August 15, 2016

How do you talk GMOs to people who don’t know how to talk GMOs?

Opinions on GMOs are like opinions on politics. Everyone has one, and everyone is wrong. The simple (and obvious, if you’ve ever visited a social media site) fact is that “GMO” is a charged term likely to invoke a kneejerk reaction in anyone who hears it. For brands associated one way or another with the term, it always seems to be election season.

On one side of the issue, you have the pro-GMO group who gets angry when questioned. Many in this group deem those who fear GMO’s as silly and brush off questions because you should know better. On the other side of the issue are those who think all modern health problems can be traced to the introduction of GMOs. They are convinced that farmers are doing this on purpose and that everything should be “organic” and “heirloom.” And don’t get us started on the term “organic.”

The truth lies in the middle. GMOs aren’t inherently bad. Organics aren’t inherently good. Most people simply want to make sure that the food they are providing for their family is safe. But as the prominence and legitimacy of social media, bloggers and “legit” news sources with obvious biases has risen, opinion always seems to be taken as fact. Many people are scared, and they don’t even know why.

Misunderstanding leads to fear. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to ill-advised purchasing decisions

For marketers of consumer-facing ag brands, it’s important to first understand this fear. Then, a willingness to break free of traditional marketing methods and go above and beyond to educate potential customers will go a long way toward calming them. A calm, informed consumer is always in a brand’s best interest, if the brand’s intent is clear. Being up front, or at least seeming that way, is the clearest path to creating loyalty. “I’m confident that this food is healthy, and I learned something,” is what we’re looking for out of our audience.

Know your sources

Anyone who has ever been part of a GMO argument, or even observed one from afar, has seen this argument: “I eat this food and there is nothing wrong with me!” With 100 percent certainty, we can say that no GMO argument has ever been resolved with that statement. Anecdotal evidence is not a valid explanation that GMO crops are safe. It’s not evidence at all.

However, most people who matter will understand the value of peer-reviewed research, or at the very least, research from widely respected (and unbiased) organizations. Recently, the American Medical Association reviewed the potential adverse health effects of bioengineered foods, and addressed implications for labeling:

Results. Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature. However, a small potential for adverse events exists, due mainly to horizontal gene transfer, allergenicity, and toxicity. Pre-market safety assessments are designed to identify and prevent risks to human health. Consumers overwhelmingly support labeling of foods containing bioengineered ingredients. However, the FDA’s science-based labeling policies state that labels need only list such information if the bioengineered food is significantly different from its traditional counterpart, or if its production method materially changes the food’s nutritional profile (for example, if it contains a common allergen).

Conclusions. Despite strong consumer interest in mandatory labeling of bioengineered foods, the FDA’s science-based labeling policies do not support special labeling without evidence of material differences between bioengineered foods and their traditional counterparts. The Council supports this science-based approach, and believes that thorough pre-market safety assessment and the FDA’s requirement that any material difference between bioengineered foods and their traditional counterparts be disclosed in labeling, are effective in ensuring the safety of bioengineered food. To better characterize the potential harms of bioengineered foods, the Council believes that supermarket safety assessment should shift from a voluntary notification process to a mandatory requirement. The Council notes that consumers wishing to choose foods without bioengineered ingredients may do so by purchasing those that are labeled “USDA Organic.”

The full report can be found here.

This report is an example of the type of research that can settle arguments. It’s peer-reviewed research conducted by a respected and (seemingly) unbiased organization. Studies like this is a huge step in being able to have a balanced conversation on the topic, and building trust when marketing to either side of the audience. Is it 100 percent definitive? No. But it’s measured, comprehensive, and gives you enough information to have a reasonable conversation with your audience.

When you stop listening, you stop hearing

The most important thing to do is to listen to your customers. If you hear the questions, you can provide the right answers, and ask questions of your own. Your consumers want ingredient labels on their food. Well, why? What exactly are they concerned about? Are they worried about their own health? The environment? Whether an ingredient is grown in the U.S.A.? Is GMO labeling even at the top of their list? Do they understand what “organic” means?

Hearing their questions and posing your own informed queries will go a long way toward building trust on both sides of the GMO issue, no matter which side you’re on. It’s simple communication, but so easily lost in the noise.

And cutting out the noise will help you hear.