water uncertain futures and maize seed

image taken from :http://thegreentimes.co.za/south-africa-maize-prices-scale-new-peaks-as-drought-bites/

Last week i attended a public seminar on GM Contamination in the Durban Botancial gardens organised by BioWatch South Africa. Speakers included; Two agroecology farmers Thombithini Ndwandwe cofounder of the Zimele Rural Empowerment Organisation in MtubaTuba and and Petros Makhanya from KwaNgwanase, Vanessa Black from Biowatch, Ignacio Chapela from the University of California, Berkeley, Rachel Wynberg from the University of Cape Town and SARChI Chair on Bioeconomy and Angelika Hilbeck from ETH Zurich.

Sitting in Cape Town and reflecting on last weeks seminar the theme of drought and seed feels very relevant to write about. Cape Town is currently experiencing The worst drought in recorded history and water supplies are so low that even with severe water restrictions (25 litres per day per person) taps will run dry in April. Cape Towns 4.5 million residents will have to queue for water at 200 water points throughout the city to receive daily rations of water. For months restrictions have meant that watering gardens including food gardens has not been an option. Remarkably however with below average rain for 3 years many plants have managed to survive on the mountain and in gardens. Over the past few weeks i have been noticing tomatoes and rocket shooting up in the cracks in the pavement in our neighbourhood.  These plants have been rapidly growing, and putting out seed in the hope that rain will come soon and some will have the chance of survival. It is amazing to witness the evolutionary resilience of these plant species and how this may be absolutely vital in the future of food.

Angelika Hilbeck’s talk at the seminar, titled ‘The GMO push in Africa and the drought tolerance Trojan horse’ explored drought resistant GMOS and the many of the controversies surrounding this in the African context. Angelika explained how while big promises were made (at the onset of GM crops being released over 20 years ago) concerning the development of new traits and how these would solve world hunger for example, in reality very few genetic innovations have been made.  In terms of maize only two significant traits have been developed, Bt (where GM plants express Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxins throughout their cells which kill stem borer) and Round up Ready ( which are able to withstand Glyphosate herbicide). A further innovation has been to stack these traits so that plants express both Bt and Round up ready characteristics.

However more recently drought resistance has been the focus of genetic engineers. Monsantos DroughtGard contains  the gene for “cold shock protein B” (cspB) from Bacillis subtilis bacteria. While this evolved in baceria to withstand the stress of cold shock it is also intended to help plants survive in similarly water stressed hot conditions.

Drought has been identified as an increasing reality on the African continent in the face of climate change and in 2008 a public-private partnership known as WEMA (Water Efficient Maize for Africa) was established to focus on developing drought resistant maize varieties for the African context. Initially this involved only the development of Hybrid maize varieties and as explained by Angelika Hilbeck was relatively successful in developing hybrids that were more tolerant to water stressed conditions. However in 2015 WEMA’s track changed when Monsanto became a partner organisation. At this point Monsanto donated the insect resistant trait CRY1Ab which was the active trait in MON810. However MON810 was unpopular as insects quickly developed resistance to it. Another addition was the cspB gene first used inMON87460, or ‘Droughtgard’ maize and first commercially released in 2011 in the United States. In South Africa WEMA intends to make these traits readily available to smallscale farmers who normally cant afford to buy GM varieties through making “seed products available to African seed companies of all sizes, royalty free, so they can offer these hybrid seeds to smallholder farmers“.

However Angelika’s talk pointed to the fact that there has not been a lot of evidence to show that this innovation in genetic technology has managed to tackle the very complex issue of water stress in crops with Monsanto themselves stating that it can produce “moderate” yield improvements under “moderate drought conditions“. It is therefore not conclusive that it is able to perform well under drought conditions. As explained in a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists there are many complexities associated with drought such as that “droughts vary in their severity and their timing in relation to crop growth. Related factors such as soil quality affect the ability of crops to withstand drought”. This considered engineering traits suitable for drought a very complex process.

African Centre for Biosafety have warned that through WEMA making this drought resistant maize to small-scale farmers they may be undermining drought tolerance of farmer crops (developed over time and in situ) that are lost when farmers adopt new GM seed in the hope that it will be a silver bullet solution. It is important that in the face of technological solutions being put forward as the answers to such a complex problem that we don’t loose agricultural diversity that may hold the key to attaining resilience in a very uncertain climatic future.

 

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

IMAGE SPURCE: http://www.we.expo2015.org/en/events/agricultural-biodiversity-value-chains-and-womens-empowerment

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

 

Biowatch Food and Seed Festival

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

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

“Resistance is Fertile! On Being Sons and Daughters of Soil”

Installation artwork by Bright Uguchukwe titled acid rain

Two weeks ago i attended a workshop in Cape Town called Resistance is Fertile! On Being Sons and Daughters of Soil. This was the beginning of an ongoing project that will culminate in a book on people and soils in the African Anthropocene that will be edited by Lesley Green, Nikiwe Solomon and Virginia MacKenny and has come to being through the Environmental Humanities South Program at UCT. the project has support from National Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences and the National Research Foundation, part of a collaboration with Vegkop Farm in the Phillippi Horticultural Area of Cape Town.

The project aims to explore issues concerning relationships with soil, land and life that “traverse both nature and society” and which are important in the context of the global south and on the African Context. It aims to develop a scholarship and group of people interested in finding ‘new’ ways of relating to, reading, and thinking about the future of landscapes in the South. This is vital where soils, land and landscapes have for so long been bound up, regulated and managed in ways that carry on colonial legacies and injustices.

The project brings together an interdisciplinary group of artists, farmers, academics who are working widely in ways connected to this theme. Leading up to the publishing of the book,  the group will come together periodically  and workshop ideas and concepts that run through the various work people are doing.

At the workshop we listened to presentations from all over Africa as well as form South America. These sessions included a diverse range of presentations which explored relationships with earthworms and microbes to the place of soil in African literature, languages, art and music, to issues of land restitution and acid mine drainage. The workshop stimulated amazing interdisciplinary conversations and material for “thinking with”. It is a truly exciting initiative which will continue to grow over the next two years! It provided a space to explore a number of themes that are very relevant for the agri/cultures project – thinking about how GMOs fit into agri/cultural landscapes in South Africa and the wider continent

The Plant Breeders’ Rights and Plant Improvement Bills – guidelines for the future of food?

Over the past months, civil society groups and concerned citizens in South Africa have been submitting their comments about the pending Plant Improvement Bill and Plant Breeders’ Rights Bill which are out for public comment before their enactment. These Bills are intended to replace the previous Acts that have been in place since 1975. The current laws have been critiqued for favoring a vision of industrial agriculture and there is much concern that the updated Bills continue this vision, and will potentially infringe on the rights of small-scale farmers to save and replant their own seed.

The Plant Breeders’ Rights Bill seeks to provide an overarching set of rules around the breeding of certain varieties of plants. The Plant Improvement Act works alongside the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act. It seeks to regulate the distribution and sale of plants and propagation materials as well as business related to this.

Civil society groups argue that if enacted, the new laws have the potential to restrict the saving, exchanging, trading and sale of seed by farmers. They may also provide conditions that  put the actions of small-scale farmers under threat of becoming criminalised. In both of the bills, the act of exchanging seed is deemed a form of sale. The bills prohibit the exchange of unregistered and uncertified seed. Thus in their current form, these bills will continue to offer significant support to industrial agriculture and commercial seed production and marginalise small-scale farmers in South Africa. This has enormous implications for the future of agriculture in South Africa. While small-scale farmers will be allowed to keep their own seed, if enacted these regulations will inhibit the use and spread of farmer seed and the growth of agri-food systems outside of the industrial model. Globally there is a growing awareness that small-scale farmers are vital stakeholders in the agri-food system. Smallscale farming knowledge and practices, including the use and exchange of open pollinated seed, is necessary for the future of food and should be protected and well as supported to grow rather than be restricted.

Critics of the proposed new laws are expressing that they need to be challenged because if amended, they could actually have the potential to boost rather than hinder small-scale farming and support more regenerative forms of agriculture. Civil society groups have called for a reworking of the bills in consultation with a wide range of actors and stakeholders involved in food in South Africa.

 

Changing maize agri/cultures – time in the field

I recently spent 3 weeks doing some final fieldwork in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) where I continued to interview scientists working on maize research, small-scale farmers as well as government officials involved in maize agriculture. During this period the focus of these interviews was to understand changing systems of maize research in South Africa and agri/cultures in the areas I was working on. The lens I approached this through was through looking at changing social-ecological relationships within systems of agri/culture and how these have been affected by the introduction of new maize seed technologies. In order to this I have tried to explore relationships between participants involved in maize agri/culture and the ecological landscapes in which they work – for example for farmers this would be the land on which they farm in relation to social, ecological and political influences, for scientists sometimes it is a mixture of laboratories, farms and other spaces.

During the first week I travelled to Pietermartitzberg where I had some meetings set up with professors and PhD students at the University of KZN where they are doing a lot of research on maize. Here I explored what kinds of research are being done and what the focus of this research in and how its fits into the bigger research agenda on maize and agri/culture in South Africa. I was also able to meet with a team of researchers who are currently working with small scale farmers to develop varieties that are suitable for small scale farmers. This project is exciting because it takes into account the knowledge small scale farmers have. This has not been the case in research to date which has generally seen scientists as the experts and farmers as the recipients of technologies. While in KZN I also made some further contacts at CEDARA which I hope to be able to follow up over next few months. This Government run Agricultural college was established in 1905 and over the past century and through the political changes happening in South Africa, it has been the site of much maize R&D. While today it focuses mainly on training, there are a number of researchers affiliated with the institution who have a great deal of experience in maize related research. The test plots and greenhouses located here are also used for trial research.

While in KZN I also took some time to go the the Provincial archives where i searched for clues on maize agri/culture in the area I am working on. Here I found a collection of government records that mentioned maize agri/culture in relation to  social, political and ecological processes underway during the colonial and early apartheid period. While this is not an archival study and so I was not able to spend a great deal of time in the archives it provided some context to the area I am working and the pre hybrid maize period (See map found in the archives above showing the area I have been working in near the Pongola River – drawn by colonial officials  in 1870 as part of the process of dividing up land under their rule ). The is very little written on the history of agri/culture in the area  and so these pieces of archival evidence are useful in this way. During my research I met someone who is currently working on a project to write the history of this area specifically focusing on the precolonial history of the area and the time of the early colonial era. This work which began in 2013 is currently situated within a project called The Five Hundred Year Archive which is a collaborative project between institutions.

Over the following weeks I spent time in the research site I am working in in Northern KZN. In this area this year I have conducted 30 in depth semi-structured interviews with small-scale farmers. I did this with the help of a translator who came with me from Swaziland (very nearby and who spoke the Zulu and Siswati which are both spoken in the area which borders Swaziland and was once part of Swaziland) and a research assistant who lived in the area.  We also spent time with farmers on their land exploring methods of agri/culture and taking pictures related to the narratives in the interviews. Once again I have approached this fieldwork through using a social-ecological lens aided by an interest in the other-than-human or multispecies perspective in which I have tried to explore how farmers relate to the ecological systems (seeds, soils, climates, insects, weeds, etc) in which they are farming and ask about how this has changed as farmers have adopted new seed varieties and associated methods of farming.

At the start of the project I set out to interview farmers to who are growing OPV’s which are refereed to in the area as Mdala (old) or Zulu Maize, farmers growing Hybrid maize and farmers growing GM maize. I was able to find 11 farmers to talk to who are growing Zulu only maize and the same number growing hybrids (often in addition to Zulu Maize) and then about 4 framers who were growing GM maize as part of projects linked to the Department of Agriculture in the area. Many of the farmers were growing a combination of  or had tried different varieties at different points during their farming experience ranging from Zulu Maize, to Seed.Co Hybrids, to Pannar, Pioneer and Monsanto. Most farmers were elderly and so had been involved in planting maize for over 60 years. Many did not remember what seeds they have used, having tried a number of seeds over the years.  Often it was challenging to really know what varieties of seed farmers had planted this year and in previous years as what became apparent after much time in the area is that farmers are changing their seed often, sometimes annually and sometimes they are quite unsure about what exact seed they have planted. We tried asking if we could see the packaging that the seeds had come in but few farmers till had kept the packaging after they had planted the seed. However we were able to take photographs of the maize produced and also enquire about the color of the seed that they had planted. Different types of maize seed is covered in different chemical dyes – some darker which people described as “sweet pink” and some lighter pink, while some is green (with a monkey on the packaging – see image below) – this helped us know which kind of seed farmers were referring to.

All the farmers we interviewed reside along one mountain range within a geographical area of approximately 20km. While they live close to each other there are significant variations in rainfall, soil types and other factors which influence farming in the different parts of the area. What became apparent over these weeks is just how much agri/cultures are constantly changing – these changes come from multiple interactions and challenges that farmers are faced with and have been faced with since the introduction of maize in the 1600s via present day Mozambique. While there are similarities between the choices of small scale farmers even in one valley each farmer’s way of farming is mediated buy social, economic, political and ecological factors. These decision of what seed to plant is made annually in relation to all of these considerations, for example one year a farmer may plant Zulu maize instead of Hybrid maize because they were unable to afford seed that year, while the next year the farmer may have been given a GM seed sample as part of a trial project in the area. Farmers choice of input such a using kraal (cattle) manure over fertiliser would also depend on access to resources such a physical resources but also this may include information on what is the best seed to plant which may come from an NGO supporting agro-ecological methods or the government or seed companies reaching farmers in various ways.

These fieldwork over the past few weeks has given much insight into the theme of agri/cultural deskilling (or changing skills) in relation to social-ecological knowledge and agriculture. While once farmers (and researchers) may have relied on a cumulative development of knowledge in relation to the landscapes that they are working, today there is an overwhelming set of information and rapid development of technologies to understand and negotiate in relation to rapidly changing climates and social economic factors – what seems to be the case is much dislocation and many unknowns and fragmented relationships with ecological systems and knowledge rather than distinctive cultures of agriculture or agri/cultures.

In the next post I will discussion ore detail the mirror of this post in the area of research and development in maize agri/culture in South Africa which I have been exploring along side the experience of smalls scale farmers.

 

Resilience for Development colloquium – on reading landscapes and imagining agri/cultural futures

 

Performative artwork titled Eland and Benko which was burned onto the landscape by artist Hannelie Coetzee as part of a science – at collaboration where scientists were studying burning of grasslands and the effect on grassland species and habitats.

Last week i attended the Resilience for Development Colloquium which was held in Johannesburg. The colloqium was organised by  GRAID (Guidance for Resilience in the Anthropocene: Investments for development) and SAPECs (Southern African Program on Ecosystem Change and Society) which falls within the Stockholm Resilience Centre. GRAID has been set up to “generate the latest knowledge on resilience thinking, synthesize and employ insights to assess and build resilience in the context of development across Global South”.

Busiso Moyo’s keynote provided a deeply insightful place from which to think about South Africa’s social-economic challenges rooted in the complex history of the country which underpins the current lived realities. Lorenzo Fioramonti’s key note speech on the ‘well being economy‘ provided an  introduction to imagining  development without the economic growth being at the centre of decision making in South Africa and globally. And finally Michelle Lee-Moore’s keynote provided an overview of the history of resilience thinking and how its is growing in appeal globally as tool for approaching the social-ecological challenges and oppourtunities were are faced with today in a development context.

The colloquium explored the importance of a resilience perspective within development and in finding ways to work collectively towards human and ecological wellbeing. It also focused on workshopping research methodologies and approaches towards monitoring and sustaining longterm resilience focused projects or “transformative development projects”. The program was extensive and comprised of 3 sets of 3 parallel session over 3 days. Therefore it was not possible to attend all the sessions but i was able to attend most of the ones that i was interested in and which i felt would be useful for the agri/cultures work. Themes of talks and workshops ranged from thinking about resilience in agriculture and food security, to marine ecosystems, and urban environments. A  number of practitioners who are exploring resilience as a lens in their work shared their experiences from around the globe. Some of the discussion focused on how a resilience approach has been interpreted widely by practitioners and it was agreed that while some tools and methodologies are valuable to guide practice,  tools must be flexible so as to be adaptive to different contexts.

The colloquium was a great opportunity to learn more about the resilience work being carried out and also learn more about the focus within this field on social-ecological connections and research and how practitioners are approaching this. In attending thecoloquium i was curious about how a resilience perspective may add insights to exploring agri/cultural futures in South Africa.  Within the PhD project i have been exploring changing social-ecological knowledge in agri/cultural systems and how agri/cultural knowledge of both farmers and scientists (involved in maize agri/culture) in South Africa has changed over time and specifically in relation to the introduction of new seed varieties and technologies. As new technologies are introduced agri/cultural knowledge shifts, leading to changes in social-ecologial relationhips and knowledge.  I am interested in how a resilience perspective may support the the growth of research and development that moves beyond the dominant models ( which are largely geared towards supporting industrial agri/cultural systems) and which take seriously diverse agri/cultural knowledges (which are ever changing) as vital for building social-ecological resilience for the future of agri/culture in South Africa.

The colloquium program also had a strong focus on interdisciplinary research methodologies as being important within the resilience field. It was an opportunity to share experiences with other researchers making use of visual and sensory data collection methodologies. Over the past year while i have been very excited about the interdisciplinary component of the project this has also been a challenging part to develop and often i have felt a bit disconnected from others working in this way and it is extremely useful to have the change to engage with other researchers experiencing similar challenges and excitement around the use of these methods.

I attended 3 sessions which explored the use of visual disciplies. One was on paricipatory mapping and “photo voice”, one was on photograpy and research and the final was presenting a case study art-scince collaboration between a team of ecologists and a fine artist (Hannelie Coetzee – see art work in the top image) who works with ecological materials and concepts. In the collaboration the ecologists had set out to explore the effect of annual fires on grassland ecosystems. In the process they would burn a patch of grassland annually and record data as the area evolved from the fires over time. Hanellie Coetzee joined up with this team of ecologists and designed an image of a human and an Eland antelope that would be burnt into the landscape (rather than a square). They described how the art science collaboration got each other thinking about their tools and methods in new ways and how it brought a new set of dialogues and a new audience to the project. This third session was an extremely powerful session and stimlated a great dialogue around the value of interdisciplinary work and the value art can bring to scientific research.  In recent months i have been contemplating the how people from different vantage points, interact and read landscapes in different ways – whether it be scientist or artist, farmer or researcher. I asked the   collaborators if they were inspired by each others reading of landscape/ or relationship with landscape and this evolve into a very interesting dialogue on how multiple knowledges may contribute to building more resilient futures.

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

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.