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!

Bridging science and society with movie animations

One of the aims of The Agri/Cultures Project is to develop new ways to communicate scientific results and during the last 10 days I have been working with an artist to create a stop motion animation that narrates some insights from our latest paper (still to be published). This paper is focused on the everyday – mostly practical – forms of resistance to GM crops in contexts where there is unregulated coexistence, such as Spain.

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As part of a social group whose job specifically aims at producing collective knowledge, scientists have a duty to share our research results and discussions with the rest of society, especially in the case of publicly funded science. But, unfortunately, very often scientific production remains trapped in a self-reproductive bubble primarily only accessible to a small elite.

In order to explore new ways to bridge the gaps between science and (the rest of) society and broaden the spectrum of audiences that might be interested in our research, we are producing a couple of short movies to help explain some aspects of our research. In fact, visualisation of concepts, experiences, practices, processes, and situations has been proven to be a great tool for enhancing learning processes generally and scientific knowledge specifically.

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In our case, we thought that an animation could tell the story of the ordinary struggle of the actors within the non-GM agri-food systems to avoid GM contamination and fight the expansion of GMOs. We involved an artist in the process because artists are experts in the field of visual communication and can offer valuable resources to say things differently. Of course, a 3 minute video is not a 15 page text and there is certainly a notable degree of simplification required which represents a constant challenge in terms of balancing form and content. That is to say that watching our short movie will not be equal to reading the full paper. It is just a different format that helps us introduce some of the main ideas to different audiences (e.g people who normally would not spend their time reading scientific journals). As we will link the animation with the paper (which we hope to publish as open access), we expect it to be a double directional channel and a way to introduce non-scientists to scientific knowledge production.

Actually, although our short animation movie may not primarily be for scientists-as-audience, they might also find it interesting for other purposes. For instance, it can be an introductory tool to present the topic to students, journalists, NGOs, or even politicians and a way to create a context for generating fruitful discussions.

We’ll keep you updated about the forthcoming paper and about its short-animation movie release!

Confusing statistics regarding GM maize in Spain

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I am currently trying to compile statistics on GM, conventional and organic maize in Spain. Article 31 of Directive 2001/18/EC establishes that Member States shall establish registers for recording the location of GMOs, and make them  known to the public. This means compiling statistics on the situation should be a quite straightforward task. As a person involved in the GM debate in Spain for long time though, I know it is not.

As information to the public, the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture publishes yearly statistics on the surface area cultivated with GM maize (the only authorised GM crop in Europe) on the level of Autonomous Communities. This information is very far from being a useful public register, for example in terms of being the appropriate scale of information to prevent contamination. This data is also produced according to what the biotechnology companies declare as being sold (in units of 50.000 seeds) and this quantity is multiplied by 1,7, which is considered the “normal” sowing dose per hectare. In contrast, the regional Agriculture departments publish data based on what variety the farmers state they grow when applying for the CAP subsidies. Differences in the figures presented by these two levels of the agriculture authorities are as high as 66%, as reported by a coalition of NGOs and farmers unions linked to agriculture and environment in Spain.

Different hypotheses for the discrepancies could be posed: a) Either farmers do not declare the variety they will grow (deliberatively or because they do not know or they have not decided when applying for the subsidies), or b) The biotech companies are exaggerating the numbers so it looks like adoption rates in Spain are much higher than the actual figures. Both (and other possibilities) could also be happening at the same time.

In the graph below you can see the number of hectares of GM maize in Catalonia depending on the data source, and the difference (%) between the two data sets for each year. A similar situation can be found for Aragón.

Surface of GM maize in Catalonia depending on data source (1998-2015)

Funnily enough, it is also not easy to get statistics on organic maize in Spain. This is because up until 3 years ago,  the official agricultural statistics did not differentiate the surface area cultivated with maize on its own, simply registering it under the umbrella category of “grains”.

Struggling with how to get an accurate picture of how much GM vs organic maize cultivation is taking place and how this has changed over time leaves me also questioning how it might be possible based on these poor registers to assess in a reliable way what is happening and how coexistence is playing out in Spain.

The Agri/Cultures Team meeting in South Africa – A reflection on a week in the field in KwaZulu Natal

The Agri/Cultures Team meeting in South Africa – A reflection on a week in the field in Kwa-Zulu Natal

red maize growing in a 'seed garden' on one of the permaculture farms

red maize growing in a ‘seed garden’ on one of the agro-ecological farms

In mid April we had our first team meeting in South Africa. The visit was both a team meeting and a chance for Fern, Amaranta and Rosa to spend two weeks in South Africa getting to know some more about the South African context in relation to maize agriculture. We spent the first week in KwaZulu- Natal where we visited a number of farms and the second week in Cape Town where we had project meetings as well as were involved in some seminars at the University of Cape Town.

The aim of the first week was to visit some of the sites that I will be working in for my PhD. While the broader project in Spain and in South Africa looks at the wider maize agriculture system, for this trip we focused only on visiting small-scale farms which are a big part of the focus for my PhD project (the other key area I will be focusing on will be the Research and Development stage, which I will expand on in my next post).

A key factor to take into consideration during the trip was the current drought that farmers in KwaZulu-Natal are facing. Many farmers in the province were unable to grow a maize crop this year as a result of late and minimal rainfall. We were able to find some maize growing but most farmers had not planted and those who had had small yields.

On the first day we accompanied one of the masters students from my department to her field area in Hlabisa where she had planned to report back her project fieldwork to the farmers that she had interviewed over the past two years who are involved in growing GM maize varieties on a small-scale. This took the form of a meeting in a community space that was accessible to farmers coming from a wide are in Hlabisa.

After the meeting one of the farmers at the meeting he welcomed us to his farm where he showed us the land where maize would usually be growing this time of year. There was no crop this year due to the drought. Instead of maize, the field was covered in a knee high mono-crop of weeds which the farmer pointed out to us. He explained how this was a new weed for which he had no name and that had only emerged over the past season. The weed appeared to be resistant to the herbicide he had been using along side the GM maize. He said that he would try and dig in into the soil if he could get his tractor working and failing that look for another kind of herbicide that may kill the weed. He said that the agricultural extension officer for the area had not been around recently and so he as yet had not been able to get assistance with this problem. This farmer told us that he had not been framing for a long time in the area and so it was possible that the weed is known by other farmers in the area. I would like to speak to more farmers about the emergence of new weeds or changes in the types and volumes of weeds that are now present. The following week During the Seminar at UCT, Rosa presented on ‘The emergence of Glyphosate resistant weeds in Argentina’ and I learned more about the complexities of weed resistance and the immense social and ecological affects they have had in Argentina. Rosa spoke about how due to the use of pesticides, there had been a reduction in experts in universities studying weeds and many farmers have lost touch with traditional methods of farming and thus knowledge useful in relation to dealing with weed problems. There has therefore been a break in the transmission of knowledge and capacity to find solutions. With the introduction of new technologies and the consequent layers of socio- ecological changes that ripple outwards, it is possible that farmers find themselves in place with little understanding or access to information that can help them to solve critical problems associated with new farming methods they are using. A sense of disconnection with vital information needed by farmers appeared to be a theme in the maize farms we visited that were growing GM or Hybrid seed. Later in Pongola farmers expressed their concern around the use of pesticides and the dangers associated with them. They asked for our thoughts on this, as they were unable to access such information themselves due to their remote geographical location and access to information.

On the second day we traveled to Pongola where we met with one of the members of Biowatch. He took us to visit some of the ago-ecological farmers that were affiliated with the organisation and who were growing traditional maize varieties along side many other vegetables and grains on small-scale farms. We met with 5 women from the project. First we spent some time introducing our project to the group and then learned about their farming histories and how they had come to be involved with Biowatch. We also learned about their recent activism against Monsanto and their work to mobilize the Department of Agriculture to recognize their needs as agro-ecological farmers. When we had finished talking we shared a delicious meal that one of the members of the group had prepared. Almost all of the ingredients had been grown on her land such as traditional savory melon mixed with maize meal, samp, morogo (wild spinach) and jugo beans. After this we visited some of the members gardens. Here farmers grown food for the home as well as some to sell. With the guidance of Biowatch farmers have also started growing ‘seed gardens’ and curating a central seed bank in one of the members homes. It was very inspiring to see the diversity of seeds that were being collected. The enthusiasm and knowledge that the farmers in the group had was very inspiring as well as to witness how farmers, supported by Biowatch were mobilizing to get support to grow their farms and get better access to resources and build more resilient farming systems. Reflecting on the farm we had encountered the previous day one was able to note a very different feeling that accompanied on one hand the empty (but for weeds) field where GM maize usually grew and the complexity and diversity of the field in which traditional maize grew on these farms.

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savory melon growing on one of the ago-ecological farms

On the last day in the field we accompanied an extension officer from the Pongola Department of Agriculture to farming area where small-scale farmers were growing a mixture of GM and Hybrid seed. I drove with the extension officer and along the way he showed me the areas where maize would normally, outside of the drought be planted. We met with group of women farmers at the home of one of the farmers. Here we sat under a tree and spoke for a long time about their farming histories and how they had come to be growing GM and Hybrid maize as well as about their experiences, successes and difficulties associated with this over the years. One of the farmers still grew her traditional maize but none the others still grew it. They spoke about how they no longer had the seed and would like to be able to get some. They had been growing GM maize since 2013 as well as hybrid seed. They had access to hybrid seed at no cost via the Department of Agriculture and some farmers who have the available income buy GM seed in addition to this. Once the maize is harvested farmers hire transport to take their produce to the mill in Pongola. But sometimes the price they are offered for it at the mill is too low and they bring it back and sell it within their community area. In 2013 a mill that was intended to specially target the needs of smallholder farmers was launched in Pongola. It had been my intention that we visit this mill in Pongola but I found out 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.

During our time in KwaZulu-Natal we saw a diversity of small-scale farming systems and learned a great deal from farmers about their experiences with growing different types of maize. It was also valuable experience to be there with the team from Norway and Spain and compare how the Spanish and European context differs and what factors and concerns may be shared between the different contexts.  I was also able to identify some areas to explore further in my next field visit. One of the areas I would really like to explore more is the use of a multi-species lens for gathering stories about agri/cultural relationships with insects and how this can open up narratives concerning socio-ecological change within farming systems. I would also like to explore in more detail the theme of visibility and invisibility in relation to genes, pesticides and other ‘un-seen’ elements that are experienced on farms and how this related to changing systems of knowledge and scientific vs experiential knowledge. I am interested in comparing the Research and development stage with the farm stages and we spoke about this in our team meeting as a way of focusing in detail on these parts of the maize agriculture system. This will form my next post!

 

 

Are GE and organic agriculture compatible?

Public consultation on the position of IFOAM – Organics International on genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms

‘Conventional’ agriculture is increasingly adopting techniques associated with both genetic engineering (GE) and also, selectively, with agroecological practices, in what has been called the “sustainable intensification” agenda. At the same time, it has also been suggested in some scientific arenas that organic agriculture would benefit from incorporating GMOs into its practices, despite the robust opposition the use of these organisms has traditionally received from the organic sector.

This debate strongly intersects with the current public consultation that IFOAM-Organics International (the worldwide umbrella organisation for the organic agriculture movement) has launched about its position on GE and GMOs. The consultation is open now to any individual or organization willing to participate. The objective of the consultation is to review the organisation’s original position (launched in 2002) in order to consider and include new developments in GE technology, as well as to adapt their position to a context involving a higher presence of GM crops and growing evidence of the impacts of GE. IFOAM has produced a new position draft, which is open for comment and proposed amendments.

In my opinion, the new draft represents a very substantial improvement on the previous document because it includes many new nuanced and comprehensive arguments for the rejection of GM crops within organic production, while it also widens the scope and the techniques included within a definition of GE (in line with the discussion on the regulation of new breeding techniques). Also, the connections between the IFOAM position on GMOs and its four principles for organic agriculture (the principles of health, fairness, ecology and care) are explicit and articulated. At the same time, the draft adopts a much needed food systems approach, discussing not only the impacts of GM crops for organic farmers and consumers, but also tackling R&D aspects (e.g. discussing responsible innovation and patents on life), and agri-food governance (i.e calling for a more democratic decision-making concerning GMOs and for including socio-economic impacts in the assessment of GMOs). It also calls both for deliberating on the need for GE crops, and for seeking alternative options before their introduction (in line with the principles described in the Norwegian Gene Technology Act). Finally, it is also positive that the position is explicitly trying to build bridges with additional stakeholders from conventional agriculture who are also increasingly interested in preserving their production as GM-free. This offers the possibility of generating new alliances and defining common strategies to face common problems.

I think this process of reflecting on the organic position on GMOs, and revisiting the supporting arguments for it, is an excellent opportunity to engage in the debate about merging GM and organic agricultures and, especially, to refine and improve the arguments surrounding “sustainable intensification” proposals.
PS. Feedback to IFOAM can be sent until 31st of March 2016.

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 attended the ISS Colloquium on Climate Justice & Agrarian/Social Justice

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During the 4-5th February 2016, we attended the Colloquium on “Global governance/politics: climate justice & agrarian/social justice: linkages and challenges” at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, The Netherlands.

Around 400 academics and activists working on agri-food systems and/or climate justice gathered during a really packed two-day event to share knowledge and experiences on food/climate systems research and activism and explore potential synergies and collaborations. Rosa and I were happy to see a group of known suspects linked to the Ecological Economics network (mainly former and current ICTA colleagues) working on related issues.

The topics covered by the Colloquium were broad and included: corporate take-over of global governance; transnational trade; market/state mechanisms in governance questions around food security/extractive industries/trade/conservation; intersections between climate change, mitigation/adaptation policies, resource grabbing, and conflict; financialisation of the food system, nature and farmland; climate smart agriculture; and issues around climate justice and agrarian/food justice. Of course, the approaches to the topics were also extremely diverse.

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One of the contributions I enjoyed the most – although it was extremely short (only 7 minutes) – was from the anthropologist Suzana Sawyer, one of the speakers during the opening session. She started developing the idea of the extent to which climate change has messed up traditional social science categories for understanding reality and implied becoming more radical. She seemed to work from a similar material agency perspective to our project as she asked what would it mean to include non-human actants and shift from global human politics to Earthbound politics? (if you are looking for an introductory text on material agency, this is a useful one).

Another remarkable contribution in one of the parallel sessions was from C. Konstantinidis. He made a very interesting and shocking presentation about food-related dynamics in Greece during the economic crisis. The most striking information he gave was that since 2013, there has been a national law banning direct producer-consumer trade relations in Greece in towns with more than 3000 people, and especially around supermarkets. All the people who were listening to this presentation were shocked, as direct producer-consumer relations can be a strategy for both consumers and producers to navigate an economic crisis. The fact that, according to this scholar, Greek people are forced to buy in supermarkets (usually with bigger corporations involved and more intermediaries) at the expense of investing in short supply chains was upsetting for the audience.

In general, the Colloquium was enjoyable and interesting. However, we were quite disappointed with the food that was offered at this event focused on food systems. We were expecting that, since it is a Colloquium in which concepts such as agroecology, food sovereignty, food and climate justice were notably important, the food we would encounter would meet (at least partially) such criteria. It did not. We were actually expecting that the Colloquium would understand that organising a food/climate academic gathering is an opportunity to invest in short supply organic food chains. That would be a great way of enacting the food/climate justice discourse, politicising the everyday choices of an academic institute, and bridging the distance between academy and activism.

 

IPES-Food: 10 principles to guide the transition to Sustainable Food Systems

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) is a new transdisciplinary initiative to support, inform and advise the policy debate on how to reform food systems across the world. This is a new panel guided by new ways of thinking about research, sustainability and food systems. The panel is co-chaired by Olivier De Schutter (former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food) and Olivia Yambi (nutritionist and former UNICEF representative to Kenya). The Panel brings together different disciplines and different types of knowledge, comprising environmental scientists, development economists, nutritionists, agronomists and sociologists, as well as experienced practitioners from civil society and social movements.

This diversity reflects the holistic approach of IPES-Food, based around a broad definition of sustainability that covers not only environmental sustainability, but also social equity and adequate nutrition dimensions. It approaches food systems from farm to fork and encompasses processing, packaging, waste and producer-consumer feedback loops. The approach of IPES-Food values local knowledge and the experience of social actors in exploring pathways for transition, as well as taking into account power relations and the political economy of food systems. Its working methods are based on participatory mechanisms and recognize the need for scientific experts to collaborate with actors across food systems in order to produce policy-relevant knowledge.

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The first report of the panel has been called “The new science of sustainable food systems. Overcoming barriers to food systems reform“, and was launched in May 2015. Moreover, the panel has also identified 10 key principles to guide the urgently-needed transition to sustainable food systems:

What types of knowledge and analysis are needed to support the transition?
– Holistic & systemic. Hunger, obesity, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, the pressures on smallholder livelihoods, cultural erosion, workforce exploitation and other problems in food systems are deeply inter-connected. Holistic thinking is needed in order to identify systemic ‘lock-ins’, and to find integrated solutions and potential levers of
change.
– Power-sensitive. Analysis of food systems must not ignore the differential power of actors to influence decision-making
and to set the terms of debate for reform. Power relations and the political economy of food systems must take center-stage.
Transdisciplinary. Knowledge must be co-produced with farmers, food industry workers, consumers, entrepreneurs, and other social actors and movements who hold unique understanding of food systems. Actors from fields such as public health, environment and rural development also have much to contribute to the debate on food systems reform.
Critically engaged. Producer organizations, retailers and other actors in food chains must be fully engaged in defining and developing sustainable food systems. The interests of some private sector actors, in particular multinational agribusiness firms, have typically been aligned with existing political arrangements, e.g. policies favoring export-led production systems for bulk commodities and processed foods. This makes it all the more challenging, and all the more necessary, to critically engage agribusiness firms in the debate.
Independent. Science and knowledge cannot be made to fit within the parameters set by dominant actors: IPES-Food is
a fully independent panel, without financial or organizational ties to any corporations, governments, intergovernmental
agencies or advocacy groups.

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What principles and values should underpin the sustainable food systems of the future?
Sustainable in all dimensions. Sustainability must be the benchmark of food systems reform, and must include environmental, health, social , cultural and economic dimensions. Sustainable food systems must deliver diets that are nutritious, affordable and culturally acceptable ii , and must provide food security without compromising the ability of future generations to do so iii .
Diverse & resilient. Food systems must be fundamentally reoriented around principles of diversity, multi – functionality and resilience. This shift is required in agriculture in order to sustain yields and agro-ecosystems in the longer-term, and must be complemented by diversity in supply chains and markets in order to support diverse and nutritious diets . As an embodiment of these principles, agroecology must be fully supported.
Democratic & empowering. Decision-making in food systems must be democratized in ways that empower disadvantaged actors and help to realize the human rights of all , including the right to food. Access to these processes must not depend on gender, age, ethnicity or wealth. The needs and perspectives of small – scale farmers, indigenous communities, disadvantaged consumers and other groups must not be drowned out by more powerful and visible actors.
Socially & technologically innovative. The transition to sustainable food systems requires complex and holistic change processes in which social innovation plays as big a role as technological innovation, and extends to food distribution and retail practices, as well as modes of production. The impacts of innovation pathways should not be assumed to be only benevolent, and should be continually assessed.
Adequately measured. New indicators of progress must be developed in order to capture the benefits of equitable, resilient, diverse, nutrient-rich food systems in ways that productivity growth, net calorie availability and other existing measures do not. Efforts and initiatives to improve the sustainability of food systems should be assessed with a view to seeing continuous improvement; accountability must be clearly assigned in order to hold actors to their commitments.
What do you think about these principles? How do you think they could be implemented?

 

Small-scale farming systems in KwaZulu Natal – visiting field sites and thinking about multi-species methodologies

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View over some maize farms in Hlabisa which are badly affected by the country-wide drought conditions.

Last week I travelled to KwaZulu Natal to visit some potential field site areas with my supervisor, Rachel Wynberg and Hellen, a master’s student who is also looking at the impacts of GM maize on small-scale farmers in South Africa. Hellen was conducting some focus groups with members of a cooperative who are using GM maize in Hlabisa near the town of Mtubatuba. We decided that Hlabisa would be an important site for my fieldwork as it has a long history of farmers growing GM maize seed varieties due to a number of interventions in the area. There have been a number of studies done in the area looking at the social and economic benefits and impacts of GM maize for small-scale farmers here over the past decade, however little research on socio-ecological dimensions. Hlabisa was one of the first sites in South Africa where Monsanto rolled out Bt maize through government programs in 2001. It is estimated that throughout the country 3000 small-scale framers attended introductory workshops on using GM maize.

While we were in Mtubatuba we met with one of the key members of Biowatch who is based at their offices there. He has worked in the area for a long time and was able to advise me on what small/scale maize agri/culture sites he felt would be suitable for the project. We discussed how Pongola, which is on the border of Swaziland could be a good site as farmers there grow both traditional and GM maize, however there is a strong resistance to GM maize by some of the farmers in the area. He also suggested that the area of Ngwavuma could also be good as it has a very high diversity of traditional maize seed varieties present. While I was unable to go to these sites further North this trip we will be going there during our project meeting in March which will be in South Africa.

We spent one day visiting a group of women from an agro-ecological cooperative affiliated with Biowatch located near Mtubatuba. We spent a few hours speaking with the chairperson (whose home we met at), the vice secretary and an additional member. The farmers here grow a number traditional maize varieties as well as a diversity of other food crops (see the photograph below). Their crops are spread out between 3 different growing sites. They each have a ‘summer’ and a ‘winter garden’ located at their homes ans these are farmed for household use. The summer garden is where maize is grown and despite the drought some maize had been planted and was growing. In addition they also all work collectively on a large ‘market garden’ which they use to generate income through selling produce such as spinach, leeks, green peppers and other vegetables to a nearby supermarket. All gardens are tended to using agro-ecological methods which BioWatch provides training in.

This visit was a great opportunity to reflect on method. We had a long discussion about how the farmers in the cooperative had come to grow the maize they grow now and farm using the methods they currently use. We also spoke a lot about drought and the survival of different maize varieties as well as other crops in times of drought. The farmers explained how they had only recently begun farming again over the past few years. While they were born in families where their parents were farmers, grown up farming and gotten married into farming families (often receiving a diversity seed as part of a dowry), many factors had cause them to move away from farming. They told us of how during a period of drought in the 1980’s many oxen had died and so they started to plant by hand or hire tractors when they were available. Another problem that started to increase was that of stray animals (goats and cows) would always come into their fields as no one was herding them anymore due to various social changes and pressures I have not explored at this point.

This story of how a changing relationship with cattle is an important part of the changing agri/cultures was also expressed in Hlabisa during the focus groups Hellen was conducting. In Hlabisa farmers mentioned that they started to vaccinate their cattle in the 1980s as well as adopt foreign breeds of cattle introduced by white farmers which weren’t as resilient. Some felt that the vaccinations affected the cows health as well as the quality of milk and meat. Cattle are a key species in small-scale maize farming systems in South Africa. I feel I have much more to explore and understand here around the importance of cattle in small-scale agri/cultural systems and how relationships with cattle changing over time due to climate and political history is connected to maize growing.

As explored above many farmers in Kwawhowho had given up on farming due to the loss of oxen, drought and other pressures until Biowatch came to the area to carry out training workshops. Biowatch motivated people to start planting again, first on a small-scale with household gardens and then through the introduction of ‘market gardens’. But drought has been a constant a problem. Last year it was bad however they did manage to keep seed. This year it threatens to be worse. When I asked about the types of maize being grown the chairperson went to collect some maize cobs as well as buckets of seed in various jars and we laid these out and leaned about the different types of maize and other kind of seed as well as how it is planted and what insects are both good and bad some of which had gotten into the jars. We were shown a variety of traditional maize with a small pink cob that grows well in drought. There were also some other vegetable species that were considered good survivors in times of drought.

maize kwawhowho

Maize varieties we were shown in Kwawhowho ( we were told the one on the left fairs well in drought conditions)

Talking around the different seeds offered a great way of learning about the complexity and diversity of the agri/culture system. We also walked around the garden and explored what was there and how things were planted as well as looked as some of the insects and other specie sin the system and how they are connected. These maize systems are not part of a supply chain but are rather closed systems. Maize seed is saved and in times where seed is running low farmers trade with nearby farmers and farmers rely little on external or bought inputs. During the few days we were in KwaZulu Natal  I began to see how the multi-species methodology can be a powerful tool for uncovering socio-ecological connections and wider narratives about agri/culture systems. Reflecting on some writing I read recently I started to see how a multi-species approach in conjunction with the use of photography and sensory data collection could provide a way for engaging with agricultural system in a way that draws out new complexities. George Monbiot in his recent book Feral writes how: “Most human endeavors, unless checked by public dissent, evolve into monocultures. Money seeks out a region’s competitive advantage – the field in which it competes most successfully – an promotes it to the exclusion of all else.” (Monbiot, 2014: 153)

I look forward to exploring many different systems of small-scale agriculture and how an interest in the multi-species as a window into understanding these systems better. I am interested in looking at a range of systems from those that sustain an increased level of diversity growing various kinds of traditional maize varieties as well as other crops to those that resemble monocultures growing only one varitety of GM maize. In March we will be be visiting various types of small-scale maize farms in the Northern part of KwaZulu near the borders of Swaziland and Mozambique where farmers grow traditional, hybrid and GM maize more commercially and so that will be an opportunity to explore the supply chain linkages and the use of the multispecies as a way of researching maize agri/culture systems.