The National Agricultural Research Forum -reflections on the future of agricultural research in South Africa

Last week i attended the National Agricultural Research Forum (NARF) annual meeting in Pretoria.  This is an annual governmental meeting open to all food stakeholders that aims to set research priorities for the year and ahead and work towards an integrated future of agri/cultural research in South Africa. Given the project’s interest in the changes that agricultural research and knowledge has undergone over the decades this meeting was an opportunity to understand better government’s interface with agricultural research and various stakeholders in the Research and Development (R&D) system in South Africa. It was also an opportunity to explore how agriculture and the agricultural research that supports it is being imagined for the future in South Africa and what kinds of knowledge are being prioritised. Over the last months in the field i have been interested in how ecological knowledge in agriculture is changing and exploring the theme of agri/cultural deskilling linked to the introduction of new seed technologies developed often out of context of where they are used and with little or no dialogue with farmers. I have been exploring this in the context of small scale maize agri/cultures as well as in the R&D system in South Africa. I have also been interested in the connections and disconnections  between science , research, innovation and small-scale farmers. The meeting allowed a space to explore how farming knowledge, especially that of small scale farmers was being prioritised or not on a national level.

The meeting started off with a keynote address by the Director General for the Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries Mr.M Mlengana. He made reference to the Vision 2030 National Development Strategy as being the base document for the agricultural vision of South Africa in the context of the wider goals of the country as well as the Sustainable Development Goals which guide this. The 2017/18 National Agricultural Development Strategic Plan provides a roadmap to implementing this vision. The 2008 National Research and Development Strategy provides the baseline for setting the priorities in research to support this. At the meeting there was a launch of an APEX Body which will fulfill the role of coordinating agricultural research going forward as well as build capacity and partnerships in this area. Previously this was managed by the National Agricultural Research Forum NARF which was developed in 2002 to “facilitate consensus and integrate coordination in the fields of research, development, and technology transfer to agriculture in order to enhance national economic growth, social welfare and environmental sustainability”.  In his talk the DG stressed the importance of “building an inclusive rural economy”, focusing on “research and innovation” and agriculture contributing to rural growth. He stressed the importance of science for agriculture in a changing global climate and the need for research that will “unpack uncertainties” that we will be faced with. While smallholder farmers are widely acknowledged and mentioned throughout the The 2017/18 National Agricultural Development Strategic Plan they feature less in the The 2008 National Research and Development Strategy.

Globally there is an increasing recognition that small scale farmers are vital actors in the current production and future of food production. In South Africa there appears to strong drive in Policy and related developmental programmes to bring small-scale farmers into monocrop based agricultures while fewer opportunities for small-scale farmers to boost their farming systems in a way that focuses on diversity and alternative agri/cultural models which incorporate the knowledge and skills of farmers. This seemed to be reflected at the meeting which focused a lot on scientific research and technology development for agricultural growth and poverty reduction without much mention of other knowledge holders being key collaborators for future goals. There also appears to be a focus on science and technology as the primary answer to agricultural challenges in the future, while there not a wide exploration of how these technologies may deeply impact systems of agri/culture.

Historically farmers have been the primary keepers and innovators of agricultural knowledge. This knowledge was gained from experience and skills passed down over generations through families and apprenticeships and based on a knowledge imbedded in particular landscapes and ecologies. However from the early 1900s this began to change and scientists began to assume authority over agricultural knowledge. This went hand in hand with an increasing drive to turn agricultural produce into commodities and raw materials. And in the hands of scientists and researchers – through hybridization, seeds would also become valuable commodities.  Scientists who initially relied on farmer knowledge such as in choosing which varieties to focus on in the development of hybrid maize came to dominate the research and development of seed. Agricultural research on maize seed has expanded and shifted over time in relation to political and economic imperatives. During this process the knowledge of small scale farmers has been increasingly sidelined and undervalued and small scale farmers have become increasingly recipients of knowledge and technologies. In her 1993 paper ‘Deskilled: Hybrid Corn and Farmers’ Work’ Deborah Fitzgerald argues that “hybrid corn was an agent by which farmers were effectively deskilled” in the United States. The project here in South Africa has been tracing the introduction of new seed technologies and exploring how social-ecological knowledge in relation to maize agri/cultures may being lost or changed because of the introduction of seed technologies (Hybrid first and then Genetically Modified varieties).  Small-scale farmers are holders of agricultural diversity in the way of seed that has been passed down generationally, and attached to this seed is a wealth of knowledge around growing it in relation to ecological systems. However, this is not always recognised and in many cases is threatened by harmonisation of seed laws, introduction of new varieties such as GM seed and hierarchical knowledge systems and development schemes which promote small scale farmers abandoning traditional varieties and taking up new seed varieties to be grown as monocrops.

I will in the next weeks spend more time exploring the Policy environment and how R&D is envisioned in this in relation to small-scale farming and how this related to current focus of agricultural research. While i have begun to interview a number of government officials and researchers on how small-scale farming is connected to the wider R&D system i would like to interview more stakeholders on how they envision smallholder framer knowledge being incorporated into research and development for the future of food.

 

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

IMG_20160504_202016

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


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

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

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

IMG_0602

Juanjo Mallén, farmer from the cooperative Joaquin Costa

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

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

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