Scientists working on transgenic vegetatively propagated crops in Africa have acknowledged the need to simplify terminologies for public communication. Speaking at a joint technical-communication meeting on 18th August 2017, in Nairobi, Kenya, Dr. Margaret Karembu, ISAAA AfriCenter’s Director, lauded the technical, regulatory and communication team members from the cassava, banana and potato projects for coming together to define how best to communicate with non-technical stakeholders. “For the public to accept and appreciate efforts going into improving these important food crops, we must shift from using terms that might increase fear and anxiety and beginning using those that build trust and confidence” she said.

Experts were cautioned against using terminologies that could be misinterpreted by the fourth estate. A case in point was use of the term vaccination or inoculation that is constantly used to explain how virus resistance is attained in transgenic crops. “We’ve repeatedly seen the media using images of crops being injected with a syringe even on well balanced stories. Proliferation of these negative images could be from some of the messages sent out by experts” added Dr. Karembu. She argued that while attempting to simply gene silencing and the induction of resistance to plant viruses, terms such as vaccination create visuals that are eventually processed by lay audiences to mean something scary, “after all, who wants to eat a vaccinated cassava?” she asked.

While unpacking terminologies, a major communication challenge was traced back to the Cartagena Protocol which set a precedent of defining a GMO product based on the process it’s made. According to team members, this does not apply to other areas of breeding “because a wheat variety made from mutation breeding would not be referred to as a mutant wheat in the market,” making it more acceptable to end-users. “Terms such as LMOs scare policy makers and leave the impression that these foods are made of unnatural living organisms which they want to protect their constituents from!” said Mr. Joshua Oluyali, Head of Roots and Tuber Crops at the Ministry of Agriculture. Mr. Oluyali advised experts to use of genetically improved cassava variety instead of GMO cassava when addressing farmers, policy makers and the media.

A number of terms were identified and simplified, and a joint knowledge product, expected to be translated into various African languages, will be generated by the teams. Key members from other GM projects across the continent will also be engaged to give their inputs on the knowledge product that will be beneficial to all GM project in the region.

While giving her final comment, Dr. Karembu emphasized that “words create reality so experts must be careful with how they use them when attempting to make complex topics accessible to a lay audience.” The meeting was facilitated by ISAAA AfriCenter and the Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa (VIRCA) Plus project. It was attended by members from the Bacterial Wilt Resistant Banana Project and the Late Blight Resistant Potato Project. The Ministry of Agriculture was also represented by the Head of Roots and Tuber Crops, Mr. Oluyali, as well as extension staff who regularly interact with farmers.