Alternative facts are a hinderance to BioTech communication

Biotechnology may have various hurdles in Afrika, but its biggest obstacle remains communication especially in the face of alternative facts.

“Our biggest hurdle is not policymakers or evidence but communication,” said Kevin M. Folta a Professor and Chairman of the Horticultural Sciences department at the University of Florida at the three-day (27-29 September 2017) high-level conference on the application of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) in harnessing opportunities for Africa’s agricultural transformation held in Uganda.

“Groups opposed to biotechnology are very good at building trust. They use ‘alternative facts’ by confirming the fears and biases of the people unsure of who to trust,” said Kevin M. Folta.

Nancy Muchiri the senior communications and partnership manager at African Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF) for Africa said it is a reality and they are dealing with it but what they are doing is to help the farmers tell the messages themselves.

“Alternative facts are not difficult to explain. For instance, for any positive story, there is a parallel story. If Sudan and India have benefited from BT cotton they say Burkina has abandoned it,” lamented Dr. Getachew Belay, a senior biotechnology policy adviser at the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA).

While other countries have moved on to other modern technologies like gene editing, Afrikans are still debating terms like the terminator seed, GMO labeling and safety issues around the technology.

What is not explained by biotechnology 'haters' about India is that by 2016 it had a 25 percent world cotton market share from 12 percent in 2002 and that Burkina Faso earnings from cotton plummeted from $1,5 billion annually to $400 million last year.

Biotech experts offered Afrikans a range of advice to overturn the 'haters' .

“The best we can do is to get many people with facts and more voices talking about agricultural biotechnology,” said Denis Kyetera, the Executive Director, African Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF) for Africa.

“We need to change the strategy and tell people what they want and that is the truth. People are seeking honest answers but they do not know who to trust,” said Folta explaining that “facts do not matter without trust. There is a lot of good science but you need to reach out to the non-traditional audiences,” he told scientists.

Sarah Davidson Evanega, a plant biologist and the Director for Cornell Alliance for Science explained that their our goal is to empower farmers so that they can tell their own stories - because ‘farmers voices are the most authentic and powerful.’

She advised that it is important not to repeat the narratives of biotech 'haters' and try to be proactive and not reactive.

“In our program, we are no longer trying to respond to alternative facts anymore. We are trying to have a continuous flow of factual and balanced information. If we look at the organizations that are sponsoring alternative facts they have a lot more money and many campaigns,” said John Komen, Assistant Director, and Africa Coordinator, Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS).

Cover Image Credit: In Vitro Berrien, | Wikimedia Commons

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