Gatekeepers of the maize web: dryers and silos

During our research we have repeatedly discussed how important dryers and silos are as part of the necessary  infrastructure in agri-food networks (see also previous post about the network of Spanish silos and our latest paper). In this entry I aim to share some of these thoughts with you.

Infrastructure is a major element of the global economy and manages the mobility of human and nonhuman entities through physical support facilities. In the case of commercial maize crops in Spain, since practically all maize is processed, dryers and silos become essential facilities to sustain the journey of maize through the agri-food system, specifically once it has been harvested in the fields and before it is sold to maize processing companies. The drying of the grains is a key activity for creating conditions for a good storage and further processing.

Dryer and silo infrastructure is very often found together in Spanish farmer cooperatives (which are at the heart of the Spanish maize production system). This means that, in order to dry it and store it, these cooperatives mix different types of maize produced in their surroundings. It is expensive to effectively separate GM, conventional and organic maize, so if there is some GM maize in the mix, the usual practice is that all maize is labelled as GM maize. In fact, we found that only a minority of farmer cooperatives in Aragon restrict the use of GM in their facilities and there are no specific dryers for organic maize either in Catalonia or Aragon.

Therefore these infrastructures exert a tremendous amount of power over both the possibilities for maize (e.g. for becoming an organic product for human consumption) and for the existence of different agri-food systems. Dryer and silos therefore act as a kind of gatekeeper in the journey of maize through the agri-food system.

Some organic maize farmers in Aragon have told us how the lack of existance of specific organic dryers is a huge problem for them, because it means they might have to invest more in finding an alternative, such as increasing transport costs to find a dryer in a different area that handles organic maize specifically; hiring a mobile dryer to come to them (which is more expensive), or try to dry the grain in the field (the viability of which is uncertain and subject to weather conditions).

Thus, it could be said that dryers and silos are political actants, as these infrastructures have a significant capacity for shaping both social and ecological realities in rural areas. They facilitate the existence (or lack of existance) of some forms of agri/culture over others, and can trigger explicit or latent conflicts among different agri/culture systems. For instance, one of the stories we were told was about a conflict between a farmer cooperative engaged in producing, drying and storing non-GM maize for human consumption and a local animal feed company. The former had been developing a strategy for convincing its members to not sow GM maize by ensuring them higher economic benefits. That meant that most of the local farmers were sowing non-GM maize for human consumption instead of GM maize for animal feed production. So the animal feed company tried to convince the farmers to return to GM maize by internalising and covering the drying costs, thus making it cheaper for farmers if they would grow GM maize.

Do you know of other rural stories in which infrastructure can be political?

Unravelling relationships in agricultural ecosystems

Image showing holes on maize leaves – on the left made by the invasive fall army worm and right by the native borer, chilo partellus

Over the past month I have travelled to Potchefstroom, Pretoria and Pongola for fieldwork. During this time I have been interviewing scientists and researchers involved in maize research, government employees involved in agriculture and small scale farmers who are growing GM, hybrid and traditional maize for household and some commercial use.

In my first week in Potchefstroom I was greeted by the reality of the army worm situation  currently facing farmers and the maize agriculture system in South Africa. This is a very significant and worrying event as this species now confirmed to be the Fall Army worm  (Spodoptera frugiperda) has never been seen in South Africa before its recent discovery in the Limpopo province in Early February 2017. This species native to eastern and central North America and South America has only recently begun being sighted on the African continent – The first sighting was in 2016 when it was reported in Nigeria and has since moved South. It has a rapid lifecycle and can quickly multiply if not dealt with. Over the past weeks in South Africa, the FAW has been found in Limpopo and Mpumalanga and parts of Northwest, Gauteng, Free State, the Northern Cape and KZN provinces. It is suspected that the pest may have come into the country with grain imported due to low regional yields following the severe drought over the past two years. Biowatch has drawn a connection between drought periods and the invasion of army worms in the past. However it is not known exactly how it came into the country.

The emergence FAW, a new species in the region offers an opportunity to explore the response of the agricultural research system in South Africa and how this threat is responded to. A multispecies perspective provides a lens through which to track the response to this pest and through this think about changing social – ecological relationships within systems of agri/culture.

The  Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) has  initiated a pest action group.  The group brings together members  from  provincial departments, researchers, several producers’ associations and industries whom might be affected by the presence of the Fall worm.

Within such an emergency situation there is a great pressure for experts to come up with solutions quickly. There has been talk of instating an “emergency registration of agricultural chemicals “. The minister of Agriculture Minister Senzeni Zokwana stated that “Luckily, with respect to the worms we are dealing with, we already identified a number of tools and chemicals that are already registered amongst various crops… We are confident that if growers and farmers use those products, the products would be used safely.” A Farmer’s weekly article has claimed that Bt maize may be less susceptible to the FAW. The approaches being put forward in media bring into question what solutions that are not reliant on chemicals are being investigated and if such R&D capacity exists in South Africa.

It is also a chance to think about knowledge in relation to agricultural systems in South Africa. In recent interviews with scientists I have been told how farmers and many technicians responsible for supporting farmers have little knowledge about ecological systems and insect ecology of agricultural systems. This has been attributed by some to changing focuses of research and the use of pesticides or Bt varieties as a”silver bullet” solutions to pest management.  The Minister of Agriculture explains that Diagnostic support would be increased to help with the identification of the pest. This comes after many farmers have been calling in to find out if the caterpillars they are witnessing are in fact FAW.

Interestingly the emergence of the FAW has set into motion the importation of pheromone traps which will be used determine the

image showing holes in maize leaves – on the left holes made by the Fall Army worm and holes on the right made by the native chilo partellusextent of the spread and the specific strain of FAW present in South Africa. This technique has not been used since the 1980s when light traps were used to track stem borer flight patterns when it was understood as a necessary part of pest management.  Situations such as the emergence of the fall worm bring into question the relationships between ecological systems, knowledge and agriculture. What kinds of precarious ecologies we may be contributing to building through the use of industrial farming techniques and technologies while at the same time becoming more and more disconnected from agro-ecological knowledge.

The small scale farmers I was visiting in Northern KwaZulu Natal have yet to experience the FAW and hopefully it will not reach this region. However the diversity of farmer growing methods in the region brings into question what farmers using traditional, organic or agroecological methods (who are not  already growing bt maize or using pesticides) might do. As it is clear that the dominant approach and approach recommended by authorities and experts in the field for dealing with the FAW will be the use of  pesticides (perhaps warranted in an emergency situation?).

Small-scale farmers that I have spoken to who do not use pesticides or Bt maize have described how they have stem-borer but that it usually does not significantly impact on yields or maize quality and this varies depending on when maize is planted. They use various techniques for keeping these borers under control such as ash, placed in the centre of germinating crops, to burning damaged stems. Smallholder farmers who are using traditional seed and more agroecological methods could potentially find themselves in a difficult situation and will be in need of assistance and research in grappling with this new species. There is a need for research that moves beyond a reliance on anymore chemicals which also bring into question the already pressing question of resistance.




What Breeding Techniques are Appropriate for Organic Agriculture?

Some months ago we published a blog post announcing a new paper we had written on whether organic agriculture should maintain its opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

This question is being asked now due of the development and use of a range of new biotechnological tools and plant breeding techniques that give scientists an increased ability to make more targetted changes in the genome. This includes new tools for genome editing, such as the much discussed (dare we say hyped) CRISPR-Cas9.

Some people believe that since the emergence of these new techniques gives scientists an enhanced ability to make smaller and more targetted changes to the genome, and that since these changes need not necessarily involve the insertion of material from a different species as has previously been the norm, that they may be considered ‘more natural’ and thereby more acceptable to both members of the public and the organic movement who have been sceptical about embracing GMOs.

While others have performed academic research to see whether cisgenic crops (i.e. those who have been modifed using genes from the same or closely related species) are indeed considered more natural than transgenic crops (i.e. genetically modified to express genes from a different species), our paper focused on how the international federation for organic agriculture movements (IFOAM) is approaching the issue.At the time when we were writing that paper, there was a position statement from IFOAM international on GMOs in general, and there was a particular position on new plant breeding techniques from IFOAM Europe that was open for public comment and consultation. Although the European position  has now been published, IFOAM international is also now working to develop a specific position statement on how the organic agriculture movement relates to a range of plant breeding techniques (including those available both now and in the near future). There is currently a draft position statement available on this from an expert working group of IFOAM international, which is open for comments and inputs until March 31st 2017.

It will be really important for the future of the organic movement to develop a clear set of guidelines and/or principles to help them navigate decisions around which breeding techniques are in line with their overarching values and agenda and therefore acceptable for use. Genetic technologies for plant breeding are emerging and evolving at a rapid rate. This means that the lines between genetic modification and conventional breeding (and particularly the products thereof) are becoming harder to distinguish. It is therefore very timely and relevant that the organic movement is working to establish its position on these developments.

If you would like to help inform and shape this discussion on the role of different plant breeding techniques in the organic movement, then now is the time! Read the draft position from IFOAM International and send your comments on it to David Gould (the Coordinator of the IFOAM Working Group on Breeding Techniques)

Just Existing is Resisting: new paper and short movie published!

The Agri/Cultures team are proud and excited to announce that we have just published a new open access paper: Just Existing is Resisting: The Everyday Struggle against the Expansion of GM Crops in Spain. The paper reflects, based on empirical data, on the multiple forms of everyday practices of resistance by which different stakeholders linked to the maize sector in Spain challenge the expansion of GM crops. Below you can find the abstract and here the full text. Enjoy the reading!

Together with the publication of this article, and responding to the objective of exploring novel ways to making scientific results accessible to a non-specialised public, we have also produced a beautiful short animation movie based on this academic publication. Have a look at it and feel free to distribute among your own networks!

English version:


Spanish version:

Impressions from our Stakeholders Seminar

As part of our project, during the 31st January and 1st February 2017 we held a stakeholders seminar in Tromsø, Norway on the topic: ‘Social and ‘Ethical Assessment in the Regulation of GMOs: Should we care?’

This two-day seminar aimed to explore the potential of a care ethics approach for social and ethical assessment in the regulation of GMOs. The objectives of the seminar were to a) better understand societal concerns and advance a systems approach for regulating GMOs, b) explore the extent to which a care ethics approach may provide useful guidance for operationalising the Norwegian Gene Technology Act and its requirement to assess sustainability, benefits to society and ethical justifiability, and c) to produce a short biosafety brief on the topic. Invited participants had a diverse range of profiles and interests in the issue, including farmers, processors, Norwegian regulators, consumer and environmental organisations, certification bodies and academic researchers.

After some introductory exercises that helped creating a friendly atmosphere, the first day focused on the presentation of perspectives and experiences from stakeholders in Spain, South Africa and Norway. We tried to innovate with the format, incorporating a very stimulating exercise after these presentations called “Collective Story Harvest“. Some of the academic researchers who were not asked to make any presentation were given instructions prior to the beginning of the seminar. Their role was to listen to the stakeholders experiential stories from the point of view of a specific theme we gave them. We chose 5 themes that are relevant for a care ethics framework: power, vulnerability, dependence, emotion and narrative. After listening to all the presentations, these participants shared with the rest of the group their lens analysis. They contributed to understand how these 5 concepts were enacted throughout the stories.

We learnt that power, vulnerability and dependencies were embedded in the structural aspects of the agri-food systems regarding, for example, the risk of GM contamination, the existence or inexistence of the necessary logistical facilities and even the way governance facilitates access to information. The latter aspect was actually key in many of the talks. Information and power are two sides of the same coin and lack of information availability regarding where GM crops are determines vulnerability and dependency. While paying attention to who is vulnerable, a participant noted those who take an alternative view to industrialised agriculture are definitely key victims, but also traditional crops and biodiversity. This is to say that not just people (such as farmers or citizens) are vulnerable  to the kind of choices that are being made through these power structures, but also ecosystems. She also noted the contextual nature of vulnerability, as South Africa and Spain (where GM crops are part of the rural realities) were clearly more vulnerable contexts than Norway.

Additionally, we also learnt about what role emotions can play in scientific analysis. Although the tendency is to think that emotion is the polar opposite of science, it is important to break these conventional boundaries and recognise that science is actually riddled with emotions. This recognition does not mean that we disregard science. It means that it is important to recognise that emotions are part of the realities studied by science and play a role in the stories. In fact, emotions were everywhere that day, channelled through words, images and non-verbal communication. For example, anger due to injustice came up in many different ways although was rarely directly expressed. One of the moments it was most present was during the description of the great difficulties organic farmers face to avoid GM contamination. Contrastingly, in a Norwegian presentation there was a picture of a consumer representative wearing a T-shirt with the following moto: “We Love the Norwegian Gene Technology Act”, representing how proud (and happy) certain Norwegians are about their current biotechnology legislation.

After this insightful exercise, we also had an intervention from policy making participants who also gave their thoughts on what the stakeholder participant experiences meant from a policy perspective. These participants highlighted how useful was for them to learn from experiences in countries that actually grow GMOs.

The second day focused on exploring the potential relevance of a care ethics approach for capturing the experiences and relevant issues we heard during the first day and incorporating these into regulatory assessment. We talked for hours and are currently preparing a policy brief on the topic that will be made public in some weeks.

As well as the good intellectual work, the workshop was also fun for networking and connecting with people. After the first day of work, we tried to chase the whales and the Northern Lights in an electric boat. Unfortunately, we did not succeed in this last mission but everyone enjoyed our time together and learnt a lot.


Rendering research visible – laboratory ethnography in the GM research space


Stoma, guard cells, Corn, Poaceae. Image: Taken from Pinterest

Recently I have been reading Natasha Meyers’ book: Rendering Life Molecular: Models, Modelers and Excitable Matter. I was interested in her approach to doing laboratory ethnography and also in her interest in the role scientists play in making visible the invisible and through this in rendering and ‘making’ life visible matter. As she expresses it – it is through the concerted efforts of researchers that “the stuff of life has come to matter at the molecular scale”. 

In reading this book I have been reflecting on what roles researchers play in the creation of knowledge and making information about biotechnology accessible, tangible and available, and further how this knowledge becomes part of our collective imagination and understanding of the subject. And how this technoscience has such a powerful place in decision making. In Meyer’s work she endeavors to explore and illustrate a different side of scientific research. Rather than a world of rational decision making and precision she explores the way in which researchers engage in a sentient or visceral way with their subject matter and the way in which they necessarily join dots in their research using hunches, feelings or sensory forms of ‘knowing’.

Meyers compares her work as a social scientist to the work of modelers explaining that like scientific modeling, laboratory ethnography is also a “rendering practice” in that it aims at making visible and “amplifying” practices, ideas, “subjectivities, sentiments, and values” that are not always so visible to outsiders or insiders within the field of science. Meyers acknowledges that just as is true of scientific rendering, ethnographic rendering animates some aspects but not others, it is always a subjective process. Making this clear she is motivated by a curiosity about “what is possible to see, feel and know about scientific practice and the living world”.

I am also interested in how scientists working in the field of biotech research relate personally and professionally to the work they do and how this fits into a larger landscape of Research and Development in South Africa and in turn globally. I hope that in engaging in this research I am able to try and render narratives about social-ecological relationships at play within the R&D space – between researchers and seed and the agro-ecological systems that this seed will be used in (here my specific interest is in small-scale farming systems here in South Africa). At the same time, I am especially interested in asking questions about the changing nature of these agri/cultural systems with the introduction of hybrid seed varieties and the introduction of GM seeds. I also hope that in doing this I am able to build up a picture about the kinds of knowing and knowledge that are valued within the debates on the use of GM seed.

Some weeks ago I attended the Annual conference of South African Association of Botanists. This was an opportunity for me to experience some presentations made by botanists on their work. A number of scientists presented within a food security panel on their work around genetic modification. An overarching theme was how to modify agricultural plants to be more stress resistant to drought, salinity and pests. A number were working on maize research. It was a  chance as a social scientist to  immerse myself in the making of scientific discourse and sharing of knowledge. 



Hot Topics at the 13th Meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity

During the first two weeks in December, Rosa and I attended the 13th meeting of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Cancun Mexico. This also included meetings on the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization.

Decisions at these meetings are made by consensus and with over 190 countries signatory to the CBD, that means long and difficult negotiations in which the final result is usually a heavy compromise in which the best that can often be hoped for is that all parties are ‘equally unhappy’ with the results.

This year, the meeting had the tagline of “Mainstreaming Biodiversity for Well-being” and indeed the concept of mainstreaming biodiversity was very prevalent. It took quite a while to make sense of this idea and what it was being used to imply. Officially, the idea seems to mean that because a vast range of human activities affect biodiversity and financial support for its conservation is waning, there is a need to embed the work across all sectors and policies. What I also noticed though was that significant emphasis was being placed on how to use the current economic system to support biodiversity conservation. In that sense, it felt like how to move biodiversity conservation into the mainstream capitalist economic agenda.

In addition to the idea of mainstreaming, some of the hot topics of debate that I followed during the meeting were:

Guidance on Risk Assessment of Genetically Modified Organisms (or Living Modified Organisms as they are referred to under the Cartagena Protocol)

Here the focus of the debate was largely around whether to extend the work of Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group (AHTEG) and develop additional guidance for new applications, such as GM fish and synthetic biology. The AHTEG has spent over 5 years developing a guidance document for risk assessment of GMOs and the quality of its work was heavily disputed at the meeting. This debate was intensified by the fact that the guidance was published before the parties had agreed to endorse it. Some parties were extremely angry about this and against even acknowledging the guidance as a useful document. They were therefore certainly not willing to support any extension of the current AHTEG or its mandate. In the end it was agreed that the current AHTEG would be dissolved but an online forum and alternative process for gathering information on the information gaps and needs for further guidance would be put in place.

Synthetic Biology, and particularly Gene Drives

Much of the work leading up to this meeting related to synthetic biology had been around the development of a definition. While a definition was ultimately adopted that supported synthetic biology as an extension and acceleration of modern biotechnology, debate remained over whether the definitional work should continue in an intersessional AHTEG, specifically to develop inclusion and exclusion criteria. Some parties felt that this was necessary to clarify the concept, while others felt it was simply a delaying tactic to avoid the much needed work on risk assessment guidance and criteria. Ultimately it was decided that the AHTEG on synthetic biology would continue and have a mandate to discuss, among other things, inclusion and exclusion criteria for the definition. Under synthetic biology, the topic of gene drives was also an extremely hot issue of debate. Civil society organisations attending the meeting had called for a moratorium on gene drives until effective biocontainment and regulatory processes could be put in place. Meanwhile, organisations and industry supportive of biotechnology development were present in force (including sponsoring at least 35 students to be present at all discussions and side events concerning synthetic biology, gene drives and/or biosafety and loudly express their positive positions towards the technology). This generated quite a lot of tension and heated debates within these side events and caused one of the most prominent proponents to be ejected from the meeting for aggressive and threatening behavior.

Benefit Sharing of Digitalized Genetic Sequence Information

Another hot issue was how the rapid development of digitalized genetic sequence information may undermine the Nagoya protocol and its emphasis on the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources and their utilization. The idea here is that nation states currently have sovereign ownership over genetic resources in their territory and a right to benefits generated from the use of them. Also, it is recognized that indigenous people often have in depth knowledge of plant and animal properties (and have played a key role in their evolution) and that if companies develop products that extract benefit from this, then there should be a prior and informed consent for use and mutually agreed terms for fair and equitable benefit sharing. This was seen as threatened by the development of digitalized genetic sequences that could be easily shared around the globe without any negotiations of requirements for access and benefit sharing. This topic proved difficult to handle in the negotiations because it spanned the CBD, the Nagoya protocol and the group working with synthetic biology. Ultimately a plan was made for further work on this topic, however, some parties were dissatisfied that the process of international negotiations was grindingly slow in comparison to the rate of the technology development.

While the debates on these topics were extremely interesting to follow, one thing that really struck me was a feeling of hypocrisy at this meeting. This was not only the hypocrisy of having a meeting about conserving the world’s spectacular biodiversity in the extremely homogenized and human dominated and hotel saturated location of Cancun. It was also connected to the carbon emissions generated by having over 6000 people fly in for the meeting and the terrible quality of food available at the event, which surely came from industrial monocultures and failed to support local produce or agrobiodiversity. Another striking element was the lack of civil society protest. While there were some small demonstrations of indigenous people and one award ceremony for the worst beha
ved parties and companies, in general, there was very little public protest, action or even visibility. Rather, civil society organizations were directly engaged in the process and participating by organizing formal events and discussions within the architecture of the meeting. This is a stark contrast to the international negotiations around another key global environmental issue – climate change – where civil society has an extremely strong, loud and colourful presence. This was surprising since biodiversity loss is an extremely serious global concern that has already reached crisis proportions. While I also held a formal side event at this year’s meeting (on the concept of synbiodiversity), if I attend in future years I will also seriously consider engaging in and coordinating awareness raising actions outside the formal arrangements available for the meeting. The loss of the world’s biodiversity is just too important to leave to the negotiations alone.


COPMOP8 in Cancun

On Sunday, the 13th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 13) to the Convention on Biological Diversity, COP-MOP8 of the Cartagena Protocol and COP-MOP2 of the Nagoya Protocol began in Cancun. Fern and I are attending the meetings and participating in some of the sessions that take place in parallel to the negotiations. Here are some of the first impressions.

El domingo empezó en Cancún la 13ª reunión de la conferencia de las partes (COP 13) de la Convención de Diversidad Biológica, la COP-MOP8 del Protocolo de Cartagena y la COP-MOP2 del Protocolo de Nagoya. Fern y yo estamos asistiendo a las reuniones y participando en algunos de los actos que se realizan en paralelo a las negociaciones. Aquí podéis ver algunas de las primeras impresiones.

Some lessons on using short movies as scientific communication tools


During the last months, we have invested some of our time in making two animation movies that illustrate some of the issues related to our work in The Agri/Cultures Project. The idea behind these movies is to try to explore different paths for scientific communication and help bridge the gap between the scientists and (the rest of) society.

The two short movies that will be released soon are very different from one another: one explains the complexities, costs and uncertainties associated with GM detection processes and the second one tells a story of everyday forms of resistance to GM crops in Spain.

Below you can read some of the lessons I learned during the movie-making process for scientists aiming to communicate their work to non-scientists.

  1. Try to tell a narrative story: As I mentioned in a previous post, scientists and, let’s say, visual documentarists or journalists communicate quite differently.  While the former use an abstract structured discourse to advance an argument, the latter base their work on stories and characters that navigate those stories. My advice is, as much as possible and even if it’s challenging, use storytelling in your popular communication approach. All people use stories to make sense of the world we live in and thus stories are powerful tools to communicate anything. They mobilise emotions, identities and make the audience feel engaged with the characters in specific situations of conflict.
  2. Think visually (and if you can afford it, involve an artist in the process): The challenge here is not only to tell a narrative story with scientific content, but to use visual symbols to do it (rather than text). This means that if you have written a script, it might be useful if you do the exercise of thinking how this text is going to be seen and evaluate if that actually works (e.g draw a storyboard). Also, you should keep in mind that there are already existing shared symbols and it might be convenient to use them. It is also very recommendable to involve a visual artist in your work if possible, because this is actually their field of expertise.
  3. Accept and assume that this is not a scientific product aimed at scientists. This seems very basic but I think this is actually a very difficult issue for scientists. Although it’s important to maintain a high level of visual accuracy in your story (e.g if you are explaining something about water, you might want to paint water in blue, instead of orange), you might want to conceive your short movie as a very small taste of the topic you are aiming to communicate, with a couple of key messages. This means that it’s important to prioritise the information you want to communicate (and accept you have to simplify a lot). While the movie can offer a starting point to create interesting discussions around a topic, you should accept that the movie itself won’t contain all the aspects to have a systematic scientific discussion or even presentation. This tool is more limited than a text in terms of the complexity that it can capture and its main audience won’t be scientists themselves. In practical terms, this also implies that you should avoid jargon as much as possible and simplify anything that can be simplified.
  4. Share it to a non-specialised audience before releasing it: This can help you further improve the communicative aspects of the movie. Also it allows for modifications (e.g of script, images) at early stages of the movie making process.
  5. Think of the distribution channels as an essential task of the movie-making process: This is actually something we still have not done for our 2 movies, but I think it’s essential and should ideally be thought as a part of the process. I think the key idea is to broadly think of different types of people who could benefit or be interested in seeing and sharing your movies. In our case, this will probably be our diffused networks of fellow academics, students, civil society groups working on agri/cultures, Mexican farmers and journalists.

To conclude, I’d like to mention that I think short-movie making has great potential as a pedagogical tool because it implies digging into a topic and learning to prioritise what is the essential information and how to communicate it. This might be something worth exploring further in the future.

Laboratory Ecologies – Exploring changing seeds and changing research in the R&D space in South Africa


Over the past few weeks I have been focusing on the the R&D part of the multi-sited project in South Africa. This has involved mapping where maize focused research is being carried out around the country and what the focus of this research is. I have planned a series of visits to universities, institutes and research centers and will be visiting these places over the next 2-3 months. There I will be interviewing researchers, as well as doing laboratory ethnographies and participatory research where possible. I will also be collecting visual and sensory data (photographs, drawings, sound recordings and video) in the research spaces. I will also be trying a multi-species lens/perspective as a way of engaging with researchers about their work and how it relates to systems of agriculture and the ecological contexts of the farms where maize is being grown.

The first R&D spaces I visited two weeks ago were located in Potchefstroom, which is 2 hours South West of Johannesburg. Here I visited North West University (NWU) and the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) Grain Crops Institute. In these two spaces scientists carry out a wide range of maize related research. During my week there I was able to meet with and interview a number of scientists as well as spend time in two laboratories and accompany a student who was planting seeds for a field trial in a controlled greenhouse environment. I was also able to take photographs in these spaces and also found it very useful to explore these spaces using a multi-species perspective. I spent time noting and recording visually where possible the ‘ecologies’ that researchers are engaged in and connected to through their work. This included exploring what organisms were the focus in research projects. For example, some researchers were focusing on one species of stem borer and the development of ‘superbugs’ while others were working on weeds and herbicide resistance and others on connections between insect species present in a Bt maize field. It was interesting to ask what organisms were being focused on and which were not present in the research. Furthermore, to ask where was the research being carried out and how is it connected to the social-ecological context of the farms on which the maize being studied is grown. This week of research offered the opportunity to think about the connections between agri/cultural research and shifting relationships with nature and how this has changed in relation to the introduction of new seed technologies.

In interviews with scientists, we spoke about the focus of their research and how they came to be doing this work. We also spoke about how the various research projects are connected to the wider R&D system in South Africa. In interviews with some of the experienced researchers who had been there for a long time we spoke about how maize research has changed over the years and especially since the introduction of GM varieties. Most of the researchers I spoke to in Potchefstroom were in some way involved in research to do with Bt maize. Since the introduction of GM varieties in the early 2000s, a large focus of the research energy and resources in South Africa have necessarily been concerned with exploring the complexities associated with the introduction of various GM varieties.

This includes both research that is critical of GM technologies and concerned about the social and ecological impacts, as well as research that is not necessarily critical but rather interested in “stewardship” and how to practically manage the roll out of GM maize. The stewardship focused research is concerned with issues such as how to avoid phenomena such as the development of superbugs.


When Bt maize was first rolled out in South Africa it was not done in a regulated manner. This resulted in a lack of communication with farmers and a lack of safety procedures being integrated such as the planting of refugia. A number of the scientists I interviewed were exploring the complexities that have arisen partly as a result of this.

During one interview with an entomologist that has worked on maize research since the 1980s we spoke about the loss of knowledge and research focus on the multitude of organisms present, as well as the complex interactions between plants insects and other species in agricultural systems. Over the decades he has witnessed a number of shifts in the research and also witnessed how the R&D space changed with the introduction of GM – specifically Bt maize. He mentioned the problem of “deskilling” and how he felt that this was related to the fact that Bt maize has been marketed and used as a “silver bullet solution”, which therefore removed the need for farmers, extension officers and scientists to focus on subtle interaction between species on farms. He explained how before the introduction of Bt maize, a farmer in “Bothaville, knew his pests, he knew what to spray if they came and now 15 yrs down the line he doesn’t remember anymore because he hasn’t seen these small worms in 10 yrs or his son has taken over and he doesn’t know if this is a beetle or a worm”. In addition, extension officers are often unable to help as they too no longer know much about the species on the farms they are working on. He explained how there is a need to re-train farmers, and extension officers and scientists around this.

He also spoke about how during the late 1980s and 1990s much of the focus of maize research in the unit was on integrated pest management strategies. This required interdisciplinary research teams that were collectively able to explore relationships between crops, insects, weeds, soils and other ecological factors. However, over the past decade and a half, much of this research was set aside in part due to a focus on Bt maize research. Interestingly though, the emergence of many concerns such as the development of superbugs has called for a renewed interest in wider ecological focus in the research again. It has called attention to the importance of the social-ecological context and cultures of agri/culture rather than approaching GM technologies as “silver bullet solutions”. I am interested in exploring this theme in more detail, which can be approached by mapping the ecologies that scientists and extension services and farmers are engaged with. I will engage with this is more detail in my next post!