The challenge of categorising maize seeds and systems

If we are to transparently report on our research process (as we intend to do in this blog), we must say that we have been experiencing some difficulties with the framing of our task. With this entry, we aim to reflect on the process we have been going through to try and categorise the different seeds and systems we are investigating in this research project.

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Our first idea, presented in the funded project proposal, was to map and compare different models of agrifood systems, namely organic, conventional and GM. This initial approach made sense since it is a common distinction made between agricultural systems of production by both policy makers and publics. Since the regulation of GMOs typically uses what are labeled ‘conventional’ alternatives (i.e. chemically intensive, industrial models of agriculture) in comparisons of risk acceptability, while much of the social resistance to GMOs draws on organic farming models as the relevant comparator, we thought it was interesting and important to empirically consider and compare all three systems of production. However, we were also aware from the beginning that this distinction implied many difficulties, especially since in the realities of practice, these systems are often not as clearly separable as the theoretical categories imply. For example, in Spain, many farmers cultivate both conventional and GM maize at the same time. There are also significant differences between organic farms depending on whether they are large or small scale, as recognised in what the academic literature calls the ‘conventialisation of organic farming’ as it increasingly adopts mainstream models of large-scale production, globalised distribution and supermarket-based consumption.

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Furthermore, our early research has uncovered that in Spain, the maize seeds that are produced to be sown in commercial organic fields are not actually organic themselves. That is, they do not come from organic parental lines. They are seeds that are produced in a ‘conventional’ way. The difference is that before the ‘organic’ seeds are put into the packages to be sold to farmers, they are not treated with fungicides and insecticides, as conventional and GM seeds are (indicated by their bright pink or orange colour). The reason behind this is that in Spain, organic parental lines are not available and therefore, the Organic Farming Certification Scheme accepts untreated but conventionally produced seeds.

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Becomingly increasingly uneasy with the distinction we had originally adopted for our mapping exercise, and after many difficult discussions, we therefore decided to try shifting the criteria we were using in order to approach the different systems. We decided to try mapping different agrifood systems by following different types of seeds, namely GM seeds, hybrid seeds and traditional varieties.

After two months working with this new distinction, however, new difficulties have arisen. We are forced to recognize that in practice we are actually sliding between the two differential criteria (both the gm-conventional-organic system distinction and  the gm-hybrid-traditional seed distinction). This is because the former is, whether we like it or not, widely used among all the stakeholders we are engaging with while the latter is marginal and only found in very few nodes of the food web. Also, when referring to hybrids, there are significant differences between their use in conventional and organic models of production. We also met an organic farmer with a small family farm who was sowing both hybrid and traditional varieties. He was sympathetic towards and valued the traditional varieties, but was also very keen on the hybrids, because they performed well and helped him to get a living. So, in that case, we saw that both distinctions were relevant and complementary for the study. This means that the research is currently employing both frames, depending on the situation. How this challenge develops in the future, and how it influences the maps of different agrifood webs that we produce, remains to be seen and described in a later post.

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