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5 ways you can use science communication to change our food systems for the better

Photo: Francesco Carta photographer / Getty Images.

The food security debate is no longer limited to yields and calories. Increasingly, we are realizing that food insecurity isn’t only about poverty, but that hunger sprouts from inequality, environmental destruction and biodiversity loss. Clearly, getting it right on food needs systems thinking, and the call to convene the 2021 Food Systems Summit is a pronounced indication of this development.

By all means, the food system approach is necessary, and the COVID-19 provides a preview of what might happen if we don’t start to think and act more holistically. At the same time, food systems thinking highlights how complex and intertwined the issue of food really is and that it involves a huge number of actors, stakeholders and interests.

Bearing in mind the complexity of the issues at hand, how can we bring scientific evidence to the relevant decision-making arenas and make our voices listened to and heard? How can we translate research outputs and indigenous knowledge into political action and foster sustainable change? These questions were discussed during the session “Powering your food security work with impactful communication” at the SIANI Annual Meeting 2021. You can watch the recording of the session at the bottom of this page.

So, how can we use communication to transform our food systems?

1. Mind the messenger

People trust people and representation matters. Africans and Asians aren’t just victims, they have a lot of expertise and knowledge. It is important for the audience to identify with the messengers, and we have to tell development stories through the angles of their heroes.

For example, as part of their campaign to increase acceptance of eating insects, the AgriFoSe2030 programme asked for an endorsement from the mayor of Chinhoyi in Zimbabwe. Eating insects made him feel nostalgic about his childhood because this food was more widespread and accepted back then. His support increased public trust in the messaging of the campaign.

In response to the EAT-Lancet guidelines, which recommended switching to plant-based diets to stop environmental breakdown, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) worked with the Minister for livestock and fisheries in Ethiopia to develop a more nuanced messaging about the importance of livestock production and consumption for poor communities. Their efforts resulted in a very sincere and personal op-ed, which caught the attention of officials in the UN and, ultimately, helped to change the policy discourse on animal-based food consumption, highlighting that the conditions in the Global South and North differ and a more contextualized approach is needed.

2. Use Theory of Change for strategic communications

Many organizations already employ Theory of Change (ToC) in their project design, planning and evaluation to understand the desired outcomes. However, this systematic approach can also help create communications and engagement strategies tailored to a specific project and involve relevant stakeholders from the outset. Linking communication outputs and promotional activities to certain steps in your ToC will set you for a good start. Using this approach will also integrate communication throughout your project. Read about how the AgriFoSe2030 programme applied ToC in their communications strategy.

3. Don’t forget that science communication is a science in itself

Impactful science communication goes far beyond posting a tweet. It is a vibrant field of knowledge with its own methods and practices. A strategic approach starts from defining your objectives and audiences, proceeds with the creation of small-scale prototypes and testing, which generates feedback and data collection, informing research and project implementation as well as ensuring that your audience understands you. Ultimately, strategic communication is essential to any project concerning social change. Rapid Outcome Mapping Approach (ROMA) provides a great framework for understanding how communication can help foster sustainable policy change.

4. Focus on impact

There is a tendency to use science communications for resource mobilization. That is where the focus is shifting to branding and self-promotion, which, partly, is reducing trust among our audiences. It is important to understand the difference and direct more efforts to engagement, evidence-based communication and advocacy. It’s counterproductive to push people in the direction we want them to go, our role is to help them understand a topic and make up their own minds. In other words, science communication is a force for good, a tool for development and social justice.

5. Cultivate hope, don’t feed despair

Our planet is on fire, we are living through a mass extinction and climate change apocalypse, and the COVID-19 feels like a tasting of the end of times. Everything seems to be screwed up at the same time. However, messaging of despair and doom only communicate that it is too late to do something about it, making people feel overwhelmed and powerless. In contrast, emphasizing hopefulness can drive action.

For example, Nicholas Kristoff writes that he got little to no response to the heart-rendering stories about children with AIDs in Swaziland. These stories only reminded people about the world’s wretchedness. But his readers started to send money when he wrote a story about a Pakistani rape survivor who used the compensation money to start a school because she believed that education can help eliminate behaviors and attitudes that lead to rape. Ultimately, he raised over $500, 000 for that school fund, and it all started with a hopeful story.

“Do we dare to hope? Yes, we do,” writes Emma Marris, stating that even though our global challenges may look like impassable mountains there is always a way through. To make it happen though, the work needs to start right now, and hope can help us beat inaction. Because this planet is the only one we’ll have and home is always worth it. Get inspired with Mary Annaïse Heglar.

As the climate crisis, the food systems challenge is incredibly complex. Moreover, these two difficult tasks are interconnected and reinforce each other, like an “unhappy marriage”. Mainstreaming sustainable solutions to these challenges, while uniting people and providing space for inclusive dialogue is the mission of science communicators. And we need to approach this task with great care while being fully aware that we won’t always get everything right. But it is worth trying.

This article is based on the discussion held during the SIANI Annual Meeting 2021 with Anneli Sundin, Communications Officer at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), Thin Lei Win, journalist and former climate and food security correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, and Michael Victor, Head of Communications and Knowledge Management at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

Reporting by Ekaterina Bessonova, Communications Officer, SIANI.