Friday, November 16, 2012

Educating more Effectively about GMOs

I am elated, absolutely elated, that North Americans are becoming more concerned about genetic engineering. This is a wonderful, hopeful time!

When the biotech companies and the food giants threw $45 million into defeating our right to know what is in our food, they had no idea what a silly move that was. Instead of silencing their opponents, they made it clear to those sitting on the fence that they would do anything to maintain their profits. My capitalist and socialist buddies alike, hearing the story, shake their heads. It is a move that will disgrace them for decades to come.

As a result, many of us are now beside ourselves with excitement. The defeat of Proposition 37 did not feel like a defeat because the industry exposed their true nature while bashing us down. We are witnessing thousands of people across the continent rising up and speaking out, initiating boycotts and stickering campaigns, all with a newfound gusto that is rare in the activist world. "Worldchangers" cherish these moments when momentum seems to be on our side.

But I want to ask all of you to conserve your energy.

This will be a long battle. Too many activists burn out because they put all their soul into something and aren't given back results that reward them for their commitment and passion.

We cannot afford to burn out. It is the long haul that matters.

If we can organize people and send ten thousand letters to Nestle or Coca-Cola today, it is less effective than sending those same ten thousand letters spread out over a couple months. If the rate steadily increases over that time, it is especially worrying for the companies. Consider the graph below, with two lines depicting the number of letters received about GMOs over a given period of time. If you were a CEO of Coca-Cola, which trend, A or B, would you be more concerned about?

So... not only is it in the interest of our health and sanity to slow down a little bit, it is likely to benefit our cause as well.

Besides, there are only so many people we can persuade with the frantic, frenetic energy that many of us now feel. But there are many more that we will turn off.

Let's all slow down and breathe here. We have to steer this momentum in a useful direction and not have it burn up like newspaper in a campfire.

As we spread information about genetic engineering through our various forms of social media or through conversations with those around us, we must constantly work at refining what we say and how we say it.

Activists are among the least effective educators. But we really only do our cause a disservice if we do not discriminate between what is educational and what is not.

Here are some criteria to consider:

1. Is your information scientific?

The biotech industry is continuously accusing us of being unscientific. We should learn from this that appearing scientific is important. Is the claim we are making supported by a reliable scientific source? Is the article peer-reviewed or does it authentically state the position of some peer-reviewed article or scientist? Can we openly acknowledge the possible weaknesses of a study so that we can say things like: "While it is true that the sample size of this study was small, it nevertheless indicates the need for precaution and further research because the biotech industry sometimes even uses small sample sizes." Here is an example of a scientifically reliable article and here is one that is surely not. Let's all enrich our understanding of genetics and why exactly there are so many risks to this technology!

2. Are you being preachy?

Why is it that Jehovah Witnesses turn so many of us off? Why is it that Angry Vegans often make meat eaters want to go and eat more meat? It is not because of what they are saying. It is how they are saying it. Are you speaking in a way that will make the average consumer feel like you think you are better than them? When people approach us as if they know everything and as if their life mission is to "save" or "wake up" the masses, they flip a switch in our brains from "receptive and listening" to "ok, I gotta get outta here. This person is too much". People are most open to learning from those who are open to learning from them. Reciprocity builds relationships, trust, and a motivation for both people to develop and grow.

3. Do You Know that Less is Sometimes More?

Too much information shuts people off. It is better to have a few, well-considered and well-delivered sources of information than a deluge of mediocre ones, interspersed with the occasional excellent one. The slurry of average-quality messages will camouflage the great ones. People like diversity. People like new stimulation. People do not like opening their Facebook feeds and seeing 20-30 posts monotonously re-informing them that "GMOs are bad" or are "destroying the world". They already get too much junk, most of which they just pass over. We should strive for optimal quantity not maximum quantity. And if, one day, we feel ourselves just a bit too fired up about our friend chomping down on a GMO cheeseburger? We need to take a moment, stop, and reflect: am I calm enough? Or will my comments deter him from listening to me ever again about this issue? If the latter, then maybe it is better to just keep silent right now.

4. Can you make your Message Pleasing?

Mass advertising works for products that people want to buy. It creates thirst and desire. But what we are selling does not often come across as pleasant or good or desirable. It sucks, but the truth isn't always nice.

There is some basic psychology here and you can bet the marketing firms hired by Monsanto know all about it: drinking a can of Coke makes people feel good. But being told that the Coke they've been drinking for 20 years is killing them (and the planet) makes people feel bad. Humans are simple creatures, attracted to what makes them feel good. They will generally prefer the quality of an immediate pleasure to the promise of a long term one. In fact, studies show that people will actually flock to their temptations precisely when they feel most badly about themselves. Our negative messaging may steer people straight towards their vices and dependencies... No wonder so much activism doesn't work!

A GMO-free world has a lot a beauty, health and magic and we need to show people that taking part in imagining such a world is itself more satisfying than munching Lays' GMO potato chips. It is more satisfying, isn't it? Well, how do we show that without force-feeding it?

In conclusion, I suggest that all of us make a lunch date with a teacher we know so we can ask them about teaching strategies and approaches that work in the class. Good teachers have care and tact and subtlety (in their better moments!) that will be of tremendous value for us in our struggle to improve ourselves and become better activists. To the chalkboards!

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