Bringing Back the Human Side to Ag

Meet Vance Crowe, Director of Millennial Engagement with Monsanto. That’s right: He was hired explicitly to reach out to those born between 1980 and 2000 — the generation who grew up presuming Monsanto was the devil incarnate, and globally, is projected to make up half the workforce by 2020.

A millennial himself, the cheery, super-articulate Crowe jets around the country speaking in disparate forums, from a discussion with art school students in Manhattan on how activists visually portray fear about GMOs one day, to talks with cutting-edge scientists at the University of California at Berkeley on the need to speak up for their work the next.

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Vance Crowe, Director of Millennial Engagement, Monsanto

Vance Crowe, Director of Millennial Engagement, Monsanto

“I would say 98% of the conversations I have are really positive. The other 2% are suspicious but not hostile or angry. I have almost no negative conversations,” Crowe says. “I have found that if you can show what problem farmers are faced with and why they made that switch over to something like herbicide-resistant Roundup Ready crops, suddenly they are much more open to it. When we talk about things like Palmer amaranth, most people have no concept. But if you explain to them just how scary and how quickly moving and how strong this weed is, then suddenly they get on board with you and say, ‘Yes, we do need to find ways to outcompete it; we need to help farmers have access to those technologies.’ But without them understanding the problems farmers are trying to overcome, they don’t see any reason to change. It feels like all risk and no reward. Helping them understand what farmers are facing, I think, is the key to helping (agrotechnologies) get acceptance.”

Which brings us to the trend Crowe has observed in the two short years since he joined the ag giant: More people are changing their tune toward agrotechnologies in a positive direction. And it isn’t only the younger crowd, but all age groups.

“I would say the change has been profound,” he tells AgriBusiness Global. Even in the last year, the questions from the public have moved away from the safety of GMOs to other ag topics. People are still interested in where their food comes from, but “the level of frustration and anger has diminished.”

Bearing out Crowe’s observations is an entire movement debunking pseudoscience all over the internet of late. See Facebook groups like GMOLOL, which with 12,000+ members and growing, is a constant stream of memes and links poking fun at and exposing so-called chemophobia peddled on popular sites Food Babe (a.k.a. Vani Hari), Natural News, March Against Monsanto, and more.

Pro-science podcasts such as Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe and League of Nerds boast impressive followings, while ag technology-affirming articles now appear frequently on mega-traffic sites like The New York Times, Slate, Forbes, and others. Reddit AMAs (short for “ask me anything”) with scientists on the topic of GMOs count upvotes in the tens of thousands (e.g., see the one with Monsanto’s Fred Perlak) against a minority of naysayers.

Let’s not forget the influence of Bill Nye, “The Science Guy,” who famously revised his anti-GMO stance last year. He tweeted, “I changed my mind. It’s the way of science.”

Crowe credits ag industry and science community efforts in the last two years to actively engage pop culture circles — which is the exact opposite tactic these groups used to take. Majoring in ag communications is a thing now at certain universities.

Sometimes it even gets strange, like when Robb Fraley recently sat down at Monsanto headquarters with the Mother Jones journalist Tom Philpott, one of big ag’s harshest media critics. Philpott remarked that he “greatly appreciated the access and transparency” granted to him, and hoped to keep the dialogue open.

Kavin Senapathy, co-author of The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House, co-founded March Against Myths About Modification in 2015 — a counter protest campaign to the March Against Monsanto. The mission: “To stand up for science and call on others to do the same.”

She tells AgriBusiness Global via Facebook chat, “In my experience as a mom, science advocate, and communicator, I’ve found that when we demystify food technologies like genetic engineering, they become less ‘scary’ and people almost become relieved to no longer have to worry and spend the extra cash!”

The Danger in Demonizing
Dr. Carmen Bain, Associate Professor of Sociology at Iowa State University, is an adviser to undergraduate students majoring in Agriculture and Society, which examines farming through a social science lens. Most of her students come to her now, declaring they want to be advocates of agriculture. She is careful to note her appreciation for the desire and the genuine place from which it comes.

“(Advocating for ag) is a big thing now. They feel their way of life has come under attack,” Bain explains, “but I don’t know that it’s leading us to a better dialogue, unfortunately. What we’re seeing is a lot of defensiveness on both sides … The (pro-GM side) says, ‘We’ve just got to convince them of the science and it’ll go away.’ It’s really not that useful. I think this issue is a lot more complicated than that.”

She offers a piece of advice. That is, to remember that the debate won’t be settled by arguing on science — as if science is the only horse the pro-biotech side has in the race.

And, is the real debate here even about GMOs? Hardly, Bain says. “GMOs have become a proxy for many concerns that people have about the food system.” Organizations mobilizing around and framing the debate bring up social and environmental concerns, concerns about the power of companies like Monsanto have over the seed industry, concerns that farmers are on a GM-agrichemical treadmill that keeps expanding. Social activist groups and some consumers wonder, is the system really transparent, and do we need to know how our food is being produced?

Bain argues that average consumers do not or necessarily care to understand everything that goes into food production. And who can blame them? Most are sincere in their desire to do the best for their families, and at the same time are inundated with conflicting messages: Take charge of your own health, because life is what you make happen, not what happens to you! But, don’t demand more information in the form of a GMO label — it would only mislead you!

She also makes the point that social movements have created important opportunities for farmers to stay in business by driving demand for non-GMO and free-range products. “Fundamentally, what a lot of people care about and what we’re trying to figure out is how can we support more farmers staying on the land, and therefore, support more rural communities.” She says, “If there’s a niche market, that’s great.”

Colin Bletsky, Novozymes Vice President of BioAg, is intimately familiar with the ways agriculture is often perceived by those furthest removed from it. A lifelong farmer based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, “my farm runs through my blood.” It makes it that much tougher to hear the misconceptions. But, he says that it’s the job of not only industry to combat those.

Talking about the issues among all of the key stakeholders — universities, governments, scientists, nutritionists — is part of a multi-step process to help urban populations gain a better understanding of the role GMOs and other agricultural technologies, such as the microbes around which much of Novozymes’ work centers, can have in creating a better society.

“If I’m going out to see a farmer in Southeast Asia and seeing a 30% or better yield increase in their rice crop, well that just fed that farmer’s family for a year. Whereas before they may have gone hungry. There’re a lot of good things these products are doing that people just don’t see.” He adds, “I don’t have the one answer on the right way to target (urban populations), but it needs to be a consolidated view with many key stakeholders to drive this messaging.”

The Young and the Wise
Probably few others on the planet have a talent for making an impression on the public about ag without being divisive like the Peterson brothers, who hail from a fifth-generation farming family in Kansas. The blond, muscled trio — Greg, Nathan, and Kendal, who are 25, 22 and 19, respectively — released their first self-produced music video on YouTube in 2012, “I’m Farming and I Grow It,” a hilarious parody of the hit song “I’m Sexy and I Know It.”

No one-hit wonders here. They have followed up with many more videos, the most popular being “Farmer Style,” a spoof of “Gangnam Style.” Sample lyric: “Without the farmers workin’ we would all be starvin’, you know what I’m sayin’?” Total views of their videos to date: 40 million.

The brothers keep fans updated on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They blog on their website, petersonfarmbros.com, about their stances on GMOs and pesticides, but welcome those with different viewpoints to be their friends — as long as the conversations are civil.

Greg Peterson, the family spokesman of sorts, explains that they started the videos to give a glimpse into real farm life: “It was more like, people didn’t think farmers were very cool. We felt people thought farmers were old, boring, and outdated. We were just aiming at our friends and never thought the whole world would be watching.” After going viral, they realized they could use their niche fame to tell the story of agriculture. Greg now books about 90 speaking engagements a year all over the U.S. and abroad.

In Greg’s February 2016 TED Talk, “Celebrating Diversity in Agriculture,” he appeals to the audience in his down-to-earth yet passionate way, “I’m not asking you to trust big ag corporations. I’m not asking you trust the government. But at the root of this whole diverse equation of agriculture are these family farmers, like me. We are just trying to make the best decisions for our farm, and we’re not under control; we’re not asked to do things. We are absolutely free to plant and harvest and take care of what we have and produce to the best of our ability.”

He talks about his travels to South Africa, where he witnessed countless people starving and living in slums — in other words, genuinely pressing problems. He talks about how spreading fear, misinformation, and propaganda will not fuel human existence in the future. He talks about diversity being the answer when it comes to agriculture.

“We need to stop fighting. We need to stop saying that one method of farming is better than another. Instead of doing that, we need to be thankful, we need to appreciate what we have, but we need to work to get better,” he says. “We need to better our farming practices and reduce our impact on the environment … We need to embrace and celebrate the diversity that agriculture has to produce all these different products in all these different ways. We also need to be thankful.”

The Peterson brothers have no five-year plan, he says, but they hope to expand their farm and keep sharing the positive message about farming. He assures this includes more videos. Which song will they parody next? Not sure, but “we made a pact that there will be no Justin Bieber.”