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Meet Vance Crowe: The Man Building a Network to Rally Against the Pseudoscience Attacking GMOs

In 2006, 24-year-old Vance Crowe was determined to do good in the world. Following in his father’s footsteps, he joined the Peace Corps, where he was shipped off to a remote village in Kenya. Ironically, it was an encounter during this mission to do good that led to Crowe working at Monsanto – a company that frequently appears on the world’s most-hated company list.

Joining the Cause

Returning home from Kenya was a shocking experience for Crowe. Mixed in with extreme feelings of guilt for the life of relative luxury he lived growing up in Eureka, Illinois, compared with Kihumbuini, Kenya, there was a sense of disappointment. Was the time spent away from family and friends with no electricity or running water worth the sacrifice? Had his efforts to teach malaria, HIV, and AIDS prevention made a difference?

Crowe’s doubts stemmed from a traveling salesman peddling magic water. That man had come to Kihumbuini, to Crowe’s town, where Crowe had taught the town’s people the scientifically proven ways to prevent malaria. In the town square, with Crowe watching, the man stood on an ornate box, elevating himself above the people, to tell the tale of this magic water that had the power to prevent malaria. 

“I was laughing at him,” recalls Crowe. “I was like, you fool. You came to the wrong town because I brought science here.”

As Crowe watched in disbelief, the townspeople, who had seen the devastation caused by malaria, came forward to pay the salesman two days’ worth of wages for the magic water. 

“I thought, ‘Well that’s it. There is no way to do good because that guy is faster than me,’ ” he says. “Then I came back from Africa and realized that there are people doing this everywhere, and no one is stopping them.”

Seven years later, after working in a variety of communications roles, the city boy with no connection to farming accepted a role as the director of millennial engagement for Monsanto. 

“When I was given the opportunity to come to Monsanto, things that had seemed like distant, nonrelevant things came perfectly into focus,” says Crowe. “This is my chance. I probably can’t defeat that salesman, but I can make it way more difficult for him to come and sell snake oil in the world.”

Knowing the Field

While Crowe’s overarching goal at Monsanto is to engage with millennials about the intersection of farming, food, and technology, his job has really focused on one specific area: activists motivated to spread fear of modern agriculture.

These are the March Against Monsanto participants, the Jeffrey Smiths, and the Vani Haris (you may know her as the Food Babe) of the world who Crowe equates to the magic water salesman since they peddle misinformation about biotechnology for profit and power. 

The first step in helping Monsanto and others in the industry to counter misinformation and begin building trust online was to understand where and how misinformation spreads. Crowe describes it as being eerily similar to the so-called devil weed Palmer amaranth. 

“Palmer amaranth grows to be 8 to 10 feet tall and has 250,000 seeds,” he says about the weed that developed resistance to glyphosate first. “But there are lots of weeds that grow that tall, and there are lots of weeds that have that many seeds. 

“Palmer’s trick is that there is a huge amount of genetic variation within the seeds it produces to the degree where you know they are Palmer, but there are so many mutations that it’s stunning that these different seed variations come from one plant. You now have a quarter million chances for the one variation that’s resistant to glyphosate,” he continues. “This is the strategy used online by opponents of modern agriculture. They are just trying to throw as many different, fearful ideas into society as possible. When one spikes interest, they keep hitting that button again and again. For example, the claim that GMOs can cause autism.”

This decentralized strategy is difficult to counter from one company like Monsanto. “We cannot come up with enough ideas that can be spun out fast enough and reach different audiences to outcompete this fear,” explains Crowe. 

Instead, Crowe’s approach is to find the influencers in society who will be motivated to understand and share information about GMOs. To find these individuals, he starts by identifying the right tribes.

Training Advocates

Tribes are networks of people who share a common interest or belief and know that topic inside and out. 

“We wanted to find the tribes who have an interest in understanding that the activists use Monsanto as a wedge issue,” says Crowe. “Critics focus all of their energy on Monsanto, because if you can make people terrified of one company, you can create laws that block that one company. Those laws won’t just block Monsanto; they will block five other ag companies, the farmers who buy technology from them, and the scientists who try to create technology.

“When you show that to people, they realize it’s not just Monsanto’s problem,” he continues. “Peddling fear online is a problem for them, an existential threat.”

The tribes with a high density of these people – who understand and are motivated to engage – are Crowe’s target. “My work now is to identify people in these tribes who are willing to be in the fight and to get them connected with people in other tribes, building a relationship-based network that can share facts,” he says. 

In addition to these requirements, Crowe also looks for the influencers who are building things and putting out messages through art, blogs, social media, etc.

 “We need to go to people who are saying, ‘I am going to put things out into the world that express what I believe and who I am. I will stand by people whose values resonate with mine, and I will push back,’” he says.

identifying 6 tribes 

Here’s a breakdown of the characteristics of six tribes.

1. Computer technologists. “These people understand how computer code is used to drive machines and how to manipulate operations by inserting new code, similar to how DNA is modified in GMOs,” says Crowe. “They are deeply motivated to use technology to make the world better and are comfortable adopting new ideas and ways of thinking.”

2. STEM proponents. These scientific communicators march, blog, tweet, and more to put out scientific information that trumps the anti-GMO activists’ pseudoscience. 

3. Skeptics. This is an entire community of skeptical individuals, including many scientists, who debate and debunk claims about GMOs, vaccines, and other controversial topics. Skeptics like Myles Power go out and give pro-GMO talks because they believe in the science.

4. Pragmatic environmentalists. Contrary to the organic movement that claims using GMOs (and chemicals) is bad for the environment, pragmatic environmentalists believe that as much technology (GMOs and chemicals included) should be used as possible. By using the best technology available, farmers can make their land as productive as possible to preserve more of the environment. 

5. Food as fuel. This tribe includes dieticians, trainers, and people interested in health and fitness who have a deep interest in understanding nutrition, diet, and the health benefits of food. 

“This community searches for how to fuel their bodies to perform at the top levels and find ways to improve the food they eat,” he says.

6. Agvocates. That’s you. By becoming an agvocate and sharing your farming practices with consumers, you can use your voice. 

If you don’t, there’s always a chance that the fearmongers will win and the GMO technology that allows you to cut back on herbicide use (20% for corn) and raise yields (37% for corn and 21% for soybeans since GMOs were introduced in the U.S.) won’t be available anymore. 

“This is why I get out of bed. If we don’t stop these ideas from opponents and get other ideas about modern agriculture to spread faster, the world won’t look the way that I hope for or want it to look,” says Crowe. 

Tribes and influencers to explore

• Kevin Folta‚ podcast: talkingbiotechpodcast.com

• Myles Power‚ YouTube channel: youtube.com/user/PowerM1985

• Ecomodernist Manifesto:  ecomodernism.org

• Shark Farmer and Girls Talk Ag podcasts:  farmruralag.com

Q&A With Vance Crowe

SF: Since you started at Monsanto, how many podcasts have you done? 

VC: Eleven.

SF: How many speeches have you given? 

VC: I’ve given about 79 speeches to 30,000 people, including speeches at a synthetic biology conference in Berkeley, California; art schools in downtown Manhattan; and at pubs in Glasgow, Scotland.

SF: What’s the most surprising tribe or ally you’ve found? 

VC: The Ecomodernists are West Coast environmentalists who are some of the biggest advocates of modern agriculture and are writing and sharing content that is reaching consumers.

SF: What advice do you have for farmers who want to help fight the pseudoscience against GMOs? 

VC: To be effective, you have to create things that can be shared outside of your personal circles. We call them internet artifacts, which include pictures, comics, speeches, jokes, videos, and so on. Those artifacts allow consumers to understand why you believe what you believe and are left online for people to find in their own way. 

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