50 I EUROPEAN SEED I EUROPEAN-SEED.COM THE RISK CORNER TEN RULES FOR COMMUNICATING ON PESTICIDES BY: DAVID ZARUK O ne of the biggest challenges for any risk communications professional today is to deliver positive messages on pesticides. Like any communications process, trust is essential, but in a chemophobic world, trust in chemicals is a rare commodity. Pesticides found on the food the public consumes creates a vulnerability (fear) that cannot easily be overcome. People have to be convinced that their food is safe, any pesticide residues are of no risk and are there for a reason. In this case, we are asking a mother feeding her child to trust the chemical industry… a chal- lenge indeed. It wouldn’t be half as hard were it not for the opportunists seeking to take advantage of a vulnerable population worried about their health and the envi- ronment. With social media networks making it feel like cancer is found in every spoonful, frightened consumers reach for their wallets and the dream of a chemical-free world. The narrative driven by the chemophobic activist community is that pesticides are dangerous to con- sumers, unnecessary and destroying the environment. They have left most of us thinking there must be some evil indus- try conspiracy wanting to pollute the countryside, poison children and profit from some intentional cancer plague. Anti-GM campaigners have recently shifted their strategy to focus on how seeds are bred to resist certain pesti- cides. The activist attacks on glyphosate were part of an anti-GM campaign. Their logic is clear: attacking golden rice or GM brinjal was not going to increase mem- berships or donations, but pesticides attract public fear with minimal effort. So for those taking up the chal- lenge of getting the public to warm to pesticides (or pesticide-resistant seeds), allow me to catalogue what I feel are 10 best practices. There have been mis- takes in the past as there will likely be in future, but perhaps an open discussion is the best place to start. TEN RULES FOR COMMUNICATING ON PESTICIDES 1. DON’T DIMINISH HOW PEOPLE FEEL FRIGHTENED OR DISMISS THEIR CONCERNS Scientifically literate individuals under- stand the insignificant levels of pesticide residues found on most foods, the com- paratively high levels of hazardous natu- ral chemicals and the decades of research that have gone into registration and com- pliance of all pesticides. But the public does not and they have been made to believe, most recently with the Monsanto Papers, that nobody knows with any cer- tainty if any pesticides are safe at all. A scientist who dismisses their concerns, regardless how ridiculous they sound, is quickly dismissed. When people feel vulnerable, they seek out someone they can trust and who under- stands them. Don’t answer their questions with data, alienating chemical names or titles of important scientists or institutions. Try to put your answer into a personal story, compare the risk to an everyday exposure (like a cup of coffee) and try to demonstrate why farmers use these prod- ucts. Anti-chemical gurus became popular because they understood and shared the vulnerabilities the public felt. 2. CELEBRATE ACHIEVEMENTS: HIGHER YIELDS, SECURE HARVESTS, LESS LABOUR Malthus thought the world could not feed one billion people. Agri-technology has allowed man to feed an ever-growing pop- ulation with higher yields and less input and this should be celebrated. Man is a story-telling animal and the development of each pesticide is a story of how scien- tists were able to find a means to solve a problem and allow farmers to successfully bring a crop to harvest. Children in most countries no longer need to spend their summers pulling weeds. The best story to tell is one of food security: We no longer live in fear of major global crop failures – the technology is proven and trusted. 3. MAKE IT CLEAR THAT THE NATURAL VS SYNTHETIC SOURCE IS NOT AN ISSUE A dominant cultural narrative today is that natural is trusted. Organic food lob- byists like to claim their pesticides are safer because they come from a natural source. But the public needs to under- stand that all pesticides contain toxins that are used to solve specific problems (if they weren’t effective, they would not be used). Consumers must be reassured that all toxins used in crop protection, whether natural or synthetic in origin, have been well tested and are safe. The organic industry needs to behave in a more ethical manner here. 4. USE PRECISE TERMS WHEN POSSIBLE: INSECTICIDE, HERBICIDE, FUNGICIDE The word “pesticide” obviously has a bad connotation. More importantly, it does not say what the substance does. An insecti- cide kills insects – insects eat crops. If the public has a better idea what a substance does, they can better accept its necessity. While we don’t want pesticides, we also don’t want insects in our food, weeds in our garden or moulds or blight on our plants. A precise vocabulary is essential in risk communications. 5. SHOW WHY FARMERS USE PESTICIDES (BENEFITS) AND ONLY WHEN NECESSARY Farmers and farming are seen differ- ently. Farming is seen as a rather simple process: you plant a seed and in a couple months you take a harvest to market (… and I grew beans in my garden once!). Conventional farmers, on the other hand, seem to work for some industrial com- plex, poison the land and don’t care about public health. The organic food lobby bias that conventional farmers spray (douse, drench…) indiscriminately is inexcusa-