Consumer communication, the next bottleneck

Intrexon's Jack Bobo believes educating the public about the growing role of science in agriculture is crucial to meeting the food challenges of the decades to come.

Improving communication with consumers will be essential to meeting existential ag production challenges expected over the next 35 years, according to the chief communications officer at Intrexon Corporation, a NYSE-listed biotechnology company.

Speaking at a morning session of Peoples Company’s Land Investment Expo last Friday, Jack Bobo drew upon both his 13 years of experience as a senior advisor on global food policy at the US State Department and his more recent engagement with anti-GMO activists to explain that the next 35 years will be the most important in the history of agriculture: food production will need to increase by up to 100 percent over the period to feed a population of 9 billion.

Despite enormous progress in increasing the efficiency and scale of production just since 1980, he argued, the public’s general impression of the agricultural sector as one where things are moving in the wrong direction stands as a major impediment to further progress.

“The question isn’t of things being bad and getting worse. They are getting good, but are they getting good fast enough?” he said. “That’s the challenge; things getting good fast enough and people understanding that story of agriculture.”

According to Bobo, agricultural producers and food companies have failed to accurately present that story of agriculture, resulting in a situation where businesses cater to false beliefs about the meaning of words like “natural” or the significance of the presence of gluten in a particular product, rather than working to correct those false beliefs.

“Consumers have never cared more, nor known less, about how their food is produced,” Bobo said. “That is a challenge for all of us because they care about it, and they think they know about it and they are asking for changes based on what they think they know.”

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Bobo – whose company’s genetically-engineered offerings include non-browning apples and potatoes, salmon that reaches market weight in half the time of its farmed counterparts and enhanced-productivity cattle – returned repeatedly to the challenges of effectively communicating the role of science in agriculture. Though many in the increasingly intersecting worlds of technology and ag have a deep appreciation for science, he said, starting a conversation with scientific facts often serves to alienate and polarize.

“When you say someone is anti-science, that’s like saying ’You’re an idiot, but let’s talk,’” said Bobo. “It’s only at the point where you have trust that science has any role to play in the conversation at all.”

“Consumers have never cared more, nor known less, about how their food is produced”
Jack Bobo, Intrexon

He suggested that producers and food companies alike engage directly with consumers on social media and practice transparency regarding agricultural practice and ingredients. The key in that communication, according to him, will be figure out how to put forward the positives of innovation in terms of choices and consequences when it comes to food.

“The question is not: ‘Can agriculture save the plant?’ It can. The question is: ‘Will we be allowed to do it?’,” said Bobo, who described himself as a “science optimist and a regulatory pessimist.”

“Ultimately, it will all come down to whether or not his community [the ag community] can be trusted to be stewards of that future. We need the social license to do the things that are necessary to save the planet.”