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.

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!

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.

Policy Brief on a Politics of Care for Biotechnology

At the start of this year we had a stakeholder seminar (described here). The academics participating in the meeting took an extra day to bring together the learning from the different stories we heard from all the other actors participating from Spain and Norway. As a result of this, we developed a policy brief on the potential of a politics of care for advancing good governance of biotechnology. In this policy brief, we briefly describe the different elements of importance for care ethics and politics and how these can be usefully used to guide socio-economic and ethical assessment of genetically modified organisms. This included a set of guiding questions to ask during the assessment process.

Guiding Questions to Advance a Politics of Care in Biotechnology Governance

The full policy brief was published in the journal Food Ethics as an open access article and is available to read and share here.

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.

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) [email protected].

Hot Topics at the 13th Meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity

During the first two weeks in December, Rosa and I attended the 13th meeting of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Cancun Mexico. This also included meetings on the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization.

Decisions at these meetings are made by consensus and with over 190 countries signatory to the CBD, that means long and difficult negotiations in which the final result is usually a heavy compromise in which the best that can often be hoped for is that all parties are ‘equally unhappy’ with the results.

This year, the meeting had the tagline of “Mainstreaming Biodiversity for Well-being” and indeed the concept of mainstreaming biodiversity was very prevalent. It took quite a while to make sense of this idea and what it was being used to imply. Officially, the idea seems to mean that because a vast range of human activities affect biodiversity and financial support for its conservation is waning, there is a need to embed the work across all sectors and policies. What I also noticed though was that significant emphasis was being placed on how to use the current economic system to support biodiversity conservation. In that sense, it felt like how to move biodiversity conservation into the mainstream capitalist economic agenda.

In addition to the idea of mainstreaming, some of the hot topics of debate that I followed during the meeting were:

Guidance on Risk Assessment of Genetically Modified Organisms (or Living Modified Organisms as they are referred to under the Cartagena Protocol)

Here the focus of the debate was largely around whether to extend the work of Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group (AHTEG) and develop additional guidance for new applications, such as GM fish and synthetic biology. The AHTEG has spent over 5 years developing a guidance document for risk assessment of GMOs and the quality of its work was heavily disputed at the meeting. This debate was intensified by the fact that the guidance was published before the parties had agreed to endorse it. Some parties were extremely angry about this and against even acknowledging the guidance as a useful document. They were therefore certainly not willing to support any extension of the current AHTEG or its mandate. In the end it was agreed that the current AHTEG would be dissolved but an online forum and alternative process for gathering information on the information gaps and needs for further guidance would be put in place.

Synthetic Biology, and particularly Gene Drives

Much of the work leading up to this meeting related to synthetic biology had been around the development of a definition. While a definition was ultimately adopted that supported synthetic biology as an extension and acceleration of modern biotechnology, debate remained over whether the definitional work should continue in an intersessional AHTEG, specifically to develop inclusion and exclusion criteria. Some parties felt that this was necessary to clarify the concept, while others felt it was simply a delaying tactic to avoid the much needed work on risk assessment guidance and criteria. Ultimately it was decided that the AHTEG on synthetic biology would continue and have a mandate to discuss, among other things, inclusion and exclusion criteria for the definition. Under synthetic biology, the topic of gene drives was also an extremely hot issue of debate. Civil society organisations attending the meeting had called for a moratorium on gene drives until effective biocontainment and regulatory processes could be put in place. Meanwhile, organisations and industry supportive of biotechnology development were present in force (including sponsoring at least 35 students to be present at all discussions and side events concerning synthetic biology, gene drives and/or biosafety and loudly express their positive positions towards the technology). This generated quite a lot of tension and heated debates within these side events and caused one of the most prominent proponents to be ejected from the meeting for aggressive and threatening behavior.

Benefit Sharing of Digitalized Genetic Sequence Information

Another hot issue was how the rapid development of digitalized genetic sequence information may undermine the Nagoya protocol and its emphasis on the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources and their utilization. The idea here is that nation states currently have sovereign ownership over genetic resources in their territory and a right to benefits generated from the use of them. Also, it is recognized that indigenous people often have in depth knowledge of plant and animal properties (and have played a key role in their evolution) and that if companies develop products that extract benefit from this, then there should be a prior and informed consent for use and mutually agreed terms for fair and equitable benefit sharing. This was seen as threatened by the development of digitalized genetic sequences that could be easily shared around the globe without any negotiations of requirements for access and benefit sharing. This topic proved difficult to handle in the negotiations because it spanned the CBD, the Nagoya protocol and the group working with synthetic biology. Ultimately a plan was made for further work on this topic, however, some parties were dissatisfied that the process of international negotiations was grindingly slow in comparison to the rate of the technology development.

While the debates on these topics were extremely interesting to follow, one thing that really struck me was a feeling of hypocrisy at this meeting. This was not only the hypocrisy of having a meeting about conserving the world’s spectacular biodiversity in the extremely homogenized and human dominated and hotel saturated location of Cancun. It was also connected to the carbon emissions generated by having over 6000 people fly in for the meeting and the terrible quality of food available at the event, which surely came from industrial monocultures and failed to support local produce or agrobiodiversity. Another striking element was the lack of civil society protest. While there were some small demonstrations of indigenous people and one award ceremony for the worst beha
ved parties and companies, in general, there was very little public protest, action or even visibility. Rather, civil society organizations were directly engaged in the process and participating by organizing formal events and discussions within the architecture of the meeting. This is a stark contrast to the international negotiations around another key global environmental issue – climate change – where civil society has an extremely strong, loud and colourful presence. This was surprising since biodiversity loss is an extremely serious global concern that has already reached crisis proportions. While I also held a formal side event at this year’s meeting (on the concept of synbiodiversity), if I attend in future years I will also seriously consider engaging in and coordinating awareness raising actions outside the formal arrangements available for the meeting. The loss of the world’s biodiversity is just too important to leave to the negotiations alone.

Do GMOs have conservation value?

Below is an article that I recently had published on the website called The Conversation, and since their articles are all under a Creative Commons licence, I am able to share with our readers here. Understanding the relationship that biotechnological organisms have to the value awarded to biodiversity is something that I have been philosophically grappling with over the last year or so. The article republished below, is a popular science version of a longer academic article I published (also available by open access) asking whether anyone cares about ‘synbiodiversity’. All comments, feedback, ideas and reactions would be most welcome as I continue to work to establish a philosophical position on this difficult topic.


Should genetically modified organisms be part of our conservation efforts?

Fern Wickson, GenØk – Centre for Biosafety

Biotechnology is rapidly evolving through developments in genome editing and synthetic biology, giving birth to new forms of life.

This technology has already given us genetically modified (GM) plants that produce bacterial pesticides, GM mosquitos that are sterile and GM mice that develop human cancers. Now, new biotechnological techniques are promising to deliver a whole host of new lifeforms designed to serve our purposes – pigs with human organs, chickens that lay eggs containing cholesterol controlling drugs, and monkeys that develop autism. The possibilities seem endless.

But do these genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have conservation value?

The biodiversity of life on earth is globally recognised as valuable and in need of protection. This includes not just wild biodiversity but also the biodiversity of agricultural crop plants that humans have developed over thousands of years. But what about the synthetic forms of biodiversity we are now developing through biotechnologies?

Does anyone care about this synbiodiversity?

It’s a question I was compelled to ask while conducting research into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV).

A frozen ‘Noah’s Ark’ for seeds

The SGSV is the global apex of agricultural biodiversity conservation, an approach to conservation where collections of diverse seed samples are kept in frozen storage in genebanks for future use by plant breeders. The SGSV is a frozen cavern in a mountain on the arctic island of Svalbard, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. It has been called a Noah’s Ark for crop plants (also the “doomsday vault”) because it is the place where genebanks from all around the world send backup copies of their seed collections for safe-keeping. Here the seeds are sealed inside bags sealed inside boxes locked in a freezer locked in a mountain. They are sent there to be kept safe from the threats genebanks can face, such as energy shortages, natural disasters and war. img_2911 Seeds in the SGSV can only be accessed by the genebank that deposited them and only one withdrawal has been made so far, by researchers from the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) seeking to restore their collections after the destruction of Aleppo in war-torn Syria.

The SGSV is managed through a collaborative agreement between the Norwegian government, the Crop Trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen).

It opened in 2008 and currently houses 870,971 different samples of 5,340 species from 233 countries, deposited by 69 institutes. img_2893 Are there any GMOs frozen in the vault?

During my research into the SGSV I asked if it held any GM seeds. Despite initially receiving conflicting responses, the formal answer was ultimately “no”. But different reasons were given for this and all are open to change.

The vault is not a certified facility for GMO storage

Facilities working with GMOs require certification to do so. While the SGSV is not currently certified, it could be since requirements typically relate to ensuring strict containment and the SGSV is already oriented towards this goal. Also, since no analysis of seeds is performed at the SGSV or required for deposits, the collections may actually be unintentionally (and unwittingly) contaminated. This is because a mixing with GM crops could have happened via seed or pollen flow before the material was sent to the vault.

There is no political will to include GM crops

Currently, no one in the SGSV management wants to become (any further) entangled in the controversy surrounding GM crops. They already face what they see as false conjectures about the role of the biotechnology industry (fuelled no doubt by the fact that organisations involved in the biotechnology industry have donated funds to the Crop Trust). Several of the depositing genebanks also actively support biotechnology research. Therefore, if they wanted to store GMOs in the future, the will to seek certification may certainly change.

Norway has a strict GMO policy that requires not just evidence of safety but also of social utility and contribution to sustainable development. This means no GM crop has yet been approved for either cultivation or import. But this is currently being challenged by a government committed to speeding up assessments and advocating for weakened interpretations of the law. This further indicates the potential for political will to change.

GM crops do not meet the requirements for multilateral access

The International Plant Treaty is a crucial foundation for the SGSV. As such, depositing genebanks are required to agree to multilateral access to their collections if they wish to deposit backup copies in the SGSV. <p>But GM crops are not freely accessible to all as part of the common heritage of humanity. They are patented inventions owned by those claiming to have created them. The SGSV requirement that deposits be available for multilateral access can be waived though.

But if GM crops are not in the SGSV, should they be?

Do GMOs have conservation value?

Very little work has examined the moral status and conservation value of GM crops.

As the fields of genome editing and synthetic biology are now undergoing rapid development though, we have an important opportunity to consider how we relate to biotechnological forms of biodiversity. We can also think about whether it might be possible to navigate through syn- to symbiodiversity.

That is, instead of focusing on these life forms as synthetic human inventions, we could begin to think about them as co-creations of human-nature interactions. In doing so, we may then shift the focus away from how to make synthetic organisms to satisfy our needs and place more emphasis on how to interact with other life forms to establish symbiotic relations of mutual benefit.

The French sociologist of science and anthropologist Bruno Latour has urged us to love our monsters, to take responsibility for our technologies and care for them as our children. Certainly it seems fair to argue that if we don’t care for our biotechnological co-creations with a sense of (parental) responsibility, perhaps we shouldn’t be bringing them to life.

How do we care for GM crops?

The model of freezing seeds in genebanks and backing up those collections at the SGSV is one way to conserve biodiversity. Another, however, is the approach of continuing to cultivate them in our agricultural landscapes.

While this model of conservation has generated and maintained the biodiversity of traditional crop varieties for thousands of years, there is now a significant shift taking place. More than 90% of traditional crop varieties have now disappeared from our fields and been replaced by genetically uniform modern varieties cultivated in large-scale monocultures. Meaning, there may be no GM crops frozen in the SGSV, but there are plenty in the ground.

So this leaves me questioning what it is we really cherish? Are we using our precious agricultural resources to expand the diversity of humanity’s common heritage? Or are we rather placing our common heritage on ice while we expand the ecological space occupied by privately owned inventions? And who cares about synbiodiversity anyway?

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.

Keeping Up With New and Emerging Technologies

This year the Agri/Cultures Project has spent a significant amount of time attending and presenting at various international seminars, conferences and events (as our previous blog posts demonstrate). Last week this continued as I attended the annual meeting of the Society for Studies of New and Emerging Technologies (S.Net).


This interdisciplinary society held its 8th annual conference in Bergen from October 11-14 and had an incredibly diverse program. It included keynote speeches from intellectual heavyweights Silvio Funtowicz, Sheila Jasanoff and Joseph Dumit, as well as presentations from a range of philosophers, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and legal scholars interested in different new and emerging technologies. Beyond the standard academic talks though, the program also included other formats and approaches, such as a hands on do-it-yourself biology workshop analysing microplastics in fish using standard household ingredients, a workshop on art and performance based exercises for advancing responsible innovation and a film night showing short films from the biofiction film festival (which I participated in as a member of the discussion panel afterwards). It was truly wonderful to participate in such a diverse event bringing together different fields of science and art in creative ways to analyse the socio-ecological relations around new and emerging technologies. I would highly recommend anyone interested in social, ethical and legal aspects of new and emerging technologies to consider attending the next meeting, which is planned to be held in Phoenix in October 2017.


Although at this event I presented work I am doing as a partner in other projects (NANoREGNorNanoReg, REDiG) on responsible innovation within the field of nanotechnology, I also took the opportunity to attend several sessions dealing with biotechnology issues. This included an interesting talk by Koen Beumer on biotechnology in Africa analysed from an identity politics perspective. He was specifically talking about how the identity of “the farmer” is being differentially constructed and performed by those inside and outside the biotechnology community. In another session, the always energetic Dorothy Dankel provided an insight into how the CRISPR/Cas system is being deployed to study and develop sterile salmon for the aquaculture industry and facilitated a debate on whether we would/should be eating GM salmon in 5 years. While in another interesting presentation, Alberto Aparicio presented some of his PhD research on the field of xenobiology (or orthogonal biology) in which scientists seek to develop new forms of life not based on DNA. He presented this work as promoting itself as useful for the potential containment and control of future GMOs.


All of these talks made me realise that not only do we currently have very little empirical research available on how the GMOs currently in commercial circulation are reshaping our agri/cultures and socio-ecological relations, but also that there is now a groundswell of new developments underway that researchers interested in social, ethical and legal aspects of biotechnology will have to work very hard to keep up with. This makes working at the interface between biology and philosophy, and between biotechnology and society, both extremely exciting and uniquely challenging right now, and perhaps more important than ever before.

Getting tongue-tied in the task of popular science communication

When we applied for money to do the Agri/Cultures project, we were very interested in experimenting with communicating academic research in new (and exciting) ways. We were particularly interested in trying to communicate our work to the general public and knowing that our current culture is heavily visual (think TV, films, the internet), promised to deliver 3 short films as part of the project.


In a previous post we presented the first of these short films, which provided an introduction to the project and its aims, and now we are working to finalise the other two. One of these follow up films aims to present the same information that we have written up in an academic article (currently under review), with the idea being to communicate the same message in different forms to reach different audiences. That film is almost complete and we are now just waiting for the academic article to be approved to finalise and release it.

The other short film we have in development aims to describe the scientific process involved in testing material for contamination with GMOs for people who may not be familiar with how it works. In doing so, we are trying to provide information on not only the practical steps of the process but also the time and cost involved, as well as where the significant challenges lie. Our fieldwork has revealed that to maintain separation between GM, conventional and organic agricultures requires a significant amount of testing for GM contamination all along the production chain, with some actors testing up to 7 times between purchasing seed and selling grain. We therefore felt that conveying what is required for GM detection was a relevant topic for an Agri/Cultures short film. It was also a relevant topic for another project I coordinate, biodiverSEEDy (which has involved testing maize seeds from indigenous farmers in Mexico to see if they are contaminated with GMOs) and therefore this was a chance to develop something across the two projects.


I then took on the task of coming up with a draft script for this film on GM detection and quickly realised that although I may have certain skills when it comes to academic publishing, this in no way means that I know how to write a movie script and communicate complex scientific information and technical processes to the general public. Within the team, and together with our colleagues in the biodiverSEEDy project, we had lots of discussions and debates around issues such as: a) who is our audience (and what level of biological knowledge might they reasonably be expected to have), b) how can we attract their interest and encourage them to see the movie as relevant for them, c) how long should the movie aim to be, d) what level of detail is needed to both communicate the process accurately and hold the audience’s interest, d) how can we balance the specificities of one particular detection method with messages about the process in general. Alongside these complex discussions, we also had to decide things like what currency to use and what style of imagery to pursue. None of this was simple and everytime we felt like we were getting closer to good draft, someone was able to raise challenging questions about the usefulness or sufficiency of what we had and often that sent us back to discussing the topics above anew.


For example, one of the most challenging issues was how to describe what a GMO (or even a gene) is. What can we expect our audience to know? How we approached this varied greatly depending on whether we thought our audience was small-scale farmers in Mexico or South Africa that may be contaminated with GMOs, or university educated civil society organisers working for environmental organisations. We also had to question what metaphor we felt was appropriate for our description. For example, a gene is classically described as a ‘building block’ or a piece of ‘code’ but these metaphors are very connected to engineering and information technology and may not necessarily capture the complexity of how we currently think about the workings of the genome. We also found it extremely difficult to satisfy the level of information that a scientist working in this field thinks it is important to communicate and know with the demand to keep the text simple, engaging and understandable. For example, do we need to name the specific chemicals used at the different stages? Do we  even need to describe what is going on in each of the stages? Or can we just say you mix your sample with a bunch of different chemicals until you get what you want (which is DNA, but then to what level do we need to explain what that is?)


In drafting the script for this short film on GM detection, I have sometimes felt like I have tumbled down the rabbit hole and no longer know how to explain the world around me. Everything I try only raises further questions and problems and sends me round and round in circles until there seems to be no way out. Even when we thought we had finalised the script, working with the accompanying images has now started to raise new questions and we are now in the process of redrafting again. The process of drafting the movie script has been fascinating, fun and frustrating and made me realise just how little our academic training prepares us to communicate our ideas and knowledge in different ways. In this project we are working on improving this skill not only through developing our short films but also by writing this blog and as with everything, it remains a work in progress.