Pocket K No. 33: Communicating Crop Biotechnology
Crop biotechnology, while merely one of the many possible scientific options to improve agricultural productivity, has triggered increased interest in its consistent and substantial benefits. About 16.7 million farmers in 29 countries have planted biotech crops spread across 160 million hectares (James, 2011). At the same time, it has sparked debate on its perceived risks and safety and is often caught in a maelstrom of controversy. Diverse issues like scientific, political, economic, ethical, cultural, and even religious viewpoints are being espoused by different stakeholders. A focus on societal and ethical implications has made it a recurring and contentious public policy issue.
Crucial therefore to balancing issues and concerns surrounding biotechnology is adequate science-based, authoritative information to enable various stakeholders to engage in an objective and transparent debate. Mutual understanding and dialogue will enable the global community to understand the attributes of crop biotechnology and assure acceptable by the public.
To improve the understanding of biotechnology and how its products contribute to personal well-being, a strategic plan for public communications is important. Traynor et al. (2007) identify some specific objectives for public communication: make evident to decision makers that modern biotechnology can be an effective tool for increasing agricultural productivity, and thereby economic growth, without imposing unacceptable risk to the environment or human and animal health; and enable members of the public to make informed decisions about appropriate uses of biotechnology by providing accurate information about benefits, risks and impacts.
Why is communication important?
Deliberate strategies to implement science communication in general, and biotechnology communication in particular, is crucial so that knowledge and experiences can be shared to enable stakeholders to make better informed decisions as to how, when and where biotechnology should be used.
Hence, there is a need for a multi-stakeholder process or dialogue to ensure public acceptance for crop biotechnology and in evolving enabling policies. A process of deliberation is expected between and among stakeholders to converge diverse ideas. The participation of various stakeholders in knowledge generation and validation assures responsible use of the technology and guarantees people of having a choice or say in its adoption.
Saner (2007) enumerates reasons why we need to involve the public, among which include: potentially improve public policy, a more informed and engaged public, more solid support for regulatory decisions, and greater public confidence in government. Communication therefore include these activities: inform or educate to help understand a policy or program; gather information to anticipate communication challenges; facilitate discussion among stakeholders; engage citizens for shared agenda setting and generate options; and partnering or reaching agreement among stakeholders.
What are the steps in implementing communication activities?
There are five important steps in implementing communicating activities. The process is cyclical, as it involves a continuous flow of reassessment and refinement. Versoza (2003) enumerates these steps as:
Assessment. This stage involves obtaining information to guide the communication strategy. It identifies the behaviors desired, key messages, audiences or stakeholders to reach, the communication channels to reach the audience, and specific units to implement the communication activities.
Planning. A clear course of action is determined on the basis of the assessment earlier done. Decisions are made with regards desired behaviors, key messages, audiences, communication channels, and activities including supporting elements such as budget, timeline, communication research plan, and a capacity building component.
Material development and pretesting. Production of communication materials entails working with the audience to develop messages that will be effective with them. Hence, messages must be clear and easy to understand, and culturally sensitive.
Implementation. The delivery and distribution of communication materials whether through print, radio or television, or through interpersonal communication means depends not only on quality and timeliness, but also on availability of good supporting services.
Monitoring and evaluation. These are carried out simultaneously with implementation to determine audience response to messages, and subsequent changes in knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and practices. This process enables mid-course corrections and identifies new opportunities to improve the communication component. The final evaluation enables learnings to be used for future communication programs.
What communication activities can be implemented to increase greater awareness and understanding of biotechnology?
Biotech communication strategies must be linked with each country’s cultural and political climate. Public support or consumer acceptance for biotech is crucial for deriving any benefits associated with the technology. It is driven by a number of interrelated factors: knowledge level, awareness of benefits, confidence, and trust.
A strategic and complementary combination of interpersonal communication and different mass media modalities is recommended. Interpersonal communication is needed to achieve acceptance and use of technology while mass media help promote awareness, knowledge and understanding. The choice of and combination of communication strategies is determined by specific information requirements and needs.
Personal interfaces allow people to interact in close proximity, use sensory channels to relay messages, and receive immediate feedback. Building networks and enhancing partnerships, or interacting with various stakeholders is essential to get information across, obtain immediate feedback, and correct/modify understanding of messages. Use face-to-face communication with multi-media strategies like publications, electronic-based formats, videos, CD ROMs, and exhibits. The possibilities and combinations are endless and are limited only by communicators’ imagination and willingness to think out-of-the-box.
What are some lessons learned in communicating biotechnology?
Experiences learned from communicating biotechnology through the years have given rise to several lessons. These include:
Communication is not merely a one-way process of dishing out information to people based on the assumption that lack of understanding stems from inadequate information or that ample information can compel action. Rather, it involves social negotiation and dialogue between and among varied audiences – policy makers, academicians, scientists, and ultimately, consumers.
Biotechnology is an example of “science in the making” and therefore likely to be provisional and controversial. Science in the making depends much more from those involved in the process of public understanding of science. The various “publics” need to take an active role in the process of creating knowledge – hence, an informed discussion on science and biotechnology, regulations, safety issues, ethical dimensions, socio-economic perspectives as well as communicating biotechnology.
Science communication should be looked at as a dynamic process with various communication strategies as mere components. Communicators are not merely skilled people who are expected to process information. Instead, they must contribute to being part of the process of developing ‘socially robust’ knowledge and facilitating its development.
In embarking on any science communication initiative, it is important to take stock of the current environment for biotech taking into consideration scientific developments, political support, role of key players vis a vis biotech, and influence of stakeholders in decision-making process. There is a need to identify issues considered most important to stakeholders, key information sources, information gaps that need to be addressed; barriers and opportunities to biotechnology acceptance in the country, among others.
The different “publics” are not merely passive potential audiences for science communication but as active constituents of the system in which the scientific community thrives and functions.
Communication modalities are merely tools to facilitate communication. The choice on their use and frequency as well as combination of strategies is dependent on stakeholders needs and concerns, and objectives. Evaluation is necessary to determine if we are gaining impact from their use.
Organizations involved in communicating biotechnology should not be merely information centers. They should strive to be significant players in the development of enabling environments for informed decisions regarding the role of crop biotechnology.
Network of Biotechnology Information Centers
The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) has a network involved in biotechnology communication – the Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology based at ISAAA’s Southeast AsiaCenter, and Biotechnology Information Centers located in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America.
Together the Centers work together towards becoming a common voice on crop biotechnology by consistently sharing messages that are credible and compelling.
Castillo, Gelia. 2003. Science Communication Whose Time Has Come: An Evaluation Report on the Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications. Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines.
James, Clive. 2007. The Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2007. ISAAA Brief No. 37. ISAAA: Ithaca, NY.
Navarro, Mariechel. 2008. Bridging the Knowledge Divide: Experiences in Communicating Crop Biotechnology. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines.
Saner, Marc. 2007. What is Public Involvement? Paper presented during the High Level Policy Dialogue Workshop on Public Perception of Agricultural Biotechnology. Lima, Peru, October 4-5, 2007. Public involvement continuum also available at http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ahc-asc/public-consult/res-centre/process_e.html
Traynor, Patricia, Marta Adonis, and Lionel Gil. 2007. Strategic Approaches to Informing the Public about Biotechnology in Latin America. In Electronic Journal of Biotechnology. Retrieved from http://www.ejbiotechnology.info/content/vol10/issue2/full/12/index.html
Verzosa, Cecillia Cabanero. 2003. Strategic Communication for Development Projects. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank, USA. Retrieved from http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTDEVCOMMENG/Resources/toolkitwebjan2004 pdf.
* July 2012