Addressing Environmental Issues With Value Narratives

Developing Effective Strategies: Addressing Food Security, Climate Change and Agriculture with value driven narratives

Listen to Journalist and Communications Director for the Global Justice Economy Project Jeff Conant discuss four GMO story arks he finds in the media, and alternative narratives.

Conant says the common narratives are: Feeding the World is only possible with Biotech, Innovation versus Fear (which also includes the Green Revolution in Africa), Separate but Equal (GMOs and conventional seeds can comingle), and The Big Green Narrative, which is about commodifying all life forms based on carbon. See the partial transcript below.

For more information about the conference see San Francisco Justice Conference Plants A Seed.


I’m Jeff Conant, I’m a writer and journalist and working as communications director for a little organization called Global Justice Economy Project, largely focusing on climate justice, and media movement support through doing media advocacy for climate justice. And there are a lot of us here! It’s really exciting, a lot of people caem to this session, which means we have a lot of minds to work with.

Claire Hope Cummings couldn’t make it, but what we’re going to do with her time we hope – I’m going to talk for a bit about the dominant media narratives around GMOs media culture and the assumptions that accompany that… we’re hoping we can break into small groups and come up with some positive narratives we can use in the campaigns we’re all working on, or the larger campaign, as Mary said – to redesign our agriculture and systems.

1:10 So, any time I talk about media advocacy I like to make the point that storytelling, which is really what media advocacy is about – is one strategy that can only work if we’re also employing lots of other strategies – so I personally believe we need direct action, we need legislative strategies, legal base-building, we need all of that. And we need to build our storytelling/media capacity so we can get the word out and create spectacles that shift the dominant understanding of the issues we’re working on.

2:00 To begin, I think I know the answer to this, but – If you trust the media raise your hand. (laughter) Why is that? Some of it is obviously, we think about this all the times – but give me a couple reasons why we don’t trust media. Corporate media – I actually mean all media – I don’t trust facebook. I write articles, I’m a journalist I wouldn’t trust what I write – in terms of is it the truth – my point – anyway I won’t go on…

Corporate control, special interests, promotional, target audience…
ideological hegemony of the corporate worldview expressed through the media…

so there are assumptions built into the message we hear in the media that we need to be afraid of foreigners or poverty or lack of health insurance or whatever. I agree with all of that and part of what I think a lot about is the media supposedly exists to tell stories but in fact it exists to lay waste to stories. A good story lasts all night or week or month. Human society human culture is built on stories, the human brain functions by way of metaphor, narrative. The media Clips, segments – these are some of the words you hear – by doing that they break up stories, and disarticulate human experience….
I’m not saying they’re not telling human stories they’re telling what I call imperial stories – that serve capital and corporate interest. But we’ll have time to talk, I don’t expect everyone to agree with what I’m saying.

4:00 This is an extreme position. The media exists to distort and to manipulate, and this is an extreme position but – if you read the NYTimes any of us against GE crops and US wars for hegemony – we are extremists. So I want to start from that perspective. We are already extremists in this room according to the dominant media. So I’m taking an extreme perspective on that. And the challenge is that because the media’s so dominant and because the stories we see in the media dominate we believe them whether we think we believe them or not. There’s a grain of truth like the germ of a seed, it gets in there. So I want to help us think about the language and narratives used in our dominant culture to talk about agriculture in general and GMOs in specific.

4:45 Because I believe that words like Sustainable agriculture natural food family farming organic – to me those words are lifeless. They’ve had all the substance drained from them, it’s like a Safeway tomato or Walmart celery stick. We believe in the concepts. But I believe the vocabulary around it has been so completely drained of meaning it’s dangerous for us to use it.

5:30 Industry, Monsanto is talking about – conservation agriculture, No till farming, sustainable development – these are lovely words and concepts and they’re not ours, they’ve been taken from us. We’ve witnessed the enslavement of plants, we’ve witnessed the enslavement of the land language – in order to free the plants to free agriculture – to free the great human tradition of how we interact with the land and the plants – we need to come up with a new narrative and a new language.

6:00 To me all the narratives are what I call imperial narratives. Humans have come to think in terms of efficiency/maximization – I don’t actually think that’s a human tendency, I think it’s an imperial tendency. We’re all thoroughly colonized/imperialized but we can get away from it if we’re very conscious of it.

There’s a trend these days to talk about value-driven narratives; trend these days to talk about developing narratives that can reach out to the so-called ‘center’ of this country, reach out to the mainstream – reaching out to appeal to patriotism, to appeal to the kind of narratives the tea party is putting out there – I’m not interested in that they’re imperial narratives to me. But I am interested in helping us prepare our own narratives.

I looked over the coverage of GMOs that the NYTimes has done over the last year – I found 4 narratives that will be familiar to you… 4 narratives embedded and the assumptions that are in there, and then maybe we can come up with some different assumptions.

8:00 The first of these is Feeding the world. The GMO/life sciences industry is all about feeding the world. We will not feed the planet without GMOS. Just for fun, I want you all to say “I can feed the world, I can feed the world, we can feed the world, we can feed the world” How does that feel in your mouths? Good? I’m not so sure. Because we can’t feed the world, I can’t feed the world, anyone who can feed the world can starve the world. We can feed each other and collectively feed our bioregions – but this narrative who’s the we? In this narrative it’s Monsanto. Do we want Monsanto feeding the world? No.

It’s an inherited narrative. I think we – there’s a tendency in our movement to say we can feed the world using agroecologoy. In fact Agroecology isn’t about feeding the world it’s about feeding a handful of people in your bioregion. Of course it’s very complicated it’s a globalized world things are going everywhere, but still…

9:20 It’s a narrative of centralized control and imperial technocratic dominance and it’s a dangerous lie. Getting into the facts of it world crop production has tripled since the 1950s and more people go hungry now than 20 years ago. We the imperial seed corporations we can feed the world but we don’t / won’t because it’s not good for business. As we know, rather than growing food to actually feed the world they grow food to feed the market and profits. Part of the we can feed the world is that World pop is going to reach 9 bn any minute now just reached 7 bn – and we learn from the New York Times and other places, there’s a growing hungry population and rapidly expanding middle class- these people need to be fed we need to feed them or they’ll come to our dinner table and take our food – otherwise an angry mob is going to come – we’re about to be burdened by 3 bn more people mostly brown people from the developing world.. but in fact there’s already violence riots etc even though there’s enough food…
10:40 The we is also – There’s the white man’s burden in there – we need to feed them they can’t feed themselves. Historically human beings feed themselves pretty well or we wouldn’t be here.

11:00 part of my point isn’t to argue with that position, but to recognize the
racist imperialist corporate assumptions.

2 – They’re the innovators, we’re afraid – filled with fear of the future – we’re victimized disempowered and unknown.

11:30 In a NYTimes Oped that came out last month Nina Federoff – former science tech advisor to the secretary of state – pulled a classic right-wing move by attacking the regulations of EPA, FDA, when she wrote again – there will be 1-3 billion more people to feed by mid-century and yet the process of approving more GE crops has become so costly and so burdensome that it’s choking out innovation.

11:45 So aside from invoking the narrative of the starving huddled masses that we the imperialists will have to feed when they show up at our dinner tables she invokes another classic narrative which is fear of the future versus innovation. They, the life sciences industry, they are the innovators. And we, the extremists against genetically engineered foods, are filled with fear of the future. And that’s why we want to stop GMOs. Because we don’t understand them, we’re victimized by them, we’re disempowered. And imperial narratives are always about constructing an illusion of a prosperous future and casting the past as primitive and backwards and dirty and dangerous and in this case, we know – and this is how I think we challenge this narrative – we’ve seen what unregulated technology can do – above ground nuclear testing tobacco lead pesticides GMO foods – we know what unregulated tech can do.

it’s not that we have no idea, it’s that we are responsible stewards who want to help usher us into the new world.

13:15 now that I’m thinking about this, I’ve been adding to my notes, I want to put each struggle narrative into a breakout group….

I don’t know whether any of the groups have talked about the green revolution for Africa – I know that’s a big issue tha’ts floating around. Feed the world narrative is what justifies the Green Revolution for Africa. And to me that’s one of the issues we all need to be focusing on., and that’s basically that We need to feed Africa because Africa can’t feed itself out of an office in Seattle.

On the we’re afraid of the future, they’re the innovators – does everyone know la via campesina – the largest peasant farmer movement in the world. They’re throughout the global south and in America and some other places as well. Based on food sovereignty and the basic idea that we can feed ourselves/each other and should have the right to feed ourselves and each other, and that peasant farmers have always done that. So to say that it’s a question of fear of the future versus innovation we’ve read the IISAD report that came out, we know that small family farms work. We aren’t afraid, we know the facts.

A third narrative it hink is really dominant right now in the GMO field. When Tom Vilseck approved the GMO alfalfa in January … coexistence…

3 – Separate but equal – organics and gmo’s – not separate! They’re for freedom of choice,…

separate but equal, the idea that you can have organics and GMOs separate but equal. But as we know based on the science they’re nto separate. They comingle, contaminate – to get them into the food system – and it has worked very well.

Keep in mind according to the separate but equal mindset, we’re intolerant. Part of when we do media advocacy – we need to know how we’re cast as environmental social justice people. We are cast as loony tunes, nutjobs, intolerant…

17:10 Andrew Revkin – NY Times writer – there was a burning of a test field of GE wheat in Australia – one of the very successful tactics that have limited them. Andrew Revkin called it the act of a few extremists envisioning a utopic future that can feed 9bn people. So he’s bringing again those 9 billion hungry people who want our food, so we have to feed them before they want our food. And the acts of a few extremists… As if thousands of farmers in India committing suicide because of debt isn’t an extreme situation. Another classic meme – especially around military industrial complex – it’s a Rumsfeld quote. if you want to make an omelet you have to break a few eggs. We can’t feed 9 billion people without some butterfly’s getting there wings scuffed up, so keep your eyes out for that.

4 – The Big Green Narrative – new form of capitalism coming – the New Green Economy – doesn’t mean buying hemp socks and recharagable batteries – it means commodifying all forms of life. And you’ll hear more about it. But since the beginning proponents of GMOs have said they’re environmentally friendly because they require fewer inputs – have claimed they’re perfectly compatible – I’ve met GMO industry people who are organic farmers – they believe in organic and GMOs.

There’s a very strong connection between GMO and the way they’ve been promoted and biofuels, for one. A few years ago biofuels became the darling of enviro groups because of the mistaken belief that anything bio is good…– a lot of research and a global food crisis later – not good or green.
They can be in small local amounts – They’re called agro-fuels in the global south. I like that because bio implies life – good. They’re agriculture based.
Now in Europe more than x percent are biofuels.

21:00 Related to the biofuels thing is GE trees. We hear very little about GE trees in the media but in fact the USDA just okayed test crops of GE trees in 9 states in the US South. GE Eucalyptus is being developed for biofuels, GE pine – they’re developing GE trees much easier to break down cellulose into fuel to make biofuels out of. So we’ll see a huge wave of GE trees that are climate-friendly…

22:00 Synthetic Biology – there’s an amazingly useful report that came out about a year ago called the new biobassters – etc from the group that named the terminator seed and won a moriatorium on it. They’re looking at synthetic biology – recombinant dna made in a test tube – insert into living organism and produce something that’s never before been produced in nature. The key example, something that’s coming into production right now, is synthetic algae that can excrete jet fuel. The example that’s potentially going to win one of the founders of synthetic biology the time magaziner Man of the Year award – is the invention of synthetic anti-malarial drug. Part of the reason synthetic biology is important to us – is because the global center of synthetic biology is UC Berkeley – and the national labs started this and are about to open a second campus either in Richmond or west Berkeley.

24:25 Is Bectel working on that? Chevron, BP, Amaco, Total, Dow, Sangenta, Monsanto – all of them are on board with this. One of the primary companies in the Bay – [Amarys] – one of the Berkeley grads started a lot of these… I just want to read the tagline they use on their website “integrated renewable products company providing sustainable alternatives to a braod range of petroleum products. Amarys uses bacteria … flexible building blocks… commercializing for consumer products and as renewable diesel/jet fuel …”

And in this case renewable doesn’t mean pachemama can restore it seasonally, you make it in a testtube. That’s what that means. And it’s going to be a strong part of the next generation of technologies…

26:00 Not just jobs, but green jobs. And not just green jobs, but green jobs for brown people. I hate to be blunt about it, but that’s a narrative – getting into the everybody talking – one of the reasons I felt really strongly about bringing synthetic biology to the table here – Gayle McGlauchlin? Disaster of corporate welfare vs human poverty that is Richmond.
Gayle who’s downstairs – she wants this lab – needs this lab – going to ‘promote green jobs’ in a devastated local economy – how to help her not have that lab in her community – it’s not green jobs – it’s a biohazard cite.

27:40 one of the points I hope comes out of this discussion – you don’t fight lies with truth. You fight lies by challenging the assumptions underlying them and then reframing the debate. This is a mistake we make over and over on the left. We know we’re right ubt we also know we’re losing badly. But first we need to change the terms of the debate and then we can bring out our facts. Because we have them.

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