We published a new paper!

Socio-economic research on genetically modified crops: a study of the literature“, this is the title of our new paper published in Agriculture and Human Values and co-authored by Georgina Catacora-Vargas, Anne Ingeborg Myhr, Brian Wynne and me.

This has been a long-lasting research, based on an extensive literature review (410 papers were analysed) on socio-economic impacts of GMOs.

Abstract: The importance of socio-economic impacts (SEI) from the introduction and use of genetically modified (GM) crops is reflected in increasing efforts to include them in regulatory frameworks. Aiming to identify and understand the present knowledge on SEI of GM crops, we here report the findings from an extensive study of the published international scientific peer-reviewed literature. After applying specified selection criteria, a total of 410 articles are analysed. The main findings include: (i) limited empirical research on SEI of GM crops in the scientific literature; (ii) the main focus of the majority of the published research is on a restricted set of monetary economic parameters; (iii) proportionally, there are very few empirical studies on social and non-monetary economic aspects; (iv) most of the research reports only short-term findings; (v) the variable local contexts and conditions are generally ignored in research methodology and analysis; (vi) conventional agriculture is the commonly used comparator, with minimal consideration of other substantially different agricultural systems; and (vii) there is the overall tendency to frame the research upon not validated theoretical assumptions, and to over-extrapolate small-scale and short-term specific results to generalized conclusions. These findings point to a lack of empirical and comprehensive research on SEI of GM crops for possible use in decision-making. Broader questions and improved methodologies, assisted by more rigorous peer-review, will be required to overcome current research shortcomings.

You can cite the paper as follows: Catacora-Vargas, G., Binimelis, R., Myhr, A.I. et al. Agric Hum Values (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-017-9842-4

GM in Spain (infographic)

Last week we collectively worked on creating an infographic that captured in a single image the main issues around GM Maize in Spain. Of course, as any infographic, it just highlights some of the relevant dimensions of the controversy of GM crops in Spain. But we think it can help to understand what is going on in the European country with higher number of cultivated area of GM crops. Actually, it is both a simplified, visual and updated version of what we tell in the section “Spain, a telltale case of the impossibility of coexistence” of our paper Just Existing is Resisting: The Everyday Struggle against the expansion of GM Crops in Spain.

It is also an infographic to be used in the interactive website we are preparing in which we are condensing much of the knowledge we have acquired through all these years of agri/cultures research.

Below you can see the result. Please, share it widely!

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.

 

Impressions from our Stakeholders Seminar

As part of our project, during the 31st January and 1st February 2017 we held a stakeholders seminar in Tromsø, Norway on the topic: ‘Social and ‘Ethical Assessment in the Regulation of GMOs: Should we care?’

This two-day seminar aimed to explore the potential of a care ethics approach for social and ethical assessment in the regulation of GMOs. The objectives of the seminar were to a) better understand societal concerns and advance a systems approach for regulating GMOs, b) explore the extent to which a care ethics approach may provide useful guidance for operationalising the Norwegian Gene Technology Act and its requirement to assess sustainability, benefits to society and ethical justifiability, and c) to produce a short biosafety brief on the topic. Invited participants had a diverse range of profiles and interests in the issue, including farmers, processors, Norwegian regulators, consumer and environmental organisations, certification bodies and academic researchers.

After some introductory exercises that helped creating a friendly atmosphere, the first day focused on the presentation of perspectives and experiences from stakeholders in Spain, South Africa and Norway. We tried to innovate with the format, incorporating a very stimulating exercise after these presentations called “Collective Story Harvest“. Some of the academic researchers who were not asked to make any presentation were given instructions prior to the beginning of the seminar. Their role was to listen to the stakeholders experiential stories from the point of view of a specific theme we gave them. We chose 5 themes that are relevant for a care ethics framework: power, vulnerability, dependence, emotion and narrative. After listening to all the presentations, these participants shared with the rest of the group their lens analysis. They contributed to understand how these 5 concepts were enacted throughout the stories.

We learnt that power, vulnerability and dependencies were embedded in the structural aspects of the agri-food systems regarding, for example, the risk of GM contamination, the existence or inexistence of the necessary logistical facilities and even the way governance facilitates access to information. The latter aspect was actually key in many of the talks. Information and power are two sides of the same coin and lack of information availability regarding where GM crops are determines vulnerability and dependency. While paying attention to who is vulnerable, a participant noted those who take an alternative view to industrialised agriculture are definitely key victims, but also traditional crops and biodiversity. This is to say that not just people (such as farmers or citizens) are vulnerable  to the kind of choices that are being made through these power structures, but also ecosystems. She also noted the contextual nature of vulnerability, as South Africa and Spain (where GM crops are part of the rural realities) were clearly more vulnerable contexts than Norway.

Additionally, we also learnt about what role emotions can play in scientific analysis. Although the tendency is to think that emotion is the polar opposite of science, it is important to break these conventional boundaries and recognise that science is actually riddled with emotions. This recognition does not mean that we disregard science. It means that it is important to recognise that emotions are part of the realities studied by science and play a role in the stories. In fact, emotions were everywhere that day, channelled through words, images and non-verbal communication. For example, anger due to injustice came up in many different ways although was rarely directly expressed. One of the moments it was most present was during the description of the great difficulties organic farmers face to avoid GM contamination. Contrastingly, in a Norwegian presentation there was a picture of a consumer representative wearing a T-shirt with the following moto: “We Love the Norwegian Gene Technology Act”, representing how proud (and happy) certain Norwegians are about their current biotechnology legislation.

After this insightful exercise, we also had an intervention from policy making participants who also gave their thoughts on what the stakeholder participant experiences meant from a policy perspective. These participants highlighted how useful was for them to learn from experiences in countries that actually grow GMOs.

The second day focused on exploring the potential relevance of a care ethics approach for capturing the experiences and relevant issues we heard during the first day and incorporating these into regulatory assessment. We talked for hours and are currently preparing a policy brief on the topic that will be made public in some weeks.

As well as the good intellectual work, the workshop was also fun for networking and connecting with people. After the first day of work, we tried to chase the whales and the Northern Lights in an electric boat. Unfortunately, we did not succeed in this last mission but everyone enjoyed our time together and learnt a lot.

 

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.

‘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.

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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.

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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’. 🙂

Drought, Seeds & Resilience in Pongola

Two weeks ago I was invited by Biowatch to attend a seed ceremony that was taking place in Pongola. The annual seed ceremony is an opportunity for farmers who are working with Biowatch throughout the region to come together to share experiences and bless their seed before the beginning of the planting season, which starts with the first rains. Biowatch had invited guests who are experts in seed from a number of countries in Africa and who are part of the Seed and Knowledge Initiative to share their knowledge and learn from the projects in Pongola.  Dr Regassa Feyissa traveled from Ethiopia where he has worked for decades towards the conservation of genetic resources through his work as the conservation manager at the Plant Genetic Resources Center/Ethiopia (PGRC/E), as a Director of the Center to the Institute of Biodiversity and the Executive Director of Ethio-Organic Seed Action (EOSA).  Charles Nkhoma came from Zambia where he is the Director of the Community Technology Development Trust. Kudzai Kusena came from Zimbabwe where he is the Genetic Resources Manager at the National Genebank of Zimbabwe. Kuzdai is also doing his PhD on farmer seed systems in Zimbabwe through UCT and is affiliated with the Bio-economy Research Chair.

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Dry river bed in the sugar growing region of Swaziland, with sugar cane fields behind

To get to Pongola I traveled via Swaziland and so drove through the Lowveld region to get to Northern KwaZulu-Natal and Pongola, which is situated only 30 km from the border of Swaziland. This low lying area is prone to dry conditions. However after 2 years of drought, it is drier than usual this year. South Africa has over the past two years received the lowest rainfall ever recorded since recording began in 1902. In many areas there is no ground cover left at all and livestock are left to search for any vegetation, which is often a little more plentiful on the road verges. Driving through Big Bend I passed many sugar growing areas. In contrast to the dry indigenous bush and empty small-scale farms, the sugar fields are green from irrigation. This stark contrast raises many questions about this industry. In a sense, the sugar industry appears to be like a machine that keeps churning despite its ill fit with so much that surrounds it. Each year workers strike against low pay, the drought burns on and 100 000’s of liters of water are pumped into the growing of this commodity crop that has no nutritive qualities and is responsible for so much damage to human health. However, while it is not immediately apparent, the sugar industry is also suffering from the drought, these fields are showing signs and are less green than usual. During the time in Pongola, we spoke a lot about drought as potentially being a watershed period of change. Perhaps the reality of changing climatic conditions could be the beginning of change for the sugar industry.

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Sugar cane fields in Big Bend

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Lowveld region of Swaziland ( near Pongola)

We spent two days in Pongola and on the first day we visited some of the farmers  that we had visited earlier in the year on the GenØk visit. We visited some of the farmers home vegetable gardens and then attended a workshop coordinated by Lawrence Mkhaliphi and Mpho Ncube from Biowatch . On the second day, the farmers held a seed ceremony at a small Church. During the workshop, farmers spoke about the successes and challenges from the previous year, comparing and sharing experiences and knowledge and setting out their vision and goals for the way forward. The discussion highlighted the challenges of drought that farmers have been facing for the past two years, but surprisingly, farmers did not dwell on this. Farmers spoke of their plans for ‘when it rains’ and while many spoke of the challenges, none were ready to give up on their farming and looked forward to being able to expand and grow more seed. When we visited the farmers gardens it was amazing to see how despite the severe drought they had managed to keep their home gardens producing food using agro-ecological methods such as mulch and swales to keep the small amount of moisture available in the soil.

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A farmer’s field doing extremely well despite the drought conditions. The fence is lined with straw bunched together in a beautiful pattern. This not only looks good but keeps out the drying wind and keeps goats from seeing the vegetables and breaking into the garden

A key topic of the workshop was to speak about and envision ways forward that involved seed multiplication and the development of a thriving local seed network. While the Biowatch farmers now all have seed plots on their farms that are dedicated to the growing of seed, they want to start producing larger quantities of seed that can be shared within the network and eventually sold as open pollinated varieties. Many of the farmers expressed that they would like to be able to have enough seed to share with other farmers and spoke of how this would improve the seed they would be able to produce and help ensure seed sovereignty in the future. In the workshop and over the two days, the link between boosting the resilience of farming systems and the sharing of seed was discussed many times. Farmers brought up how they felt strongly about the importance of sharing seed (which had occurred more in the past but has been lost in many areas due to a large extent to commercial bought seed replacing heritage varieties) and how this would ensure the abundance of seed for the future as well as a variety of seed suited to different conditions. Over the two days, I learned a great deal from the farmers and other members of the group about the evolution of seed diversity and just how intricate a process the development of farmer seed varieties is. I learned more about how the growth and development of varieties happens over time in relation to a complex network of factors including the soils, the availability of water, the aspect of the land, the preferences and cultural interests of farmers, and the relationships with and between other living organisms. In this web of relationships, diversity is created and seeds that have specific qualities are born.

At the closing of the workshop the guests shared some of their experiences of being involved with projects that aimed to bolster small-scale farming through agro-ecology and to multiply local seed and build local seed systems. Dr Regassa Feyissa spoke of his lifetime work in Ethiopia building a thriving national farming system built on principles of agro-ecology and seed sovereignty.  In relation to the challenges farmers are facing in South Africa, he spoke about how it was in fact the terrible drought during the mid 1980s in Ethiopia that spurred their work to go about finding ways to preserve national heritage seed. He spoke about the challenges of drought but also the fact that drought is a time of change and thus new opportunities can come from it. He spoke of how in some ways it was the drought that shifted the direction of National agri/culture in Ethiopia. Drought conditions create a break from the usual routines and a time to consider and try out what seed may help in building a more resilient future in the face of climate uncertainty. The topic of resilience surfaced many times over the two days. Kuzdai Kusena’s thesis is interested in the resilience of small-scale farmer seed systems and the complex sets of relationships, knowledge and conditions that could contribute to bolstering seed security and seed systems. Charles Nkhoma shared how in Zambia during the ‘hungry season’ (a time when there is little left in storage and new crops have yet to produce a yield) there is s small-cobbed variety of maize that forms a vital food for some farmers. This maize cob matures early due to its small size and can therefore be eaten fresh before other varieties are harvested. Its value therefore lies in the small size of the cob, which counteracts dominant industrial ideals of producing maize with large cobs to boost yield. This story provides insight into the the way that farming knowledge and seed are so delicately woven into culture and context and just what kinds of relationships are at stake when seed is lost and replaced by new varieties that don’t consider these complexities.

These two days in Pongola provided a huge amount of learning for me and it was a great privilege to be able to spend time with so many people actively involved in the regeneration of seed, from the farmers who are doing such amazing work in Pongola to Biowatch and their visitors from other parts of Africa.

Attending the World Congress of Rural Sociology: Connections and Complexities of Sustainable and Just Rural Transitions

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This week we are arriving in Toronto to participate in the XIV World Congress of Rural Sociology. During August 10-14, this inclusive forum will host many international scholars, practitioners and government representatives working across a variety of fields and disciplines.

This international interdisciplinary conference contains a compendium of very interesting agri-food systems related sessions: from new ruralities to agricultural migrant labour; from agri-food movements and resistance to GMOs to water governance; from gender and family analysis of rural contexts to extractive industries in rural communities.

Interestingly, this World Congress will explore empirical, policy-oriented, and theoretical questions related to the complexities and interconnections of the different rural social phenomena existing in unique contexts, which are also globally interdependent. Special attention will be given to understand both the current challenges now experienced by rural people and places, and also the different solutions that are put forward in order to advance towards more sustainable and just rural societies.

We’ll be presenting a paper we have been working on based on our field work in Spain about the everyday forms of resistance to GM expansion in contexts of simultaneous cultivation of GM and non-GM crops.

Follow our tweets from the conference @agri_cultures!

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!