Better Communication is Essential to the Future of Agriculture…and the Planet

On June 15, I had the honor of presenting the annual AAAS Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Lecture at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. Each year, one person is selected to address scientific thought leaders across all segments of the agriculture and food industry – academia, government, nonprofits and private companies – on how we can work together to ensure a secure and sustainable food supply for the future. I was humbled to be the first representative of private industry invited to share my thoughts on how to meet “the greatest challenge mankind has ever faced,” as it has been called by Dr. Kenneth Quinn, President of the World Food Prize Foundation. How will we feed a population of nearly 10 billion people by 2050, while facing increasing land and water constraints and the uncertain effects of climate change – which can include shifts in rainfall patterns and planting zones, and increases in insect and disease pressure?

Estimates vary on how much more food we’ll need to produce in the next 33 years to meet that demand. Some say it will require a 60% increase in global food production; others say production will need to double. Some estimate that we’ll have to produce more food in the next three decades than we have since humans started farming. That’s a tall order!

At the same time, we need to consider agriculture’s impact on the environment and limited natural resources. Agriculture already contributes to roughly 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions…and we certainly won’t be discovering any new land masses to cultivate. By using new tools and technologies that help farmers grow more on each acre – like biotechnology, gene editing, and data science – we can meet production goals and convert more land to grassland and forests.

Between 1996 and 2015, productivity gains through biotechnology saved 430 million acres of land from plowing and cultivation. By reducing the need to till the soil, carbon dioxide emissions from farm operations in 2015 alone were reduced by an amount equivalent to removing ~12 million cars off the road for 1 year. And data shows that reducing the footprint of global farming by 300M acres by 2050 would have an enormous positive environmental impact, with the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by an additional 10%.

But that’s only possible with the help of science. The question about meeting future food security and sustainability challenges isn’t whether we have the collective brainpower to keep developing improved innovations. The questions are: will researchers be able to get the public funding that will be needed for basic research, and will we have public and policy maker support to use the new innovations?

I had a few key points in my lecture, but after much deliberation, I decided that the most important message I wanted to convey to the scientific community was this: If we can’t find ways to communicate and engage more effectively, nothing else will matter.

We have to acknowledge that the communication of our work is just as important as the science part – in today’s world, they go hand-in-hand. We must find ways to help people understand the benefits of modern agriculture – especially when it comes to the environment. Improved communication is the gateway to meeting the food security and sustainability challenges.

How serious is our science communication problem? Just read the news. When people suffer from potentially life-threatening illnesses that could be easily prevented by vaccinations, or when governments let smallholder farmers suffer, along with those who rely on them, because they won’t them grow genetically modified crops…that is a direct result of ineffective communication, which leads to a lack of trust, and leaves the door open for science opponents to spread fear and confusion.

In many ways, genetically modified crops (also known as GMOs) are the poster child for a science that is widely misunderstood – and how that lack of understanding can create major obstacles to adoption. We have tens of thousands of academic and industry scientists who have spent their careers working on improved seeds that they believe (and data shows) make the world a better place. But there are detractors out there spreading the message that GMOs are poison, using examples like Seralini’s debunked rat study as “evidence” – and if that’s the first or only message people have heard about GMOs, they’re likely to believe it.

That’s why it’s so important to get accurate information to the masses. At Monsanto, we have conducted extensive market research to help us understand where and how to reach society, and how to communicate about science in a way that is easily understandable and resonates with people’s core values. The research shows that people are overwhelmingly turning to the Internet – specifically social network platforms via smartphones – for information on specific scientific issues. The top three social network platforms on smartphones are Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter – so we need to be there.

The research also shows that we can’t lead with facts and data in a world that doesn’t understand science and agriculture. Instead we need to first find common ground, identifying topics that we all care about, like keeping our kids safe and helping the environment. Then we need to connect on a more emotional level, using storytelling that the average person can relate to. After we have cultivated a level of trust, people will be more open to hearing about the data we are so eager to share.

I can tell you that I’m out there trying to contribute to the conversation on Twitter. I’m tweeting every day about some of the work we’re doing at Monsanto, but also networking with other science and agriculture supporters and sharing the great stories and infographics that they’re posting. The Cornell Alliance for Science and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance are just two examples of organizations producing the type of compelling content that is vital to connecting with society, while also explaining the true benefits of science. But that great content will only be effective if it is shared enough that people will see it.

What are the odds of that happening? This is the part of the lecture where I had to deliver some disappointing news.

When our researchers looked across a broad food/ag discussion on Twitter over the last nine months (Sept. 2016 – May 2017), they found more than 2 million actively engaged people (meaning that they tweeted at least once a week) – including both the positive voices that support ag science and the negative voices who oppose it. But only about 2% of the actively engaged positive voices fall into the categories that we know influence society (medical leaders, nutrition/dieticians, academic institutions). In addition, when we compared the number of tweets from the top 15 most active negative voices and top 15 most active positive voices in the ag/food space over the same period, our data shows that top negative voices are approximately FOUR TIMES as active in the ag/food space. In other words, our messages are being drowned out. However, that disparity also presents a huge opportunity for us to jump in and start tilting the scales in the other direction!

If we can’t solve the communication and trust issues, it will ultimately threaten our freedom to operate. A lack of public acceptance and trust will jeopardize our ability to get more R&D funding. It will have a negative effective on policy and regulatory decisions, discourage more beneficial public-private partnerships, and could prevent our ability to use the new tools and technology we develop. As someone who has devoted my life to scientific research, I can’t imagine a more tragic outcome.

Every one of us has the power to help move the needle on communications – even more so if you fall into one of the “key influencer” categories – so I urge you to use your voice to drive constructive online dialogue around ag and food. Get online and engage in channels where you will be heard. Remember – the conversation about ag and food production is going to happen with or without us. As a collective group, we really only have one choice to make: to participate or to let those who oppose science do all the talking.

If you’d like to learn more, you can read the full version of the lecture. The video is available to watch on the AAAS website.

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