Changing maize agri/cultures – time in the field

I recently spent 3 weeks doing some final fieldwork in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) where I continued to interview scientists working on maize research, small-scale farmers as well as government officials involved in maize agriculture. During this period the focus of these interviews was to understand changing systems of maize research in South Africa and agri/cultures in the areas I was working on. The lens I approached this through was through looking at changing social-ecological relationships within systems of agri/culture and how these have been affected by the introduction of new maize seed technologies. In order to this I have tried to explore relationships between participants involved in maize agri/culture and the ecological landscapes in which they work – for example for farmers this would be the land on which they farm in relation to social, ecological and political influences, for scientists sometimes it is a mixture of laboratories, farms and other spaces.

During the first week I travelled to Pietermartitzberg where I had some meetings set up with professors and PhD students at the University of KZN where they are doing a lot of research on maize. Here I explored what kinds of research are being done and what the focus of this research in and how its fits into the bigger research agenda on maize and agri/culture in South Africa. I was also able to meet with a team of researchers who are currently working with small scale farmers to develop varieties that are suitable for small scale farmers. This project is exciting because it takes into account the knowledge small scale farmers have. This has not been the case in research to date which has generally seen scientists as the experts and farmers as the recipients of technologies. While in KZN I also made some further contacts at CEDARA which I hope to be able to follow up over next few months. This Government run Agricultural college was established in 1905 and over the past century and through the political changes happening in South Africa, it has been the site of much maize R&D. While today it focuses mainly on training, there are a number of researchers affiliated with the institution who have a great deal of experience in maize related research. The test plots and greenhouses located here are also used for trial research.

While in KZN I also took some time to go the the Provincial archives where i searched for clues on maize agri/culture in the area I am working on. Here I found a collection of government records that mentioned maize agri/culture in relation to  social, political and ecological processes underway during the colonial and early apartheid period. While this is not an archival study and so I was not able to spend a great deal of time in the archives it provided some context to the area I am working and the pre hybrid maize period (See map found in the archives above showing the area I have been working in near the Pongola River – drawn by colonial officials  in 1870 as part of the process of dividing up land under their rule ). The is very little written on the history of agri/culture in the area  and so these pieces of archival evidence are useful in this way. During my research I met someone who is currently working on a project to write the history of this area specifically focusing on the precolonial history of the area and the time of the early colonial era. This work which began in 2013 is currently situated within a project called The Five Hundred Year Archive which is a collaborative project between institutions.

Over the following weeks I spent time in the research site I am working in in Northern KZN. In this area this year I have conducted 30 in depth semi-structured interviews with small-scale farmers. I did this with the help of a translator who came with me from Swaziland (very nearby and who spoke the Zulu and Siswati which are both spoken in the area which borders Swaziland and was once part of Swaziland) and a research assistant who lived in the area.  We also spent time with farmers on their land exploring methods of agri/culture and taking pictures related to the narratives in the interviews. Once again I have approached this fieldwork through using a social-ecological lens aided by an interest in the other-than-human or multispecies perspective in which I have tried to explore how farmers relate to the ecological systems (seeds, soils, climates, insects, weeds, etc) in which they are farming and ask about how this has changed as farmers have adopted new seed varieties and associated methods of farming.

At the start of the project I set out to interview farmers to who are growing OPV’s which are refereed to in the area as Mdala (old) or Zulu Maize, farmers growing Hybrid maize and farmers growing GM maize. I was able to find 11 farmers to talk to who are growing Zulu only maize and the same number growing hybrids (often in addition to Zulu Maize) and then about 4 framers who were growing GM maize as part of projects linked to the Department of Agriculture in the area. Many of the farmers were growing a combination of  or had tried different varieties at different points during their farming experience ranging from Zulu Maize, to Seed.Co Hybrids, to Pannar, Pioneer and Monsanto. Most farmers were elderly and so had been involved in planting maize for over 60 years. Many did not remember what seeds they have used, having tried a number of seeds over the years.  Often it was challenging to really know what varieties of seed farmers had planted this year and in previous years as what became apparent after much time in the area is that farmers are changing their seed often, sometimes annually and sometimes they are quite unsure about what exact seed they have planted. We tried asking if we could see the packaging that the seeds had come in but few farmers till had kept the packaging after they had planted the seed. However we were able to take photographs of the maize produced and also enquire about the color of the seed that they had planted. Different types of maize seed is covered in different chemical dyes – some darker which people described as “sweet pink” and some lighter pink, while some is green (with a monkey on the packaging – see image below) – this helped us know which kind of seed farmers were referring to.

All the farmers we interviewed reside along one mountain range within a geographical area of approximately 20km. While they live close to each other there are significant variations in rainfall, soil types and other factors which influence farming in the different parts of the area. What became apparent over these weeks is just how much agri/cultures are constantly changing – these changes come from multiple interactions and challenges that farmers are faced with and have been faced with since the introduction of maize in the 1600s via present day Mozambique. While there are similarities between the choices of small scale farmers even in one valley each farmer’s way of farming is mediated buy social, economic, political and ecological factors. These decision of what seed to plant is made annually in relation to all of these considerations, for example one year a farmer may plant Zulu maize instead of Hybrid maize because they were unable to afford seed that year, while the next year the farmer may have been given a GM seed sample as part of a trial project in the area. Farmers choice of input such a using kraal (cattle) manure over fertiliser would also depend on access to resources such a physical resources but also this may include information on what is the best seed to plant which may come from an NGO supporting agro-ecological methods or the government or seed companies reaching farmers in various ways.

These fieldwork over the past few weeks has given much insight into the theme of agri/cultural deskilling (or changing skills) in relation to social-ecological knowledge and agriculture. While once farmers (and researchers) may have relied on a cumulative development of knowledge in relation to the landscapes that they are working, today there is an overwhelming set of information and rapid development of technologies to understand and negotiate in relation to rapidly changing climates and social economic factors – what seems to be the case is much dislocation and many unknowns and fragmented relationships with ecological systems and knowledge rather than distinctive cultures of agriculture or agri/cultures.

In the next post I will discussion ore detail the mirror of this post in the area of research and development in maize agri/culture in South Africa which I have been exploring along side the experience of smalls scale farmers.

 

A taste of the amazing world of honey bees

The “Man (or Woman??) of Bicorp” holding onto lianas to gather honey from a beehive as depicted on an 8000-year-old cave painting near Valencia, Spain

Last weekend I took an intensive 2 day course on honey bees and organic beekeeping. It covered many topics including bee biology and ethology, beekeeping practices, bee pathologies, product development and regulations. Bee biology and ethology is absolutely fascinating and I recommend any of you readers, to learn a bit about it. The course was very useful as it provided a broad picture of many of the issues related to the world of honey bees within the broader context of the Anthropocene.

Perhaps one of the most striking issues I learned about was about how European honey bees (Apis mellifera), through movement of the western honey bee, colonies into and out of Asia, become vulnerable to Varroa mite, an external parasitic mite that attacks Apis cerana and Apis mellifera honeybees, first in Africa and then in Europe.  Quickly, the parasite spread around the world. Populations of wild honeybees in Europe dropped dramatically almost to the point of extinction during the 1980s. Currently, Varroa has become persistent in many parts of the world, such as Spain, and the existence of these bees in these areas depends on human activities. These beekeeping activities mostly consist in conventional ‘bee farming’  which involve practices such as controlling the queens, inhibiting bees swarming, the application of toxic chemicals to control the varroa and stealing the honey (product of the bee-labour).

During the course I was introduced to different models of beekeeping. In the same way that there are  different cultures of agri/culture, there are different cultures of api/culture. These different cultures are linked to different practices, worldviews and a different relationships with bees themselves.

In Spain, organic beekeeping is extremely marginal. There are only 50 professional organic beekeepers in Spain despite it being one of the countries in Europe with the highest number of  professional beekeepers. Perhaps one of the main challenges faced is the poor understanding of what it means to be organic beekeeper in contrast to conventional beekeeping.

Over the next few months we will be exploring Beekeeping and pollination and we will keep you updated about our progress!

Resilience for Development colloquium – on reading landscapes and imagining agri/cultural futures

 

Performative artwork titled Eland and Benko which was burned onto the landscape by artist Hannelie Coetzee as part of a science – at collaboration where scientists were studying burning of grasslands and the effect on grassland species and habitats.

Last week i attended the Resilience for Development Colloquium which was held in Johannesburg. The colloqium was organised by  GRAID (Guidance for Resilience in the Anthropocene: Investments for development) and SAPECs (Southern African Program on Ecosystem Change and Society) which falls within the Stockholm Resilience Centre. GRAID has been set up to “generate the latest knowledge on resilience thinking, synthesize and employ insights to assess and build resilience in the context of development across Global South”.

Busiso Moyo’s keynote provided a deeply insightful place from which to think about South Africa’s social-economic challenges rooted in the complex history of the country which underpins the current lived realities. Lorenzo Fioramonti’s key note speech on the ‘well being economy‘ provided an  introduction to imagining  development without the economic growth being at the centre of decision making in South Africa and globally. And finally Michelle Lee-Moore’s keynote provided an overview of the history of resilience thinking and how its is growing in appeal globally as tool for approaching the social-ecological challenges and oppourtunities were are faced with today in a development context.

The colloquium explored the importance of a resilience perspective within development and in finding ways to work collectively towards human and ecological wellbeing. It also focused on workshopping research methodologies and approaches towards monitoring and sustaining longterm resilience focused projects or “transformative development projects”. The program was extensive and comprised of 3 sets of 3 parallel session over 3 days. Therefore it was not possible to attend all the sessions but i was able to attend most of the ones that i was interested in and which i felt would be useful for the agri/cultures work. Themes of talks and workshops ranged from thinking about resilience in agriculture and food security, to marine ecosystems, and urban environments. A  number of practitioners who are exploring resilience as a lens in their work shared their experiences from around the globe. Some of the discussion focused on how a resilience approach has been interpreted widely by practitioners and it was agreed that while some tools and methodologies are valuable to guide practice,  tools must be flexible so as to be adaptive to different contexts.

The colloquium was a great opportunity to learn more about the resilience work being carried out and also learn more about the focus within this field on social-ecological connections and research and how practitioners are approaching this. In attending thecoloquium i was curious about how a resilience perspective may add insights to exploring agri/cultural futures in South Africa.  Within the PhD project i have been exploring changing social-ecological knowledge in agri/cultural systems and how agri/cultural knowledge of both farmers and scientists (involved in maize agri/culture) in South Africa has changed over time and specifically in relation to the introduction of new seed varieties and technologies. As new technologies are introduced agri/cultural knowledge shifts, leading to changes in social-ecologial relationhips and knowledge.  I am interested in how a resilience perspective may support the the growth of research and development that moves beyond the dominant models ( which are largely geared towards supporting industrial agri/cultural systems) and which take seriously diverse agri/cultural knowledges (which are ever changing) as vital for building social-ecological resilience for the future of agri/culture in South Africa.

The colloquium program also had a strong focus on interdisciplinary research methodologies as being important within the resilience field. It was an opportunity to share experiences with other researchers making use of visual and sensory data collection methodologies. Over the past year while i have been very excited about the interdisciplinary component of the project this has also been a challenging part to develop and often i have felt a bit disconnected from others working in this way and it is extremely useful to have the change to engage with other researchers experiencing similar challenges and excitement around the use of these methods.

I attended 3 sessions which explored the use of visual disciplies. One was on paricipatory mapping and “photo voice”, one was on photograpy and research and the final was presenting a case study art-scince collaboration between a team of ecologists and a fine artist (Hannelie Coetzee – see art work in the top image) who works with ecological materials and concepts. In the collaboration the ecologists had set out to explore the effect of annual fires on grassland ecosystems. In the process they would burn a patch of grassland annually and record data as the area evolved from the fires over time. Hanellie Coetzee joined up with this team of ecologists and designed an image of a human and an Eland antelope that would be burnt into the landscape (rather than a square). They described how the art science collaboration got each other thinking about their tools and methods in new ways and how it brought a new set of dialogues and a new audience to the project. This third session was an extremely powerful session and stimlated a great dialogue around the value of interdisciplinary work and the value art can bring to scientific research.  In recent months i have been contemplating the how people from different vantage points, interact and read landscapes in different ways – whether it be scientist or artist, farmer or researcher. I asked the   collaborators if they were inspired by each others reading of landscape/ or relationship with landscape and this evolve into a very interesting dialogue on how multiple knowledges may contribute to building more resilient futures.

 

Reorganising Power for Systems Change

Two weeks ago I participated at The EDGE Funders Alliance Conference 2017, as a member of the local host committee in Barcelona. EDGE acts within philanthropy to raise awareness and deepen understanding of the interconnected nature of the social, economic and ecological crises threatening our common future. EDGE works to increase resources for communities and movements creating systemic change alternatives for a transition to a society that supports justice, equity and the well-being of the planet.

The Conference gathered more than 250 progressive funders & activist partners. We had the opportunity to discuss systems change in the different thematic Engagement Labs, Workshops, Walking tours, Community Meetings, Dine Arounds and Plenary Sessions with inspiring speakers and an awesome facilitator.

I am still digesting the Conference and the different type of learning experiences I had. However, I’d like to share with you three of them I found especially useful:

  1. Just transition framework: The Conference started by setting a common framework for systems change analysis. It has been developed by Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project. According to them, Just Transition requires us to build a visionary economy for life in a way that is very different than the economy we are in now. Constructing this visionary economy calls for strategies that democratize, decentralize and diversify economic activity while we damper down consumption, and (re)distribute resources and power.

 

2. Fishbowl conversation: One of the most common methodologies used at the Conference for engaging in collective discussions was the fishbowl. It is a conversation in the form of a dialogue that allows the participation of many people. It involves having a small group of people (usually 5) seated in a circle, having a conversation in full view of a larger group of listeners. There’s an empty chair in theinner circle that can be occupied by someone from the outer circle when they have something they wish to contribute to the conversation. When that is the case, a person from the inner circle has to leave the conversation so that there is always an empty chair open for new people to join. Fishbowl processes provide a creative way to include the “public” in a small group discussion. They can actually be used in a wide variety of settings, including workshops, conferences, organizational meetings and public assemblies. Fishbowls are useful for ventilating “hot topics” or sharing ideas or information from a variety of perspectives. Although largely self-organizing once the discussion gets underway, the fishbowl process usually has a facilitator or moderator. During the Conference this was a very interesting way to foster conversations.

 

3. Agroecology on the rise:  There were multiple occasions and spaces at the Conference which tried to facilitate Agroecological conversations and further collaboration between philanthropy and civil society organizations to co-create sustainable food systems rooted in social justice. In fact, many people at the Conference were involved in movements or funds that conceive of agroecology as an already-working alternative paradigm that relates not only to agrarian reform, but to climate justice, post-extractivist circular economy and social justice (including indigenous rights). I had the impression that not only is agroecology powerful, but it is expanding, increasingly in fashion, and one of the ways to move towards a Just Transition.

The future of food

Last week I participated in an international colloquium organised by ICAS (Initiatives on Critical Agrarian Studies), Etxalde and Critical Agrarian Studies Colloquium of the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) on The Future of Food and Challenges for Agriculture in the 21st Century. The colloquium took place in Vitoria-Gasteiz where 450 researchers, farmers and activists working on agroecology and food sovereignty gathered over the two days.

Many of the plenary sessions  were very impressive and provided the opportunity to listen to a range of very well-known speakers such as Susan George, Raj Patel, Silvia Ribeiro, Peter Rosset, Raúl Delgado Wise and Harriet Friedmann. It was also a great opportunity to meet old friends and new colleagues. However, as very often happens in congresses, there was little time for discussion to develop and little room for new ideas from less high profile participants. I think this is a pity in the agroecological context where many new experiences and initiatives are constantly emerging and there has been a great effort to innovate with participatory pedagogical approaches and tools.

My participation in the colloquium was linked to the need for innovative teaching methodologies in the context of the transition to more sustainable food systems. After the creation of the Agroecology Chair at the University of Vic (Uvic-UCC, Barcelona), and in order to contribute to the development of this new paradigm in the university system, we initiated a process of creating a bachelor in agroecology and food systems. In the colloquium we explained how we did this by facilitating a bottom-up, multi-actor, participatory process using focus groups and interviews to gather information on the needs of the different actors of the sector working on agroecology and food sovereignty (e.g. from producers, consumers, local and regional government, students, researchers, CSOs) . This process helped to inform the development of  the new Agroecology degree. We also explained the main barriers and challenges currently faced by the project. We presented how the participatory process concluded that a bachelor of this kind built to support agroecological transitions, should not only equally address the three dimensions of agroecology (technical, socio-cultural and political) but also be very practical and rely on innovative teaching methodologies (e.g. learning by doing within meaningful learning contexts). It was also clear that it would require new forms of knowledge co-generation that considers farmers as important holders of knowledge alongside researchers and that sees agriculture not only as a productive activity, but also as an essential activity in the creation of sustainable societies.

Have you been involved in any courses or education programs like that? It would be interesting to hear what has been your experience?

Mother Nature Needs Her Daughters

This year, I am extremely fortunate because I have been selected to join the Homeward Bound program. Homeward Bound is a groundbreaking leadership initative for women in science. It specifically seeks to raise the leadership capability of women scientists so as to enhance their ability to impact policy and influence the decision-making shaping our planet and the conditions for life on earth. Their slogan is “Mother Nature Needs Her Daughters”, as is beautifully illustrated in the short film above (which makes me cry everytime I watch it, but not in a bad way!) The initiative emphasises the role that women, and particularly women scientists, can play in moving us out of environmental crisis and into practices of ecological care and I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to be involved.

As a lucky participant, I will take part in Homeward Bound’s year long program to develop leadership, strategic and communication capabilities, which will then culminate in a 3 week voyage to Antarctica. Yes, Antarctica! Cue Happy Dance. During the voyage to Antarctica, the transformational learning towards being a better leader will continue and intensify, but all participants will also be given an amazing opportunity to learn about the lastest scientific research on climate change and particularly its impacts in the Antarctic. Indeed it was the coordinator of this ‘science’ part of the program that first alerted me to the initative and encouraged me to apply – thanks Justine Shaw!

Homeward bound has a 10 year plan to offer its program to 1000 women in science, from all around the world, so as to help promote them into positions of leadership to affect policy and advance sustainability. It started in 2016, when in its first year it took the world’s largest-ever female expedition to Antarctica (76 women). The next voyage, to take place in early 2018, will be even bigger as it will take the 80 participants selected this year and currently starting their training to the frozen land of the far south.

To apply for the program, I had to answer a set of questions concerning my background, experience, interests, challenges and thoughts on leadership. I also had to submit a 2 minute movie making a pitch for why they should select me (which took me quite a few takes to get right!). What was particularly interesting for me while writing the application was that they specifically said that it was okay to not know the answer to some questions – what they were looking for was honesty, passion, a willingness to collaborate and a desire to implement and pass on what is learned to others. Women were selected for the program from a huge range of different scientific and technical fields and from across all levels – including senior staff with lots of experience and others who have just completed a PhD. It has been fascinating to see and start to get know all the other women involved, which has begun now through our first conference calls.

I know I have only just started touching the tip of the iceberg in terms of what this initative will offer over the next 12 months but I am already extremely excited. The founder Fabian Dattner seems so wise and warm and energetic that I cannot help but get enthusiastic listening to her talk about her vision. All the women selected to be involved seem so diversely skilled and passionate about the planet that I am already feeling inspired to be better, do more and create new networks of collaboration. The approach to transformational learning and the activities that we are already being asked to do (such as reflective journaling) align so well with my own thoughts concerning what constitutes a powerful pedagogy that I  can’t wait to dive in and learn more about leadership and strategic communications through their approach. All of this means that even though I am slightly terrified of the extended time required on a boat in rough oceans at the end of it all, I am feeling extremely lucky to be a part of the Homeward Bound 2017/18 team. Hopefully I can continue to update this blog with learnings as I go and I encourage everyone to follow the program through their social media links.

The Verdict of the International Monsanto Tribunal

A day after the international peasant’s day, the Monsanto Tribunal has taken place in The Hague. The International Monsanto Tribunal is a unique “Opinion Tribunal” convened as a civil society initiative to hold Monsanto accountable for human rights violations, crimes against humanity, and ecocide. On the 15th and 16th of October 2016, five international and eminent judges heard different testimonies from victims, related to six main questions. Today they have delivered (livestreamed) in The Hague their legal opinion of the legal obligations and consequences of some of the activities of the Monsanto Company, following procedures of the International Court of Justice.

The Tribunal represents an important step to advance towards developing mechanisms to hold corporations accountable for social and environmental crimes. Organizing groups behind the Monsanto Tribunal include the Organic Consumers AssociationNavdanyaIFOAM Organics International, the Biovision Foundation and Regeneration International.

The tribunal has been developing its argumentation through different sections, each dealing with relevant questions related to the violations of 1) right to a healthy environment; 2) right to food; 3) right to health; 4) right to freedom for scientific research; 5) complicity in war crimes; and 6) the rights of the Earth or the crimes of ecocide.

Right to a Healthy Environment

Based on the evidence to answer Question 1, the Tribunal concludes that Monsanto has engaged in practices which have negatively impacted the right to a healthy environment. Specifically, it stated:

The Monsanto Tribunal hearings allowed for the gathering of testimonies related to various impacts on human health (especially on farmers), soils, plants, aquatic organisms, animal health and biodiversity. These testimonies also included the impacts of spraying crop protection products (herbicides, pesticides). In addition, the information collected also shed light on the impacts on indigenous communities and peoples in many countries, and on the absence of adequate information given to those concerned.

Right to Food

The Right to Food understands food as a fundamental right for individuals and communities. In this section, the Tribunal mentioned that the hearings accounted for negative impacts on production systems and ecosystems, the appearance of invasive species and the loss of efficiency of Roundup over time. The Tribunal highlighted some farmers were sentenced to pay royalties after their fields were contaminated by Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), while others stated that the corporation is taking over the seed market, even though Monsanto’s products are not as productive as promised. In response to Question 2, the Tribunal concluded that:

Monsanto has engaged in practices that have negatively impacted the right to food. Monsanto’s activities affect food availability for individuals and communities and interfere with the ability of individuals and communities to feed themselves directly or to choose non-genetically modified seeds. In addition, genetically modified seeds are not always affordable for farmers and threaten biodiversity. Monsanto’s activities and products cause damage to soil, water and to the environment more generally. The Tribunal concludes that food sovereignty is also affected and underlines the cases in which genetic contamination of fields forced farmers to pay royalties to Monsanto or even to abandon their non-GMO crops due to this contamination. There is indeed an infringement on the right to food because of aggressive marketing on GMOs which can force farmers to buy new seeds every year. The dominant agro-industrial model can be criticized even more strongly because other models – such as agroecology – exist that respect the right to food.

Right to Health

The right to health is intertwined with the rights to food, water and sanitation, and to a healthy environment. It encompasses not only physical health but also mental and social health (the latter being right to housing, access to safe water, etc). The Tribunal recalled that Monsanto has manufactured and distributed many dangerous substances, undermining on many occasions the right to health (e.g PCBs or persistent organic pollutants were exclusively commercialized by Monsanto between 1935 and 1979, despite the fact that the company knew about their deleterious health impacts). The Tribunal also gave special mention to the (somewhat contested) risks that glyphosate poses for health and mentions the lack of scientific consensus and the existing controversy about the impacts of GMOs on human health. On this latter point, it also pointed out that:

The controversy is embedded in a context of opacity on GMO studies, and even on the inability of researchers to conduct independent research.

For all this, the Tribunal concluded that Monsanto has engaged in practices that negatively impacted the right to health.

Right to freedom indispensable for scientific research

The “freedom indispensable for scientific research” closely relates to freedom of thought and expression, as well as the right to information. The Tribunal stated that:

Some of Monsanto’s practices mentioned in the testimonies of agronomists and molecular biologists have resulted in court convictions for the company. Among those practices are: illegal GMO plantations; resorting to studies misrepresenting the negative impacts of Roundup by limiting the analysis to glyphosate only while the product is a combination of substances; massive campaigns aiming at discrediting the results of independent scientific studies. These strategies led, for example, to the withdrawal of a study published in an international journal and to the loss of a job for a scientist working in a governmental health agency.

This has led the Tribunal to consider that Monsanto’s conduct is negatively affecting the right to freedom indispensable for scientific research.

Complicity in War Crimes

This section was dealing with the 70 million liters of Agent Orange (containing dioxin) which were sprayed on approximately 2.6 million hectares of land, between 1962 and 1973, in the context of the Vietnam war. This chemical caused great harm to the Vietnamese population. However, due to the current state of international law and the absence of specific evidence, the Tribunal could not give any definitive answer on this point. Nevertheless, it noted that if the crime of Ecocide would be added in International law, the reported facts concerning the responsibility of the harm induced by Agent Orange could fall within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Crime of Ecocide

The international community today understands that preserving the integrity of ecosystems and a healthy environment is vital for enabling society and securing a life of dignity for present and future generations. Therefore, attacks against the health and integrity of the environment are unethical human activities and subject to criminal opprobrium. Despite the patchwork of elements of criminal environmental protections established in domestic and international environmental law, as well as in international criminal law, gaps of protection remain. The Tribunal stressed that international law has yet to articulate in precise terms criminal responsibility for the crime of ecocide, whether committed in times of peace or in the context of armed conflict.

The Tribunal understands the crime of ecocide as “causing serious damage or destroying the environment, so as to significantly and durably alter the global commons or ecosystem services upon which certain human groups rely”. This definition identifies the specific elements of material conduct that arise in the crime of ecocide. In addition to these elements, the crime of ecocide also involves general criminal elements, including: knowledge and intent; complicity; and corporate criminal responsibility. Regarding Monsanto’s conduct in relation to ecocide, the Tribunal concludes that:

if such a crime of ecocide were recognized in international criminal law, the activities of Monsanto could possibly constitute a crime of ecocide. Several of the company’s activities may fall within this infraction, such as the manufacture and supply of glyphosate-based herbicides to Colombia in the context of its plan for aerial application on coca crops, which negatively impacted the environment and the health of local populations; the large-scale use of dangerous agrochemicals in industrial agriculture; and the engineering, production, introduction and release of genetically engineered crops. Severe contamination of plant diversity, soils and waters would also fall within the qualification of ecocide. Finally, the introduction of persistent organic pollutants such as PCB into the environment causing widespread, long-lasting and severe environmental harm and affecting the right of the future generations could fall within the qualification of ecocide as well.

Last but not least, the last part of the Tribunal’s argumentation was dedicated to problematising the existing and growing gap between international human rights and corporate accountability. It called for two urgent actions:

  1. The need to assert the primacy of international human and environmental rights law over international financial institutions.
  2.  The need to hold non-state actors responsible within international human rights law. Meaning that it’s time to consider multinational enterprises as subjects of law that could be sued in the case of infringement of fundamental rights.

The tribunal concluded that:

  • Monsanto has violated human rights to food, health, a healthy environment and the freedom indispensable for independent scientific research.
  • ‘ecocide’ should be recognized as a crime in international law.    
  • human rights and environmental laws are undermined by corporate-friendly trade and investment regulation.

The National Agricultural Research Forum -reflections on the future of agricultural research in South Africa

Last week i attended the National Agricultural Research Forum (NARF) annual meeting in Pretoria.  This is an annual governmental meeting open to all food stakeholders that aims to set research priorities for the year and ahead and work towards an integrated future of agri/cultural research in South Africa. Given the project’s interest in the changes that agricultural research and knowledge has undergone over the decades this meeting was an opportunity to understand better government’s interface with agricultural research and various stakeholders in the Research and Development (R&D) system in South Africa. It was also an opportunity to explore how agriculture and the agricultural research that supports it is being imagined for the future in South Africa and what kinds of knowledge are being prioritised. Over the last months in the field i have been interested in how ecological knowledge in agriculture is changing and exploring the theme of agri/cultural deskilling linked to the introduction of new seed technologies developed often out of context of where they are used and with little or no dialogue with farmers. I have been exploring this in the context of small scale maize agri/cultures as well as in the R&D system in South Africa. I have also been interested in the connections and disconnections  between science , research, innovation and small-scale farmers. The meeting allowed a space to explore how farming knowledge, especially that of small scale farmers was being prioritised or not on a national level.

The meeting started off with a keynote address by the Director General for the Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries Mr.M Mlengana. He made reference to the Vision 2030 National Development Strategy as being the base document for the agricultural vision of South Africa in the context of the wider goals of the country as well as the Sustainable Development Goals which guide this. The 2017/18 National Agricultural Development Strategic Plan provides a roadmap to implementing this vision. The 2008 National Research and Development Strategy provides the baseline for setting the priorities in research to support this. At the meeting there was a launch of an APEX Body which will fulfill the role of coordinating agricultural research going forward as well as build capacity and partnerships in this area. Previously this was managed by the National Agricultural Research Forum NARF which was developed in 2002 to “facilitate consensus and integrate coordination in the fields of research, development, and technology transfer to agriculture in order to enhance national economic growth, social welfare and environmental sustainability”.  In his talk the DG stressed the importance of “building an inclusive rural economy”, focusing on “research and innovation” and agriculture contributing to rural growth. He stressed the importance of science for agriculture in a changing global climate and the need for research that will “unpack uncertainties” that we will be faced with. While smallholder farmers are widely acknowledged and mentioned throughout the The 2017/18 National Agricultural Development Strategic Plan they feature less in the The 2008 National Research and Development Strategy.

Globally there is an increasing recognition that small scale farmers are vital actors in the current production and future of food production. In South Africa there appears to strong drive in Policy and related developmental programmes to bring small-scale farmers into monocrop based agricultures while fewer opportunities for small-scale farmers to boost their farming systems in a way that focuses on diversity and alternative agri/cultural models which incorporate the knowledge and skills of farmers. This seemed to be reflected at the meeting which focused a lot on scientific research and technology development for agricultural growth and poverty reduction without much mention of other knowledge holders being key collaborators for future goals. There also appears to be a focus on science and technology as the primary answer to agricultural challenges in the future, while there not a wide exploration of how these technologies may deeply impact systems of agri/culture.

Historically farmers have been the primary keepers and innovators of agricultural knowledge. This knowledge was gained from experience and skills passed down over generations through families and apprenticeships and based on a knowledge imbedded in particular landscapes and ecologies. However from the early 1900s this began to change and scientists began to assume authority over agricultural knowledge. This went hand in hand with an increasing drive to turn agricultural produce into commodities and raw materials. And in the hands of scientists and researchers – through hybridization, seeds would also become valuable commodities.  Scientists who initially relied on farmer knowledge such as in choosing which varieties to focus on in the development of hybrid maize came to dominate the research and development of seed. Agricultural research on maize seed has expanded and shifted over time in relation to political and economic imperatives. During this process the knowledge of small scale farmers has been increasingly sidelined and undervalued and small scale farmers have become increasingly recipients of knowledge and technologies. In her 1993 paper ‘Deskilled: Hybrid Corn and Farmers’ Work’ Deborah Fitzgerald argues that “hybrid corn was an agent by which farmers were effectively deskilled” in the United States. The project here in South Africa has been tracing the introduction of new seed technologies and exploring how social-ecological knowledge in relation to maize agri/cultures may being lost or changed because of the introduction of seed technologies (Hybrid first and then Genetically Modified varieties).  Small-scale farmers are holders of agricultural diversity in the way of seed that has been passed down generationally, and attached to this seed is a wealth of knowledge around growing it in relation to ecological systems. However, this is not always recognised and in many cases is threatened by harmonisation of seed laws, introduction of new varieties such as GM seed and hierarchical knowledge systems and development schemes which promote small scale farmers abandoning traditional varieties and taking up new seed varieties to be grown as monocrops.

I will in the next weeks spend more time exploring the Policy environment and how R&D is envisioned in this in relation to small-scale farming and how this related to current focus of agricultural research. While i have begun to interview a number of government officials and researchers on how small-scale farming is connected to the wider R&D system i would like to interview more stakeholders on how they envision smallholder framer knowledge being incorporated into research and development for the future of food.

 

Seeds and sovereignty

Some days ago I was invited to participate in a seminar organised by the Xarxa de Consum Solidari and other civil society organisations linked to the food sovereignty and the agroecological movement in Catalonia. The seminar posed a very interesting question, that forced me to think on seeds and GMOs beyond my “comfort zone”: how a food sovereignty agenda should be included in the new Catalan constitution?

In the midst of a very hectic political moment in Catalonia, the political agenda for 2017 includes, in principle, the start of a constituent process to create new political and social models. Many questions remain unanswered. To what extent this constitutes a real opportunity for a grass-root movement to get involved and participate to guarantee deep social change is still to be seen. In despite of all these doubts, I thought it was for sure appealing to engage in a dialogue exercise for enhancing the imagination and discussion of the practical implications of a food sovereignty agenda.

In order to answer this challenge, the seminar counted with the participation of several social movements campaigning for food sovereignty and the right to food, politicians and lawyers that have actively participated in the discussions of constituent processes which included food sovereignty in other countries, and also representatives of different political parties and movements.

In particular, I participated in a round-table on how essential aspects of food sovereignty – such as the right to food or the access to seeds, land and water – can be part of a new constitution. The experience in Ecuador, shared by Alberto Acosta and Mario Aparicio, was very inspiring, arguing in favor of focusing not only on the proposals and contents (articulated as “spaces of possibilities”) but also on the processes themselves. I presented my talk on seeds and GMOs jointly with Ester Cases from Refardes, a project aiming at the conservation of the cultivated agrobiodiversity in Catalonia. I did a short introduction explaining the situation to the access to heirloom seeds globally and in particular in Catalonia while Ester focused on the legal aspects and concrete proposals made by Red de Semillas.

Although the public was rather scarce, the open discussion was focused on the possibilities of  both implementing a local policy based on our own food sovereignty, and accessing seeds based on the peasants’ rights. This led to acknowledge some of the opportunities and challenges of having a commons framework in the midst of the global international trade flows. Is it possible to be sovereign while being immersed in a capitalist economy? What kind of realistic proposals can we make? Which are our degrees of freedom? What is the role of the social movements?

Although the challenges are huge, to participate in this open discussion was really interesting for me, and also it was an opportunity to let the dreams flow and reflect on what kind of society -and consequently what kind of agri-food system- we want for the future.

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?