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.

We published a paper!


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

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

You can access the paper here:

And here you can read a short summary:

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

Can a kernel of corn be a compelling character?


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

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

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

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


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

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

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