What can Biotech, Pharma, and related industries do about the lack of trust towards GMOs?
- Juro Oravec
- 4 min read
From personal experience, the issue with GMOs boils down to unfamiliarity.
What GMO means to people
When you work in life sciences, and you hear GMO, you can think of the process that lies behind it. The process is neither "good" nor "bad", that's about how it is used. And if you know just a high-level of the approval / testing process, you can be safe knowing that it is very unlikely that GMO food would cause you any issues.
But when you lack the understanding of the field such that you don't even know that bioinformatians are a thing (this one surprised me), and you hear GMO, you can only recall what's perpetuating in the news/pop culture - mutants, crazy scientists, evil corporations and what-nots.
Among younger people I've also seen that they see Monsato and GMO as one, and project their distrust towards Monsato via GMO (this article explains it very well).
Building public trust is not an easy task for Biotech
I mentioned the above because it affects the possibility to build trust. After all, who is it who wants the public to be more trusting towards GMOs? Companies and stakeholders close to GMOs. And whom does the public fear? The same groups.
It's similar to the growth of anti-establishment sentiments over the last few years. If the public is polarized and doesn't trust the establishment, then any message from the establishment will be twisted, whether it's sincere or not, and the polarized groups will only take away what fits their worldviews. Which means that it's very hard to build trust from the Biotech's position.
Another issue is that the majority of the Biotech industry is B2B-oriented. So engaging and aligning with the public is not in their immediate focus, and so the industry remains "mysterious".
What's more, oftentime it's in the companies' interest not to engage with the public to protect their IP. And then, when there are actually some recognizable Biotech B2C players, they still trip up the trust (thinking of 23andMe).
How can these be overcome?
Two issues that can be addressed
I can see two topics here:
- Support more B2C Biotechs, because engaging the public and demystifying the field is directly aligned with their business model, unlike for B2B Biotechs.
- Encourage companies to utilize peripherals to build the trust indirectly (e.g. employee advocacy).
The second point might be unusual, so let me explain that one:
The company where I currently work is in Pharma, but in reality it's more of a "tech" company (PharmaTech, is that a thing?). Considerable size of the company is IT - infrastructure, ML, BioInf, web services / apps. And the company is also B2B whose IP is one of the main selling points. So there's not as much of a primary (business) motivation for public engagement.
However, since it's tech product heavy, there's a lot of employees who are not directly engaged in the IP, but still involved enough to see how the industry actually works (e.g. software engineers, designers, product managers, HR, finance, etc). These professionals are in a good position to build the trust towards the industry via their professional circles, because their opinions on that matter are not inherently tied to their knowledge domain.
Before people are willing to a change of mind, trying to address the issue of distrust directly can fall flat (worst case used by interest groups against the case of GMOs). That's why I think the two points above are also necessary to make progress.
Of course, it goes hand in - you need the right message and the right messenger.