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A few weeks ago, UNEP held the first screening of its new film about subsidies in the fisheries sector, Caught Out: The Way Forward for Fisheries SubsidiesSubsidy Watch took this opportunity to think about the challenge of communicating about subsidies. Here, we speak with Anja von Moltke, who commissioned and supervised the production of UNEP’s film, and Curt Ellis, co-creator of the 2007 hit documentary King Corn, which highlighted the role of subsidies in United States agriculture.

How do you feel about the reception of Caught Out and King Corn?

von Moltke: Very positive so far. But it’s early days yet. The film was shown for the first time two weeks ago in Geneva to about 200 people, including fisheries experts, WTO trade negotiators and the general public. Soon we will distribute it further through a series of similar events, show it at conferences and put it up on UNEP’s website. In addition, people from local and international organizations have already told us that they’d be interested in showing the film at their meetings.

Ellis: I’ve been pretty amazed. King Corn is a film about watching corn grow, which is, you know, axiomatic for boring. But we were able to release the film in theatres — a rare prize for independent documentaries in the U.S. — and were even broadcast nationally on public television. And the response has been almost universally positive. King Corn is really not a polarizing, confrontational type of documentary. It’s a film that frames the conversation about farm subsidies and invites an open public discussion about them. Many of the farmers we met explained to us that they hated farm subsidies. So to put those characters in the film speaking openly and honestly about their frustrations was a really helpful way of making sure farm audiences could feel comfortable.

What audience were you trying to reach with the documentary? Why?

von Moltke: With its first screening, we were reaching out to the international environmental community as well as the trade community to show that fishery subsidization is an issue that requires action from both. In addition, we’re hoping to reach the general public. In fact, we had immediate feedback on that during the film’s first showing. People were shocked to discover that the subsidies were such a big issue, amounting to 25% of industry revenues, that they had such perverse effects, and that there was still limited attention to the problem.

Ellis: There’s always a process of finding your audience as you go along. For us, the most important audience was the community of people, regular Americans, who were beginning to be engaged on a consumer level with food and agricultural issues — people who might have started buying some organic or free-range food or shopping at the farmer’s market from time of the time. King Corn was the chance to take those audiences who had a passing consumer interest in food and agriculture and really turn them into policy advocates, getting them to write to their Congresspeople for very specific change to the Farm Bill in Washington. Which is a pretty big shift from feeling like you can solve the problem by, you know, recycling in your home!

What were the most serious organizational challenges during production?

von Moltke: For us, it was new to use a film to reach out to a broader audience. We have more experience drawing attention to the problem of fisheries subsidies through holding conferences, initiating stakeholder meetings and writing analytical papers and policy briefs. It was difficult, then, to agree how to communicate such a technically complex and politically sensitive issue through a film to the general public. In developing the script, for instance, there was quite a bit of back and forth between us and the producer. We had to rewrite it a number of times, until we arrived at formulations and images that were technically and politically correct yet accessible to a broad audience. As regards timing, we were also under some pressure because negotiations at the WTO are currently ongoing and we wanted to feed this into the discussion.

Ellis: Certainly, funding a documentary about watching corn grow or agricultural subsidies was very difficult from the start. That said, once we made the film, it was easier to show funders how it might resonate with an audience. But, you know, we also had a number of challenges along the way. I think the main one is that the story of one acre of corn very easily becomes the story of everything: trade, subsidies, obesity, agribusiness, chemical contamination, ecological decline ... Our challenge was really honing our topic and narrowing our approach so we came to tell a story that was quite neatly packaged.

As for accessing people and information — it was very hard to access the large processing companies. But by and large, the smaller players in the food system are in the same boat together. Farmers don’t particularly enjoy getting paid by the government, nor seeing small-scale family farms become large-scale agribusiness production machines. There’s not so much satisfaction in that old idea of feeding the world if what you’re feeding the world is high fructose corn syrup. Another challenge was finding academics who were good at communicating the fundamental thrusts of farm policy in a way that was exciting and interesting and even fun. Sometimes, dramatizing the subsidies story took people who were storytellers first and foremost rather than trained as experts in what was actually going on.

Compared with most broadly publicized messages, subsidies are a complex topic: hard to measure, it’s not always easy to see ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ side-by-side, and it can be hard for people to understand how they are better off without them. What strategies did you use to simplify the message and make these links obvious?

von Moltke: This was a real challenge. We highlighted general statistics about over-exploitation — for instance, that 80% of fisheries are either over or fully exploited, that cod stocks have declined by 70% over the past 30 years, and that 90% of the predators have already disappeared. We explained the current size of subsidies (US$30-34 billion) and their direct and indirect impacts. We also spoke directly with communities that were particularly affected, including fishers. It’s a powerful message to hear them explain exactly how they are affected by the negative consequences of subsidization. As regards approaches to reform, we threaded interviews with Achim Steiner, UNEP’s Executive Director, and Pascal Lamy, Director-General of the WTO, throughout the film. They both emphasized the need and current opportunities for reform.

Ellis: We wanted to give our film a really youthful appearance. I think by putting two goofy 20 year-olds on screen you inherently open the film up to a younger audience. It’s not a film that on its face screams farm subsidies — it says ‘hey here’s an adventure, it’s a buddy film, the journey of two guys moving to Iowa’. I think it made the film entertaining first and allowed us to serve up some medicine with the sugar.

Many people working on subsidies are small NGOs, academics and local journalists. With a small size, and limited time and funding, how do you think they can best go about raising awareness and having the maximum impact?

von Moltke: I think there are a lot of options. UNEP’s work with the WWF, ICTSD, Oceana and others illustrates the positive collaboration that can exist between different organizations with different mandates. Together, we’ve produced many conferences, informal stakeholder dialogues and policy briefs that have contributed to enhancing awareness and interest in reform. Using other media, such as the recent film, the website, wire services and online forums are just as important ways of addressing the problem.

Ellis: It’s a question of figuring out the right way to frame subsidies issues. The breakthrough the last five years in the US has been the realization that we could recast the Farm Bill as a ‘food bill’. That has been an unbelievably powerful shift in our country. It’s changed the way journalists cover agricultural policy and it’s changed the way regular Americans think about it: farm policy is a big part of what shapes the way we eat.

Once governments choose to reform subsidies, there is a need for a second type of information campaign — one run by governments themselves, as they try to implement a reform program that may not be popular among a significant percentage of the population. In this type of situation, how do you think communication strategies would change? If you were in charge of a government’s subsidy-reform program, what would the ‘ideal’ information campaign look like?

von Moltke: Firstly, I think it’s important to highlight the negative impacts that most subsidies have in the long run on fishery resources and thus on fishing communities. It is such an obvious message, yet it needs to be emphasized again and again that the long-term existence of fisheries resources is an absolute prerequisite for economic growth, employment and development in the fisheries sector. Then, we need to show people how they can actually benefit from fishery subsidy reform and find ways of compensating people who are negatively affected: for example, helping fishermen find alternative livelihoods, retraining them to work in other areas and investing in the rebuilding of fisheries which can then, in the long run, be profitable again. This is the message we want to deliver with UNEP’s work on the Green Economy.

Ellis: It’s an interesting question. The people who most need to be changed are the big agribusiness processors who for most of the past 40 years have benefitted from having a stable abundant supply of artificially cheap grain in the United States. I don’t know if a government information campaign is going to do anything to change their minds. I don’t think a documentary like King Corn is exactly going to change their minds either.
I think what’s needed is more of this shift towards really conceiving farm policy as food policy and having a groundswell of public opinion in favor of changing the farm-subsidy system. And it’s not necessarily that we take away subsidies. Another option is to revisit what we’re subsidizing. Instead of rewarding all-out production of a handful of commodity crops that becomes high-fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated soybean oil we could reward increased production of fruits and vegetables and chemical-free food and free-range meat, as well as promoting conservation in places all throughout production.

Finally, in your career, what are the most successful ways you’ve seen of communicating the subsidy problem?

von Moltke: I think enhancing stakeholder dialogue is extremely important in order to find solutions that work for everyone involved. UNEP has conducted many country studies based on stakeholder consultations. Current ones are in Vietnam, Ecuador and South Africa. In addition, lobbying efforts by many NGOs have been extremely successful. The WWF has provided some ground-breaking analysis on these issues, Oceana is running effective campaigns including large posters in Geneva, and Pew and EU Transparency launched — a great website providing detailed information on EU subsidies — just to name a few.

Ellis: I can’t tell you what a phenomenon Michael Pollan has been in the United States. [Michael Pollan is a journalist and activist, author of the books In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, and The Omnivore's Dilemma, among others.]  It really has made subsidy issues and all kinds of food and agricultural problems accessible to mainstream audiences. What he’s done that’s made that work is just good storytelling. Otherwise, the most valuable things that I’ve seen are when farmers who were once part of that subsidy system have come out and spoken openly and plainly about their disagreement with it and about the way its impact does not serve farmers. For example, the American Corn Growers Association has a very different take on subsidies from the National Corn Growers Association. There are also some wonderful groups like Practical Farmers of Iowa, a collection of around 700 or so corn and soybean farmers who’ve been working to shift away from all-out production towards more sustainable agriculture.

Anja von Moltke is Economics Affairs Officer at Economics and Trade Branch of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). She commissioned and oversaw the recent production of Caught Out: The Way Forward for Fisheries Subsidies as part of her continuing work on environmentally harmful subsidies in the fisheries sector. The film can be seenhere.

Curt Ellis is the co-creator of King Corn, the 2007 documentary that highlighted the role of agricultural subsidies in the USA’s unhealthy relationship with its most persistent food stock. He and fellow film-maker Ian Cheney now run their own Brooklyn-based production company and advocacy platform, Wicked Delicate. He is also a contributing writer for Civil Eats and a Food and Society Policy Fellow. Big River, a 30-minute sequel to King Corn is currently in production, as is The City Dark, a documentary about light pollution. A 20-minute ‘extended clip’ of King Corn can be watched here.