On Narrative Change
A reflection on our work for the end of the year.
We often hear the importance of narrative change in building movements and creating social alternatives for many of the ills we face as a society and humanity at large. There is a growing recognition of the foundational importance of stories in shaping our realities and increasingly, communities worldwide are demanding changes in how their stories are told. However, when a term becomes a trend, there is the danger that it becomes shorthand for thinking. Therefore, for our last substack of the year, we want to share some of our team’s reflections on our work, the importance of narrative change, and to open the conversation to our community.
Narratives and stories have always been part of society, and not as a strategy but as an action-oriented, cathartic navigation of life. In the Western Hemisphere, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution are some examples of fundamental snippets of history that continue to shape our present through ideas of self, power, and society. The catalyst prompting these structural changes was grounded in material conditions and ignited through a common narrative shared by the majority. I'm quickly pointing out Western history here due to its political, economic, and societal implications for the existing globalized economies.
With that said, throughout the Majority World, Indigenous communities also honor the power of oral tradition as a medium for evolving, storing, and transmitting knowledge, art, and ideas. The act of storytelling, in many cases, is a ritual where ancestral memories become alive. And as much as there is an undertone to relate written tradition with modernity, oral tradition remains alive, unruly, and challenging the ‘modern’ paradigm of history, time, and space, passing stories from generation to generation.
At this point in time, in the midst of a so-called technological revolution, the links to communication, media, and stories have gone through enormous changes. The speed and space that information takes over our lives to obscure realities and reinforce dominant narratives has accelerated, and a crucial piece in this puzzle is power. The design of platforms, access, and exposure to information has been steered mostly by profit-making organizations and has profoundly impacted our relationship with information and overarching narratives.
We seem capable of participating in an open and free, democratic space called the internet and social media, or at least that's the story we hear. Reality is certainly less transparent, and despite having more access to information quantitatively, we are slowly losing agency, sovereignty, and power over the narratives that shape our lives.
A case study on how narratives manifest - The Green Revolution, yet again
The case of the Green Revolution is a powerful example of the dichotomy between facts and truth. We’ve written several articles about the Green Revolution and how it has impacted lives all over the world. This time we won't do a thorough analysis of the material implications of this ‘agricultural project’, but we do want to shed some light on the impact a narrative may hold.
Through a series of life circumstances and the small size of the Mexican community in Addis Ababa, I had the chance to meet a Mexican scientist from Norman Borlaug’s team. Borlaug’s team was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for their efforts to decrease food insecurity, poverty, and conflict. Something relevant to A Growing Culture’s work came up in our conversations. Although we know for a fact the Green Revolution’s massive consequences over biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, and widening socioeconomic disparities, there is an underlying narrative that critics of the Green Revolution often ignore. A piece of the story that is not inherently “flawed”, but that helps us understand how we got here and how to bypass the Green Revolution at large. Let me elaborate.
To contextualize the original rationale of the Green Revolution in the 1950s, it stemmed from mainstream narratives around world hunger, and scarcity of resources for a rapidly growing population. Based on those assumptions, there was a reasonable outcry to put science at the service of humanity. The idea was that by tapping into ‘scientific progress’ and industrializing our food supply chains, we could increase food production and therefore reduce poverty and hunger in fast-growing countries - voilà, a narrative is shaped. Then reality kicked in, and despite the siloed scientific approach to addressing food security and hunger, we now know that the parameters of this story come from a limited understanding of reality. A reality where land, nature, community, culture, and the in-betweens, seem irrelevant to address the purpose of our food systems.
This compartmentalized reality and its partial formula to measure the success of the Green Revolution was and is being instrumentalized to perpetuate an extractive and capitalist system while hoarding wealth in the hands of the few; the few seed companies that control 60% of the private seed market, the few fertilizers and pesticide companies that control over 65% of the agrochemical market, and the few companies that control 75% of the global grain trade. And despite knowing the impact of the Green Revolution practices in Mexico, India, Philippines, Brazil, and Pakistan empirically, the need for industrial agriculture remains the 'overarching narrative' throughout many policy and development spaces, plus millions of dollars from tax-payers, extensive strategies from billionaire US foundations, United Nations, and corporations to support their investments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
All of this to say, at the end of the day, individuals have to make decisions to exist, subsist and, or resist in their material conditions, and these decisions favor certain models of social, economic, and political arrangements. On top of that, decision-making is constantly influenced by our understanding of the world, aka narratives. As for the Mexican scientist - an agronomist that lacked a deeper understanding of the social underpinnings of hunger - can’t be categorically condemned for aiming to eradicate it. But weaponizing science and using rhetoric to spread claims on how these technologies have nourished and fed the world is unethical, factually wrong, and basically fucked-up.
AGC’s approach to narrative change
Our work has always been to provide a platform for and connections between the communities doing the most powerful work in the world. We are grounded in the vision for food systems that can nourish us all, and we see anyone, anywhere, struggling for food sovereignty as a co-creator of that vision.
We remain conscious of our positionality, working closely with a web of peasants, fisherfolk, pastoralists, Indigenous communities, and the organizations and movements representing them. To do so, we merge strategic communications, experimental storytelling, and resource mobilization for those in the food sovereignty movement.
We work to advance agency over food systems. By amplifying peasant and Indigenous communities' voices, holding space for nuanced conversations, and appealing to our shared humanity. Our programs are designed as an ecosystem to reach different audiences in an effort to build global solidarity and embed conscious shifting.
What we’ve done in 2022
We were able to grow our Peasant and Indigenous Press. To date, we’ve hosted 6 forums broadcasted in multiple languages, with over 700 journalists in attendance from 300+ media outlets around the world. Over 1,000 journalists have signed up for our Press Forums from different media outlets, including Al Jazeera, BBC, POLITICO, Le Monde, Pan African Visions, Mongabay, and FreeSpeech TV. This program has helped produce over 250 published stories. Most recent publications: a Yes! Magazine piece on how farmer-scientists are conserving thousands of climate-resilient Indigenous rice varieties in India, and The Guardian’s feature on COP27’s problematic ‘solutions,’ as a result of our collaboration with IPES-Food.
We also hosted two very successful press workshops in 2022 and plan to expand this into a quarterly program in 2023. These two workshops - Beyond Ukraine: The Untold Story of the Food Crisis and Beyond Carbon: Food systems, Climate and Greenwashing at COP27 were attended by over 400 journalists, with another 1,000 streamed views of the recorded program that led to over 20 stories reported.
We launched Offshoot, the newsletter you’re currently reading - designed to grapple with the unanswered questions about food. These are unpacked in select issues such as: Can We Talk about Regenerative Agriculture?, The Case for Imagination, Can Small-scale Farmers Feed the World?
Increased visibility and capacity to develop content for our social-media-based learning platforms. Select Posts: Cultural Diversity = Biological Diversity, How to Change our Food System, Sri Lanka Teaches Us How Not to Go Organic, Climate Gaslighting.
Strategic Communications & Partnerships
We work with the largest networks of peasant and Indigenous groups around the world in narrative work. Our partners have flagged communication skills as crucial to strengthening the movement’s capacity. To do so, we currently offer strategic campaign development, website development, capacity sharing, and communications and storytelling training. These were some of our collaborations in 2022.
A documentary in partnership with Regenerosity entitled Liberation Agriculture, to broaden the social ecology of the regenerative movement and center the communities seeding radical hope for a more just and dignified food future.
Co-developed a digital communications campaign to support a multi-month-long campaign across South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Zambia to demand farmers’ rights to seed be recognized.
Partnered with GRAIN to raise awareness about the ways in which workers’ pension funds are fueling land grabbing and the expansion of industrial agriculture around the world.
And developed the Food Systems 101 Curriculum with Studio ATAO, a U.S.-based non-profit for equitable standards in the food, beverage, and hospitality industry.
Coming into the end of the year and with our last Substack for 2022, we want to ask our community for support. If our work has helped or inspired you, consider donating or becoming a paid subscriber to this Substack.
Help us start the new year stronger than ever to fight for food sovereignty for all.
This instalment of Offshoot was written by Margarita Bárcena Lujambio.
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