Delivering the keynote speech to delegates at the IFT annual meeting and food expo in New Orleans yesterday, New Yorker journalist Michael Specter said the lack of scientific literacy characterizing much of the debate about food and farming issues would have “Galileo turning in his grave”.
However, instead of railing against arts graduates in the media, ignorant consumers and ‘nutters’ on the internet, food scientists should go on the offensive and actively engage with consumers and journalists about the benefits of food science, he said.
“Academics can be condescending and arrogant," said Specter, who has writtten a book called 'Denialism: How irrational thinking hinders scientific progress, harms the planet and threatens our lives'.
"It’s all very well saying, we know this; the scientific method works. Take it or leave it. Well guess what? They’re leaving it. So you’ll have to do better!”
Bring in Matt Damon…
And if this meant wheeling in a few celebrities to fight the cause, why not, he said. “It’s probably appropriate that celebrities work with us. Look at what Matt Damon has been doing on access to safe drinking water. They want to help.”
Meanwhile, in some cases, engaging with consumers might have to mean more comprehensive labelling, even if food scientists did not see the value in it, he said.
For example, even if the industry saw little value in GM labeling given that there was no food safety risk from consuming foods from GM plants, consumers did not like the idea of a cabal of ‘experts’ making decisions as to what the general public ‘needed’ to know, and preferred to make their own choices, however ill-informed, suggested Specter.
“You can be right all day long, but [if consumers do not agree with you] you’ll go out of business. So label GM. Maybe they’ll realize they’ve eaten 263 million doses of it and they are still alive. But if people think you’re withholding information, you’re going to lose.”
He added: “If people are afraid of GMOs, of science, of the food you are trying to make, you need to tell your story and go out and educate people, fight on the internet.
“And get out of your lab! If you can’t explain what you’re doing [to the general public or consumer media] you’re not going to get to do it for long.”
Get off the back foot and play the lunatics at their own game …
And while engaging with skeptical or ill-informed consumers via twitter, blogs or other online forums might not be top priority list for food scientists, standing aloof from such discussions was not the answer, he said.
“What do you expert reporters to do if they have people [on the opposite side of the debate] screaming, coming out with great quotes, and then you have a bunch of people [food scientists] that won’t speak. You have the same access to the internet as the lunatics do.”
Starbucks: Get off the back foot!
Mary Wagner, senior vice president of global R&D at Starbucks, who joined Specter in a panel debate after his presentation, added: “The food industry does tend to go dark [when a storm blows up in the media about a food science-related topic ] sometimes, we don’t get involved.”
The food industry was also overly reactive, and was constantly on the back foot when food-related stories hit the headlines, she said.
“We’re too defensive, we have to go on the offensive, and be more out there…