NADAWG discussion: Autonomy in the Face of AgTech
Summary of the NADAWG event discussing a narrative toolkit on ag-tech

About the Event

On Nov 30th, NADAWG hosted a conversation with Laura Dunn (representing ETC Group) and Justin Sardo (representing A Growing Culture) to discuss their newly published toolkit, “Autonomy in the Face of Agtech.” The document is a synthesis of workshops with La Via Campesina and the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa – two farmer social movements that are directly affected by the push of industry technologies. In a world where new technologies are sold to farmers too rapidly to analyze their impacts, the document offers tools to tackle the roots of industry narratives that underlie the many stories we are sold about technologies. After Justin and Laura explained the process of making the document and their conclusions, the group discussed how the findings relate to the work of NADAWG.



About the Toolkit

Autonomy in the Face of AgTech” lays out central narratives that are pervasive throughout industry stories, and potential counter narratives. For example “technology will save us” vs. AgTech corporations are pushers of technologies for their own profit. Or, “farmers must be entrepreneurs” (instead of producing to feed their community) vs. agribusiness entrepreneurs are captive consumers paying the agrochemical, seed, and ag-tech companies.

Justin and Laura discussed the emotions (specifically fear and hope) and assumptions that these narratives rely on. For example, the assumption that images showing shiny, metallic, plastic, and smooth things represent the future, whereas the imperfections of organic material are coded as out-dated.

What it means for North American social movements

Jason shared that throughout the process it was much easier to create counter narratives than to create the hopeful alternative narratives. It is easier, but ineffective, to respond within the same frame as a corporate narrative (i.e. responding to the narrative that industry technologies are needed to solve hunger by arguing that we can produce the same yields without those technologies). However this framing distracts from the real issues, in this case that inequality and the commodification of food causes hunger even though there is an excess of food globally. 

We discussed that it is difficult to move outside corporate frames because their appeal comes from their simplicity, often hiding a reality that is much more complex. Yet simplicity always seems to win in the narrative landscape. We were reminded that embracing complexity is one of the principles of agroecology, and maybe there could be a simple message that encourages people to embrace complexity.

In our discussion of alternative narratives that communicate our own hopes for ourselves and the world, we continued coming back to the pride in being a farmer. Pride in meaningful work, in self-determination, in the building of skill. Pride that being a farmer means being an engineer, artist, historian, and so much more. 

At the same time we questioned how words like self-determination, sovereignty, and autonomy can also be pathways to far-right thinking through connotations of self-defense, individualism, nationalism, and automation. We played with the idea of collective-determination to replace self-determination.

Following industry narratives, the market, entrepreneurial success, and myths of linear progress are the main opportunities for farmers to take pride. However the market doesn’t work in farmers favor, and instead creates more dependency. One person shared how producers in their area assume that the market chooses new technologies which producers must inevitably adopt, or else risk losing their farm.

Another person shared that corporate technologies often start by meeting real needs for farmers – for example although GMOs have harmed rural communities, they have been adopted partially because they were designed understanding the reality that weed control takes a massive amount of labor. But would this desire for labor-saving technologies be as strong if farmers’ autonomy wasn’t tied to the market? Alternative futures offer a sustained collective autonomy and pride that the market has failed to provide.