Farmers, researchers and others in agriculture need to step up their game in communicating the value of biotechnology to consumers, a leading biotech advocate warned last week in Des Moines.

Otherwise, they risk permanently losing access to today’s biotech seeds as well as a wide array of promising breakthroughs scientists are now developing, said University of Florida professor Kevin Folta as he accepted the 2016 Bolaug CAST communications award at the World Food Prize ceremony in Des Moines.

"There are a lot of solutions to agricultural issues that are ready for the market. But they are arrested and can’t get out of the lab because of opposition to biotechnology," Folta said. "We have to change that."

After years of trial and error working to promote biotech, Folta said he’s convinced that honest communication through shared values is the key to making consumers comfortable with the technology.

Instead of battling with activists, it’s important to communicate the value and promise of biotech to parents who are concerned about their family’s nutrition needs, Folta said.

"They want to know who they can trust as they make decisions for their families," he said.

Farmers and others need to get away from simply spouting facts and statistics about biotech’s value and safety, the Florida professor said. Instead, it’s important to listen to consumers and honestly explain to consumers why farmers raise crops developed through biotechnology, Folta said.

"We beat them over the head with science and statistics when really all consumers want to know is — is the technology safe and can I trust you to use it correctly," he said.

Biotech crops are facing in­­tense consumer skepticism today, in part because, to date, there has been very little communication about the technology’s value, Folta said. "We have left a void that our opponents have been very happy to fill with misinformation."

To build the case for biotech crops, proponents need to quit being defensive and instead talk about the value of the technology both to individual consumers and to society, Folta said.

"We need to talk about how they can produce food that is more nutritious, tastes better and helps consumers make better food choices," he said. "It’s all about shared values and talk from the heart, rather than from the head."

Folta urged biotech proponents to speak very specifically about the technology benefits consumers, but to resist overselling it.

"You have to acknowledge that biotechnology is not the single answer, but one piece of the puzzle to solving problems," he said.

Biotech proponents, Folta said, need to take back the communication initiative by providing consumers a flood of information on the value of biotech.

"We can overwhelm this problem with the tsunami if all of us got involved," he said.

Otherwise, Folta said, promising technology will never reach the people who can benefit from it.

To assure consumers, Folta suggested that biotech proponents get up to speed on using social media outlets, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.

It’s also important to visit with neighbors, relatives and others in the community to help them understand why the technology is important, he said.

"I think we are having micro-conversions every day as people talk in their communities about biotech," Folta said.