Finding Transgenes in Maize Landraces

In another project that I lead, biodiverSEEDy, we have been doing some work to see if transgenes have spread to landraces in the center of origin and diversity of maize, Mexico.

The potential for transgene flow into both landraces and wild relatives is a well recognized biosafety issue and therefore an important component of the regulatory risk assessment performed on GM crops prior to their approval for cultivation. The case of transgene flow into traditional maize landraces was first reported in Mexico 15 years ago and drew the world’s attention to the possibility of contaminating crop varieties at their center of origin and diversity.

The reported presence of transgenes in Mexican maize sparked an intense scientific, political and environmental dispute over the extent to which the culture and traditions of indigenous people were being threatened by the unchecked spread of GMOs owned as the patented inventions of multinational corporations. This controversy lead to a long-standing legal battle over the regulatory status of GM crops in Mexico, which continues today as approvals of GM maize for cultivation remain subject to contestation in the courts.

Although maize is currently not permitted for cultivation in Mexico, in a recently published study, we found transgene contamination of landraces being grown by indigenous farmers, as well as maize being sold in government stores as grain, which some farmers then plant as seed. This study also demonstrated how societal organization and the seed management systems of local communities significantly influence the extent and frequency of transgene flow. The work showed how socio-biological factors (such as seed saving and sharing practices, communitarian organization and land tenure arrangements) are highly important determinants affecting the frequency of transgene presence and the potential for spread within farming communities. In doing so, the work also highlighted how social practices and arrangements may be used as a resource to minimize the potential for or scale of transgene flow.

In debates over transgene flow into landraces of maize in Mexico, there has been significant scientific disagreement over what are appropriate and reliable methods to use for GM detection. The use of diverse approaches and a lack of harmonized methods specific to transgene detection in landraces have generated both positive and negative results regarding GM contamination of Mexican maize over the years. In a second newly published paper, we reviewed the scientific debate over methods for detecting transgenes in landraces and wild relatives and made recommendations for sampling, testing and policy. We used this review to inform our own approach to trasngene detection in the work described above. Some of the recommendations we made include: an integration of social and biological data, development of threshold levels and limits of detection relevant for environmental monitoring of low level presence, and the establishment of a public registry with open access to transgene sequence information and all event approvals.

Both of these new papers seek to advance the establishment of good practices for transgene detection and monitoring, issues that are also very important in the contexts where the Agri/Cultures Project is working (Spain and South Africa), as well as anywhere that there is an attempt to achieve co-existance between GMOs and other cultures of agriculture.

We published a new paper!

Socio-economic research on genetically modified crops: a study of the literature“, this is the title of our new paper published in Agriculture and Human Values and co-authored by Georgina Catacora-Vargas, Anne Ingeborg Myhr, Brian Wynne and me.

This has been a long-lasting research, based on an extensive literature review (410 papers were analysed) on socio-economic impacts of GMOs.

Abstract: The importance of socio-economic impacts (SEI) from the introduction and use of genetically modified (GM) crops is reflected in increasing efforts to include them in regulatory frameworks. Aiming to identify and understand the present knowledge on SEI of GM crops, we here report the findings from an extensive study of the published international scientific peer-reviewed literature. After applying specified selection criteria, a total of 410 articles are analysed. The main findings include: (i) limited empirical research on SEI of GM crops in the scientific literature; (ii) the main focus of the majority of the published research is on a restricted set of monetary economic parameters; (iii) proportionally, there are very few empirical studies on social and non-monetary economic aspects; (iv) most of the research reports only short-term findings; (v) the variable local contexts and conditions are generally ignored in research methodology and analysis; (vi) conventional agriculture is the commonly used comparator, with minimal consideration of other substantially different agricultural systems; and (vii) there is the overall tendency to frame the research upon not validated theoretical assumptions, and to over-extrapolate small-scale and short-term specific results to generalized conclusions. These findings point to a lack of empirical and comprehensive research on SEI of GM crops for possible use in decision-making. Broader questions and improved methodologies, assisted by more rigorous peer-review, will be required to overcome current research shortcomings.

You can cite the paper as follows: Catacora-Vargas, G., Binimelis, R., Myhr, A.I. et al. Agric Hum Values (2017).

Building sustainable food systems – within a ‘Food Security’ agenda


Last week i attended a talk by Emile Frison titled ‘Building sustainable food systems for the 21st Century: a potential of diversified agroecological farming. Emile Frison is the former Director General of Bioversity International, and now part of the The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food). Emile’s areas of interest include agricultural biodiversity conservation and building sustainable and nutritious food systems. He was in South Africa to give input on this at the 3rd International Conference on Global Food Security Conference which took place in Cape Town.  The work of the IPES offers an alternative vision to very industrial agriculture driven framings of food security which still represented the majority of work represented at the international conference and which underpin agricultural visioning in South Africa’s Policy and strategy. IPES began in 2015 with the goal of  informing the policy debate on building more sustainable food systems  “through evidence-based research and direct engagement with policy processes around the world.” The interdisciplinary panel is chaired by Olivier De Schutter (former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food) and Olivia Yambi (nutritionist and former UNICEF representative to Kenya) and brings together a wide range of stakeholder representatives. Their first report titled ‘From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems’ (2016) provides a great baseline set of work for the agri/cultures project as both are interested in diversity in agri/culture and the effects of industrial technologies on the future of food. The work of the IPES also provides a very useful framework to work with in exploring the future of food in South Africa and how to envision this in more diverse ways.


Grant Applications & Managing the Stress of Academic Life

The nature of academic life means that even though we have funding to do this very interesting and important project (and indeed I am currently managing or involved in several interesting and important projects), there is always pressure to apply for more.

As the leader of the Responsible and Sustainable Technoscience Co-laborative (RootS) at GenØk, I have particular responsibility to bring in new projects, new positions and more external funding. Of course, this means that instead of using all my time to do the research on the projects I already have, I am also expected to dedicate time to writing new grant applications – a very time consuming task with no guarantee of reward!

Last week, together with some of my colleagues in the RootS Co-Lab, we submitted two grant applications. One was to investigate how biotechnologies conceptualise, communicate and change human/nature relations. The other was about how we may adapt higher education practices so that biotechnologists develop the competencies they need to work in responsible and sustainable ways.

To help work on these applications, we had a small grant writing retreat here in Tromsø together with a handful of invited international experts (on topics such as environmental ethics, science communication, and the engineering of life). Below you see us walking to a cafe for lunch (minus Amaranta who is our photographer) – and yes, as you can see, winter has arrived in the arctic!

These days working on the grant applications were very intense and on average I think I slept about 3 hours a night! I was extremely proud that when the deadline arrived, we were actually able to submit 2 complete, clear, concrete and well written applications. This was quite a feat!

However, I know that we are competing with many other applications (over 100 for one call and over 60 for the other) and that it will only take one reviewer who does not like or understand the idea and our chances of getting funding will be lost. This is the nature of game. Is it fair? Is it efficient? I’m not sure. What I know though is that writing new applications is extremely demanding and it is a task that comes on top of an already packed program of responsibilities and things that need to be done.

At the moment, academic life feels like running on a treadmill that someone keeps increasing the pace on. And scarily, there is no end time for this workout. The only option is to keep running or be thrown off. You might think that you will reach certain milestones (such as getting a new grant awarded or a permanent position) and then the pace will start to cool down, but in fact, it is the opposite. If I get a new grant for example, I will have another project to manage, new research team members to support and new outcomes to deliver. The pace will just increase. Of course, if I dont get any new grants awarded, then the pace still increases – the pressure to write more applications, to get more publications, to recruit more students etc just amplifies. And I am in a situtation where I do not have a large teaching load. For those in university positions trying to balance research and teaching responsibilities, the situation may be even worse.

In today’s modern world, it often seems like everyone I talk to is stressed. Everyone is busy. Everyone suffers from a feeling of overwhelm.

I enjoy my work as a researcher. I like leading a team of passionate, bright, motivated minds. But sometimes, I wonder how long I can keep running on the treadmill before my body gives out? How long I can subject myself to intense relentless pressure before collapsing?

It is therefore clear to me that practices and time for self-care are absolutely crucial to survive academic life. Doing yoga and meditation every morning, taking time to exercise and be in nature, protecting free time in the evenings and on the weekends, having holidays and breaks on the horizon – all of these are crucial for me to be a productive researcher and effective leader.

Am I alone in this or do you also suffer from stress and sense of feeling overwhelmed by the amount of things you have to do? If so, what are your management strategies? Maybe we can help each other!

Exploring the Art-Science-Sustainability nexus with poetic analysis

This was the title of the workshop I attended last Friday at the University of Vic with María Fernández Giménez, from the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship at the Colorado State University. María is collaborating with different projects at the Chair on Agroecology at the University of Vic dealing with shepherds, traditional knowledge and adaptation to climate change, which are also exploring new ways of scientific communication using arts.

In the seminar, assistants shared their views and experiences on poetic analysis, defined by María Fernándex as one facet of the emerging field of arts-based inquiry through which social science researchers use artistic expression, including literature, visual art and perfomance throughout the research process. Poetic analysis can take several different forms:

a) representation of data in poetic form, in which the researcher creates poems from interview transcripts or other primary texts. In this form, poems are a means of data reduction, similar to other qualitative data analysis approaches;

b) poetry as a means of enquiry, where the researcher analyses poems (created by the researcher or a research subject) to identify themes, and reveal meaning and emotion; and

c) ethnographic poetry, in which the researcher writes ethnography or research results as poetry.

The workshop was attended by researchers working on agroecology, climate change and education (especially focused on videos, music and theater), and after a presentation given by María on different researches using poetry both as a research and communication tool, we did a practical exercise composing a poem using either interview quotations or by scientific articles. I enjoyed it a lot, and I found it especially interesting to read and listen to the different poems we wrote all inspired by the same original text.

GM in Spain (infographic)

Last week we collectively worked on creating an infographic that captured in a single image the main issues around GM Maize in Spain. Of course, as any infographic, it just highlights some of the relevant dimensions of the controversy of GM crops in Spain. But we think it can help to understand what is going on in the European country with higher number of cultivated area of GM crops. Actually, it is both a simplified, visual and updated version of what we tell in the section “Spain, a telltale case of the impossibility of coexistence” of our paper Just Existing is Resisting: The Everyday Struggle against the expansion of GM Crops in Spain.

It is also an infographic to be used in the interactive website we are preparing in which we are condensing much of the knowledge we have acquired through all these years of agri/cultures research.

Below you can see the result. Please, share it widely!

Biowatch Food and Seed Festival

Last week I attended the Biowatch Food and Seed Festival. While Biowatch farmers have previously been involved in smaller localised seed festivals this was the first time Biowatch have organized such a large national festival. The program ran over two days and included talks, tastings and demonstrations. It brought together farmers, academics, NGOs and civil society from across the country as well as neighboring countries to share ideas about seed and food sovereignty and to discuss ways forward. The result was an extremely enlivening and inspiring two days of meeting people working is diverse ways to mobilize alternative seed and food systems in South Africa and the region. Some highlights included discussions on traditional food and nutrition, discussions on how small scale farmers can mobilize alternative economies, a demonstration on milling traditional maize using hand milling methods and discussions on wild foods and the importance of growing food and reconnecting with wild foods as a way of reconnecting with landscapes and ecologies. This last conversation was especially informative and connected to the work i have been doing in South Africa exploring farmer and scientists’ relationships with ecologies and agricultural landscapes.

The festival provided a great platform to engage with some of the concerns and ideas embedded in the Agri/culture project.  Method Gundidza from the EarthLore Foundation presented a talk titled Seeds and our spirituality: reviving traditional ecological knowledge and practices. His presentation explored spiritual relationships with seed in the region especially within the context of ceremony and ritual, explaining the importance of seed within spiritual practice and how the loss of seed had meant the loss of certain practices. He spoke about the importance of relational knowledge within traditional agricultural systems and the work they are doing working the elders and youth in rural communities to revive this knowledge. He also spoke about the relationship between people and plants in traditional agricultural systems explaining that when you walk in to a field “the plants know your presence”. While i have been following multispecies themes in my fieldwork this kind of knowledge is quiet and illusive within a context that is very much influenced by industrial agricultural practices and as an outsider it has taken me much time to start being able to speak about these themes. Over the past few months perhaps as my thought patterns change the theme of relational knowledge and communication has begun to surface as an important theme in the work. I am excited to explore this more on my final research trip. I have set up a interview with the EarthLore foundation to explore this more deeply.

Severe Budget Cut for GenØk

The institute that hosts the Agri/Cultures Project – GenØk Centre for Biosafety – is officially an ‘independent research foundation’. However the institute is dependent on receiving its base funding from the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment. In October, the newly re-elected Government released the State budget for next year and it became clear that GenØk would receive significantly less funding for its operations. The institute’s budget from the government was reduced from 11.9 to 5 million for the year. This is a dramatic cut that will have significant impacts on what the organisation can do and achieve in the future.

Fortunately for us, The Agri/Cultures Project has its funding from the Research Council of Norway, and specifically from the FRIPRO Programme for Young Research Talents. This means that the funding for our project is not directly threatened. However, when the institute where we work goes through such a dramatic cut, this inevitably also affects us. This is not only in terms of the mood among the staff and within the environment where we work, but also in terms of the size and diversity of the group available for intellectual exchange and the administrative support that is on offer.

At the moment, GenØk is working to negotiate an increase in the proposed budget and of course we are writing new grant applications to secure additional sources of external funding. Still, it is difficult times right now and the changes this implies will occupy a significant amount of my time and energy these weeks.

Negotiating at the SEC AHTEG

Last week I participated in the Socio-economic Considerations AdHoc Technical Expert Group (SEC AHTEG) of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB). The meeting took place between Monday 9th and Friday 13th in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

The SEC AHTEG was established by the Parties of the CPB to develop conceptual clarity in the context of article 26 of the CPB. The SEC AHTEG composed of 20 selected representatives from the Parties of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, non-Parties countries (like Canada) and observers (this time Global Industry Coalition, Third World Network, GenØk and the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity).

Article 26 establishes:

The Parties, in reaching a decision on import under this Protocol or under its domestic measures implementing the Protocol, may take into account, consistent with their international obligations, socio-economic considerations arising from the impact of living modified organisms on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, especially with regard to the value of biological diversity to indigenous and local communities.”

In the last COP-MOP of the CPB the Parties decided to ask the SEC AHTEG to produce an outline for guidance on how to implement article 26. This is a voluntary article, so Parties have the right to apply it but there is no obligation to. The resulting guidance document will soon be published on the CBD webpage but here I summarise some of the main aspects:

– Socio-economic considerations in the context of Article 26 of the CPB may, depending on the national or regional circumstances and on national measures implementing the Protocol, cover the following aspects: a) economic, b) social, c) cultural/traditional/religious/ethical, d) ecological, and d) health-related aspects. The last two refer to those aspects that are not already covered by conventional environmental and health risk assessment procedures.

– The guidance document follows a process-based approach, i.e. to focus on how an assessment could be performed, rather than focusing on parameters to be assessed, as the latter highly depend on regional and national circumstances.

– The document includes an introduction and justification, principles that should guide the SEC assessment and a description of the assessment process: a “setting the scene” scoping, identification of impacts and assessment as well as communicating results.

– Specific methodological tools were not included in the document. There is only a short paragraph talking about quantitative and qualitative methods, including participatory ones. However, the document outlines the role of integrating local, traditional and indigenous knowledge as a source of data in the assessment process.

Documents of the SEC AHTEGs need to be adopted by consensus by the experts, and the resulting guidance document will be presented to the next meeting of the Parties for approval.

Countdown to release our interactive website

It’s been a while since I last update about the development of our interactive website.

The aim is to create an interactive tool to explore and understand some of the main traits of each of the different agri-food systems we have been studying in the last 3 years, as well as offer a way to be able to compare these systems and facilitate the identification of their main differences. It is meant to be used mainly by students and, of course, anyone else interested in the issue.

Slow but steady, we are getting there. Now we have on board a web designer and a programmer who is about to start putting the different pieces developed (i.e text, video, fotos, design) together. An important part of the content is the creation of short videos which can illustrate or add valuable information to the text content found in each of the nodes. We aim at releasing in in early January. We’ll keep you updated about this issue!

As a part of the content for the interactive website, a couple of weeks ago we interviewed a GM farmer. He was a kind man and his interview was very interesting. When asked about the benefits of GM crops, he answered that, even if GM crops around his area are claimed to be less productive and he is aware of some of the controversy regarding GM crops (i.e he actually literally said that he did not know whether GM crops were actually good for consumers), he used them because they gave him ‘tranquility’ and avoided him headaches with the potential problem of the corn borer plague. His fields were actually not exactly next door where he lived and he could not go often to see how they were doing. By sowing GM crops, he perceived that his task as a manager of the field was facilitated.

Of course, this could raise questions about whether his ‘tranquility’ is a legitimate reason to grow GM crops despite its potential implications (e.g social and ethical aspects). Or whether by sowing GM crops it meant the creation of ‘headaches’ for others (e.g organic maize farmers). Actually, when asked about this latter question, he said that luckily in his area there were no organic farmers, so that potential conflict did not exist. Most of his neighbours were, in fact, sowing the same variety as him. However, I wonder if, perhaps, there are not organic farmers because of the potential risk of contamination.