By Nora Faris
DES MOINES, Iowa – On Wednesday, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology recognized a scientist who builds awareness of biotechnology’s benefits by finding common ground with consumers.
Kevin Folta, professor and chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, said he spent much of his career as a researcher and agricultural advocate eating his words. His discussions with consumers about biotechnology were rooted in science. But science is a language many consumers don’t speak, and Folta felt like he confused more than he clarified.
“I made a situation worse by beating people over the head with science and statistics, when all they really wanted to know was: is it safe?” Folta said.
Now, Folta connects with consumers by sharing facts and soothing fears about biotechnology.
Folta’s communication efforts earned him recognition as the recipient of the 2016 Borlaug CAST Communication Award. The award is presented annually to an agricultural professional who engages with the public and policymakers about the importance of agricultural science. Folta bridges the gap between innovation and adaptation of agricultural technologies with the non-scientific public.
Folta said public perceptions of biotechnology can prevent the progress of agriculture. From golden rice to solutions for citrus greening disease, biotechnology could help feed the world more effectively–if consumers could swallow the science behind it.
“Scientists can come up with the greatest technologies in the world, and they don’t do anything unless they get to the people that they need to serve. That’s where our job comes in as communicators,” Folta said.
Folta’s social media conversations with consumers about biotechnology have earned him more than 13,000 Twitter followers. He encouraged World Food Prize attendees to engage with consumers on social media and respond to anti-technology arguments they see online.
“For every person who writes, there are 95 who are looking. We’re not speaking to that one angry dissenter. We’re speaking to the eyes of those mothers, fathers and people who are just looking for honest answers,” Folta said.
During Folta’s award presentation, Julie Borlaug Larson, granddaughter of Norman Borlaug, affirmed the importance of online outreach to consumers.
“You’ve got to go where the public gets their news, and it’s not a five-color brochure or a three-page essay,” Larson said. “You have to meet them on social media.”
Folta said agricultural advocates can ensure that consumers are receiving an accurate image of modern farming, even if they get their food information from Facebook, not textbooks.