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Ag technology vs the lizard brain.

Ag technology battles rage in ballot initiatives and legislatures, but agri-marketers may be losing the war where campaign messages get processed deep in the "lizard" brain.

Agri-marketers preach positives, while anti-technology activists foster fear. Both messages filter mostly though life experiences, but brain wiring may explain why agriculture had to spend $44.4 million in California to beat a $10.7 million "label-GMO" ballot campaign by just 3%. The same group burned another $22 million in Washington state for a 10% win over labelers who spent $7 million.

Meanwhile, trust in food and farmers takes costly hits. New strategies are needed to move beyond defense, and maybe even create technology demand. "Experience shapes how people process fear," says Richard Wetzel, Ph.D., retired 41-year veteran Professor of psychiatry, neurology and neurological surgery at Washington University, St. Louis, MO. "However, our brains process emotions and rational thought differently. Fear can easily outweigh facts."

He says the primitive limbic system, sometimes called the "lizard brain,"can process fear first. Later the rational neocortex solidifies viewpoints. That sequence makes it easier to sell fear.

Wetzel says some people have more neutral connections between the lizard brain and the rational brain. The number of those connections also can make some people more emotional than others..

Brain wiring aside, technology faces visible marketing challenges. Nimble activist networks using scary messages and cherry-picked science are more efficient than careful corporate teams, which avoid controversy and clone coalitions from their conservative DNA.

Trouble starts with copy. Activists energize media with catchy keywords like "Frankenfoods," which conjure monsters from corn flakes. Copy claiming "no injuries for 20 years" can't compete.

-industry sometimes fights liKe Revolutionary British soldiers, but lining up in red coats with white X's against snipers doesn't work. Winning a losing battle requires new strategies,"says Illinois Soybean Association CEO and retired Navy Commander Craig Ratajczyk.

Here are ideas from the anti-technology playbook that can retake the high ground:


Communicators need clearance to take risks. Top brass must give marketers freedom and budgets to fight.


Mainstream agribusiness stays "technology-neutral" because it supports free choice. But most trouble comes from the organic sector. Stopping at silent neutrality leaves uninformed or unscrupulous organic marketers free to own public perceptions. It's time to spotlight manipulative organic marketing and include organic pesticide, farm demographic and food contamination facts in the consumers' "right to know."

That's possible while supporting organic farming and its ethical marketers.


People like farmers. Make farmers an icon like "Smokey the Bear," threatened by activist fire. Let's use families who grow organic and modern crops as the icons to depolarize agriculture and show both practices are compatible.


Spotlight genuine problems. We have the world's largest surplus of arable land and water per person and grocery stores larger than football fields. Our Asian customers have a fraction of those resources per person. A shrinking margin between resources and soaring food demand is just one option for a motivating campaign.


Doing the job right will incite howls of protest. Even the brain-impaired "Chipotle Scarecrow" distressed the greenest-minded for not being issues-sensitive enough. Media love a ruckus. With each lamentation, have a multi-crop network counter respond with "limbic-tuned" messages to keep opponents on defense.

The intersection of neurons, science and marketing is complex. Protecting farmers and technoloy is life critical. We need a new conversation about genuine agricultural challenges before food becomes a survival issue that makes marketing battles seem like time and money poorly spent.

John Osthus has nearly three decades of agricultural marketing experience, including agency and corporate roles launching and managing communications for several animal and plant biotechnology products dating back to 1993. He is located in St. Louis, MO, and can be contacted at


Anti-Technology                   Pro-Technology

Experiment on our children?   No deaths or injuries

Mutant frogs                  Discredited research

Superweeds                    Herbicide resistance

Factory farm                  Modern agriculture

Right to know                 Labels are confusing
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Author:Osthus, John
Publication:Agri Marketing
Date:Nov 1, 2013
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