The Pain of Public Discourse

David FrabottaWE HATE NEW IDEAS. Since the advent of 24-hour news networks, consumers can now watch any ideologically bent programming they want. In dozens of studies during the past 40 years, media companies have discovered that people watch news that reinforces what they already think. Conservatives watch conservative news, and progressives watch progressive news. We want to be told that the way we think is right.
So it’s no wonder that anti-GMO, anti-pesticide groups have poisoned the public debate on agriculture technology. They will cling to any flawed study or tenet, and the non-scientific public will follow suit to make them feel like they are properly outraged by their fears and misunderstandings.
And fear needs a target. Enter biotech trailblazer Monsanto. In his first radio interview of the year, Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant talked to U.S. National Public Radio program “Here and Now” host Jeremy Hobson, who acknowledged that Monsanto is widely seen as “the face of corporate evil” around the world. Nice introduction. No bias here.
Grant responded by making a few points throughout the interview:

– People are always wary of the inventor of new technologies,
– Scientific data supports the safety of GMOs and glyphosate, and
– Monsanto encourages new ideas, methods, and products to help the world feed itself, no matter where they come from. So if you don’t like the way Monsanto and other agribusiness leaders are addressing food production and food security, then please, by all means, share your ideas.

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Grant talked about the future of agriculture, as he often does, noting that emerging seed technologies, water availability, and data management will drive agriculture productivity in the near future. With most comments, Grant does a good job at explaining why agriculture technology must exist to feed a growing globe. He is engaging, thoughtful, and altruistic with his comments. His motives, however, will always be questioned and will polarize the conversations that we have.
The radio host later reported that he and his show received hate mail just for having Grant on his program, shaming him for giving “the face of corporate evil” a pulpit and an audience. The program even followed up the interview with a fact-checking session with its agriculture expert, who said Grant was accurate about the claims he made in the interview. But the hate mail didn’t stop, and his quest to engage people about agriculture’s future was drowned out by the vitriol that has come to define social media and political speech.
So we as advocates for agriculture productivity continue to struggle to move the needle on public opinion. Part of the reason is that organic activists and anti-technology groups are more organized, have a clearer message, and are better at engaging new forms of communication, notably social media, says Julie Borlaug, Associate Director of External Relations at the Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture. “We thought we could win the debate with science, and the public would accept that this was important, but it hasn’t,” she says. “We need to simplify the message and make it more comprehensible, and it has to be through the avenues where people find their information now.”
So maybe 140 characters will win more hearts and minds than protracted research papers. You can join the discussion along with Julie Borlaug during her keynote talk at the AgriBusiness Global Trade Summit, Aug. 17-19. We have an opportunity to move above the verbal fray and accept new ideas and ways that might help people understand the true value that agriculture technology offers our civilization.