GM in Spain (infographic)

Last week we collectively worked on creating an infographic that captured in a single image the main issues around GM Maize in Spain. Of course, as any infographic, it just highlights some of the relevant dimensions of the controversy of GM crops in Spain. But we think it can help to understand what is going on in the European country with higher number of cultivated area of GM crops. Actually, it is both a simplified, visual and updated version of what we tell in the section “Spain, a telltale case of the impossibility of coexistence” of our paper Just Existing is Resisting: The Everyday Struggle against the expansion of GM Crops in Spain.

It is also an infographic to be used in the interactive website we are preparing in which we are condensing much of the knowledge we have acquired through all these years of agri/cultures research.

Below you can see the result. Please, share it widely!

Reorganising Power for Systems Change

Two weeks ago I participated at The EDGE Funders Alliance Conference 2017, as a member of the local host committee in Barcelona. EDGE acts within philanthropy to raise awareness and deepen understanding of the interconnected nature of the social, economic and ecological crises threatening our common future. EDGE works to increase resources for communities and movements creating systemic change alternatives for a transition to a society that supports justice, equity and the well-being of the planet.

The Conference gathered more than 250 progressive funders & activist partners. We had the opportunity to discuss systems change in the different thematic Engagement Labs, Workshops, Walking tours, Community Meetings, Dine Arounds and Plenary Sessions with inspiring speakers and an awesome facilitator.

I am still digesting the Conference and the different type of learning experiences I had. However, I’d like to share with you three of them I found especially useful:

  1. Just transition framework: The Conference started by setting a common framework for systems change analysis. It has been developed by Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project. According to them, Just Transition requires us to build a visionary economy for life in a way that is very different than the economy we are in now. Constructing this visionary economy calls for strategies that democratize, decentralize and diversify economic activity while we damper down consumption, and (re)distribute resources and power.

 

2. Fishbowl conversation: One of the most common methodologies used at the Conference for engaging in collective discussions was the fishbowl. It is a conversation in the form of a dialogue that allows the participation of many people. It involves having a small group of people (usually 5) seated in a circle, having a conversation in full view of a larger group of listeners. There’s an empty chair in theinner circle that can be occupied by someone from the outer circle when they have something they wish to contribute to the conversation. When that is the case, a person from the inner circle has to leave the conversation so that there is always an empty chair open for new people to join. Fishbowl processes provide a creative way to include the “public” in a small group discussion. They can actually be used in a wide variety of settings, including workshops, conferences, organizational meetings and public assemblies. Fishbowls are useful for ventilating “hot topics” or sharing ideas or information from a variety of perspectives. Although largely self-organizing once the discussion gets underway, the fishbowl process usually has a facilitator or moderator. During the Conference this was a very interesting way to foster conversations.

 

3. Agroecology on the rise:  There were multiple occasions and spaces at the Conference which tried to facilitate Agroecological conversations and further collaboration between philanthropy and civil society organizations to co-create sustainable food systems rooted in social justice. In fact, many people at the Conference were involved in movements or funds that conceive of agroecology as an already-working alternative paradigm that relates not only to agrarian reform, but to climate justice, post-extractivist circular economy and social justice (including indigenous rights). I had the impression that not only is agroecology powerful, but it is expanding, increasingly in fashion, and one of the ways to move towards a Just Transition.

Mother Nature Needs Her Daughters

This year, I am extremely fortunate because I have been selected to join the Homeward Bound program. Homeward Bound is a groundbreaking leadership initative for women in science. It specifically seeks to raise the leadership capability of women scientists so as to enhance their ability to impact policy and influence the decision-making shaping our planet and the conditions for life on earth. Their slogan is “Mother Nature Needs Her Daughters”, as is beautifully illustrated in the short film above (which makes me cry everytime I watch it, but not in a bad way!) The initiative emphasises the role that women, and particularly women scientists, can play in moving us out of environmental crisis and into practices of ecological care and I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to be involved.

As a lucky participant, I will take part in Homeward Bound’s year long program to develop leadership, strategic and communication capabilities, which will then culminate in a 3 week voyage to Antarctica. Yes, Antarctica! Cue Happy Dance. During the voyage to Antarctica, the transformational learning towards being a better leader will continue and intensify, but all participants will also be given an amazing opportunity to learn about the lastest scientific research on climate change and particularly its impacts in the Antarctic. Indeed it was the coordinator of this ‘science’ part of the program that first alerted me to the initative and encouraged me to apply – thanks Justine Shaw!

Homeward bound has a 10 year plan to offer its program to 1000 women in science, from all around the world, so as to help promote them into positions of leadership to affect policy and advance sustainability. It started in 2016, when in its first year it took the world’s largest-ever female expedition to Antarctica (76 women). The next voyage, to take place in early 2018, will be even bigger as it will take the 80 participants selected this year and currently starting their training to the frozen land of the far south.

To apply for the program, I had to answer a set of questions concerning my background, experience, interests, challenges and thoughts on leadership. I also had to submit a 2 minute movie making a pitch for why they should select me (which took me quite a few takes to get right!). What was particularly interesting for me while writing the application was that they specifically said that it was okay to not know the answer to some questions – what they were looking for was honesty, passion, a willingness to collaborate and a desire to implement and pass on what is learned to others. Women were selected for the program from a huge range of different scientific and technical fields and from across all levels – including senior staff with lots of experience and others who have just completed a PhD. It has been fascinating to see and start to get know all the other women involved, which has begun now through our first conference calls.

I know I have only just started touching the tip of the iceberg in terms of what this initative will offer over the next 12 months but I am already extremely excited. The founder Fabian Dattner seems so wise and warm and energetic that I cannot help but get enthusiastic listening to her talk about her vision. All the women selected to be involved seem so diversely skilled and passionate about the planet that I am already feeling inspired to be better, do more and create new networks of collaboration. The approach to transformational learning and the activities that we are already being asked to do (such as reflective journaling) align so well with my own thoughts concerning what constitutes a powerful pedagogy that I  can’t wait to dive in and learn more about leadership and strategic communications through their approach. All of this means that even though I am slightly terrified of the extended time required on a boat in rough oceans at the end of it all, I am feeling extremely lucky to be a part of the Homeward Bound 2017/18 team. Hopefully I can continue to update this blog with learnings as I go and I encourage everyone to follow the program through their social media links.

Engaging in Science Journalism

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Two weeks ago we started our writing retreat in one of the beautiful boathouses on Regents Canal, in London. Since we are almost obsessed about improving the ways science is communicated to the rest of society, we signed up for a short Masterclass at The Guardian on scientific journalism. In fact, I think the target audience was journalists rather than scientists, but below I list some things we learned:

Before writing:

  • Think of your reader. Really. Do it. Ask yourself, who is going to read this? and How long can you expect them to read your piece?
  • Don’t think about educating your public on science as your primary goal.
  • Think more about stimulating, entertaining and amusing your audience through a story. And if there’s learning as a side effect, great!

When writing:

  • Choose short words over long words.
  • Avoid clichés and familiar metaphors. Invent fresh ways to express yourself instead.
  • If you can cut a word, do it.
  • Use active voice, not passive.
  • Only use jargon when there is no alternative.

What makes a good story?

  • It is relevant to me/family/friends (e.g news-you-can-use, health issues stories…)
  • It includes ‘wow’ facts that people want to tell their friends at the pub/on twitter…
  • It is important – even if possibly not that interesting to most people.

Something I really missed from The Guardian Masterclass was to have some examples of journalists reporting to research and findings from the social sciences (e.g Anthropology, Sociology, Social Psychology…), and, specifically, using qualitative methodologies. The unity of knowledge is formed by many scientific disciplines, including also the study of human communities. In fact, comprehending why human societies do what they do is critical in order to understand the huge challenges of contemporary times, namely the global ecological crisis in all its multiple expressions. Scientific journalism has a wide field open to explore in creating new ways to communicate this social scientific knowledge too.

Responsible Governance of (New) Agricultural Biotechnologies

In an earlier post, I described an international workshop we held in November 2015 with experts on risk assessment, responsible innovation and ethics of agricultural biotechnology. Happily, I can now report that our learning from that worskhop has been available for everybody in the form of a publication in the journal PLoS Biology.

In the published paper, entitled “Essential Features of Responsible Governance of Agricultural Biotechnology” we argue that changes to the governance of agricultural biotechnologies have become particularly urgent as new genomic tools and products (such as CRISPR-Cas9, RNAi, synthetic biology, and GM animals) continue to emerge and controversies surrounding GM crops remain unresolved.

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What we have seen is that much of the current debate around these new genomic tools and products is focused on whether or not they fit within existing regulatory frameworks. This is no doubt a very important debate that will have significant consequences no matter which way nations decide. However, it is also important to question whether or not the existing regulatory frameworks are sufficient for addressing the issues that continue to generate controversy in this field. Since they have not been capable of allieviating controversy around GM crops, we argue that the new wave of biotechnologies provides a useful opportunity to revise not just our specific regulatory frameworks but also our general approach to governance so as to make it more socially robust and ethically responsible.

Integrating findings from both our dedicated workshop and several decades of work within social studies of science and procedural ethics, we propose five features that are essential to advance responsible governance of agricultural biotechnology. These essential features are:

  1. Commitment to candour
  2. Recognition of underlying values and assumptions
  3. Involvement of a broad range of knowledge and actors
  4. Consideration of a range of alternatives
  5. Preparedness to respond.

Each of these are outlined in more detail in the paper, where we also give specific examples of how social scientists have been working to advance these features in technology governance. In doing so we seek to show how ideas from several fields can be fruitfully integrated into a common framework to advance scientifically and socially responsible forms of governance for both existing and emerging agricultural biotechnologies.

Published in an open access journal, we hope that you might find this paper interesting and encourage you to share it with friends and colleagues. Of course, we would also welcome your questions and feedback!

Talk on maize for human consumption in Lleida (Catalonia – Spain)

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On Wednesday 4th May the Agri/Cultures Project attended a talk on maize for human consumption (aka non-GM maize) in Lleida. Below you can read a short chronicle of this experience.


Everything began when Comú de Lleida, a political group from the city of Lleida, suggested the agricultural land around Lleida be declared GM-free. Farmers from the area (where GM maize is widely cultivated) who are very concerned about what this suggestion could entail, responded that non-GM maize did not actually offer many opportunities for them. El Comú de Lleida organised a talk about why some farmers choose to sow non-GM maize and the commercial possibilities that this maize could offer. They invited two main speakers from the neighboring region of Aragon, a  farmer from the farmers cooperative Joaquin Costa, in the neighbouring region of Aragon, and a representative from Liven Agro, one of the main companies producing non-GM maize in that neighbouring region too. The audience was made up of approximately 30 farmers, including several representatives of the main agrarian trade unions.

The company representative gave a commercial presentation about how they are encouraging farmers to produce non-GM maize for them. They pay more for non-GM maize and they also offer monitoring, harvesting machinery and transport vehicles for free. According to this representative, this was encouraging farmers to embrace non-GM maize production and work with them.

The trade union representatives, on the other hand, while opposing the GM-free initiative, were pointing out that in the fields ‘there was room for everyone’ and that decisions on whether cultivating GM or non-GM should only be driven by economic criteria.

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Juanjo Mallén, farmer from the cooperative Joaquin Costa

To me, the best intervention by far was Juanjo Mallen, from the farmer cooperative Joaquin Costa. He told us the story of his cooperative and how it’s approach had evolved regarding GM maize. As a cooperative, they embraced and started producing GM maize when it was first introduced, in 1998. After some years, while distrusting the GM hype, they started developing their own agricultural trials and realised that GM varieties are not actually more productive than non-GM varieties. During this process they also increasingly informed themselves on the scientific controversies and uncertainties surrounding GM crops. And as a result (and because there was a company willing to buy non-GM maize), they decided to produce non-GM maize. It has really worked well for them. He pointed out that non-GM maize varieties are more inclusive because it is not true that ‘there is room for everyone’. Non-GM maize, and especially organic maize, can suffer the consequences of GM contamination and lose a market, or a certification. In fact, he mentioned that wherever there is GM maize, organic maize disappears. By focusing on non-GM maize, he added, some of the farmers of his cooperative could aspire to produce organic maize again, which was very good news.

Lastly, he pointed out that it was important to realise the paradigmatic differences implied in the different ways of understanding and doing agriculture that were being discussed. One prioritised more isolation and controllability of the different parts of the agricultural ecosystem and the other valued more interconnection and interdependency. To give an example, he told us how his own perception of weeds had changed from seeing them as something undesirable to be eradicated to considering them as a bio-indicator of the agricultural ecosystem. His point of view is that, more research and more political will should be encouraged in order to explore and promote ways of farming without agro-toxics.

In the end, I don’t think it is likely that the agricultural land around Lleida will be declared GM-free, as many farmers were still not convinced, but it was an interesting debate in which it was obvious that there was a clash between antagonistic cultures of agriculture.

Seminar on Critical Perspectives on GMOs at Cape Town University

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The last two weeks we have been in South Africa. It has been truly a very insightful experience that has helped us understand slightly better some of the complex realities that shape maize production in this amazing country. During the first week, we visited three very different small-scale farming communities in Kwazulu Natal, and for the second week we traveled to Cape Town to have our team meeting and to participate in two seminars at the University of Cape Town.

The first seminar was with postgraduate students conducting research related to GMOs in South Africa. It was a really interesting session that allowed us to share our own experiences with other researchers working on this topic from different perspectives and contexts. It also helped us us very much to better understand the functioning of the food systems where GM maize has been introduced in the country, the driving forces, circumstances and changes produced. Finally, we also focused on the ethical implications of our research, our challenges and strategies.

The second seminar was titled “Critical perspectives on GMOs”, and was organised by the Bio-economy Chair at the University of Cape Town.

critical-perspectives-posterThe seminar brought together different critical perspectives on the analysis and assessment of GMOs. The session was chaired by Rachel Wynberg from the University of Cape Town and Maya’s PhD co-supervisor. First, Fern Wickson presented her paper on exploring the advantages of using feminist care ethics lens for the assessment of agricultural biotechnology. Following this presentation, the three other presentations explored the concept of resistance related to GM crops from very different approaches. In the second talk, I discussed the emergence of glyphosate-resistant Johnsongrass and the situation in relation with herbicide-resistant weeds in Argentina by analysing the driving forces behind the initial spread of GR johnsongrass, its impacts and the social, economic and environmental implications of response strategies, including the institutional conditions and constraints involved. Then, professor Johnnie van den Bergh from the Northwest University explored the insect resistance in Bt GM crops in South Africa, its consequences for the future use of Bt maize and for the conservation of heirloom seeds. It was very interesting to see many coincidences in the processes of resistance evolution in both cases, as well as in the responses given to it. Finally Amaranta Herrero introduced a paper we are currently working on the everyday forms of human resistance to the expansion of GM maize by exploring the often no-visible practices of farmers and other actors practicing non-GM agriculture in Spain.

The seminar ended with a vivid round of question and discussions, and a shared lunch. It was again a great opportunity for us to share our research and to learn from all the assistants at the seminar.

 

 

 

Undisciplined Environments and Food as Commons

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Two weeks ago I attended the Undisciplined Environments Conference, aka the International Conference of the European Network of Political Ecology, in Stockholm.

Activists from all over the world and scholars from a wide range of disciplines met over four days to discuss the political intersections between environmental and societal issues. I went to present on the Spanish socio-environmental conflicts represented in the Environmental Justice Atlas, with an emphasis on the conflict we are now researching in detail: GM crops.

Some of the presentations were great. Kim Tallbear gave a talk during a plenary on post-colonisation studies, indigenous feminism and the role of technoscience in the colonisation of indigenous peoples and others. She talked about multi-species ethnographies and presented some of the traits of the indigenous ontologies, which usually exceed the dominating binomial (and hierarchical) categorisation of reality (e.g male-female, culture-nature…), and pointed out to the ability of non-human beings and things to co-construct reality. This strongly resonated with the process of following maize through the food web and the actants of The Agri/Cultures Project.

Also, Ugo Mattei gave an interesting talk about his latest book, “The ecology of law”. In this book, Ugo Mattei and Fritjof Capra, they explore the intimate links and alignments between the mechanistic science and the making of modern law. They argue that the perception of the world as a “machine-world” (with its controllable, replaceable and disconnected parts) has profoundly shaped modern law and its main pillars (individual, private property, State sovereignty) and this is also deeply responsible for the global ecological crisis we face. They state that a paradigmatic shift regarding law is urgently needed and put forward the idea of The Commons as a key aspect of this shift (the commons as a legal institution). Its potential relies on transcending traditional public-private property dichotomies and putting more emphasis on the power of communities.

In fact, the commons was a concept very present throughout the conference. I attended a presentation about food as commons that inspired me to want to explore this thread in relation to our project (e.g food as commons or, perhaps, more specifically, seeds as commons). In my view, the commons are not just resources. The commons are intimately involved with all living beings as they are also part of the web of life. They shape and are shaped by reality (in fact, our lives depend on their health) and they are at the heart of many heated conflicts worldwide.

This is just the beginning of a thread that I hope to keep building on but…  do you know of any interesting work done on ‘seeds as commons´ or ‘food as commons’ with an ecologically-inspired perspective?

Controversy Reloaded: GM 2.0 or the New Plant Breeding Techniques (NBTs)

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In the coming weeks the European Commission will release a statement on the regulation of new plant breeding techniques (NBTs). Specifically, it will decide whether the EU GMO laws apply to the plant-related products of seven ‘new’ genetic engineering techniques. It is likely that the release of this draft regulation will renew controversies surrounding GMOs on the political agenda. If the decision is that these new breeding techniques create products that fall outside the definition of a GMO and therefore the European regulatory system, the organisms and foods produced with these NBTs could spread through the environment and enter the food chain untested, unlabeled and untraceable.

A majority of European citizens have repeatedly expressed their rejection of GMOs. In fact, the European legislation on GMOs, which was modified last year to allow Member States to opt out of the cultivation of GM crops, has long been considered an obstacle to the biotech industry. Within the largely GM-skeptical context of the EU, the decision on NBTs and the new draft has become a battleground. The drafting of new regulations offer the biotech industry a window of opportunity to change the rules of the game (i.e the definition of what a GMO is), exclude certain products of these new techniques from specific regulation (and make them unidentifiable for the public), and thus bypass the ‘annoying problem’ of the massive rejection of GMOs from European citizens.

Many of the arguments made by the biotech industry aim at deregulation by merely focusing on the outcomes and disregarding the processes involved in producing these novel products. Deregulation of the new techniques would place the products created by them in ‘black boxes’ and render them invisible and untraceable through agri-food systems. This would arguably erase the rights of European consumers to freedom of choice.

The following table, from to a report published by Corporate Europe Observatory on the biotech lobbies’ efforts to exclude the new techniques from regulation, reproduces the key industry arguments for the deregulation of new GM techniques and their contestations.

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At the core of all the industry arguments we find old-fashioned assumptions related to science, risk and modernity. The proponents of such deregulation seem to forget the knowledge acquired during the last decades on undesirable by-products of progress and techno-industrial development in the context of the global risk society we live in. Emanating from the biotech industry set of arguments, there is also a strong scent of a positivist and mechanistic understandings of science and scientific knowledge, based on a misconceived control over nature, in which the risks, uncertainties and unknowns are systematically downplayed or, directly, ignored. Of course, under this conception, the social implications (e.g. how the introduction of these new technologies will affect different food cultures, farmer’s lives, or other stakeholder’s of the agri-food system) are not within industry’s sight.

The unregulated mass release of these new products could entail unwanted and irreversible impacts for not only food safety, but also for our socio-ecologicial and agricultural systems. These new technologies are in their infancy and many uncertainties still remain. A moratorium on the commercialisation of these new products would allow more time to further investigate and understand the consequences they might entail, however industry lobbying is working strongly against any support for such a move. While many technical reports and legal analyses by government bodies and NGOs have concluded that these new emerging technologies should definitely not be excluded from existing EU GM regulations, we wait to see what the European authorities will decide for the fate of GM 2.0.