In context trajectories: participation in an international symposium in Paris

Last Thursday (6th October) I participated in an international symposium titled “Studying the social, ethical and economic impacts of GMPs. Implementation of the EU Directive 2015/412” which was organised by the Haut Conseil des Biotechnologies of France. I introduced our proposal to use four different cartographies that represent the different journeys of a kernel of maize in GM, chemically-intensive, certified organic and agroecological agri-food systems in Spain, as a systems-based approach to assessing socio-economic and ethical aspects related to GMOs.

Screenshot from 2016-10-10 12-14-24The symposium was divided in two parts: the morning was devoted to the analysis of the implication of the Directive 2015/412, that allows EU Member States to restrict or prohibit cultivation of GMOs in their territory (or parts of it) on grounds that were not previously admissible. This includes grounds relating to public policy, socio-economic impacts or the impossibility of achieving “coexistence”. This session included presentations on different national approaches (France, Germany and the Netherlands) as well as a presentation on the position of the European Commission and a former representative of the World Trade Organization. Practical difficulties for applying the Directive were discussed. It was a very interesting debate, and it was really illuminating to see how the different countries related the Directive to their own contexts in practical terms. It was concluded that despite difficulties, the Directive opens the possibility to debate concerns on GMOs on another level and complements traditional risk assessment focused on health and the environment with other tools and approaches.disyuntivaThe second part of the symposium was devoted to presenting different socio-economic analysis methods. First, the recommendation issued by the HCB to the French Government was presented. It is a very valuable document worth taking the time to read. Firstly it was explained that this methodology should be seen as an analytical method (rather than an assessment methodology), thus it aims to create the opportunity to reflect on the socio-economic process in order to work towards a decision, instead of placing the focus only on the final product. Secondly, it adopts the “in-context trajectory” perspective: this is to say that impacts will be analysed in comparison to impacts of other possible solutions for a given problem (this requires a transparent problem formulation) in a specific context. Social and political values that are implicitly and explicitly embedded in a given technology’s trajectory should be made transparent. Thirdly, it is important to account for the existing uncertainties related to GMOs, and thus avoid the “quantification myth” that creates false security by  only using quantitative indicators. Finally, it is also important to keep in mind that the socio-economic and ethical analysis is complementary to environmental and health risk assessment.

In addition to the HCB presenattion and our presentation on using comparative cartographies for sustainability assessment of GMOs (based on our paper published in Sustainability), Sylvain Aubry presented a recent study conducted by the Office Fédéral de l’Agriculture of Switzerland. The study analyses GM crops in Switzerland from the point of view of sustainability using a multi-criteria model. It was interesting to see different perspectives on methodologies on the table, and to discuss and compare their applicability and approaches. It was also rewarding to hear that more proposals are trying to adopt systems-based approaches that could take into account the full agri-food system and allow for comparison of different cultures of agriculture in order to foster the discussion on the different possible futures of agriculture.

The symposium ended with a round table which included members of the HCB and stakeholders outside this body. The discussion focused on advantages and limitations of ex-ante socio-economic analysis and the role of stakeholders. This stimulated a dynamic debate in which members of the public also participated.

Systems perspective on GMOs at the EASST Conference


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’. 🙂

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!

We published a paper!


We are thrilled to announce you that we published the first paper of this project! Woohoo!

Its title is Seeing GMOs from a Systems Perspective: The Need for Comparative Cartographies of Agri/Cultures for Sustainability Assessment. It is open sourced and it explores the methodological tools and challenges we foresee when studying GMOs as systems and it also outlines a new approach to map agri-food networks.

You can access the paper here:

And here you can read a short summary:

In this paper, we aim to make a unique theoretical and methodological contribution by advancing a systems-based approach to conceptualising and assessing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The paper takes as a starting point that agricultural biotechnologies cannot be usefully assessed as isolated technological entities but need to be evaluated within the context of the broader socio-ecological system that they embody and engender. The paper then explores, compares and contrasts some of the methodological tools available for advancing this systems-based perspective. The article concludes by outlining a new synthesis approach of comparative cartographies of agri/cultures generated through multi-sited ethnographic case-studies, which is proposed as a way to generate system maps and enable the comparison of genetically modified (GM) food with both conventional and alternative agri-food networks for sustainability assessment.

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.

19360222819_610596199f_z seeds 19550982631_37b74e581c_z

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?).

18925112143_a68f5828ca_z Corn_borer 15773386595_60d826342b_z rotting corn

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?


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?