“Due to the past, particularly in relation to GMOs, the bio-economy has gone into hiding and is frightened to be out there. I think it needs to be out there because people will imagine the worst if it is not.”
There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know. Confusing isn’t it? This was a quote from former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld when he was giving a new briefing about the Iraq war in 2002. The message was ambiguous and was not communicated in a concise way. Although Rumsfeld was discussing Iraq, he could easily have been discussing the bio-economy.
Communicating the bio-economy to the consumer and media can also be a tricky sector to promote. While much information on bio-based products and biotechnology is available, it is often too technical and difficult to understand for consumers. This was the key message that ran through the EFIB 2018 conference I attended recently, which concluded that the bio-based industry still had a problem with communicating positive stories to the public and media.
To understand why communicating the bio-economy to the public is still tricky one has to go back to the past to find out why.
In 1994, Calgene, a US company, brought the first genetically engineered crop to market, called the Flavr Savr tomato. The company’s researchers were able to inhibit a gene that produced a protein that made a tomato go squishy. However, the Flavr Savr tomato created a good deal of controversy and consumer resistance. Much of the hype surrounding genetically altered crops was created by public misconceptions and fears that were encouraged by various environmental groups, according to media reports. Even though the US Food and Drug Administration found the Flavr Savr tomato to be safe, the production of the tomato ceased in 1997 because escalating costs prevented the company from becoming profitable.
Let’s face it, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are controversial. In conventional breeding, nature imposes limits on genetic recombination by erecting barriers against crossing between biologically distinct organisms and avoids the issues of cross contamination that GMOs face.
Lise Kingo (@Lise_Kingo), CEO and executive director of sustainability initiative United Nationals Global Impact says that the bio-based industry has never fully recovered from the GMO controversy from the '90s and suffered to promote positive stories about the sector ever since. However, Pierre Monsan, founding director at France-based public-private consortium Toulouse White Biotechnology says that the industrial biotechnology sector should promote the fact that it uses genetically modified microorganisms (GMMs) in a confined bioreactor, which cannot get out into the environment and when they do “we sterilise and we kill them”.
Even though the GMO controversy left a scar on the industry, Kingo says that there are new opportunities for the biotechnology sector to become a storytelling one. For instance, she says the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which are a collection of 17 global goals, can help the industry to portray a positive image to the public because for each of the UN SDGs “the bio-based industry has a solution”. These goals include responsible production and consumption and sustainably using the oceans, among other things. Kingo says: “There is nothing more the public likes than solutions to problems.”
Vivienne Parry (@vivienneparry) OBE, science writer, broadcaster and facilitator, tells Bio-Based World News that the SDGs are almost a fresh start for the bio-economy because they allow those in the bio-economy to clearly show what their aims are and to communicate their “inspirational” stories.
Parry says: “Due to the past, particularly in relation to GMOs, the bio-economy has gone into hiding and is frightened to be out there. Firstly, I think it needs to be out there because people will imagine the worst if they are not. Secondly, if the sector is not out there then other people will speak for it, and not always kindly. Thirdly, the sector has really cool and interesting stuff and those stories need to be heard.”
However, she also says that a lot of people within the bio-based industry have to rethink about the way they communicate because they often speak using scientific language focusing on the technology first “and it should be about the benefits first”.
Perry says that the technology should be an afterthought, adding: “A lot of people do not like that message a lot, but I think it is a very important one. You have to talk in a simple way. It is not dumbing down, it is just communicating better.”
It could be argued that the bigger message around climate change has been communicated in a more effective way to the public and the media than the bio-economy and how it fits into the bigger message of climate change.
Stephanie Triau, co-founder and CEO at Bioserie, a company which produces bio-based baby toys, says communicating the bio-economy over to the public is not always simple. She explains: “Not everything starting with ‘bio’ means the same thing. One of the challenges is that everyone is talking about bio all the time, even though some of those people are not really involved in the bio-economy.”
She also says that the definition of biodegradable is still causing confusion and can be mixed up with the meaning of ‘bio-based’.
In fact, recent research from Netherlands-based Wageningen University highlighted the fact that the term biodegradable was confusing. Researchers from the university claim that the term may cause confusion about the proper way for consumers to dispose of bio-plastics. Moreover, even when a plastic is biodegradable, this does by no means imply that the material degrades in the environment in a short period of time.
Nevertheless, as the issue of single-use plastics grips many nations, many have begun to advocate for alternative and more environmentally-friendly materials, including bio-plastics. This is another perfect opportunity for the bio-based industry to send out positive stories to the media. Niall Dunne (@n1dunne) chief executive of plastics reduction company Polymateria, has recently done this and told his positive story to London-based free newspaper The Evening Standard.
Summing up Polymateria’s ethos, Dunne explained to the newspaper that Polymateria “deal(s) with the world as it is today not as we want it to be in 50 years’ time”.
To combat the end-of-life plastic problem, Polymateria uses what it calls “biotransformation”, which involves redesigning the polymers that make up plastic so the environment can break down if it escapes a recycling facility. As a result, natural agents of decay such as enzymes and microbial materials attack and colonise the plastic to leave nothing but carbon-dioxide, water and biomass, or in simpler terms “bug food”.
Explaining the bioeconomy in simple terms was the key to making this Evening Standard story interesting and engaging. And as Triau concludes to make the unknown knowns: “The industry needs to say things as simply as possible. If you have to go too deep to explain your product then it becomes confusing. For us, the challenge is to just give positive messages. If you give too much information you can make people more confused.”
What do you think? Do you think the industry is doing enough to communicate the bioeconomy effectively to the public and the media? Please feel free to e-mail me at email@example.com
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