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?

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) d.gould@ifoam.bio.

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.