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!