CBI Expert Dr. Bruce Chassy, Professor of food microbiology and nutritional sciences at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co-founder of Academics Review, will be participating in CBI’s panel at the 2010 BIO International Convention about public perception and agricultural biotechnology. He was kind of enough to offer us some of his initial thoughts on this critical subject. We look forward to hearing more from Dr. Chassy on May 5 at BIO 2010!
Council for Biotechnology Information: What do you believe is the public’s perception of agricultural biotechnology, and do you believe this is a fair portrayal of the science?
Dr. Chassy: I think the regular surveys that IFIC (International Food Information Council) does provide a pretty good insight into what the majority of consumers are thinking. Their most recent survey shows that great the majority of Americans do not view ag biotech, and in particular transgenic crops or GM [Genetically Modified] foods, as a food safety concern. Most consumers admit they know little about the topic but seem reassured when they hear that ag biotech products are strictly regulated. For most consumers GM foods are not a top-of-mind issue. This may seem a bit strange given all the negative publicity that biotech crops receive in the media and on the internet which abounds with anti-GM websites, but as is true with many controversial topics, the people making all the noise don’t necessarily represent the majority. I actually find it reassuring that most people are not swayed by the well-orchestrated and well-funded propaganda campaign against ag. biotech. That does not, however, mean that scientists should complacently believe that ag biotech will always be accepted by consumers. The misinformation of today must be corrected or it will eventually become the urban legend of tomorrow. Most of what is said in the media about GM crops is inaccurate, incomplete, and misleading.
Council for Biotechnology Information: What can scientists do to correct misperceptions and better explain the benefits of the science to the general public?
Dr. Chassy: Scientists need to learn how to communicate better to non-scientists. It needs to become part of their job description, and more importantly part of their reward and promotion system. There are just too many disincentives for scientists to speak out on controversial issues relating to their expertise in science. At the best a scientist loses precious time doing it, at worst they are criticized, misunderstood, and incorrectly quoted. You really need a thick skin and some simple clear messages to talk to non-experts. Scientists have to learn that what they say will be placed alongside a very well-spoken contradictory point view, but they have learn that people — even non-experts–are pretty savvy at figuring out who’s right. If scientists don’t explain the science, who will? Someone with a political or market motive?
Council for Biotechnology Information: What can those in media and politics do to more accurately explain ag biotech to consumers who are wary of GM foods?
Dr. Chassy: To begin with, a journalist needs to want to tell the whole story scientifically, and that starts with scientists being willing to help serious journalists. Not all journalists care if they get the science right, but those that do face the frustration of finding very few scientists willing to take the time to talk to them. It would also help immensely if reporting were more analytical and nuanced. Almost every story one reads on any controversial issue follows a simple journalistic formula that the media calls “balanced reporting.” I call it “he said–she said” reporting. The formula is that you find one person to oppose and one person to support an issue and you have a story. This is a cop out on real journalism. I have read stories in which a Nobel laureate scientist’s views are juxtaposed as if they had equal merit with those of a protestor who has no background in the science being discussed. In an age where we are all entitled to our opinion, the activist is portrayed as just as qualified as the scientist. Scientists need to learn to be like the activists and demand that the media gets the science right. Journalism really needs to get its house in order–free society depends on them.