Countdown to release our interactive website

It’s been a while since I last update about the development of our interactive website.

The aim is to create an interactive tool to explore and understand some of the main traits of each of the different agri-food systems we have been studying in the last 3 years, as well as offer a way to be able to compare these systems and facilitate the identification of their main differences. It is meant to be used mainly by students and, of course, anyone else interested in the issue.

Slow but steady, we are getting there. Now we have on board a web designer and a programmer who is about to start putting the different pieces developed (i.e text, video, fotos, design) together. An important part of the content is the creation of short videos which can illustrate or add valuable information to the text content found in each of the nodes. We aim at releasing in in early January. We’ll keep you updated about this issue!

As a part of the content for the interactive website, a couple of weeks ago we interviewed a GM farmer. He was a kind man and his interview was very interesting. When asked about the benefits of GM crops, he answered that, even if GM crops around his area are claimed to be less productive and he is aware of some of the controversy regarding GM crops (i.e he actually literally said that he did not know whether GM crops were actually good for consumers), he used them because they gave him ‘tranquility’ and avoided him headaches with the potential problem of the corn borer plague. His fields were actually not exactly next door where he lived and he could not go often to see how they were doing. By sowing GM crops, he perceived that his task as a manager of the field was facilitated.

Of course, this could raise questions about whether his ‘tranquility’ is a legitimate reason to grow GM crops despite its potential implications (e.g social and ethical aspects). Or whether by sowing GM crops it meant the creation of ‘headaches’ for others (e.g organic maize farmers). Actually, when asked about this latter question, he said that luckily in his area there were no organic farmers, so that potential conflict did not exist. Most of his neighbours were, in fact, sowing the same variety as him. However, I wonder if, perhaps, there are not organic farmers because of the potential risk of contamination.

Changing maize agri/cultures – time in the field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Unravelling relationships in agricultural ecosystems

Image showing holes on maize leaves – on the left made by the invasive fall army worm and right by the native borer, chilo partellus

Over the past month I have travelled to Potchefstroom, Pretoria and Pongola for fieldwork. During this time I have been interviewing scientists and researchers involved in maize research, government employees involved in agriculture and small scale farmers who are growing GM, hybrid and traditional maize for household and some commercial use.

In my first week in Potchefstroom I was greeted by the reality of the army worm situation  currently facing farmers and the maize agriculture system in South Africa. This is a very significant and worrying event as this species now confirmed to be the Fall Army worm  (Spodoptera frugiperda) has never been seen in South Africa before its recent discovery in the Limpopo province in Early February 2017. This species native to eastern and central North America and South America has only recently begun being sighted on the African continent – The first sighting was in 2016 when it was reported in Nigeria and has since moved South. It has a rapid lifecycle and can quickly multiply if not dealt with. Over the past weeks in South Africa, the FAW has been found in Limpopo and Mpumalanga and parts of Northwest, Gauteng, Free State, the Northern Cape and KZN provinces. It is suspected that the pest may have come into the country with grain imported due to low regional yields following the severe drought over the past two years. Biowatch has drawn a connection between drought periods and the invasion of army worms in the past. However it is not known exactly how it came into the country.

The emergence FAW, a new species in the region offers an opportunity to explore the response of the agricultural research system in South Africa and how this threat is responded to. A multispecies perspective provides a lens through which to track the response to this pest and through this think about changing social – ecological relationships within systems of agri/culture.

The  Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) has  initiated a pest action group.  The group brings together members  from  provincial departments, researchers, several producers’ associations and industries whom might be affected by the presence of the Fall worm.

Within such an emergency situation there is a great pressure for experts to come up with solutions quickly. There has been talk of instating an “emergency registration of agricultural chemicals “. The minister of Agriculture Minister Senzeni Zokwana stated that “Luckily, with respect to the worms we are dealing with, we already identified a number of tools and chemicals that are already registered amongst various crops… We are confident that if growers and farmers use those products, the products would be used safely.” A Farmer’s weekly article has claimed that Bt maize may be less susceptible to the FAW. The approaches being put forward in media bring into question what solutions that are not reliant on chemicals are being investigated and if such R&D capacity exists in South Africa.

It is also a chance to think about knowledge in relation to agricultural systems in South Africa. In recent interviews with scientists I have been told how farmers and many technicians responsible for supporting farmers have little knowledge about ecological systems and insect ecology of agricultural systems. This has been attributed by some to changing focuses of research and the use of pesticides or Bt varieties as a”silver bullet” solutions to pest management.  The Minister of Agriculture explains that Diagnostic support would be increased to help with the identification of the pest. This comes after many farmers have been calling in to find out if the caterpillars they are witnessing are in fact FAW.

Interestingly the emergence of the FAW has set into motion the importation of pheromone traps which will be used determine the

image showing holes in maize leaves – on the left holes made by the Fall Army worm and holes on the right made by the native chilo partellusextent of the spread and the specific strain of FAW present in South Africa. This technique has not been used since the 1980s when light traps were used to track stem borer flight patterns when it was understood as a necessary part of pest management.  Situations such as the emergence of the fall worm bring into question the relationships between ecological systems, knowledge and agriculture. What kinds of precarious ecologies we may be contributing to building through the use of industrial farming techniques and technologies while at the same time becoming more and more disconnected from agro-ecological knowledge.

The small scale farmers I was visiting in Northern KwaZulu Natal have yet to experience the FAW and hopefully it will not reach this region. However the diversity of farmer growing methods in the region brings into question what farmers using traditional, organic or agroecological methods (who are not  already growing bt maize or using pesticides) might do. As it is clear that the dominant approach and approach recommended by authorities and experts in the field for dealing with the FAW will be the use of  pesticides (perhaps warranted in an emergency situation?).

Small-scale farmers that I have spoken to who do not use pesticides or Bt maize have described how they have stem-borer but that it usually does not significantly impact on yields or maize quality and this varies depending on when maize is planted. They use various techniques for keeping these borers under control such as ash, placed in the centre of germinating crops, to burning damaged stems. Smallholder farmers who are using traditional seed and more agroecological methods could potentially find themselves in a difficult situation and will be in need of assistance and research in grappling with this new species. There is a need for research that moves beyond a reliance on anymore chemicals which also bring into question the already pressing question of resistance.

 

 

 

Some lessons on using short movies as scientific communication tools

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During the last months, we have invested some of our time in making two animation movies that illustrate some of the issues related to our work in The Agri/Cultures Project. The idea behind these movies is to try to explore different paths for scientific communication and help bridge the gap between the scientists and (the rest of) society.

The two short movies that will be released soon are very different from one another: one explains the complexities, costs and uncertainties associated with GM detection processes and the second one tells a story of everyday forms of resistance to GM crops in Spain.

Below you can read some of the lessons I learned during the movie-making process for scientists aiming to communicate their work to non-scientists.

  1. Try to tell a narrative story: As I mentioned in a previous post, scientists and, let’s say, visual documentarists or journalists communicate quite differently.  While the former use an abstract structured discourse to advance an argument, the latter base their work on stories and characters that navigate those stories. My advice is, as much as possible and even if it’s challenging, use storytelling in your popular communication approach. All people use stories to make sense of the world we live in and thus stories are powerful tools to communicate anything. They mobilise emotions, identities and make the audience feel engaged with the characters in specific situations of conflict.
  2. Think visually (and if you can afford it, involve an artist in the process): The challenge here is not only to tell a narrative story with scientific content, but to use visual symbols to do it (rather than text). This means that if you have written a script, it might be useful if you do the exercise of thinking how this text is going to be seen and evaluate if that actually works (e.g draw a storyboard). Also, you should keep in mind that there are already existing shared symbols and it might be convenient to use them. It is also very recommendable to involve a visual artist in your work if possible, because this is actually their field of expertise.
  3. Accept and assume that this is not a scientific product aimed at scientists. This seems very basic but I think this is actually a very difficult issue for scientists. Although it’s important to maintain a high level of visual accuracy in your story (e.g if you are explaining something about water, you might want to paint water in blue, instead of orange), you might want to conceive your short movie as a very small taste of the topic you are aiming to communicate, with a couple of key messages. This means that it’s important to prioritise the information you want to communicate (and accept you have to simplify a lot). While the movie can offer a starting point to create interesting discussions around a topic, you should accept that the movie itself won’t contain all the aspects to have a systematic scientific discussion or even presentation. This tool is more limited than a text in terms of the complexity that it can capture and its main audience won’t be scientists themselves. In practical terms, this also implies that you should avoid jargon as much as possible and simplify anything that can be simplified.
  4. Share it to a non-specialised audience before releasing it: This can help you further improve the communicative aspects of the movie. Also it allows for modifications (e.g of script, images) at early stages of the movie making process.
  5. Think of the distribution channels as an essential task of the movie-making process: This is actually something we still have not done for our 2 movies, but I think it’s essential and should ideally be thought as a part of the process. I think the key idea is to broadly think of different types of people who could benefit or be interested in seeing and sharing your movies. In our case, this will probably be our diffused networks of fellow academics, students, civil society groups working on agri/cultures, Mexican farmers and journalists.

To conclude, I’d like to mention that I think short-movie making has great potential as a pedagogical tool because it implies digging into a topic and learning to prioritise what is the essential information and how to communicate it. This might be something worth exploring further in the future.

No women farming maize in Spain

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During the last years working on alternative food systems and food sovereignty, I have had the opportunity to conduct research on agri-food systems from a gender perspective. In more concrete terms, during recent years I became particularly interested in aspects such as the role of peasant women in advancing socio-political changes like agroecology and food sovereignty, the situation of small-scale food artisan women in Spain and the links between food, environment and gender in alternative food systems in Spain (some of this research was done with my colleague in the Agri/Cultures Project Amaranta Herrero).

Unfortunately, it has, however, been rather difficult to link this previous work with women in agriculture with the work we are currently conducting in the Agri/Cultures Project. Basically this is because we are dealing with different cultures of agriculture for cultivating maize in this project and this is a task performed almost exclusively by men in Spain. After more than 15 years interviewing farmers producing maize in Catalonia and Aragón, I only heard from one woman cultivating maize commercially (who Amaranta had the opportunity to interview some months ago). We can also find some exceptions in the case of peasant women who are producing maize in backyards or small plots for the consumption of animals raised at home, but not at a commercial scale.

This absence could respond, however, to some of the conclusions of my previous research. First, maize production at a large scale is an expensive activity in Spain, with important investment costs in terms of seeds, irrigation, fertilizers, etc and the few available statistics indicate that women are usually not the holders of the land on family farms (the most common land tenure form in Spain) and when they are, they hold the smallest farms. They also tend to be in charge of non-mechanised tasks on these farms. We have also observed that women are usually linked to small-scale agricultural projects that prioritize quality, diversity and local food production, which is a very distant model from the highly mechanized and super-specialized commercial maize production in Spain in which maize is essentially considered a commodity used for the production of feed (around 85% of the maize in Spain).

It may be interesting to compare this situation in Spain with what we see in South Africa, although also there we see indications that women are the primary people running the farming activities when they are on a small-scale for subsistence but as soon as it moves into large-scale commercial business, it becomes a mans business. Does anyone else have any information on these kinds of gender issues and dynamics within maize farming in their own context?

Getting tongue-tied in the task of popular science communication

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lack of organic maize statistics in Spain

In one of my last posts, I wrote about the confusing official statistics on the GM maize surface area in Spain. In that post, I also mentioned the difficulty of compiling statistics on organic maize, which is important if we are to get an accurate picture of how coexistence is playing out in Spain and how this has changed over time. In this post, I therefore want to outline the difficulties we have experienced getting accurate figures for organic maize in Spain in more detail.

Based on statistics from the Catalan Organic Certification Body and the Organic Certification Body in Aragon, it was shown that the surface area devoted to the cultivation of organic maize diminished very significantly in both Catalonia and Aragón – where most GM maize is growing in Spain – after the first analyses for GM detection were done. Until recently, these two bodies have been the only source of information on the organic maize surface area but such statistics were not systematically published by them. The situation now is even more complex, since in Aragón there are now also private certification bodies, compiling their own statistics.

In fact, official statistics on organic maize in Spain are a very recent phenomenon. It is only since 3 years ago that the statistics of the Annual Report on Organic Agriculture published by the Agriculture Ministry differentiated the surface area cultivated with maize on its own at all. Before then it was simply registered under the broader umbrella category of “grains”.

My beautiful picture

GM maize demonstration field

Seeing the potential difficulties to compile the organic maize statistics in Spain (and specifically in Catalonia and Aragón) since the introduction of GM maize in 1998, we therefore requested the available figures from all these different bodies. In the case of the Spanish Ministry, as explained before, only the numbers for the 3 last years were recorded and provided. In the case of the Catalan Organic Certification Body, the available information only dates back to 2007, and for the public certification body in Aragón, they only sent us information from 2009. In order to be able to see the bigger picture and changes over time with the introduction and spread of GM maize, we have had to compile information from public interventions or declarations made by technicians or representatives of these bodies, by farmers or representatives of farmers’ unions, and complement this with our own qualitative data, which introduces a very high level of uncertainty around the figures.

So one of our methodological challenges now is really the question of how can we assess the impact of coexistence on organic maize if basic data such as figures for the different types of maize cultivation (organic, conventional, GM) is lacking?

Dwelling on Definitions and Drawing Lines of Distinction

At the end of June, the European members of the project met for a writing retreat in London. While we were there, we participated in the annual meeting of the Science and Democracy Network and as mentioned in an earlier post, took a Guardian Masterclass on science journalism. The main purpose for our meeting though was to focus on writing an article we were invited to contribute to a special issue of the journal Sustainability. The upcoming issue is on Organic Farming and Gene Manipulation, with the papers asked to “evaluate the potential of genetic engineering for improvement of organic farming”.

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To work on this article, we again had to face the challenge of how to define and understand both ‘organic farming’ and ‘genetic modification’. This is challenging because in fact there are many subtle yet significant differences that can be placed together under these terms and if we are not careful, the significance of these differences can be lost. For example, large-scale monocultural farming operations certified as organic and producing products for the global market are not the same as small-scale diversely intercropped agroecological farms oriented towards sustaining local communities and achieving food sovereignty. Furthermore, neither of these are the same as those subsistence farmers producing food without synthetic chemical inputs because they cannot afford to do otherwise or the practices of farmers hundreds of years ago before manufactured chemical inputs were available. Organic farming can be interpreted to mean several different things by different people and each interpretation will give weight to somewhat different practices and values. For example, organic farming may be used to refer to operations that largely follow a conventional agribusiness model, those that fall completely outside that model, or those directly and specifically opposed to this approach.

grain-664740_960_720Similarly, the term genetic modification can also be used to refer to several different things. Manipulating genes through traditional plant breeding practices is, however, not the same as genetic modification done through recombinant DNA technology, which can combine material from several species not normally able to exchange DNA. Such transgenic genetic modification is also not the same as cisgenic transformation (using only genes from the same or related species). Furthermore, recombinant DNA technology is different from the new wave of genome editing techniques (such as the much discussed CRISPR-Cas9 system) or techniques to interfere with the messaging services of RNA. Each of these fields has different possibilities, requirements and implications. Therefore, if we are to discuss a topic like whether genetic manipulation has anything to offer organic farming, we need to be very careful to clarify the terms of the debate first and be sensitive to the potential for different understandings. There are always shades of grey between the black and white ends of a spectrum.

While we were in London, we also found this issue arising again when we tried to work on our second main task there, which was to try and finalise our visual cartographies of different agri/cultural systems. Although there is a common distinction made between GM, Conventional and Organic farming systems, in practice there are overlapping areas and shades of grey between them. For example, GM and chemically-intensive conventional agriculture are very much aligned in terms of their overarching goals, values and orientations, they typically just use different crop varieties. There is also, however, a surprising degree of overlap in the orientation and organisation of large-scale commercial organic farms with conventional agriculture, the key difference being in the inputs they use. There is also an affinity in the environmental values shared between certified organic and agroecological models, however, there can be a significant difference in questions of social organisation and structure between them. This meant that once again we had to dwell on and discuss the lines of distinction between various cultures of agriculture and how best we might visually represent their similarities and differences in practice.

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That said, during our retreat we made significant progress on both the paper evaluating the potential for the use of GM within organic farming and on how to approach the presentation of our cartographies. Hopefully in a future blog post we can present published versions of both of these things that the project has been working on lately!

Bridging science and society with movie animations

One of the aims of The Agri/Cultures Project is to develop new ways to communicate scientific results and during the last 10 days I have been working with an artist to create a stop motion animation that narrates some insights from our latest paper (still to be published). This paper is focused on the everyday – mostly practical – forms of resistance to GM crops in contexts where there is unregulated coexistence, such as Spain.

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As part of a social group whose job specifically aims at producing collective knowledge, scientists have a duty to share our research results and discussions with the rest of society, especially in the case of publicly funded science. But, unfortunately, very often scientific production remains trapped in a self-reproductive bubble primarily only accessible to a small elite.

In order to explore new ways to bridge the gaps between science and (the rest of) society and broaden the spectrum of audiences that might be interested in our research, we are producing a couple of short movies to help explain some aspects of our research. In fact, visualisation of concepts, experiences, practices, processes, and situations has been proven to be a great tool for enhancing learning processes generally and scientific knowledge specifically.

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In our case, we thought that an animation could tell the story of the ordinary struggle of the actors within the non-GM agri-food systems to avoid GM contamination and fight the expansion of GMOs. We involved an artist in the process because artists are experts in the field of visual communication and can offer valuable resources to say things differently. Of course, a 3 minute video is not a 15 page text and there is certainly a notable degree of simplification required which represents a constant challenge in terms of balancing form and content. That is to say that watching our short movie will not be equal to reading the full paper. It is just a different format that helps us introduce some of the main ideas to different audiences (e.g people who normally would not spend their time reading scientific journals). As we will link the animation with the paper (which we hope to publish as open access), we expect it to be a double directional channel and a way to introduce non-scientists to scientific knowledge production.

Actually, although our short animation movie may not primarily be for scientists-as-audience, they might also find it interesting for other purposes. For instance, it can be an introductory tool to present the topic to students, journalists, NGOs, or even politicians and a way to create a context for generating fruitful discussions.

We’ll keep you updated about the forthcoming paper and about its short-animation movie release!