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6 Ways to Build Trust With a Concerned Consumer

After agvocating for 16 years, Kevin Folta has learned a few tips and tricks about connecting with consumers.

In 2000, Kevin Folta gave a presentation to a co-op in Madison, Wisconsin, about biotechnology. The young molecular biologist purchased vegetables from the co-op and had established a relationship with the owners. 

“They were nice people, but they had their ideas on biotechnology completely wrong,” says Folta. “I was very fortunate to be able to approach them and ask if we could get together and have a conversation about biotechnology.”

That was Folta’s first foray into agvocating. And it was an utter failure. 

“I talked about binary vectors, transformation, and 2, 4-D. And guess how many minds I changed?” he asks. “0.0.”

Luckily for agriculture, that wasn’t Folta’s only attempt. Through trial and error, he spent the next 10 years refining his approach to agvocating. 

Today, 16 years after that well-intended but misguided presentation, Folta, who now works at the University of Florida, has become an outstanding communicator who actively participates in public discussions on biotechnology. He has 13,000 followers on Twitter, writes a blog titled Illumination, and produces a weekly podcast called Talking Biotech

For his ongoing efforts, he received the Borlaug CAST Communication Award this week at the Borlaug Dialogue in Des Moines, Iowa. The award is presented each year to a scientist, engineer, technologist, or other professional working in ag, environment, or the food sectors who has contributed to the advancement of science in the public policy arena. As part of the award ceremony, Folta was given the chance to address the audience. While he could have used this opportunity to talk about the positive changes that have resulted from his outreach efforts, he instead outlined how everyone in agriculture, including farmers, can be better communicators.

“It’s so important for us to be communicating and to be communicating effectively in this space,” he says. 

The agriculture industry has seen the challenges when we don’t communicate effectively, says Neal Gutterson with DuPont, who also presented at the event. Gutterson was specifically referring to the failure to explain to consumers the benefits of genetically modified crops when they were first introduced back in the 1990s. 

“We need to build trust with shareholders, and that’s what we are doing with gene editing,” he says. “We are hoping that the reception of this technology will be different, so it will be useful for farmers around the world.” 

Building the trust of consumers isn’t just a job for company representatives or university scientists. Farmers can also be a powerful tool in moving the pendulum toward an informed public that understands how technology is used safely to produce food. 

Here are six tips from Folta that can help you in that endeavor: 

1. Know your audience.

You are never going to convince the Food Babe that GMOs are safe. “People who have firm ideas about their beliefs in food are not likely to change those beliefs,” says Folta. “This is not your audience.”

Your audience is the middle of the spectrum – between the anti-GMO activists and scientists like Folta. “Your audience is the mom who wants to feed her family,” says Folta. 

2. Listen and understand their concerns.

Think of how hostage negotiators help someone out of a tricky situation, such as talking someone off a ledge. They might ask why do you feel the way you do? What brings you here? “Then they respond by saying, ‘I understand that,’” says Folta. 

“Now imagine what a scientist would say,” Folta continues with the example. A scientist would explain the velocity at which the person would fall. A farmer, on the other hand, would be very straightforward and might explain what happens when the person jumps.

Hostage negotiators have the best approach because they have to get in the mind of people, adds Folta. 

This is the same approach that farmers should take when engaging with consumers. “You need to use active listening. The conversation must start with empathy. You can only move to the next steps once you understand their concerns, and they know it,” advises Folta. 

3. Talk about your values and your motivation.

Instead of starting by talking about the science, start by talking about your shared values. Discuss what you value for your family and why you are a farmer.

“For me, I talk about what’s important to me as a scientist,” says Folta. “That means helping farmers maintain profitable farming in an environmental and sustainable manner. It means producing food for the world consumer as well as food that can leave our borders to feed those who are in desperate need.”

For the most part, everyone agrees that these issues are important to solve. Then you can bring in the science and technology.

4. Discuss ag innovations that can satisfy your common values.

“Know and discuss transformational technologies,” says Folta. “You need to know about gene editing, including why it’s necessary and why it’s safe.” (Learn more about how gene editing will be used in agriculture in the Mid-November issue of Successful Farming magazine.)

Ag innovations also extend to technologies that exist but aren’t being used to their full potential. This list includes:

  • Biofortified crops that can save lives and reduce malnutrition
  • The suppression of allergy-inducing proteins in peanuts and wheat
  • Crops that are engineered to react to extreme weather conditions

5. Participate in social media discussions.

If you don’t have a Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram account, Folta recommends finding a teenager and giving them $20 to get you set up on social media. Remember to use your real name and credentials.

Once you’re there (or if you already are), amplify positive, accurate messages and practice “aggressive transparency.”

6. Be nice.

Folta takes this one to the extreme. “Hug your haters,” he says. “People who disagree with ag technology aren’t mean people. They are victims influenced by people with bad intent.”

Last, but not least, avoid these mistakes:

  • Avoid feed-the-world rhetoric.
  • Be sure to always discuss strengths and limitations.
  • Don’t ever claim one type of technology is a single solution.
  • Never forget the real audience.
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