Laboratory Ecologies – Exploring changing seeds and changing research in the R&D space in South Africa


Over the past few weeks I have been focusing on the the R&D part of the multi-sited project in South Africa. This has involved mapping where maize focused research is being carried out around the country and what the focus of this research is. I have planned a series of visits to universities, institutes and research centers and will be visiting these places over the next 2-3 months. There I will be interviewing researchers, as well as doing laboratory ethnographies and participatory research where possible. I will also be collecting visual and sensory data (photographs, drawings, sound recordings and video) in the research spaces. I will also be trying a multi-species lens/perspective as a way of engaging with researchers about their work and how it relates to systems of agriculture and the ecological contexts of the farms where maize is being grown.

The first R&D spaces I visited two weeks ago were located in Potchefstroom, which is 2 hours South West of Johannesburg. Here I visited North West University (NWU) and the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) Grain Crops Institute. In these two spaces scientists carry out a wide range of maize related research. During my week there I was able to meet with and interview a number of scientists as well as spend time in two laboratories and accompany a student who was planting seeds for a field trial in a controlled greenhouse environment. I was also able to take photographs in these spaces and also found it very useful to explore these spaces using a multi-species perspective. I spent time noting and recording visually where possible the ‘ecologies’ that researchers are engaged in and connected to through their work. This included exploring what organisms were the focus in research projects. For example, some researchers were focusing on one species of stem borer and the development of ‘superbugs’ while others were working on weeds and herbicide resistance and others on connections between insect species present in a Bt maize field. It was interesting to ask what organisms were being focused on and which were not present in the research. Furthermore, to ask where was the research being carried out and how is it connected to the social-ecological context of the farms on which the maize being studied is grown. This week of research offered the opportunity to think about the connections between agri/cultural research and shifting relationships with nature and how this has changed in relation to the introduction of new seed technologies.

In interviews with scientists, we spoke about the focus of their research and how they came to be doing this work. We also spoke about how the various research projects are connected to the wider R&D system in South Africa. In interviews with some of the experienced researchers who had been there for a long time we spoke about how maize research has changed over the years and especially since the introduction of GM varieties. Most of the researchers I spoke to in Potchefstroom were in some way involved in research to do with Bt maize. Since the introduction of GM varieties in the early 2000s, a large focus of the research energy and resources in South Africa have necessarily been concerned with exploring the complexities associated with the introduction of various GM varieties.

This includes both research that is critical of GM technologies and concerned about the social and ecological impacts, as well as research that is not necessarily critical but rather interested in “stewardship” and how to practically manage the roll out of GM maize. The stewardship focused research is concerned with issues such as how to avoid phenomena such as the development of superbugs.


When Bt maize was first rolled out in South Africa it was not done in a regulated manner. This resulted in a lack of communication with farmers and a lack of safety procedures being integrated such as the planting of refugia. A number of the scientists I interviewed were exploring the complexities that have arisen partly as a result of this.

During one interview with an entomologist that has worked on maize research since the 1980s we spoke about the loss of knowledge and research focus on the multitude of organisms present, as well as the complex interactions between plants insects and other species in agricultural systems. Over the decades he has witnessed a number of shifts in the research and also witnessed how the R&D space changed with the introduction of GM – specifically Bt maize. He mentioned the problem of “deskilling” and how he felt that this was related to the fact that Bt maize has been marketed and used as a “silver bullet solution”, which therefore removed the need for farmers, extension officers and scientists to focus on subtle interaction between species on farms. He explained how before the introduction of Bt maize, a farmer in “Bothaville, knew his pests, he knew what to spray if they came and now 15 yrs down the line he doesn’t remember anymore because he hasn’t seen these small worms in 10 yrs or his son has taken over and he doesn’t know if this is a beetle or a worm”. In addition, extension officers are often unable to help as they too no longer know much about the species on the farms they are working on. He explained how there is a need to re-train farmers, and extension officers and scientists around this.

He also spoke about how during the late 1980s and 1990s much of the focus of maize research in the unit was on integrated pest management strategies. This required interdisciplinary research teams that were collectively able to explore relationships between crops, insects, weeds, soils and other ecological factors. However, over the past decade and a half, much of this research was set aside in part due to a focus on Bt maize research. Interestingly though, the emergence of many concerns such as the development of superbugs has called for a renewed interest in wider ecological focus in the research again. It has called attention to the importance of the social-ecological context and cultures of agri/culture rather than approaching GM technologies as “silver bullet solutions”. I am interested in exploring this theme in more detail, which can be approached by mapping the ecologies that scientists and extension services and farmers are engaged with. I will engage with this is more detail in my next post!


Decolonising the University – times of change and reflections on the research process


Land and soil use on a commercial farm: image from:

I will not dance to your beat
If you call plantations forests
I will not sing with you
If you privatise my water
I will confront you with my fists
If climate change means death to me but business to you
I will expose your evil greed
If you don’t leave crude oil in the soil
Coal in the hole and tar sands in the land
I will confront and denounce you
If you insist on carbon offsetting and other do-nothing false solutions
I will make you see red
If you keep talking of REDD and push forest communities away from their land
I will drag you to the Climate Tribunal
If you pile up ecological debt
& refuse to pay your climate debt
I will make you drink your own medicine
If you endorse genetically modified crops
And throw dust into the skies to mask the sun
I will not dance to your beat
Unless we walk the sustainable path
And accept real solutions & respect Mother Earth
Unless you do
I will not &
We will not dance to your beat

(a poem by Nnimmo Bassey)

At the end of September I attended a workshop on the African Anthropocene. This workshop brought together a wide group of people from the region connected to work in the Environmental Humanities. The focus was on building a broader agenda and team interested in scholarship on the African Anthropocene and Environmental Humanities in Africa. A number of inspiring guest speakers attended such as Nnimmo Bassey, Gathuru Mburu and Samuel Nguiffo.  It was a great privilege to meet all of these speakers who introduced their work through telling their life stories about how they came to work in the spaces they do now. All of them have faced enormous challenges in their lifetimes, in the context of harsh political climates. Nnimmo Bassey is the famous poet (see opening poem) and architect who has dedicated his life to social and environmental activism and justice. He is the head of Environmental Rights Action, Nigeria and Chair of Friends of the Earth International. He also runs Oilwatch International. Gathuru Mburu is an amazing ecologist and activist from Kenya. He is Co-Founder of the Institute for Culture and Ecology and part of the African Biodiversity Network, which is a member of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa. Samuel Nguiffo, a lawyer by training works tirelessly toward stopping the liquidation of the region’s forests for short-term profit. He directs the Center for Environment and Development (CED) in Yaounde, Cameroon. Much of the workshop was dedicated to thinking around social and environmental challenges and injustices felt in the African context, drawing together similarities and difference in experiences and thinking around how to reimagine the problematic approaches of environmentalism which have been heavily routed in colonial legacy – and through this, to think critically about environmental scholarship in the African context.

This workshop foreshadowed the context of the growing student activism in South African universities that began with the #rhodesmustfall movement last year and has over the past month reemerged stronger and spread into a nationwide call to action on the themes of free education (#Feesmustfall) and the decolonisation of universities. Over the past 5 weeks, the country’s universities have become a site for students struggles, which challenge both material and ideological inequalities that still remain the reality in South Africa 22 years after the formal implementation of democracy. This challenging time has thrown universities into some much needed learning and unlearning and questioning of its systems for approaching the project of tertiary education. One of the vital and heated dialogues that has emerged is around the decolonisation of science within the university indicated by #sciencemustfall. At UCT, a group of students have started a Facebook Page called Science Faculty Engagements dedicated to creating dialogue and events around this theme. I have attended some of these discussions, which have ranged from a space of much conflict and clashing of ideas, to spaces where people want to learn more about how this may be possible. Within these conversations, the theme of how to bring traditional, indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing not currently supported more centrally into the curriculum has been vital.  The need to teach the history of science and engage in dialogue about how science has been and continues to be linked to imperialism, colonialism and capitalism has also been widely raised. Student activists ask how we may re-imagine science education and research from a perspective of decolonisation and truly transform the learning in the university and the learning in the faculties of science.

In this post I wanted to reflect on the current political situation at the university. Firstly because it is not possible to be anywhere but engaged in these dialogues at this time. I also wanted to link this to the workshop because they are synchronously linked in the questions that they ask and finally because both speak deeply to the project and the  how it looks to illuminate questions and assumptions within modern systems of agriculture, the development of agricultural technology and how we may ask different questions and to work towards building more nuanced and relevant research around this in South Africa as well as elsewhere.

I was supposed to be in the field at this point, this would have included doing a large part of the Research and Development component of which much is based at universities. I have in the current situation postponed by fieldwork until possibly next week and focused my attention on both getting involved in university discussions and task as well as using this time to reflect on my thinking about the links between the Agri/cultures project, the university and the wider country context.


Rain forest in Cameroon image taken from:


The Condor and the Eagle – feedback on the SKI Seminar in Durban


Bald Eagle in FlightIn mid September I attended the annual Seed and Knowledge Initiative (SKI) Seminar, which was held just outside Durban. Participants from NGOs, social movements, gene banks, universities and research institutions in South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Peru and Switzerland came together for the event. The Seminar sought to share knowledge and information as well as develop a vision statement and a strategy for moving forward for the group.

The keynote address was given by  Alejandro Argumedo from the famous Potato Park in Peru. Alejandro is the Director of the Association ANDES. This organisation, based in Cusco, is an NGO founded by indigenous people with the goal of protecting biological and cultural diversity, as well as the rights of indigenous people of Peru.  Alejandro also coordinates the International Indigenous People’s Biodiversity Network (IPBN), and is a Senior Research Officer for Peru on the ‘Sustaining Local Food Systems, Agricultural Biodiversity and Livelihoods’ Program of the International Institute for Environment and Development for England.

In his talk, Alejandro spoke about the Peruvian prophecy of the condor and the eagle which speaks of dualisms such as the divide between the mind and heart and between traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge. In this prophecy, the eagle (science, rationality, mind) has come to dominate the condor (heart, tradition, intuition). This began at the time of colonial encounter, however, the prophecy tells of how they will come together again after some 500 years following the split. This brings us to the current period in which we are experiencing  a call for these supposedly different knowledges to come together.

A key theme of the seminar this year which was explored by many presenters was the idea that seed is intrinsically embedded in cultures and traditions.  Alejandro explored the link between seed, knowledge, tradition and spirituality using examples of the farming practices of indigenous framers in Peru. Alejandro showed us a short documentary that followed the journey of a group of farmers from the potato park as they took a sample of their sacred potato seed (which they refer to as family) to Svalbard in Norway in 2011 to keep it safe in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault against changing climates. This journey is one accompanied by prayer and song and much emotion as seeds are not mere commodities but sacred and living for these communities. Following the prophecy, he provided an example of a collaboration between farmers and scientists in the preservation of seed.


Representatives from the Peruvian Potato Park bring potato seed to be stored at Svalbard Image from :

Alejandro also spoke about the repatriation of seed and how this provides the ‘seed’ for relearning, reinventing, rejuvenation or inventing social-ecological or cultural practices. Building on the idea of repatriation, a conversation developed around how we may think of the link between culture, indigenous knowledge and seed.  An enlivened discussion followed about how seed, like culture, is always changing, adapting and shifting.  Through the repatriation of seed, new cultural patterns may emerge, sometimes it will be a rebirth or renewing of the old but sometimes it can also be the start of a new set of practices and relationships. I was very interested in this conversation in relation to what I am working on in Northern KwaZulu Natal. While I am looking at various ‘cultures of agri/culture’ these are by no means bounded and all agri/cultural systems are made up of changing and diverse social-ecological relationships and elements. We only have to look to the often mentioned label of maize as a ‘traditional crop’ in Southern Africa despite it only having been on the continent for 400 years to see how farming systems and traditions develop rapidly and in diverse ways.

Kudzai Kusena, coordinator of the National Gene Bank of Zimbabwe and PhD student through the Bio-economy Research Chair presented on how he feels seed banks need to adapt beyond keeping “sleeping seed” frozen in time. Many of the participants are involved in seed banking initiatives throughout Africa and compared their experiences and ideas around best practice. The importance, merits and challenges of various seed bank models/or scales (such as household seed banks, community seed banks and national seed banks) was discussed. In the potato park in Peru community members manage a central seed bank, similarly in Ethiopia centralized seed banks house seed for groups of farmers. However in Zimbabwe the importance of household seed banks is being explored. Participants explored through this how a resilient farmer led seed system could be bolstered and supported. One participant from Malawi who is involved in helping farmers develop their own seed and look for ways to certify it locally and make it available for sale spoke of the challenges they face with certification standards not being suited to local varieties. It was clear that if small-scale seed systems supporting diverse seeds are to be protected and strengthened there will need to be a diverse set of support systems established. Seed diversity necessitates legal and technological diversity and all other elements that support systems of agri/culture. For so long, commercial agriculture has been supported by laws, policies, research and development and other inputs that have been geared at maximizing profits and boosting yields. If diversity is to be respected as a key tenet of resilience, such arrangements need to be sensitive to this.

The three days of the seminar were a wonderful experience and opportunity to think about the social-ecological relationships surrounding seed, as well as to reflect on the importance of bringing together different bodies of knowledge, whether it be science and traditional/indigenous knowledges, knowledges from different geographical locations, or different disciplines. The conference was recorded visually by Sonja Niederhumer who practices a technique called graphic harvesting where she makes drawings of the discussions. It was wonderful to see how she captured so beautifully the discussion in the room using images and few words. It was a reaffirming and inspiring few days from which to reflect on work I am about to start in the field. I am excited about seeing where the collection of visual and narrative information will lead me in trying to understand better the changing social-ecological relationships around seed.

Drought, Seeds & Resilience in Pongola

Two weeks ago I was invited by Biowatch to attend a seed ceremony that was taking place in Pongola. The annual seed ceremony is an opportunity for farmers who are working with Biowatch throughout the region to come together to share experiences and bless their seed before the beginning of the planting season, which starts with the first rains. Biowatch had invited guests who are experts in seed from a number of countries in Africa and who are part of the Seed and Knowledge Initiative to share their knowledge and learn from the projects in Pongola.  Dr Regassa Feyissa traveled from Ethiopia where he has worked for decades towards the conservation of genetic resources through his work as the conservation manager at the Plant Genetic Resources Center/Ethiopia (PGRC/E), as a Director of the Center to the Institute of Biodiversity and the Executive Director of Ethio-Organic Seed Action (EOSA).  Charles Nkhoma came from Zambia where he is the Director of the Community Technology Development Trust. Kudzai Kusena came from Zimbabwe where he is the Genetic Resources Manager at the National Genebank of Zimbabwe. Kuzdai is also doing his PhD on farmer seed systems in Zimbabwe through UCT and is affiliated with the Bio-economy Research Chair.

dry river bed

Dry river bed in the sugar growing region of Swaziland, with sugar cane fields behind

To get to Pongola I traveled via Swaziland and so drove through the Lowveld region to get to Northern KwaZulu-Natal and Pongola, which is situated only 30 km from the border of Swaziland. This low lying area is prone to dry conditions. However after 2 years of drought, it is drier than usual this year. South Africa has over the past two years received the lowest rainfall ever recorded since recording began in 1902. In many areas there is no ground cover left at all and livestock are left to search for any vegetation, which is often a little more plentiful on the road verges. Driving through Big Bend I passed many sugar growing areas. In contrast to the dry indigenous bush and empty small-scale farms, the sugar fields are green from irrigation. This stark contrast raises many questions about this industry. In a sense, the sugar industry appears to be like a machine that keeps churning despite its ill fit with so much that surrounds it. Each year workers strike against low pay, the drought burns on and 100 000’s of liters of water are pumped into the growing of this commodity crop that has no nutritive qualities and is responsible for so much damage to human health. However, while it is not immediately apparent, the sugar industry is also suffering from the drought, these fields are showing signs and are less green than usual. During the time in Pongola, we spoke a lot about drought as potentially being a watershed period of change. Perhaps the reality of changing climatic conditions could be the beginning of change for the sugar industry.


Sugar cane fields in Big Bend


Lowveld region of Swaziland ( near Pongola)

We spent two days in Pongola and on the first day we visited some of the farmers  that we had visited earlier in the year on the GenØk visit. We visited some of the farmers home vegetable gardens and then attended a workshop coordinated by Lawrence Mkhaliphi and Mpho Ncube from Biowatch . On the second day, the farmers held a seed ceremony at a small Church. During the workshop, farmers spoke about the successes and challenges from the previous year, comparing and sharing experiences and knowledge and setting out their vision and goals for the way forward. The discussion highlighted the challenges of drought that farmers have been facing for the past two years, but surprisingly, farmers did not dwell on this. Farmers spoke of their plans for ‘when it rains’ and while many spoke of the challenges, none were ready to give up on their farming and looked forward to being able to expand and grow more seed. When we visited the farmers gardens it was amazing to see how despite the severe drought they had managed to keep their home gardens producing food using agro-ecological methods such as mulch and swales to keep the small amount of moisture available in the soil.

goat proof fencing

A farmer’s field doing extremely well despite the drought conditions. The fence is lined with straw bunched together in a beautiful pattern. This not only looks good but keeps out the drying wind and keeps goats from seeing the vegetables and breaking into the garden

A key topic of the workshop was to speak about and envision ways forward that involved seed multiplication and the development of a thriving local seed network. While the Biowatch farmers now all have seed plots on their farms that are dedicated to the growing of seed, they want to start producing larger quantities of seed that can be shared within the network and eventually sold as open pollinated varieties. Many of the farmers expressed that they would like to be able to have enough seed to share with other farmers and spoke of how this would improve the seed they would be able to produce and help ensure seed sovereignty in the future. In the workshop and over the two days, the link between boosting the resilience of farming systems and the sharing of seed was discussed many times. Farmers brought up how they felt strongly about the importance of sharing seed (which had occurred more in the past but has been lost in many areas due to a large extent to commercial bought seed replacing heritage varieties) and how this would ensure the abundance of seed for the future as well as a variety of seed suited to different conditions. Over the two days, I learned a great deal from the farmers and other members of the group about the evolution of seed diversity and just how intricate a process the development of farmer seed varieties is. I learned more about how the growth and development of varieties happens over time in relation to a complex network of factors including the soils, the availability of water, the aspect of the land, the preferences and cultural interests of farmers, and the relationships with and between other living organisms. In this web of relationships, diversity is created and seeds that have specific qualities are born.

At the closing of the workshop the guests shared some of their experiences of being involved with projects that aimed to bolster small-scale farming through agro-ecology and to multiply local seed and build local seed systems. Dr Regassa Feyissa spoke of his lifetime work in Ethiopia building a thriving national farming system built on principles of agro-ecology and seed sovereignty.  In relation to the challenges farmers are facing in South Africa, he spoke about how it was in fact the terrible drought during the mid 1980s in Ethiopia that spurred their work to go about finding ways to preserve national heritage seed. He spoke about the challenges of drought but also the fact that drought is a time of change and thus new opportunities can come from it. He spoke of how in some ways it was the drought that shifted the direction of National agri/culture in Ethiopia. Drought conditions create a break from the usual routines and a time to consider and try out what seed may help in building a more resilient future in the face of climate uncertainty. The topic of resilience surfaced many times over the two days. Kuzdai Kusena’s thesis is interested in the resilience of small-scale farmer seed systems and the complex sets of relationships, knowledge and conditions that could contribute to bolstering seed security and seed systems. Charles Nkhoma shared how in Zambia during the ‘hungry season’ (a time when there is little left in storage and new crops have yet to produce a yield) there is s small-cobbed variety of maize that forms a vital food for some farmers. This maize cob matures early due to its small size and can therefore be eaten fresh before other varieties are harvested. Its value therefore lies in the small size of the cob, which counteracts dominant industrial ideals of producing maize with large cobs to boost yield. This story provides insight into the the way that farming knowledge and seed are so delicately woven into culture and context and just what kinds of relationships are at stake when seed is lost and replaced by new varieties that don’t consider these complexities.

These two days in Pongola provided a huge amount of learning for me and it was a great privilege to be able to spend time with so many people actively involved in the regeneration of seed, from the farmers who are doing such amazing work in Pongola to Biowatch and their visitors from other parts of Africa.

Reporting back on the International Symposium on Food Studies in Pretoria, South Africa


This past weekend – the 21st and 22nd of July – I attended an International Symposium on food studies at the University of Pretoria. The Symposium was organised by Professor Desiree Lewis, from the Faculty of Arts, University of the Western Cape and Professor Vasu Reddy, from the Faculty of Humanities, University of Pretoria. It forms part of the work of the Food Politics and Cultures project, a capacity building project based at UWC.

Drawing attention to the the centrality of “food in discursive and cultural processes”, the symposium asked questions such as how might we move beyond purely focusing on “issues of consumption, survival and food security to focus also on complex relationships between food and human experiences”. The interdisciplinary program aimed to “generate conversations among academics, postgraduates and artists interested in deepening humanities-oriented food studies and inter-epistemic dialogues about the social, cultural and human meanings of food cultures and systems within transnational encounters.”

The event hosted speakers from a range of disciplines, such as Cultural Studies, Sociology, Public Health, Literary Studies, Drama, Sociology, Gender Studies, Fine Art, Culinary Arts, Food Sciences, Media and Communication. This opened up the space for a wide variety of presentations on the program, from presentations on African literature and food, to food waste, to meat and masculinities, to art and the representation of food. The opening talk was given by Professor Gabeba Baderoon from Penn State University, whose presentation was titled “Groundwork: Food, Making and Metaphor.” I thoroughly enjoyed this talk on the importance of uncovering histories on foodways from times of slavery in Cape Town which have been widely neglected. Her beautiful personal and political presentation wove together history, literature and the uncovering of threads about foodways to tell a powerful and neglected history of how Cape Town came to be. Professor Jonathan Bishop Highfield from Rhode Island School of Design presented a talk titled “All Yesterday’s Meals: Food as Archive.” This was focused on a fascinating set of work he has been collecting on foodways and maize in Africa, their origins and formations around the continent. It was very exciting to be able to spend some time talking about maize farming and foodways with someone else researching a similar theme.

In the last session of the conference I presented my research and where I am so far with the PhD.  This final session was dedicated to exploring creative approaches to researching and communicating issues surrounding food. This therefore felt like a great opportunity to explore some of the ideas I have been trying to develop around using art as a research method and method of communication. I decided it would be nice to try and bring an element of installation into the room and to use this to tell the stories of the butterflies and moths that I spoke about in my previous post and gathered on our project trip to KwaZulu Natal.

Before everyone entered the room I filled it with hundred of white paper butterflies. I then covered the side walls with glow in the dark moths. At the end of the presentation I referred to the butterflies to explain narratives gathered from farmers and scientists. First I explained the narratives about the butterflies and then tuned off the lights and while we sat in the dark,  surrounded by the glowing moths, I told the stories about moths. This allowed the quiet dark space only lit up by glow in the dark moths to become a space of reflection at the end of the conference. This seemed to engage the audience and create the space for interesting and enlivened dialogue.  Although it could definitely be improved upon, it was exciting to have the opportunity to play with these ideas. The audience made some great suggestions for taking the work forward, such as researching some literature from the region which includes agricultural stories and references. The last presentation that followed was by Sandra Spieler from the University of Minnesota who presented  a set of videos on her community theater work. It was titled “Celebration, Investigation and Reverence through Community Art.” The community theater project works extensively with ideas of food and seed sovereignty using various theatrical methods. This somber but at times joyful performance work opened up a great space for becoming more embodied after a long and very thought-intense set of sessions. It really opened my eyes further to just how important the visual and sensory can be for communicating.


Butterflies during the day, moths at night: Multi-species narratives unfolding

Image of brown veined white butterfly - they mirgrate form South Africa's West Coast to Madagascar. Image from :

Image of brown veined white butterfly – they mirgrate form South Africa’s West Coast to Madagascar. Image from :

For this post I wanted to reflect on how a multi-species lens became a powerful tool for collecting narratives about socio-ecological relationships in different maize agri/cultures on our past group trip to KwaZulu Natal. We found that asking different people questions about insects opened up the space for interesting narratives to unfold about the different systems of agriculture we are looking at. One of the insects I am particularly interested in gathering information about is the corn borer  (also known as stalk borer) as these insects, which can severely affect the success of maize crops, have been protagonists in the development of maize crop science and a focus of much research and technological development. However there are of course many more species that are important to look at throughout the system.

On arriving in KwaZulu Natal we noticed strings of white butterflies flying overhead.  When we asked some of the farmers on one of the agro-ecological farms we visited about these, they told us that these butterflies signaled a “bad crop to come”. This is because for the farmers, they indicated the possible onset of a stem borer infestation.

On returning from KZN, we talked about the white butterflies with an entomologist who has worked for decades in maize agriculture research in KwaZulu Natal. We told him about how farmers we had spoken to had told us that these butterflies signaled the possible onset of a stalk borer infestation. He thought about it and then suggested that the white butterflies signaling the corn borer was perhaps a “half-truth”. He said that it was not the butterflies that laid the eggs of the corn borer but rather a small brown moth. However, these two species, the butterfly and the moth hatched at the same time of year and that while the moth laid the eggs that became the stem borer, the butterfly in a sense signaled the time of year and conditions that sustained the borer. He suggested that while the butterflies fly by day and the moths by night, farmers often see the butterflies while less frequently encountering the moths who come under the cover of darkness.

Over the period of the trip we asked a number of farmers we met about how they have dealt with stem borer in the past and how they deal with it now.  This opened up the space for dialogue and created narrative material for thinking about some of the contrasts between an agri-science approach (using pesticides or Bt maize which some of the farmers have now adopted) and an approach embedded in the landscapes and traditions of the places we visited. Traditional approaches included techniques such as using ash or soil to fill the holes in between the leaves of newly emerged corn to stop insects getting into the stem, as well as hand picking the caterpillars off the plants. However, these practices often also included an important social element. For example, one group of women farmers told us about how when they were younger, if there were corn borers in their maize fields, then younger (maiden) women would be sent into the field to pick off the caterpillars and would then throw them in the river. There the young men would meet them and they would act out a staged battle between men and women. In another account, we were told that young women would run into the fields and shout insults and then gather the caterpillars. While at this point in the research I have not yet spent enough time in the field to ask and understand more about the origins and meanings of these traditions, what they point to is the complex socio-ecological relationships that exist in agricultural practice. Furthermore, it points to what is at risk of being lost when new types of seed and technologies replace older ones. It will be interesting to further explore such multi-species perspectives and relationships during my fieldwork to come.

stem borer at night

Image: Stem borer at night Source:

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:

The Agri/Cultures Team meeting in South Africa – A reflection on a week in the field in KwaZulu Natal

The Agri/Cultures Team meeting in South Africa – A reflection on a week in the field in Kwa-Zulu Natal

red maize growing in a 'seed garden' on one of the permaculture farms

red maize growing in a ‘seed garden’ on one of the agro-ecological farms

In mid April we had our first team meeting in South Africa. The visit was both a team meeting and a chance for Fern, Amaranta and Rosa to spend two weeks in South Africa getting to know some more about the South African context in relation to maize agriculture. We spent the first week in KwaZulu- Natal where we visited a number of farms and the second week in Cape Town where we had project meetings as well as were involved in some seminars at the University of Cape Town.

The aim of the first week was to visit some of the sites that I will be working in for my PhD. While the broader project in Spain and in South Africa looks at the wider maize agriculture system, for this trip we focused only on visiting small-scale farms which are a big part of the focus for my PhD project (the other key area I will be focusing on will be the Research and Development stage, which I will expand on in my next post).

A key factor to take into consideration during the trip was the current drought that farmers in KwaZulu-Natal are facing. Many farmers in the province were unable to grow a maize crop this year as a result of late and minimal rainfall. We were able to find some maize growing but most farmers had not planted and those who had had small yields.

On the first day we accompanied one of the masters students from my department to her field area in Hlabisa where she had planned to report back her project fieldwork to the farmers that she had interviewed over the past two years who are involved in growing GM maize varieties on a small-scale. This took the form of a meeting in a community space that was accessible to farmers coming from a wide are in Hlabisa.

After the meeting one of the farmers at the meeting he welcomed us to his farm where he showed us the land where maize would usually be growing this time of year. There was no crop this year due to the drought. Instead of maize, the field was covered in a knee high mono-crop of weeds which the farmer pointed out to us. He explained how this was a new weed for which he had no name and that had only emerged over the past season. The weed appeared to be resistant to the herbicide he had been using along side the GM maize. He said that he would try and dig in into the soil if he could get his tractor working and failing that look for another kind of herbicide that may kill the weed. He said that the agricultural extension officer for the area had not been around recently and so he as yet had not been able to get assistance with this problem. This farmer told us that he had not been framing for a long time in the area and so it was possible that the weed is known by other farmers in the area. I would like to speak to more farmers about the emergence of new weeds or changes in the types and volumes of weeds that are now present. The following week During the Seminar at UCT, Rosa presented on ‘The emergence of Glyphosate resistant weeds in Argentina’ and I learned more about the complexities of weed resistance and the immense social and ecological affects they have had in Argentina. Rosa spoke about how due to the use of pesticides, there had been a reduction in experts in universities studying weeds and many farmers have lost touch with traditional methods of farming and thus knowledge useful in relation to dealing with weed problems. There has therefore been a break in the transmission of knowledge and capacity to find solutions. With the introduction of new technologies and the consequent layers of socio- ecological changes that ripple outwards, it is possible that farmers find themselves in place with little understanding or access to information that can help them to solve critical problems associated with new farming methods they are using. A sense of disconnection with vital information needed by farmers appeared to be a theme in the maize farms we visited that were growing GM or Hybrid seed. Later in Pongola farmers expressed their concern around the use of pesticides and the dangers associated with them. They asked for our thoughts on this, as they were unable to access such information themselves due to their remote geographical location and access to information.

On the second day we traveled to Pongola where we met with one of the members of Biowatch. He took us to visit some of the ago-ecological farmers that were affiliated with the organisation and who were growing traditional maize varieties along side many other vegetables and grains on small-scale farms. We met with 5 women from the project. First we spent some time introducing our project to the group and then learned about their farming histories and how they had come to be involved with Biowatch. We also learned about their recent activism against Monsanto and their work to mobilize the Department of Agriculture to recognize their needs as agro-ecological farmers. When we had finished talking we shared a delicious meal that one of the members of the group had prepared. Almost all of the ingredients had been grown on her land such as traditional savory melon mixed with maize meal, samp, morogo (wild spinach) and jugo beans. After this we visited some of the members gardens. Here farmers grown food for the home as well as some to sell. With the guidance of Biowatch farmers have also started growing ‘seed gardens’ and curating a central seed bank in one of the members homes. It was very inspiring to see the diversity of seeds that were being collected. The enthusiasm and knowledge that the farmers in the group had was very inspiring as well as to witness how farmers, supported by Biowatch were mobilizing to get support to grow their farms and get better access to resources and build more resilient farming systems. Reflecting on the farm we had encountered the previous day one was able to note a very different feeling that accompanied on one hand the empty (but for weeds) field where GM maize usually grew and the complexity and diversity of the field in which traditional maize grew on these farms.


savory melon growing on one of the ago-ecological farms

On the last day in the field we accompanied an extension officer from the Pongola Department of Agriculture to farming area where small-scale farmers were growing a mixture of GM and Hybrid seed. I drove with the extension officer and along the way he showed me the areas where maize would normally, outside of the drought be planted. We met with group of women farmers at the home of one of the farmers. Here we sat under a tree and spoke for a long time about their farming histories and how they had come to be growing GM and Hybrid maize as well as about their experiences, successes and difficulties associated with this over the years. One of the farmers still grew her traditional maize but none the others still grew it. They spoke about how they no longer had the seed and would like to be able to get some. They had been growing GM maize since 2013 as well as hybrid seed. They had access to hybrid seed at no cost via the Department of Agriculture and some farmers who have the available income buy GM seed in addition to this. Once the maize is harvested farmers hire transport to take their produce to the mill in Pongola. But sometimes the price they are offered for it at the mill is too low and they bring it back and sell it within their community area. In 2013 a mill that was intended to specially target the needs of smallholder farmers was launched in Pongola. It had been my intention that we visit this mill in Pongola but I found out that it had never gotten off the ground and had closed down last year. I will explore the details surrounding small-scale farmers experiences of selling their produce in my next field visit.

During our time in KwaZulu-Natal we saw a diversity of small-scale farming systems and learned a great deal from farmers about their experiences with growing different types of maize. It was also valuable experience to be there with the team from Norway and Spain and compare how the Spanish and European context differs and what factors and concerns may be shared between the different contexts.  I was also able to identify some areas to explore further in my next field visit. One of the areas I would really like to explore more is the use of a multi-species lens for gathering stories about agri/cultural relationships with insects and how this can open up narratives concerning socio-ecological change within farming systems. I would also like to explore in more detail the theme of visibility and invisibility in relation to genes, pesticides and other ‘un-seen’ elements that are experienced on farms and how this related to changing systems of knowledge and scientific vs experiential knowledge. I am interested in comparing the Research and development stage with the farm stages and we spoke about this in our team meeting as a way of focusing in detail on these parts of the maize agriculture system. This will form my next post!



Responding to increasing water-scarcity and drought in South Africa

Livestock drink from a drying river outside Utrecht, a small town in the northwest of KwaZulu-Natal, November 8, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Livestock drink from a drying river outside Utrecht, a small town in the northwest of KwaZulu-Natal, November 8, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

2015 has been labelled as the hottest year ever recorded and this past month of February had the highest mean global temperature (breaking January’s record) to date. This temperature increase is affecting different areas of the world in different ways. In South Africa, drought conditions are escalating. While in November last year the drought was being labeled the worst drought in 30 years, 4 months later it is being referred to as “the worst drought in a century.” This time-scale stretches beyond the bounds of individual memory and experience, placing us in an unknown and uncertain terrain and highlighting the need to draw on a diversity of resources to move forward.

In recent months I have been following the coverage of the drought in South Africa and how this crisis is being responded to by maize farming – the staple crop in the country. There has been much debate about the approaches, funds and means made available by the government to support farmers and those suffering the worst effects of the drought. Currently, articles in newspapers warn of how the drought threatens to tip South Africa into economic recession. The price of rising agricultural imports, of which a large part includes maize, will feed into inflation and increase already rising food prices and high levels of poverty. More importantly, since the middle of 2015, South Africa (usually a net exporter of grains) has been forced to begin importing maize from neighboring countries that are also suffering from drought.

The drought, which is affecting 5 provinces, is hitting particularly hard in the province where my research is based and maize is grown extensively by small-scale farmers. In fact, small-scale farmers are likely to be the worst affected by changes in climate due to a lack of resources. Given this, drought has emerged as an important theme within the Agri/Cultures research project here in South Africa. It seems increasingly relevant to look at how water scarcity and drought is experienced and related to within different cultures or systems of agriculture and socio-ecological relationships. What kind of solutions and ideas concerning the crisis of drought are being put forward? How do these reflect (or not) dominant agricultural discourses?

Strategies for climate adaptation in South Africa have to date “mainly centered on crop improvement of a limited set of major crops” through crop breeding and genetic modification (the development and release of new drought resistant varieties in South Africa was discussed in some detail in a previous post). However, there is also a quieter but growing interest in the use of indigenous crops as a response strategy in the face of drying climatic conditions. This week the South African Water Research Commission (WRC) put out a press release about a short-term study they are conducting on drought-tolerant indigenous and traditional crops. Recognising that these increasingly underutilised crops (often termed Neglected and Underutilised Crop Species (NUCS)) urgently need to be investigated as part of the solution to providing a food ‘secure’ future.

The director of the WRC project explains that “The agricultural landscape of South Africa in many ways reflects the dominance of modern crops that originated from outside of Africa. Their rise has led to a decline in cultivation and knowledge about indigenous crops…The complexity of the problem posed by water scarcity, climate variability and change, population growth, and changing lifestyles requires unique solutions. Indigenous crops have the potential to fill this gap.”

The executive manager of the WRC envisions that this research will “propel these indigenous crops from the peripheries of subsistence agriculture to the promise of commercial agriculture, through scientific research”. It is interesting that here we see commercial agriculture looking to marginalized agri/cultural practices as sources of innovation. Within the Agri/Cultures Project I hope to explore how the crisis of water scarcity is being approached and experience within different systems of agri/culture and how it is forcing the agriculture industry to rethink relationships with nature and the importance of biological diversity and diversity of knowledge.

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 9.34.00 AM

This photograph was taken by Christopher Mabeza and is part of his article titled Metaphors for climate adaptation from Zimbabwe: Zephaniah Phiri Maseko and the marriage of water and soil” in the Book Contested Ecologies. Here Mbeza explores how the well known farmer Zephaniah Phiri Maseko’s relationship with water is an integral part of the agro-ecological systems he creates on his land in Zimbabwe. His work is an inspiring example of the importance of exploring different systems of agriculture. The book is freely available online:

Following maize seeds through time and space – grounding some fieldwork sites in KwaZulu Natal

For this week’s post I wanted to reflect on how my fieldwork is unfolding in relation to the methodology i have proposed using. As discussed previously the team in Spain and myself are using a follow the thing methodology and actor network approach as a basis for gathering information about the multiple sites in maize agri/culture systems, how these systems function and have changed over time and in relation to seed. As Fern explained in her July 2015 post “We find it incredibly useful when explaining our project to talk about how we are following the journey of a kernel of corn through different cultures of agriculture and mapping the various places, people and processes we encounter”. This July post reflected on the compelling-ness of using a kernel of corn as a character (actor), specifically for the purpose of the internet documentary that the team in Spain is putting together.

Over the past few months I have found following a kernel of maize to be a very useful methodology. The sequential approach it provides offers a good framework from which to proceed and begin plotting fieldwork sites but also allows space for other tools and methodologies to be added in. The recognition drawing from Actor-network Theory that maize seed is not just an object but a powerful actant and force provides much space to explore the complexities of relating at play in each site.

In previous posts I have spoken about the multispecies and sensory methodologies that I wish to bring in as a way of mapping, noticing, recording and interacting within each site I visit as I follow the journey of maize seed through 3 small-scale maize agri/culture systems. In addition to the maize seed, the multi-species lens has opened up space for a conversations around a multitude of other living organisms that enter into the conversation and how they affect and are affected by the other actors and actants involved. After having done some preliminary trips i feel excited about the possibilities of combining these methodologies in the field.

At this point having spent much time discussing theory and methodology in previous posts i wanted to provide an update on the sites that I will be visiting over the next few months. Having done two short scouting trips to different maize growing regions in South Africa as well as doing much desktop research I am starting to get some insight into who I may be speaking to, what places I will need to travel to and what processes I may be encountering by means of following maize seed through the system. Below i have outlined some of the sites and also located them on a map.

As mentioned previously I have decided to focus my attention on small-scale maize farming systems in KwaZulu Natal. Firstly I will be visiting the area of Hlabisa, 3 hours from Durban where GM maize has been grown since 2001 by small-scale farmers. I will also be interviewing farmers in nearby KwaHoho where farmers are using traditional varieties using ago-ecological methods.

I will then be traveling up North to Pongola where GM, hybrid and traditional varieties are grown. It is an interesting area to explore issues of coexistence because here there are farmers growing different varieties of maize side by side or on neighboring plots of land. I am told that some are farmers in the area believe strongly in GM technologies and others who are very against it and would like to be able to talk to farmers of both opinions and perhaps others that have perhaps not chosen a strong opinion. I was told in Hlabisa that the GM maize seed depot that was established by the department of agriculture which was formerly in Hlabisa has now been relocated to Pongola. I would like to visit this depot and see if i can establish any contacts for interviews here. From what I am able to gather online I have established that Pongola is also the home to a relatively new micro milling facility that was established in 2013 by the Department of Agriculture in collaboration with a business cooperative called the Sikulungele Pongola Enterprise who run the mill. Before the establishment of this mill small-scale farmers were unable to mill their maize and sell it as maize meal and so it is likely that this has had much influence on the neighboring agri/culture systems. I would like to see if it is possible to visit the mill and interview key stakeholders about the changes this mill has facilitated and put into motion. I am also interested in using a multi-species lens here to ask questions around maize storage, pests and how these are managed.

Further, I hope to also visit the Kuvusa Mill* located just outside Durban. This mill was established in 2013 and described as “The first small-scale mill in Durban“. Its objective like that in Pongola is to provide milling capacity in rural areas and thus reduce the milling cost and accessibility to small-scale farmers. The company hopes to continue rolling out more mills of its kind. I would like to set up some interviews with Kuvusa Mills.

I will also travel North East to Ngwavuma where traditional varieties are grown and there is a local market where I hope to find traditional seed being exchanged and sold. I am interested in mapping maize seed systems around this market.

  • Update May 2016: It had been my intention that i visit this mill in Pongola but I found out recently that it had never gotten off the ground and had closed down last year. I will explore the details surrounding small-scale farmers experiences of selling their produce in my next field visit.

I hope that these sites will offer a good start into mapping the relationships around maize seeds in KZN of course the follow the thing methodology is all about seeing what actually happens on the ground so I will see as I go.

Next I am starting to try and gain an understanding into the research and development stages which happen upstream from the farms!