The ambiguous power of imagery

An analysis of communication regarding plant protection products

The study aims to investigate the profound confusion about what can be defined as a plant protection product and, consequently, the impact their use can have on health and the environment. The project also aims to highlight what kind of socio-economic and cultural system has taken shape following the use of these products in order to gain insights on how to build future agricultural systems with a view toward greater sustainability. The approach employed in the study is that of analyzing different and often conflicting images--deriving from various sources such as chemical industries, citizens, consumers--related to the use of these products in agro-food and forestry sectors.
Media noise and poor communication affect agriculture

Following the radical transformations that are influencing the entire agricultural sector, new substances are becoming more widely known and are changing the production processes. There is a dual perception of the world of agriculture: there is the bucolic dimension par excellence in which products are seen as the fruit of nature, and there is the industry which produces quantity thanks to the use of chemical additives. The existence of these two spheres  compounds understanding of what is a product of nature and what is artificial. The CfGC has identified the case of the impact of plant protection products–commonly called ‘pesticides’–as an emblematic example of poor communication.

Indeed, in terms of communication it seems difficult to answer certain questions: What is a ‘plant protection’ product? How does it impact human health and the environment?

From an initial analysis, two opposing fronts seem to emerge:  

  • Some say that if we eliminate these substances development of the entire agricultural system as we know it today will suffer;
  • while others highlight the negative impact and related consequences, in terms of quality of life both for the effects they produce on human health and on the environment, that derive from their use.

In general, confusion is generated by the lack of data and knowledge available to farmers, as well as citizens, to help them understand the actual risks of using plant protection products. In fact, every citizen and person working in the sector has the right to know these substances and the possible consequences of their use. But this is not a simple thing to do.

Communication that brings together institutions, researchers, entrepreneurs and citizens

To investigate this problem, the CfGC has launched a study on what is meant today by a plant protection product and what are the risks that derive from their use both in terms of health human and the environment. The starting point for the analysis is documentation from the  European Commission, which regulates the use of these products: the European Parliament’s directive 2009/128 / CE and that of the Council which has established a framework for community action for the sustainable use of pesticides. Another point of departure for our study comes from a survey of the primary news published online about specific mediatic cases; one example is the case of the multinational agricultural biotechnology company, Monsanto, ordered to compensate a gardener who was diagnosed with cancer following the use of glyphosate.

The data that has emerged from this two-pronged preliminary analysis leads the CfGC to believe that a communication problem exists among the world of research, farmers, institutions, and citizens. Contrasting opinions are everywhere regarding various topics, the first of which relates to the carcinogenicity of some plant protection products, such as the aforementioned glyphosate.  

We are apparently dealing with a sort of short-circuit in which:

  • researchers do not have clear parameters available when speaking about the dangers of plant protection products;
  • decisions and regulations defined by institutions (at all levels) are not always enacted nor do they always take into account research data and the needs of farmers, who are in daily contact with phytosanitary products;
  • farmers are torn over applying rules which require them to rethink the entire production process of their farm, without any kind of support or knowledge of how to do so, and using chemicals that could potentially be harmful to consumers and those who employ them on a daily basis in their work;
  • citizens are constantly influenced by advertising campaigns affected by the ambiguous power of plant protection product imagery.

The CfGC is convinced that paradigmatic elements emerge in  the case of phytosanitary product communication that can also extend to other fields of application and study:

  • media noise caused by the diffusion of often contradictory news;
  • a lack of user literacy with respect to the search for information and limited ability to recognize authoritative sources;
  • isolation of researchers and policy-makers, meaning that even at a political communication level data and scientific sources are scarcely reported.

This sense of distance, of there being a gap is the result of communication processes that do not take into account the community-building activities necessary to create communities of interests, objectives and practices where stakeholders can bring up and compare their knowledge and skills. For example, whether it’s a scientist who studies the effects of glyphosate on health or a worker who has been using glyphosate for years.

The generative paradigm, in fact, starts from the assumption that each subject performs certain actions and adopts certain behaviors on the basis of specific know-how and, therefore, on the basis of knowledge that is detected and analyzed.

In this sense, the CfGC, as it is interested in the scientific nature of the data underlying good communication, carries out targeted listening and analysis projects to investigate the unexpressed needs of all stakeholders.


Generative communication for a National Action Plan

Since January 2018 the Center for Generative Communication has partnered with the Tuscany Region to develop a strategy based on the generative communication paradigm for the National Action Plan (NAP) approved in 2014 related to the sustainable use of phytosanitary products.

A community-building strategy has been undertaken to meet the objectives of the national law which requires each region to implement information-dissemination activities to raise awareness among farmers, workers and the population about the risks for human health and the environment of using plant protection products.

The CfGC is contributing by:

  • bringing together all the stakeholders  involved in the NAP;
  • bringing to the surface, analyzing and comparing the expressed and unexpressed needs of all figures involved (institutions, researchers, entrepreneurs, retailers, citizens, etc.);
  • supporting the involved regional Councilors (i.e. for Environment, Agriculture, Health) in identifying and defining the activities envisaged to raise awareness and inform citizens as well as to provide elements of knowledge to people working in the agricultural sector.

The strategy is based on a listening approach which takes place during interviews; it can be divided into two lines:

  1. a top-down approach to hear the point of view of executives, officials and, in general, of all those in the Tuscany Region involved in managing communication of the NAP and, at the same time, to document what has been done so far in terms of communication regarding the use of plant protection products;
  2. a bottom-up approach to collect information about the point of view of stakeholders at regional level, in local administrations, and among citizens to measure the degree of information and awareness, and to record the needs of those working in the field at all levels.

From the elements of knowledge that emerge from the intersection of these guidelines and related imagery, the CfGC:

  • will elaborate contents–communicatively dealing with the results of the listening process–to contribute to the national communication campaign on the use of plant protection products in the context of good Tuscan practices;
  • will support the Region in the development of an Information, Communication and Awareness Program, bringing the institution’s competence and point of view into contact with the needs and requests of the territory.