you strongly disagreed with someone only to have your mind completely changed when they presented a scientific study or fact that supported their opinion. Rarely? Never? That’s the answer most honest people would give. Yet, time and again the food system has mistakenly believed facts and science would win-over consumers’ hearts and minds.
The consequences have been severe. Consumer skepticism about GMOs inspired the food system to get out there and present the science so the public would know GMOs are safe. When consumers still had questions, more studies were performed. In fact, experts cited the volume of studies as further evidence of the safety of GMOs. Where did it get them? Consumer skepticism increased, accompanied by frustration and rejection. Why? What went wrong? Let’s unpack it.
The 99 percent
Less than 1 percent of the population is involved in agriculture today. We live in an age when middle schoolers insist Easter eggs are most certainly not laid by chickens (true story), high schoolers think potatoes grow on trees (also a true story), and most adults cannot tell you what the acronym GMO stands for, only that they dislike or don’t trust it.
Supplying a stack of scientific studies that only PhDs understand to a public so disconnected from food production is a recipe for failure. Consumers weren’t asking for a list of scientific conclusions about GMOs. They wanted to know whether genetically modifying plants and animals is ethical.
Get it right
While the food system trumpeted studies that proved it can be done, the public was asking whether it should be done: is it the right thing to do? The food system touted increased productivity, efficiency and even profitability as justification, none of which resonated with consumers who translated all of it to mean lining the pockets of “factory farms.” Worsening the situation, experts dispatched from big companies to defend GMOs often spoke in technical terms that came across as condescending to consumers.
During an interview about his book “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?” Alan Alda said, “Science and the public have separated so much that many people in the public consider science just another opinion.” In the case of GMOs, it was “just another opinion” delivered by experts viewed as condescending who were often dismissive or defensive in response to skepticism. Everyone wants to be told they are wrong or just plain ignorant, right?
Add to this reality the phenomenon of the “Mom Tribe” and it’s no surprise that efforts to gain public support through science failed. Perspectives within this network of moms are summarized nicely in a comment shared during a consumer focus group. When asked what led her to the conclusion that GMOs are dangerous, a mom named Heidi said, “I’m part of a moms group. When there is a big consensus, I think ‘there’s something here.’ You don’t need doctors or scientists confirming it when you have hundreds of moms.”
Sincerity before science
Still think scientific studies are key to winning hearts? I didn’t think so. The reality is that a timeless quote attributed to Teddy Roosevelt is spot on, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” If consumers believe you care, introducing the science is step two. Of course, in our experience, consumers are often content just knowing you care.
It comes down to trust, as it so often does. Scientific verification is important, but only if you have first established trust. Ten years of researching how to build trust provide us with deep insight and clear direction. We know that shared values are three to five times more powerful in building trust than science and facts. We also know the consumer segment identified as the culture creator when it comes to food information is interested in the science only in the context of its ethical grounding. In other words, is it the right thing to do and why?
What does this mean for scientists so often tapped to serve as spokespersons for new innovations? It means they should lead with anything but their PhDs. Are they moms and dads? Do they care about the environment and animal well-being? Finding a values-based connection is key to earning trust and being granted permission to talk about the science. When we help companies identify and train spokespersons, we look first for a mom who is a scientist. They have instant credibility with the powerful “Mom Tribe” when they engage based on values. That said, a person of any age, gender and background can become a trusted messenger with the right tools and training.
The food system has made enormous progress when it comes to effective consumer engagement. And much work remains. The stakes are high. Hanging in the balance is the acceptance of ag and food innovations that empower the food system to supply healthy, affordable food in a manner that preserves our natural resources and protects animal health.