IN these high-tech, intellectual times — when nine-second sound bites, 140-character commentaries and fear-mongering headlines all fight for our short-lived attention spans — giving equal attention to false assumptions or "facts" about agricultural technology can have a profound effect on consumers' bias against that technology.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are arguably one of the most debated topics surrounding modern agricultural technology and are a perfect example of how failing to confront misguided consumer beliefs can come back to haunt the agriculture industry.
Often, the sound bites and photo representations used to represent GMOs in media are both inflammatory and untrue.
You've probably seen the old standby image that's used to represent this technology of a syringe full of neon goo being injected into a tomato when, in reality, there are currently no GMO tomatoes in the marketplace. Even if there were, neon goo does not make a GMO.
But like it or not, this is the information about agricultural technology that is being fed to society.
Because humans are programmed to react to fear, consumers have responded, understandably, by being confused and upset.
Although GMOs have not actually been proved to be any more dangerous than conventionally bred crops, a segment of society is nonetheless convinced otherwise. It appears that the unnatural images have left an impression on some people.
However, when pressed to answer why this agricultural technology is dangerous, most people cannot explain why. Answers vary from "it's unnatural" or "we don't need it" to "we just don't want it." Those aren't entirely convincing arguments, but they are ones that we, in the agriculture industry, should acknowledge and address.
After all, ignoring or ridiculing those who have a different understanding of the science agriculture is using has not been an effective communication tool.
When made to feel powerless, consumers often respond with voicing their opinions and demands more loudly. Unfortunately, these louder voices often lead to effective action, such as the GMO ban recently enacted in Washington state.
Just as farmers and ranchers want to select which technology they use to grow crops and raise animals, consumers want the same choice for what they eat.
Some consumers have started demanding "the right to know," attempting and sometimes succeeding in getting legislators to craft labeling laws that single out GMO technology — and not in a beneficial way.
Oddly enough, most Americans have little issue with adopting new technology when they can feel it — when they can directly see how it benefits them. They stand in long lines for the latest smartphones or gaming consoles.
While new advances in medicine like gene therapy and pharmaceuticals have drastically improved our quality of life, most people will never have the chance to experience hands-on farming. This means they will have a harder time understanding the benefits some producers get out of using new agricultural technologies.
Until you struggle with fuel, pesticide and herbicide costs, until you battle pests that want to destroy your one source of income, "technology" simply means better graphics on your videogames and sleeker smartphones.
It's up to us to connect the dots between the technology consumers use on a daily basis and the technology farmers use on a daily basis.
Consumers have been biased by unbalanced coverage of agricultural technology. To counteract this, agriculture must engage with consumers who disagree with various forms of mechanization rather than just dismiss their fears.
If we fail to respectfully communicate and give those who disagree with us a chance to articulate their concerns, they will continue to dictate which choices are available for agriculture.
*Megan Brown is a blogger and sixth-generation rancher who raises Black Angus cattle in northern California. From 4-H as a child to FFA as a teen to receiving her bachelor's degree in agricultural business from California State University-Chico, agriculture has been Brown's lifelong passion. Read more on her website at www.thebeefjar.com, or contact her at [email protected]