Even the best scientific innovation can be flattened by public distrust.

That was the major reminder from Kevin Folta, Ph.D., a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, to dozens of people gathered at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center Wednesday.

Scientists are “extremely good at innovation,” he noted, “but moving that to applications has been a problem because of the public perception of the technologies we create.”

Folta was the keynote speaker at the Center’s 2018 Ag Biotech Professional Forum Summer Social.
Governments and activists have stymied agricultural biotech advances that could solve serious problems threatening major crops and human health worldwide. But there is a solution, Folta said. “Science can create solutions, but they won’t get to the people they are meant to serve unless something happens: better, more effective communication across the Thanksgiving table or in the grocery store.”

Folta has been widely praised as a scientist. He was cited by Forbes as “an accomplished public and university educator, plant molecular biologist and research mentor.” He has also been at the center of several controversies surrounding ag biotech, particularly from anti-GMO activists. He believes the answer is not arguing with extremists, but finding a middle ground.

“It’s a matter of our being better communicators,” he said. “Why it’s important, not why or how it’s done. What gets us excited about it? Who is the end user who will benefit?”

Kevin Folta

Talk about interesting stories

Folta said one way to do that is to build a communications strategy around fruit. It is a good starting point for talking about food, farming and technology, he said, showing a slide of colorful fruits. “When you look at a picture of fruit, something is happening in your brain. There is a degree of arousal caused by seeing fresh fruits and vegetables, even in people who say they don’t like them. The brain doesn’t lie. Maybe it’s because they’re good for us and protect us from disease.”

He asked, “Is there an opportunity for us to leverage that in conversation? Talk about some interesting stories. Storytelling is another thing that triggers the human brain. If you just throw in facts and figures, some might stick with a science-oriented audience. But in talking to the public, it should be more about values, the people who are affected, the story line. The bridge between innovation and application is communication.”

Stories of interest, he suggested, include that of the East African starchy Matoke banana that is a cornerstone of every meal in Uganda and other nations in the region. Unfortunately, Matoke banana crops suffer from a bacterial banana wilt that kills the trees. They are also low in vitamin A, and a vitamin A deficiency that can lead to blindness is widespread in the region.

Science came to the rescue with genetically engineered bananas resistant to the disease and with a higher beta carotene content derived from a poor food banana species found only in Fiji.

Good stories at “Talking Biotech” podcast

Even though The National Biosafety Bill 2017 passed in Uganda, the country’s president, Yoweri Museveni, declined to sign it, so the altered bananas remain behind barbed wire fences, shut off from the consumers and farmers they could help.

Other advances, such as an RNAi suppression that saved the papaya industry from ringspot virus, transgenic tomatoes that eliminate the need for a chemical pesticide, and the technology that keeps apples and potatoes from turning brown, have been more successful, if not opposition free.

He said his “Talking Biotech” podcast has 140-some episodes, “Each a capsule that’s a really good story.”
So, “The next time you’re carrying on a conversation about the leading edge of biotech, think about these technologies,” he said. But, he cautioned, “We have to stop talking to people as scientists and talk to them as friends and neighbors.”

One specific action he suggested, is to participate when proposed rules are presented for public comment, such as the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, which is accepting comments until July 3, 2018.