Gatekeepers of the maize web: dryers and silos

During our research we have repeatedly discussed how important dryers and silos are as part of the necessary  infrastructure in agri-food networks (see also previous post about the network of Spanish silos and our latest paper). In this entry I aim to share some of these thoughts with you.

Infrastructure is a major element of the global economy and manages the mobility of human and nonhuman entities through physical support facilities. In the case of commercial maize crops in Spain, since practically all maize is processed, dryers and silos become essential facilities to sustain the journey of maize through the agri-food system, specifically once it has been harvested in the fields and before it is sold to maize processing companies. The drying of the grains is a key activity for creating conditions for a good storage and further processing.

Dryer and silo infrastructure is very often found together in Spanish farmer cooperatives (which are at the heart of the Spanish maize production system). This means that, in order to dry it and store it, these cooperatives mix different types of maize produced in their surroundings. It is expensive to effectively separate GM, conventional and organic maize, so if there is some GM maize in the mix, the usual practice is that all maize is labelled as GM maize. In fact, we found that only a minority of farmer cooperatives in Aragon restrict the use of GM in their facilities and there are no specific dryers for organic maize either in Catalonia or Aragon.

Therefore these infrastructures exert a tremendous amount of power over both the possibilities for maize (e.g. for becoming an organic product for human consumption) and for the existence of different agri-food systems. Dryer and silos therefore act as a kind of gatekeeper in the journey of maize through the agri-food system.

Some organic maize farmers in Aragon have told us how the lack of existance of specific organic dryers is a huge problem for them, because it means they might have to invest more in finding an alternative, such as increasing transport costs to find a dryer in a different area that handles organic maize specifically; hiring a mobile dryer to come to them (which is more expensive), or try to dry the grain in the field (the viability of which is uncertain and subject to weather conditions).

Thus, it could be said that dryers and silos are political actants, as these infrastructures have a significant capacity for shaping both social and ecological realities in rural areas. They facilitate the existence (or lack of existance) of some forms of agri/culture over others, and can trigger explicit or latent conflicts among different agri/culture systems. For instance, one of the stories we were told was about a conflict between a farmer cooperative engaged in producing, drying and storing non-GM maize for human consumption and a local animal feed company. The former had been developing a strategy for convincing its members to not sow GM maize by ensuring them higher economic benefits. That meant that most of the local farmers were sowing non-GM maize for human consumption instead of GM maize for animal feed production. So the animal feed company tried to convince the farmers to return to GM maize by internalising and covering the drying costs, thus making it cheaper for farmers if they would grow GM maize.

Do you know of other rural stories in which infrastructure can be political?

‘The social and political life of seeds’ at the AIBR Conference

Last week, Amaranta and I attended the AIBR Conference in Barcelona. AIBR stands for the Network of Iberoamerican Anthropologists, an international organisation of Spanish, Latin American and Portuguese anthropologists.

pachamama

On Tuesday 6th of September was the opening session of the conference, with an excellent presentation by the Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar. He is one of the most important Latin American anthropologists, with extensive work on political ecology, social movements and post-development studies. His talk introduced aspects such as the ethnic-territorial struggles in Latin America being ontological struggles for building a world in which all worlds have a place or the resurgence of the “commons” as a transitional discourse.

queremos un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos

After the opening, we presented in a panel titled “The social and political life of seeds“, coordinated by Susana Carro Ripalda and Marta Barba Gassó. In our presentation “Una perspectiva sistémica en la evaluación los OGMs: El viaje de una semilla de maíz transgénica“, we introduced the value of the systemic perspective for assessing GMOs using the multi-sited ethnography approach that we are implementing in Spain. This is also what we explained in our paper: Seeing GMOs from a Systems perspective. During the talk we also had the opportunity to present the cartographies of GM, chemically-intensive, certified organic and agroecological cartographies that we have recently developed using this approach.

During our session, other very interesting talks were presented, on topics like the cultural aspects of GM vs indigenous maize in Mexico, the story of how a tomato variety became a “traditional” seed in the Basque Country from a gender perspective, and the socio-cultural value of seed conservation in two study cases in Spain. All presentations shared the vision of seeds as entities that shape and are shaped, beyond their biological substrate, by the interests, values and visions that emerge in the contexts where they are developed and used. At the same time, seeds influence the discourses, practices, knowledges and skills of the other agents with whom they interact. The session was in fact very rich despite the fact that, as very often happens in academic conferences, there was too little time to discuss and share.

After the session ended, we discussed potential collaborations on this topic, which would give us the possibility to keep exploring these visions about seeds in the future.

Systems perspective on GMOs at the EASST Conference

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Last week we attended the European Association of the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) Conference in Barcelona. It was an enormous conference (around 2000 participants) which was exciting but it also made it challenging to stay on top of everything that was going on. Conferences such as this one are useful platforms for networking with people who are working on similar issues in order to build and strengthen academic communities.

The interdisciplinary nature of our project makes us somehow academically promiscuous in the way that we do not belong to a single academic community of reference, but rather we transit and have conversations with people from a multiplicity of academic worlds that speak to different dimensions of the project. EASST is one of these communities we transit, as it contains part of the academic community who does Science and Technology Studies (STS). For us this is a very interesting academic community to be in contact with since GM crops have a major technoscientific component.  The project hugely benefits from dialogues and reflections related to the roles technoscience plays within the GMO socio-political controversies.

We participated in a track called “Governance of agricultural biotechnologies”, facilitated by Andrew Stirling and with other very knowledgeable speakers such as Robert Smith, Georgina Catacora-Vargas, Anne Ingeborg Myhr and Brian Wynne. Our presentation was about how a system perspective can be useful when assessing and regulating GMOs. This presentation stemmed from one of our papers:

Seeing GMOs from a Systems Perspective: The Need for Comparative Cartographies of Agri/Cultures for Sustainability Assessment.

For this presentation we focused on the cartographies that we have been producing over recent months, which illustrate interesting differences between GM, chemically intensive, certified organic and agroecological systems.

The audience seemed to really enjoy the presentation and one participant said she felt that we were developing – a very much needed – ‘applied STS’. 🙂

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Unlikely’ protagonists: a multispecies approach.

European Corn Borer

Multispecies ethnography has become a popular area of research in recent work concerned with nature/culture relationships and moving beyond anthropocentric perspectives. As Kirskey and Helmrich (2010) explain “multispecies ethnography centers on how a multitude of organisms’ livelihoods shape and are shaped by political, economic, and cultural forces”. Furthermore, how now “creatures previously appearing on the margins of anthropology—as part of the landscape, as food for humans, as symbols—have been pressed into the foreground. Animals, plants, fungi, and microbes once confined in anthropological accounts to the realm of zoe or “bare life”—that which is killable—have started to appear alongside humans in the realm of bios, with legibly biographical and political lives”.

Multi-species researchers are interested in working beyond previously defined sets of ideas within anthropocentric discourses in which humans are conceived as occupying a higher position to ‘other’ life forms. This effort has opened up a space for an enlivened body of work that moves between human and other lives that matter. Van Dooren and Bird Rose put forward the concept of “lively ethnographies”, which they describe as “a mode of storytelling that recognises the meaningful lives of others”, in which they mean ‘other’ than human. An interest in species beyond our own, and a curiosity about our entangled engagement with them, offers a different set of stories that can open up a new set of possibilities for thinking about the present and future of life on earth.

In Anna Tsing’s (2012) famous multi-species work, she explores the lives of fungi and through this reflects on the phenomena of domestication of species and our tendencies to try and create mono-crops and farmed spaces that are disconnected from ‘nature’ (seen as set apart from the human realm). She states that “Domestication is ordinarily understood as human control over other species” however humans are also affected by these same species and their behaviors and tendencies and this is usually ignored. The idea that one is either in the realm of the human or of nature she explains “supports the most outrageous fantasies of domestic control” whereby on the one hand we find ourselves subjecting other species to life imprisonment and on the other we preserve wild species in gene banks “while their multi-species landscapes are destroyed”. Further, she argues that we need to explore how despite our efforts and habits towards compartmentalizing ourselves there are complex relations of interdependency at play and attention to this can perhaps “be the beginning of an appreciation of interspecies species being.” .

James McCann in his book Maize and Grace (1999) explores relationships between people and maize in Southern Africa between 1500 and 2000. Before McCann’s work, much of the story of how maize came to be such a pervasive crop was left unwritten. In order to write this (without a lot of written records) McCann explores the history expressed by maize “through its genetic make up, its varieties, its agronomic imperatives, its qualities as food, and its own peculiar symbiosis with its human hosts and the land they inhabit”. In this way, the maize species becomes the protagonist in the book. McCann explores maize as a species with particular character and ability to relate to humans as well as a crop that lent itself to mono-crop agriculture (linked to concentrated state and corporate power) and that these characteristics were important for it becoming such a successful crop in South Africa. This provides an insightful and creative approach to thinking beyond the human while at the same time offering insights about human-maize connections that would not have unfolded without this vantage point. This book is a foundational resource for the work I am hoping to undertake over the next few years looking at small-scale maize systems in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Recently I have been working on the idea of incorporating a multi-species approach into this work.

Beyond maize as a protagonist species though, I would like to explore a diversity of multi-species nature/culture relationships within maize agri/culture. By paying close attention to a range of protagonist species I hope to unfold new narratives concerning nature/culture interactions, how these shape and are shaped by agricultural systems and how the replacement of seeds with new seed technologies may disrupt or alter the complex interrelationships at play.

As I am at the very beginning, I have just started to map some of the species that are likely to play a part in the story, however, I also look forward to exploring this in the field and meeting some unlikely protagonists there.

One emerging protagonist is the corn borer Ostrinia nubilalis. This species has definitively shaped the history of GM maize and been the catalyst or ‘poster’ bug driving the development of GM Bt Maize. I am curious to explore the prevalence of this insect, the human relationships with it, the traditional ‘control’ methods in KwaZulu Natal where small-scale farmers are being encouraged to adopt Bt crops. Do the ways of the South African relative of the corn borer Busseola fusca (often termed the stem borer in South Africa) warrant the use of GM Bt maize varieties on small-scale farms? What other non target insects native to these regions play a role or may be threatened and what are the human connections and knowledges of and with these species?

 

Citrus Swallowtail Papilio demodocus – Butterfly species common to Southern Africa and found in Kwazulu Natal: Photo Source

As I start to map the multi-species that play a part in the story of maize as it moves through the supply chain, the list keeps growing, from Bacillus thuringiensis – the bacteria that lends its genes to scientists to insert into the DNA of Bt Maize, to molds that grow on maize cobs, to mice and weevils who threaten stored maize, to the pigs who produce good manure to boost the soil fertility on traditional fields to the cows who are fed on GM maize. I am excited to begin developing and applying this multi-species approach to my work to map maize agri/cultures and highlighting the stories that connect us together.

a pair of pigs i came accross in the Eastern Cape South Africa on a traditional maize farm

The noses of pair of pigs I came across in the Eastern Cape South Africa on a traditional maize farm

 

 

Can a kernel of corn be a compelling character?

 

In the last post, Amaranta discussed the challenge of balancing the needs of performing research and preparing for its communication as an i-doc. There she talked about how a documentary typically needs compelling characters.

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When this research project was first proposed, the idea was that a kernel of corn was to be the central character. The plan being to follow the journey of a kernel of corn and map the networks of relations we found across the three different agri/cultures of organic, conventional and GM production (check out our previous post on the challenges we are facing maintaining this categorisation). In the original proposal, it was important that our cartography of these relations documented not just the human actors shaping the different production systems, but also the non-human ‘actants’ involved.

The idea of an actant comes from Actor-Network Theory, developed by Bruno Latour, John Law and others. It captures the idea that non-human entities such as technological devices, also have agency and power to influence and shape social systems (or socio-technical systems as they were relabelled). This means, for example, that technologies such as sowing, harvesting and milling machines need to be recognised for the role they play in structuring the relational networks of different agri/cultures. Furthermore, entities like insects, bacteria and fungi also need to be acknowledged as significantly shaping the practices and processes that take place in these systems (socio-techno-ecological systems?).

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This desire to recognise and map the role of non-human actants in agri/cultures, combined with the idea of having a kernel of corn as the central character of our narrative, raises the question of how compelling non-human agents can be. Can we attract an audience and create an emotional connection to such actants without anthropomorphising them?

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We find it incredibly useful when explaining our project to talk about how we are following the journey of a kernel of corn through different cultures of agriculture and mapping the various places, people and processes we encounter. But we have to admit that we are struggling somewhat to capture the concept of the actant in our elevator pitch of the project. We are also finding it challenging to explore human discourse and consistently remain sufficiently attentive to actants in our mapping task. It is also not clear for us whether kernels of corn can be compelling enough characters to carry our story as an i-doc.

Can stories about the socio-ecological relations of agri/cultural systems create engaging characters from non-human entities?

How can an analysis of human discourse be woven into a story about the varied journeys of a kernel of corn?