Visibility and Invisibility in Maize Agriculture Systems

Image edited from original Source:

Image edited from original Source:

In Klara Fischer’s recent (2016) article she queries the term ‘scale-neutral’ that has recently resurfaced in the literature in relation to GM seed technologies (having been used decades ago in relation to hybrid crops). This term has been used to describe the supposed dual suitability of GM seeds for both large-scale and small-holder agricultural systems.

Fischer (2016) argues that using the term ‘scale neutral’ to refer to GM seed technologies is too generalizing and fails to take into account “both crop biology and context”. She argues that there has not been enough evidence provided to support this claim and how, in fact, much research points to the opposite conclusion. Her previous work has illustrated in detail how GM maize varieties being used in South Africa are often unsuited to use by smallholder farmers.


In recent months, having spent a lot of time on small-scale maize farms in KwaZulu Natal, I have become interested in how the Research and Development (R&D) part/node of the maize agri-food system relates to the on farm part/node. What has been apparent when talking to small-scale maize farmers is that there are many areas in which the communication between these two spaces is not a clear channel. A number of authors looking at the benefits and impacts of GM maize varieties on small-scale farming in South Africa have also pointed to the lack of clear communication channels.

Fischer (2016) points out that often studies or assessments are not tailored to specific contexts – therefore while crop technologies could potentially have benefits, she argues that in order for this to be possible “it must be appropriate for African farmers’ practices and contexts” which “requires a clear understanding of the function of any new crop technology per se and how the technology is co-shaped by its host crop, its end users and their contexts.” There is a deep need for research that is engaged with looking at the complex social-ecological agricultural systems in which seeds are being used.

While certain facts, ideas, world views, substances are visible within the R&D space, they may not be visible in the same way on small-scale farms (or any farm for that matter – but my focus is on small-scale farms). In the same thread, aspects of the complex socio-ecological systems on farms are not always visible to scientists working in the R&D space. Research that tests the effectiveness of new technologies and risks associated with them is often not carried out in the specific places that the technologies end up being used.

For this reason I have decided that I would like to focus on these two nodes – R&D and ‘on the farm’ – as sites for in depth research. I hope that through collection of interviews in addition to the gathering of visual and sensory data, I can begin to build up an archive of narrative and visual information about each space and explore the communication and ‘lack of’ communication between these two spaces.

This image has been adapted from this Source:

This image has been adapted from this Source:

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