What U.S. Agriculture Should Learn from the Anti-Vaxxer Movement

You see it in the news almost everywhere today; Portland, OR is a hotspot of measles, and Queens, NY is facing both a measles outbreak and a rash of people not vaccinating their dogs. Even something as simple as how fast the flu spread in 2018 was due, in part to, historic low vaccinations. We now live in a world where the World Health Organization lists “vaccine hesitancy” as one of the top 10 leading health issues facing the world in 2019.

Five years ago people would sit around and laugh at the anti-vaccine movement, writing them off as a bunch of ‘crazies’ or ‘extremists’ making bad choices that simply did not yet impact the rest of the world. I think today we can say that is no longer the case.

How did we get here? By doing what I just did. We labeled the anti-vaxxer crowd as ‘extremists’ who didn’t demand our attention. As the movement grew, influential celebrities, and average people alike joined the bandwagon. In just five years, the movement went from fringe conversations to mainstream America.

Not only did we label the conversation, but we also ignored it. We assumed it wasn’t worth our time because science, history, and common sense told us the anti-vaxxer conversation would not catch on. We were wrong.

We stand at a chasm today; we are facing another wave of anti-innovation conversation around CRISPR, GMOs, and pesticides. GMOs and pesticides have secured their science with the public — CRISPR’s ability to ‘turn on and off’ genes that are currently in an organism, is going to be a messaging nightmare. On the side of innovation, CRISPR could make it possible to grow a safe, more abundant, level of natural resources. In everything from fish to trees to foodstuffs, innovations in agricultural practices means people in the industry have a growing set of tools to do the job right.

With every innovation there is a risk. If the public is afraid of what’s being done in the field, forest or fishery, there will be a movement like the anti-vaxxers. So how do communicators in the agriculture field fight this? While the answer seems simple, it isn’t easy.

Talk to more people

Have conversations with your neighbors, friends or family — any parents you might know who are concerned about innovations in agriculture and their child’s safety. One of the reasons the anti-vaxxer movement was able to move from fringe conversation to more mainstream groups was its growing popularity in everyday conversations. Anti-vaxxers posted online, met with parent groups and, to put it simply, talked with other members in their community. Anti-vaxxers owned the conversation.

Become a resource

One of our key goals should be to make everyone in our community a resource for anyone who doesn’t understand agriculture or the science around it. Stay knowledgeable. Engage with outside communities to ensure agriculture’s voice can be deployed in the right conversations.

Provide answers

More than a resource, be the asset that offers context and the whole story. Opposition to modern agriculture practices controls conversations via the web, one-on-one interactions at the grocery store, and by pushing their agenda on local legislation. The anti-vaxxer movement has shown us that if we don’t provide people with answers — and we don’t engage with the truth — opposition groups with different objectives will fill the gap with their narrative and ‘answers.’

If we don’t begin to talk about the need and the benefits of what is being done in agriculture today, someone is going to try and stop it. As communicators in the agriculture industry, we must ensure information is accurately shared with decision makers, influencers and the general public, or groups will work to slow innovation in the industry, impacting not just scientific advancement, but our very own food accessibility and security, and U.S. economic growth.

Are there other movements you think our industry could learn from?