Overcoming Awkward Silences: Talking to Consumers about Food Biotechnology

Overcoming Awkward Silences: Talking to Consumers about Food Biotechnology

November 27, 2013

Lindsey Loving

Senior Communications Director, International Food Information Council

For many, food is not just fuel, but represents tradition, comfort, enjoyment, and a way to connect with our culture and heritage. We care a lot about the healthfulness, quality, and safety of the food we feed our loved ones. Because of this, food can be a very emotional topic, and as a result, it has become increasingly difficult to have a conversation about food that does not involve strong opinions and emotions.

For example, concerns by some people have driven heated debates about foods produced with biotechnology. As a nutrition professional, science is at your fingertips, and there is a solid base of research demonstrating the safety of foods produced with biotechnology. However, because the issue strikes an emotional chord for many, communicating this can be difficult, as decisions are not always based on science alone.

While it is never comfortable to find yourself in a confrontation with a customer, you can avoid awkward silences by preparing responses to common consumer questions in advance. The International Food Information Council Foundation’s new “Food Biotechnology: A Communicator’s Guide to Improving Understanding” lays out scenarios using questions a skeptical person might ask, and how to use the Tips for Communicating with Impact in the Guide to answer them in a way that is empathetic, consumer-friendly, and science-based.

The International Food Information Council has found through its consumer research on the topic that biotechnology is not a top of mind food safety concern for consumers (only 2% mention biotechnology when asked unaided about their food safety concerns). However, when the topic does come up, common questions relate to safety and long-term health effects, concerns about the technology not being “natural,” its impact on the environment, and labeling. For example, here is a question from the Guide and a suggested response:

Tough Question: “Isn’t there an inherent danger in genetically altering foods to be something that nature could never create?”

  1. First, acknowledge the concern: “I can appreciate your concern and it is understandable that you do not want to potentially put yourself or your family at risk. As a nutrition professional and [parent/grandparent/someone who is concerned about my health], the safety of our food is of the utmost importance to me, too.”
  2. Then, explain the facts: “While it may not seem “natural,” in reality, all crops have been “genetically modified” from their original state. Farmers have practiced selective breeding for hundreds of years, choosing plants with the most desirable characteristics (taste, quality, hardiness, etc.) and saving them to plant for the next season. Biotechnology acts in a similar way, but the process is more efficient and more precise. We benefit from the use of technology in many aspects of our lives and this is one more example.”
  3. Finally, follow with an example: “Take corn’s wild ancestor, for example, which was a Mexican grass called teosinte. It had a single row of just a dozen kernels. Hardly enough to make a meal on! Selective breeding and cross-breeding over time has led to the development of the modern maize we have grown accustomed to today.”

You can tailor these examples to the specific situation and audience. To see the other examples, visit the Food Biotechnology Guide presentation webpage on the IFIC Foundation website. All of the responses and examples are supported with references, so you can follow up with a customer who isn’t ready to make a decision, but would like more information. In addition, IFIC Foundation has a number of Food Biotechnology Resources available on its website.

The International Food Information Council Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the mission of effectively communicating science-based information on health, food safety and nutrition for the public good. The IFIC Foundation is supported primarily by the broad-based food, beverage and agricultural industries. Visit www.foodinsight.org