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.

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

Installation artwork by Bright Uguchukwe titled acid rain

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

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

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

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

Policy Brief on a Politics of Care for Biotechnology

At the start of this year we had a stakeholder seminar (described here). The academics participating in the meeting took an extra day to bring together the learning from the different stories we heard from all the other actors participating from Spain and Norway. As a result of this, we developed a policy brief on the potential of a politics of care for advancing good governance of biotechnology. In this policy brief, we briefly describe the different elements of importance for care ethics and politics and how these can be usefully used to guide socio-economic and ethical assessment of genetically modified organisms. This included a set of guiding questions to ask during the assessment process.

Guiding Questions to Advance a Politics of Care in Biotechnology Governance

The full policy brief was published in the journal Food Ethics as an open access article and is available to read and share here.


Field work in Mexico

Last May and June, I went to Mexico to conduct field work trying to understand some of the socio-ecological and economic impacts that Mayan beekeepers are facing with the introduction of GM soy in their territory, and their struggle to defend themselves against it.

Below you can see some pictures of these days. Hopefully you will hear soon about the results of this research!

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

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

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

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

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


Changing maize agri/cultures – time in the field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A taste of the amazing world of honey bees

The “Man (or Woman??) of Bicorp” holding onto lianas to gather honey from a beehive as depicted on an 8000-year-old cave painting near Valencia, Spain

Last weekend I took an intensive 2 day course on honey bees and organic beekeeping. It covered many topics including bee biology and ethology, beekeeping practices, bee pathologies, product development and regulations. Bee biology and ethology is absolutely fascinating and I recommend any of you readers, to learn a bit about it. The course was very useful as it provided a broad picture of many of the issues related to the world of honey bees within the broader context of the Anthropocene.

Perhaps one of the most striking issues I learned about was about how European honey bees (Apis mellifera), through movement of the western honey bee, colonies into and out of Asia, become vulnerable to Varroa mite, an external parasitic mite that attacks Apis cerana and Apis mellifera honeybees, first in Africa and then in Europe.  Quickly, the parasite spread around the world. Populations of wild honeybees in Europe dropped dramatically almost to the point of extinction during the 1980s. Currently, Varroa has become persistent in many parts of the world, such as Spain, and the existence of these bees in these areas depends on human activities. These beekeeping activities mostly consist in conventional ‘bee farming’  which involve practices such as controlling the queens, inhibiting bees swarming, the application of toxic chemicals to control the varroa and stealing the honey (product of the bee-labour).

During the course I was introduced to different models of beekeeping. In the same way that there are  different cultures of agri/culture, there are different cultures of api/culture. These different cultures are linked to different practices, worldviews and a different relationships with bees themselves.

In Spain, organic beekeeping is extremely marginal. There are only 50 professional organic beekeepers in Spain despite it being one of the countries in Europe with the highest number of  professional beekeepers. Perhaps one of the main challenges faced is the poor understanding of what it means to be organic beekeeper in contrast to conventional beekeeping.

Over the next few months we will be exploring Beekeeping and pollination and we will keep you updated about our progress!

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.


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.

The future of food

Last week I participated in an international colloquium organised by ICAS (Initiatives on Critical Agrarian Studies), Etxalde and Critical Agrarian Studies Colloquium of the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) on The Future of Food and Challenges for Agriculture in the 21st Century. The colloquium took place in Vitoria-Gasteiz where 450 researchers, farmers and activists working on agroecology and food sovereignty gathered over the two days.

Many of the plenary sessions  were very impressive and provided the opportunity to listen to a range of very well-known speakers such as Susan George, Raj Patel, Silvia Ribeiro, Peter Rosset, Raúl Delgado Wise and Harriet Friedmann. It was also a great opportunity to meet old friends and new colleagues. However, as very often happens in congresses, there was little time for discussion to develop and little room for new ideas from less high profile participants. I think this is a pity in the agroecological context where many new experiences and initiatives are constantly emerging and there has been a great effort to innovate with participatory pedagogical approaches and tools.

My participation in the colloquium was linked to the need for innovative teaching methodologies in the context of the transition to more sustainable food systems. After the creation of the Agroecology Chair at the University of Vic (Uvic-UCC, Barcelona), and in order to contribute to the development of this new paradigm in the university system, we initiated a process of creating a bachelor in agroecology and food systems. In the colloquium we explained how we did this by facilitating a bottom-up, multi-actor, participatory process using focus groups and interviews to gather information on the needs of the different actors of the sector working on agroecology and food sovereignty (e.g. from producers, consumers, local and regional government, students, researchers, CSOs) . This process helped to inform the development of  the new Agroecology degree. We also explained the main barriers and challenges currently faced by the project. We presented how the participatory process concluded that a bachelor of this kind built to support agroecological transitions, should not only equally address the three dimensions of agroecology (technical, socio-cultural and political) but also be very practical and rely on innovative teaching methodologies (e.g. learning by doing within meaningful learning contexts). It was also clear that it would require new forms of knowledge co-generation that considers farmers as important holders of knowledge alongside researchers and that sees agriculture not only as a productive activity, but also as an essential activity in the creation of sustainable societies.

Have you been involved in any courses or education programs like that? It would be interesting to hear what has been your experience?