Dialogue framing and polarisation in the food debate: “Searching for shared values”

April 19, 2023

“I want to challenge you to take a step back and reflect on your own role when it comes to polarisation and framing in the food debate.” This is how Simone Ritzer welcomed a crowded room of academics, communication staff members, journalists, and other interested parties to Omnia, the dialogue centre on Wageningen Campus, on 11 April. Polarisation: it is a topical issue at a time when the media often discusses contradictions and social conflicts in society, such as the future of agriculture or nature versus technical solutions. This very topic is the focus of the film The Future of Food by Joris Lohman and Hidde Boersma, which was screened that afternoon. The filmmakers were present themselves, alongside Martine Kamsma (NRC journalist), Inge Wallage (director of communications and marketing at WUR), and Rens Vliegenthart, professor of Strategic Communication (WUR).

“Everyone looks at the world through their own lens,” says Ritzer. “And there are intentions behind that too. We will discuss this, especially the extent to which we can find common denominators.” Filmmaker Boersma admits to being tense, “There are so many knowledgeable people in the room.” “It is a dream come true to share our story in a place like this,” says Lohman. “Because many people, like us, have spent a long time trying to figure out the right direction for a new food system. This started back in 2009 for us, when the question emerged of how the world would be able to feed 9 billion people. The same contradiction kept coming up: to live according to what nature provides or to increase agriculture and technology to produce more food?”

During their search, the two men stumbled upon the book The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles C. Mann. The magician represents innovation, while the prophet represents reduction. Boersma, filmmaker and founder of techno-optimistic NGO RePlanet can relate to the wizard. Lohman takes on the role of prophet — he is a co-director of Food Hub. Boersma: “I thought: one of us has to be right. But if you just keep fighting, nothing will happen in the end and the status quo wins. The main question is: do we not all want the same thing, and if so, how do we take these differences and use them to tell a new story?” According to Lohman, that is the purpose of today’s dialogue. “Not to delve into the content, but to see how each individual can take the discussion

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Meat consumption, land use, and CRISPR-Cas

The film opens with an image of Lohman feasting on delicious local mussels, harvested with care by a small-scale fishing company, and then shows Boersma visiting a potato farmer to see how one person can harvest 4 million kilos of potatoes a year and feed some 80,000 people with them. Should more people go back to working in the countryside and living closer to nature, or is that unthinkable and do we need technology? The two will battle it out in a boxing ring, while asking writer C. Mann for help with their “dialogue” during a video interview. Mann says, "Whatever the environmental question is, there are two sides, with the underlying value of 'freedom' at one end, and 'community' at the other. In the boxing ring, the men want to move forward on the issues of meat consumption, land use, and genetic engineering. Does this contrast help with that?”

They quickly come to a consensus on meat consumption: eat less and better meat, and commit to cultured meat. Boersma is persuaded by a nice piece of cheese from an organic farm. At the same time, his view is that a lot of land is needed for organic farming, at a high price. Cultured meat should be used for the majority of meat. Multiple solutions are therefore necessary.

To address the land use theme, the two will visit a farmer who uses strip cropping, which eliminates monocropping and increases biodiversity. “Eco-intensive” is something the two both like: a variety of crops to feed the world, not just wheat. There's more of a debate regarding genetic engineering though. Surely, modification seems to be very useful when you want to spray less poison on crops. The prophet favours classical breeding, without directly intervening in nature itself. They visit the plant lab of WUR researchers Jack Vossen and Bert Lotz, who work with CRISPR-Cas. Working at such a precise level allows for more efficient and environmentally friendly cultivation. Lohman jumps ship: genetic engineering could be one of the solutions.

A plot twist reveals that the boxing ring has been in Ghana all along, where the two men have flown to. Because they can think of solutions all by themselves, but how are things in other countries? Ghana's population is about to explode, and they are already importing food there. They hear about the WARC programme in Ghana, which involves agricultural intensification, and talk to an agronomist and farmers. Through the WARC programme, there are more financial opportunities to boost agriculture and generate more yields per hectare. The prophet is happy to see this is done with the local community and seems positive. It does involve more machinery and other crops — which are not always to the liking of the farmer.

In the end, the men are much happier after hearing a woman talk about fonio, a cereal that requires little water, has high nutritional value, and has traditionally been found in Ghana. But harvesting takes a long time: modern harvesting and processing methods could be used to resolve this, though. This is where the frames of magician and prophet come together — it takes technology to make something that is already good more efficient. The prophet must not fear innovation and machinery where necessary, and the magician must consider local concerns. The conclusion? Both sides use science. What can you take away from each other? What arguments can you acknowledge? What frames can you let go of?

Polarisation to generate attention

The audience gave varying, critical responses. One example was that the last part, about Ghana, felt like colonialism: exporting our solutions and ideas about quality of life to other countries. Someone else was highly critical of the positive buzz around CRISPR-Cas: we should not make nature dependent on human input in his opinion. Instead, science should be used to find out what nature itself can do.

But we were supposed to take a step back from the content today and focus on discussion of framing and polarisation. Professor Rens Vliegenthart therefore goes over his view on polarisation with the audience. “Issue polarisation is disagreement on content; affective polarisation is fighting each other on an emotional level, resulting in harsh words. It's not such a bad thing to have differences of opinion on the content, which often can help us a lot. But we have to be careful with affective polarisation. It is true that specific topics are coming to a head. But even so, there is no evidence that we have come to like each other less. Media and politics play a big role in the sentiment that polarisation has allegedly increased. Media (especially talk shows) and politicians often seek the extremes to generate attention. So the perception of increased polarisation is there, but there is insufficient scientific evidence on whether it actually exists.

Vliegenthart calls for the silent middle group to be looked at a little more often and paid attention to. “An adversarial approach is necessary, but in doing so, journalism and politics often look for a scapegoat. They are wrong. One consequence is that the group in between can be pushed to an extreme, while it is also possible to look for the common ground. On the contrary, there is quite a bit of agreement on the underlying problems and diagnosis.”

Polarisation has its place, but “stop fighting”

That calls for further discussion. Martine Kamsma and Inge Wallage join the dialogue alongside Vliegenthart, with Ritzer as moderator. Kamsma writes short articles on nutrition and health, aimed at informing consumers. Kamsma says that pieces about meat fanatics and meat haters are certainly read much more than about groups that frequently eat flexitarian or have no clear opinion. “I think that the group in the middle is interesting. My job is to show all sides. But it doesn't always work out. There is already a lot of bias in journalistic choices: how much of the page do you dedicate to what? We need to be aware of that. I hope that everything we do at NRC adds up to a nuanced overall picture. At the same time, your role as a journalist remains limited, because everyone also cherry-picks what they want from it.”

She mentions that, as a journalist, she mainly wants to ask a lot of questions and know everything about a subject. “I therefore also encourage scientists and scientific communications to really tell and share everything. This is how we get the whole picture. And then let me prove that I have got it right with the information I get from scientists.” I would like to know everything about CRISPR-Cas, the dangers and the benefits. And then you can make an entire film about that.”

According to Wallage, it is good to always consider within WUR “what our role is and who we serve with the stories we share with the world”. "It is good to determine the people you want to reach and the media that can be used to do so. At the same time, we want to take an independent stance on it because it is about science. Yet there are choices in this: do you want to chart a course towards solutions or fuel debate?”

All three agree that when it comes to polarisation, extremes can in fact also serve a purpose. Wallage: “For example, Aletta Jacobs, who pushed past the limits and thankfully that is why we have women in science today.” Vliegenthart: “Opposition and polarisation can be functional, if they are centred on the content. But do not lose sight of the middle ground either. Sometimes polarisation doesn't get you anywhere, and a more subtle path is needed: a constructive one. So stay away from affective polarisation.”

Finally, Ritzer encouraged the audience to look at the role each person plays, and whether you might sometimes fill it differently in order to move forward together. “Because a food fight won't get us anywhere: ‘Stop the food fight’.” Would you like to add your own two cents? If so, you can continue the discussion on a platform of the same name that the filmmakers have set up.