Engaging in Respectful Dialogues: How to Elevate the Food Conversation

Last week, a "hit list" site emerged calling for violent attacks on both journalists and scientists who write about benefits of biotechnology. For many of us who communicate the science of food and nutrition, it was a pretty frightening turn in what has certainly been a heated discussion on “GMOs” (a commonly although inaccurately used term) and other food technology. The Genetic Literacy ProjectScience Blogs, and Big Think all wrote strong responses. The vast majority of the food community can agree that "Nazi" references and death threats are way, way out of line (the potential illegality of it is reportedly sparking FBI involvement). Respectful dialogue isn’t always this clear-cut, but it’s always essential.

We see this as an important time to highlight some best practices everyone can follow to ensure civil and professional discourse when discussing controversial food and health issues, on social media or elsewhere:

1. Be transparent: Be honest about who you are and always disclose if you’re posting on behalf of an organization or have any conflicts of interest.

2. Put facts at the forefront. Food is emotional, cultural, and social. Don’t let that lead you (or your materials) to lose sight of the facts and science that we need to have a well-informed discussion. If you're communicating online and you come across a sensational or questionable claim, consider doing a little research into its accuracy before sharing or magnifying misperceptions or falsehoods.

3. Asking questions is not a bad thing; it’s part of learning. Don’t beat up on someone for asking about something they heard. Acknowledge their concerns. But if those concerns are inaccurate, explain why.

4. It’s OK to stimulate debate, but do so courteously and accurately. Posing controversial questions is fine, and it can be a great way to engage more voices in the conversation. Just remember that your audience is filled with diverse options, and they are all entitled to respect.

5. Empathize. We’re all starting from similar values: wanting food to be healthful, safe, affordable, and available for everyone. Even when we see things differently, remember that our motivations are alike.

As Ryan Goodman says, "Conversations require cooperation from both sides to be productive." We see a lot of courage in many who work on both sides of food debates, and we sincerely hope that the terrible behavior of a few doesn’t discourage future engagement in public dialogue. Without you, we’d all be a lot worse off.

Additional Resources:

Food Biotechnology Communicator’s Guide 

Farmers aren't evil. Now can we have a civil conversation?, by Ryan Goodman

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