We all agree any mention of “genes” and related techniques, tools and applications evoke strong emotions and varied opinions. This is what has characterized the GMO debate over the last two decades. With rapid advancements witnessed in genetics and modern biotechnology, what lessons can inform how we communicate and engage stakeholders more effectively moving forward? Well, they say experience is the mother of wisdom and history, like love, is so apt to surround her heroes with an atmosphere of imaginary brightness. Indeed, history has a way of turning imaginations into reality if lessons inform practice. We explore some of the lessons that caused serious communication blunders at introduction of modern biotechnology.

Claiming that GMOs will feed the world and are a silver bullet to ending hunger and poverty is an overstatement that lacks conviction. Over-claiming the benefits of GMOs placed too much expectations on the technology and serious misconceptions that other tools will not be necessary. In an effort to get their space, many stakeholders fought back and created a polarised debate of so called proponents and opponents.  Managing expectations is key to winning the hearts of stakeholders and building conviction around an all-inclusive strategy for agricultural improvement.

The second common blunder was a general assumption that increased knowledge would automatically lead to acceptance of GM technology. This is a fallacy. Acceptance of GM technology, just like other innovations perceived to challenge status quo, is subject to a host of factors that include a person’s cultural beliefs, ethical values and a feeling of inclusivity in the whole discovery process. Involving stakeholders in decision making gives the technology a human face. It is therefore paramount for science communicators to appreciate beliefs and value systems, among other social orientations that will undoubtedly determine the success or failure when communicating gene modification technologies.

The third blunder was belabouring technology processes at the expense of the products. This is inappropriate as interest of beneficiaries’ largely depend more on product benefits than production processes. The immediate priority for every scientist should be to satisfactorily sensitize the public on the attributes of products generated from gene modifications and how this complements other products or services in the market.

Time and again, technical jargon has dominated GMO debates. This “language barrier” impedes correct interpretation of scientific information and heightens anxiety on useful innovations. For stakeholders, particularly the non-technical audiences to fully embrace gene modification technologies, scientists must simplify their “jargon” into familiar language that the audience can easily comprehend. Sharing analogies and visuals that stakeholders can associate with is one of the most effective strategies. Research institutions and science agencies could develop glossaries of commonly used terminologies with corresponding alternative terms for engaging different stakeholders.

Scientists can no longer sit back and watch as pseudo-scientists boss the stage with half-truths and myths about gene-related innovations. They should come out strongly to educate the public on the benefits and address raised concerns real-time. The scientific community must change their tact and approach issues more proactively and humanely by embracing science communication.

These glaring blunders have evidently eroded stakeholder trust and confidence in GM technology. Moving forward, the scientific community need to cultivate shared values with their stakeholders. They must understand what stakeholders want to know about the innovations and what they care most about as this is the cornerstone of effective communication. Further, it is imperative to identify experts that stakeholders trust most on gene modification conversations. Leveraging on communicators who possess technology competence, show integrity and are familiar with stakeholders values is helpful. Lastly, we must appreciate stakeholders have limited knowledge on gene modification technology and investing time to regularly engage them is not an option but an obligation.

It is for these reasons that the scientific community and stakeholders with an interest in genome editing are coming together in August 2019 in South Africa for the Africa Biennial Biosciences Communication (ABBC2019) Symposium. The African Union High Level Panel on Emerging Technologies (APET) already identified advances in gene technology as key in fast-tracking Africa’s development and transformation process. However, the continent’s chance to benefit from these technologies lies heavily on its ability to efficiently regulate and communicate their potential. This is the premise upon which ABBC 2019’s theme was conceived. Join us in this journey!

Read more about ABBC 2019 here. To register for the Symposium, follow this link.

Dr. Karembu is the Director, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter, and co-Convenor, ABBC2019. You can reach her on mkarembu@isaaa.org