For Kevin Folta, 2016 was a crazy year: difficult but wonderful. While those words seem contradictory, Folta, chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, had to go through a devastating social media firestorm to clarify his mission.

When Folta received the communications award from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology last fall, he didn’t want to talk about the hazards of communicating to the public. Rather, his goal was to “deputize” the agriculture community, because more voices representing science and modern production are critically important.

The Good Scientist
In the early 1980s, Folta was paying attention to biotechnology and what was happening in farming.

“I was so excited to learn about new technologies that were going to revolutionize science and the way people were fed,” Folta said. “I knew of Dr. Borlaug and it was an exciting time.”

He recalls working in Madison, Wis., in 2000, and going to “a nice little co-op” down the street. “I used to buy my groceries there, but they had their ideas on biotechnology completely wrong. I was fortunate to be able to approach them and ask them, ‘Can we talk together about biotechnology?’ We talked about binary vectors and viral promoters. Guess how many minds I changed? Zero. This was my first venture into talking to the public about science. It took me 10 years of doing it wrong before I figured it out.”

What He’s Learned
Folta says collectively, agriculture must “unveil its halo.”

“Ag producers everywhere have it and there’s a tremendous need for them to show it,” he says.

He refers to groundbreaking technology that offers solutions to some of agriculture’s and society’s most debilitating problems. But too often, the solutions can’t or won’t be used because the public – both here and around the world – doesn’t trust science.

“When new agricultural technologies present so much promise, why is there skepticism? The problem is trust. The people we need to influence are moms – they’re there to protect their families. We’ve left a void that others have been happy to step into to tell our story. We need to take it back, and do it effectively,” Folta says.

He found himself a target when he criticized “The Food Babe,” Vani Hari. He received threats from her followers and she used FOIA laws to obtain thousands of his personal emails. He subsequently took a break from his mission to defend agriculture, but encouragement from friends and his own personal sense of responsibility brought him back into the fray.

“As Grandpa Folta would have said, ‘When you stick your face in the fan, don’t complain that your nose hurts.’”
Kevin Folta, Chairman, Department of Horticultural Sciences, University of Florida

When companies say food is clean, honest, real or natural, it implies everything else isn’t, Folta points out. “And when young moms have a choice between something that’s called ‘clean’ and something that isn’t, those terms influence her decision. We haven’t been in that space as her trusted source of information. We need to learn the mechanisms we can use to earn her trust.”

Closing the Great Divide
Folta says there is a giant chasm between innovations in the laboratory and their application in the field, but he believes the problem can be solved with effective communication.

“If we can communicate with consumers about what the innovation is, who it affects, and the value it holds to the problems we’re trying to solve, we gain the social license to have the application. This is why it’s so important we get involved in the communication space.

Scientists are busy in the lab writing grants and training students,” he continues. “There’s not time to get out and interact with the public, but we have to make it priority and be trained to do it. We have to talk to people in a language they understand. I made a situation worse by beating people over the head with science and statistics when all they really wanted to know was ‘Is it safe?’ and ‘Can I trust you?’”

To connect you need to share your values, Folta explains,  as your ethics and credibility are more important than logic and emotion when we try to earn trust." 

“If you’re pitting the heart against the head, the heart’s going to win every time,” Folta says. “Your audience will not be moved by facts and statistics. It doesn’t work – I’ve tried it. You need to tell them why you feel the way you do.

“Know your audience, listen and understand their concerns,” he adds. “If we’re going to earn people’s trust, we need to find out why they feel the way they do, and show them that we understand. We can’t discount the way they feel.”