7 strategies to communicate GMOs to millennials using the National Academies of Sciences report

Eighteen respected scientists and researchers. Twenty-eight reviewers. Thirty pages of comments and reviews. The recently released genetically engineered crops study by the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) is a true consensus on GMOs. It aims to convey the complexity of genetically modified organisms.

For communicators, genetically modified crops and food transparency are growing topics of concern for audiences. How can you use the NAS report to communicate GMOs to millennials? Three communications experts can help you understand how this can be utilized as a communications tool.


Dominique Brossard is a professor and chair of the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an internationally known expert in public opinion dynamics related to controversial scientific issues, and a member of the committee who put the report together. Vance Crowe is the Millennial Engagement Director at Monsanto, and Rob Sharkey, aka the Shark Farmer, is an active voice in the science communication world online and on social media. Check out Shark Farmer’s podcast, called The Farmer and the City Girl. These experts offer their best advice for using the NAS report to communicate GMOs to millennials:

  1. Establish the importance of the study

According to Vance Crowe, it’s hard to understand the importance and prestige of the detail that went into the NAS report on genetically engineered crops. Communicating and helping individuals understand how the committee was formed, what they did, and what they looked at with their study will create a greater trust. “When you understand just how sophisticated that entire group was then you’re much more willing to say, OK I maybe don’t know how to read all the details in that information, but I trust that such a venerable body is probably going to be coming away with solid answers,” says Vance. To communicate with millennials about GMOs show the study and establish its importance by explaining who created it.

  1. Follow the conversation online

To build trust with millennials, it’s important to continue to conversation online. Using Altmetric, a non-traditional measurement of media coverage, we can see that the chatter about the NAS report online is anything but quiet. Altmetric looks at how many times a report is cited, mentioned, or talked about in blogs, news articles, and more. It is a more accurate way of measuring the “public chatter.” According to Dominique Brossard, in the short time the report has been release (since May), it already ranks in the 99th percentile of scientific studies, as far as online attention. Look at what’s being said online to get a better idea of what people are talking about. To communicate with millennials about GMOs build trust by interacting with them online and responding to actual public concern.

In the short time the report has been release (since May), it already ranks in the 99th percentile of scientific studies, as far as online attention.

  1. Tell it like it is

Shark Farmer says just level with millennials. All they want is plain talk. Just tell them the science. “If you just tell them what it is, yeah, we manipulated a plant, but it’s still the same plant, it’s just got a different part to it. We’ve been eating it since the late 90’s,” says Rob Sharkey. Sharkey’s found that this seems to go a lot further than canned answers. The report can help simplify some of the science, while still providing a reputable source. To communicate with millennials about GMOs be honest with them by explaining genetic modification.

  1. Emphasis the transparency

The National Academies of Sciences is making strides towards transparency. On the report’s website, you can easily identify all the funding sources. You can also find a section called “responses to public comments.” Professor Brossard points out that you can search public comments and concerns and the website will show you where the report addresses those concerns. This is the perfect place to identify issues individuals have with GMOs and point them to the answer. For example, one public concern is stated, “Herbicides like glyphosate and 2,4-D are killing honeybees.” This section categorizes that as an issue with “biodiversity within farms and fields” and points the consumer directly to the page numbers within the report that address that issue (pages 133-135). Check it out.  To communicate with millennials about GMOs emphasis the transparency by giving them access to resources that can answer their concerns.

  1. Set the stage for a conversation

Vance Crowe reveals one of his best strategies for discussing GMOs with consumers. Ask them a question they don’t know the answer to. He says that if a person can’t genuinely answer a question, they are more willing to allow you to fill in the gaps. After you’ve established a gap in knowledge, tell them something fascinating about GMOs. Vance suggests, “Set the stage by opening something fascinating that leads to the larger discussion. Get them hooked and then they will be too interested to argue.” Once you have their attention, you can move the discussion to the truth about genetically modified organisms and facts from the NAS report. To communicate with millennials about GMOs set the stage for an actual conversation by showing them what they don’t know and filling in the gaps.

“Get them hooked and then they will be too interested to argue.”

Here’s some facts to get the conversation going:

  1. Get out of your echo-chamber

It can be easy for farmers and scientists to get stuck in their “echo-chamber.” If the only people you ever talk to are other farmers, fellow scientists, and everyone agrees with you, then you’re probably in an echo-chamber. There’s no point in preaching to the choir, get out there and talk to the actual consumer! The Shark Farmer can attest to this, “It seems like the more I get out of the echo chamber with farmers and talk to consumers a lot if it is that they want food to be affordable, they want it to be good and they do have a trust with the FDA that their food is safe.” To communicate with millennials about GMOs talk to actual young consumers and learn what they are concerned about.

“If everyone you talk to agrees with you, then you’re probably in an echo-chamber.”

  1. Keep learning

Know your facts. Know the science you’re talking about. Read the report summary. Reach out to the experts. Kevin Folta, professor and chairman of the Horticulture Department at the University of Florida is an active social media voice for GMOs and hosts a podcast called “Talking Biotech.” He recorded a podcast summarizing the NAS report. Check it out here. Dr. Folta offers some great advice on Twitter when discussing pesticide exposure from our food. “Talk about sharks. They are certainly a hazard, but if you are not exposed, no risk. Pesticide exposure is minor. No exposure.” Talk with others in your field, but keep expanding your network outside the people you usually talk to. To communicate with millennials about GMOs keep learning and stay educated.

Listen to consumers and millennials. Learn their concerns. Have a conversation.

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