Posted: June 9, 2008
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Article SummaryAg biotech leader Catherine Ives heard me speak at a biotechnology conference. Her short column summarizes my presentation and draws some conclusions for reducing people’s outrage at biotechnology.

From the Director

ABSP Linkages (the Newsletter of the Agricultural Biotechnology
Support Project based at Michigan State University), Third Quarter 2000

Greetings from ABSP.

Earlier this year, I attended the Risk Communication in Food Safety workshop held at Michigan State University. The purpose of the workshop was to provide a forum to better understand the differences that exist among all stakeholders in the agriculture-food-consumption chain. While not specifically geared towards agricultural biotechnology, the goal of building trust and promoting improved public and scientific understanding is one that I think is important to all of us currently involved in agricultural biotechnology. I would like to share some of the information from this workshop with you; much of it is based on the lecture of the featured speaker, Dr. Peter M. Sandman, an internationally renowned consultant on risk communication. (Links to further articles by Dr Sandman can be found on his website at

One of the main tenets of Dr. Sandman is that risk in comprised of two main components hazard and outrage. Risk assessments and risk management tools are generally geared towards addressing the hazards of risk (i.e., what is the actual impact of Bt on non-target organisms), and generally the hazards that concern experts are generally not the hazards that upset people. For example, we know that obesity in developed countries is a serious problem, yet the general population is apathetic to this health epidemic. However, the general public does respond to outrage; that is, anything that is perceived to be of high risk. So, when hazard is high and outrage is low, the experts are concerned and the public is apathetic (as in the obesity example). However, when hazard is low and outrage is high, the public will be concerned and the experts will be apathetic (as in the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to produce improved crops for food and feed).

So what sparks outrage in the general public? It seems clear that the public will be outraged if it feels that it has been asked to assume risks that appear to be:

  • coerced as opposed to volunteering for the risk (i.e., have GMO foods introduced into the foods system without their knowledge, as opposed to choosing not to wear a seatbelt),
  • developed through an industrial process as opposed to a “natural ” process or product,
  • from an exotic land, science, or culture as opposed to something familiar,
  • potential problems if something should go wrong,
  • controlled by others and
  • from unfamiliar sources as opposed to risk from someone they know.

It should not really come as a surprise, then, that the public is skeptical of GMOs. Currently available foods derived from GMOs appear to have been introduced to the marketplace with little consumer choice and developed by faceless corporations using incomprehensible technology which is perceived to be dangerous should things go wrong (based upon the general public ’s exposure to genetic engineering through the popular media; e.g,, Jurassic Park).

How can those of us who recognize the potential benefits of agricultural biotechnology reduce the outrage of the general public? Frankly, it has very little to do with providing scientific and technical information, but rather involves certain communication strategies that build trust. These strategies include:

  • staking out the middle ground, not the extreme,
  • acknowledging past mistakes,
  • acknowledging current problems or lack of information,
  • discussing achievements with humility,
  • sharing control and being accountable and
  • paying attention to unvoiced concerns and underlying motives.

How can we relate these principles to agricultural biotechnology?

  • Accept that biotechnology is an extremely high-outrage risk for most people.
  • Notice that biotechnology affronts both the left and right in most societies.
  • Take biotechnology hazard seriously
  • Recognize public acceptance as the primary issue to your reputation.
  • Understand individual concerns as a stand-in for global concerns.
  • Support individual choice.
  • Support labeling where feasible.
  • Acknowledge huge fears and real risks.
  • Accept that regulators and critics will have a major role.
  • Lean on size and tradition of major corporations.
  • Operate with transparency.
  • Acknowledge uncertainty.

These are actually very difficult positions to take, given that most people involved in agricultural biotechnology feel passionate about the benefits of the technology and will not want to admit to potential problems. However, discussing what has outraged people is much more effective than pointing out their misapprehensions. The public responds more to outrage than to an actual hazard and, while activists and the media amplify outrage, they do not create it. As communicators of agricultural biotechnology, our job should be to try and reduce the outrage through open dialogue with the public.

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