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Communication scarcity in ag harming industry's future prospects

Authors say industry failed to respond to public's interest in food system, creating perfect storm.

The ramifications of a poorly informed consumer base are now becoming clear in the country's food and agricultural policy debates and consumer-driven business decisions, authors Jessica Eise and Whitney Hodde wrote in their book, The Communication Scarcity in Agriculture.

They explained that during the rise of the food movement, the agriculture sector was unaccustomed to an interested and inquisitive public, and as such, it largely failed to respond to the public’s demands for information. Instead, corporations, time-pressed journalists, bloggers, media celebrities, film-makers, authors and concerned consumers jumped in to fill the void. The result, Eise and Hodde found, was that changing demographics, cultural shifts, technological advances and the agriculture industry’s silence all combined to create the perfect storm: a great chasm between those who know and those who don’t know agriculture.

“Take a look at the ‘pink slime’ media frenzy or the rise in popularity of celebrity food bloggers who don’t have any scientific training,” noted Eise, director of communications for Purdue University’s department of agricultural economics. “Consumers are being fed a lot of misinformation, and understandably, they don’t know how to filter this or how to put it in context.”

Their nonfiction book is separated into three sections: current examples of damaging miscommunications in food and agriculture, the nuances of today’s communication environment and a recommended reorientation.

The book has forewards by Dr. Robert Paarlberg, former professor at Wellesley College, and Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food & Agriculture, as well as guest essays from Jim Moseley, former USDA deputy secretary and current co-chair at AGree, and farmer blogger Debbie Lyons-Blythe, plus others. Eise and Hodde relied heavily on interviews with industry leaders in writing the book, including interviews with Sens. Richard Lugar (R., Ind.) and Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) among others.

A particular focus of the book is on the miscommunication surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Coinciding with the release of the book, President Barack Obama signed a bill requiring labels for GMO foods.

“This bill is the last stop in a long chain of events that all begin with poor communication. Misunderstanding and miscommunications about GMOs ran rampant due to rumors, myths and a lot of silence from agriculture on the matter. Due to the fears and worries fomented by poor communication, people applied pressure to their governments to take measures on the issue,” Eise explained.

This pressure, she said, led to Vermont passing a state law requiring GMO food labeling. “The passing of this state law caused concern across the nation that a patchwork of laws would severely disrupt production. Industry got behind a labeling law so that standards would be the same across the United States. At long last, a labeling law passed on the federal level.”

However, she asked the question of where it all started. “What kicked off all of this? Poor communication around GMOs and a very understandable uncertainty from consumers about what the heck they were eating. GMOs are safe for human consumption, but they don’t know that or believe it,” Eise explained.

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