Presentación de la nueva web interactiva

El pasado día 17 de abril, en el marco de la Semana de la Lucha por la Tierra organizada por Aragón Hacia la Soberanía Alimentaria, CERAI Arazón y el Ayuntamiento de Zaragoza, presentamos -por primera vez- la web interactiva que estamos realizando en el proyecto Agri/Cultures. La web es una herramienta visual cuyo objetivo es empoderarnos para la toma de decisiones sobre nuestro sistema alimentaria a través de explorar las relaciones que esconden nuestras elecciones alimentarias diarias. La web presenta información recopilada a lo
largo de los cuatro años de The Agri/Cultures Project entorno a cuatro sistemas alimentarios de maíz: el agroecológico, el ecológico convencional, intensivo en químicos (lo que se conoce como “convencional” y transgénico. Al mismo tiempo, quiere ser una herramienta que permita experimentar con nuevas formas de comunicación científica para promover debates sobre nuestras complejas realidades alimentarias. Por lo tanto -y a pesar de algunos problemas técnicos- fue una gran oportunidad para nosotras poder presentar en público el prototipo de la web interactiva.

Tuvimos el gusto de poder compartir la charla con José Ramon Olarieta Alberdi, que presentó el libro “Transgénicos: ¿de verdad son seguros y necesarios. Evidencias cientificas que llaman al principio de precaución”, recientemente editado por La Fertilidad de la Tierra y Juan Carlos Simón, que nos explicó su experiencia de campo en relación a los efectos de la contaminación transgénica en el maíz ecológico de Aragón.

La Semana de Lucha por la Tierra se celebra el 17 de abril, día de la lucha campesina, en memoria y homenaje a 19 campesinos del Movimiento Sin Tierra de Brasil que fueron asesinados  en 1996 en la localidad de El Dorado dos Carajás, en el Estado de Pará (Brasil). Desde entonces en ese día se organizan actos en todo el mundo.

 

 

Gatekeepers of the maize web: dryers and silos

During our research we have repeatedly discussed how important dryers and silos are as part of the necessary  infrastructure in agri-food networks (see also previous post about the network of Spanish silos and our latest paper). In this entry I aim to share some of these thoughts with you.

Infrastructure is a major element of the global economy and manages the mobility of human and nonhuman entities through physical support facilities. In the case of commercial maize crops in Spain, since practically all maize is processed, dryers and silos become essential facilities to sustain the journey of maize through the agri-food system, specifically once it has been harvested in the fields and before it is sold to maize processing companies. The drying of the grains is a key activity for creating conditions for a good storage and further processing.

Dryer and silo infrastructure is very often found together in Spanish farmer cooperatives (which are at the heart of the Spanish maize production system). This means that, in order to dry it and store it, these cooperatives mix different types of maize produced in their surroundings. It is expensive to effectively separate GM, conventional and organic maize, so if there is some GM maize in the mix, the usual practice is that all maize is labelled as GM maize. In fact, we found that only a minority of farmer cooperatives in Aragon restrict the use of GM in their facilities and there are no specific dryers for organic maize either in Catalonia or Aragon.

Therefore these infrastructures exert a tremendous amount of power over both the possibilities for maize (e.g. for becoming an organic product for human consumption) and for the existence of different agri-food systems. Dryer and silos therefore act as a kind of gatekeeper in the journey of maize through the agri-food system.

Some organic maize farmers in Aragon have told us how the lack of existance of specific organic dryers is a huge problem for them, because it means they might have to invest more in finding an alternative, such as increasing transport costs to find a dryer in a different area that handles organic maize specifically; hiring a mobile dryer to come to them (which is more expensive), or try to dry the grain in the field (the viability of which is uncertain and subject to weather conditions).

Thus, it could be said that dryers and silos are political actants, as these infrastructures have a significant capacity for shaping both social and ecological realities in rural areas. They facilitate the existence (or lack of existance) of some forms of agri/culture over others, and can trigger explicit or latent conflicts among different agri/culture systems. For instance, one of the stories we were told was about a conflict between a farmer cooperative engaged in producing, drying and storing non-GM maize for human consumption and a local animal feed company. The former had been developing a strategy for convincing its members to not sow GM maize by ensuring them higher economic benefits. That meant that most of the local farmers were sowing non-GM maize for human consumption instead of GM maize for animal feed production. So the animal feed company tried to convince the farmers to return to GM maize by internalising and covering the drying costs, thus making it cheaper for farmers if they would grow GM maize.

Do you know of other rural stories in which infrastructure can be political?

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.

 

Lack of organic maize statistics in Spain

In one of my last posts, I wrote about the confusing official statistics on the GM maize surface area in Spain. In that post, I also mentioned the difficulty of compiling statistics on organic maize, which is important if we are to get an accurate picture of how coexistence is playing out in Spain and how this has changed over time. In this post, I therefore want to outline the difficulties we have experienced getting accurate figures for organic maize in Spain in more detail.

Based on statistics from the Catalan Organic Certification Body and the Organic Certification Body in Aragon, it was shown that the surface area devoted to the cultivation of organic maize diminished very significantly in both Catalonia and Aragón – where most GM maize is growing in Spain – after the first analyses for GM detection were done. Until recently, these two bodies have been the only source of information on the organic maize surface area but such statistics were not systematically published by them. The situation now is even more complex, since in Aragón there are now also private certification bodies, compiling their own statistics.

In fact, official statistics on organic maize in Spain are a very recent phenomenon. It is only since 3 years ago that the statistics of the Annual Report on Organic Agriculture published by the Agriculture Ministry differentiated the surface area cultivated with maize on its own at all. Before then it was simply registered under the broader umbrella category of “grains”.

My beautiful picture

GM maize demonstration field

Seeing the potential difficulties to compile the organic maize statistics in Spain (and specifically in Catalonia and Aragón) since the introduction of GM maize in 1998, we therefore requested the available figures from all these different bodies. In the case of the Spanish Ministry, as explained before, only the numbers for the 3 last years were recorded and provided. In the case of the Catalan Organic Certification Body, the available information only dates back to 2007, and for the public certification body in Aragón, they only sent us information from 2009. In order to be able to see the bigger picture and changes over time with the introduction and spread of GM maize, we have had to compile information from public interventions or declarations made by technicians or representatives of these bodies, by farmers or representatives of farmers’ unions, and complement this with our own qualitative data, which introduces a very high level of uncertainty around the figures.

So one of our methodological challenges now is really the question of how can we assess the impact of coexistence on organic maize if basic data such as figures for the different types of maize cultivation (organic, conventional, GM) is lacking?

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.

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

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


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

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

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

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Juanjo Mallén, farmer from the cooperative Joaquin Costa

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

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

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

¡Hemos participado en un documental!

Pablo amb la càmera

Durante los últimos meses que hemos pasado haciendo trabajo de campo, hemos estado a menudo detrás de la cámara. Sin embargo, recientemente también hemos tenido la oportnidad de cambiar nuestro rol, ya que también hemos participado junto a muchas otros expertos en un documental para el programa Latituds del Canal 33. El programa se titula “Dependencia o Soberanía Alimentaria

Aquí podéis encontrar un breve resumen del contenido:

“El sistema alimentario actual se basa en la producción intensiva para la exportación. Esto lleva a una creciente dependencia del mercado global, cada vez más concentrado en grandes empresas vinculadas al sector financiero. Otro sistema alimentario surge con el principio de la Soberanía Alimentaria. Plantea que son los pueblos los que tienen que decidir su modelo de alimentación, priorizando la calidad de los alimentos y los mercados de proximidad.

Así mismo surgen bancos de semillas locales que, sin ánimo de lucro, conservan variedades tradicionales, que a menudo no se encuentran en el mercado. Son semillas locales que los campesinos y campesinas pueden reproducir, a diferencia de lo que pasa con muchas semillas comerciales, y que por su diversidad genética están muy bién adaptadas al territorio. Mucho/as consideran que en el marco de la creciente degradación de los suelos y del clima, de aquí a unas décadas las semillas locales serán las que garantizarán la alimentación”

Y aquí podéis ver el documental (en catalán).

Video

We participated in a TV documentary!

grabació a Joaquin Costa

During the last months of fieldwork, we have been very often behind the camera. However, we also recently had the opportunity to change our role, and participated as experts in a TV documentary produced by Canal 33 (a Catalan public TV channel) titled “Dependency or Food Sovereignty“.

Here you can find a short summary:

“The documentary describes the dependency of the Catalan food system on imports for the production of feed for intensively produced animals, which are then exported. This involves a growing dependency on the global market, and a concentration of power in huge companies linked to the financial market. This trend is counterbalanced by another food system based on the principles of Food Sovereignty. In this system, the people decide on their own food model, giving priority to the quality of food and local markets.”

And here you can watch the documentary (only in Catalan).

Neomalthusianism, yield and GMOs

Last week I participated in a Caribbean workshop on socio-economic considerations of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). It was a very productive workshop, with a lot of interactions and very interesting outcomes. However, one of the aspects that struck me was the almost unanimous view of the participants that GM crops were yielding substantially more than their conventional counterparts. This was assessed as the major beneficial socio-economic impact of GM agriculture. There was even a discussion on Bt maize in Spain resulting in higher yields.

camps panís

But… what is the available data on Bt maize yields in Spain?

Some papers and reports state that Bt maize varieties are yielding more than their conventional counterpart (see e.g. Demont and Tollens, 2004; Gómez Barbero and Rodríguez Cerezo, 2007). However, this argument is often not being backed up by the farmers we are interviewing during our fieldwork. There are also reports made by the governmental agriculture departments contradicting the general belief. For instance, the Food Directorate (Dirección General de Alimentación y Fomento Agroalimentario) of the Government of Aragon (the main GM and conventional maize producing area in Spain) conducts experimental fields every year, in order to assess and recommend maize varieties for the coming season. It analyses yield and productivity (taking into account, for instance, humidity). In the 2015 report (number 256), on the differences between GM and conventional varieties it concludes “no significant differences exist between any of the conventional and GM lines“. Finally, it states: “all this information should help us to make a deep reflection on the continued use of GM material“. Previous reports  also do not point out higher yields for GM counterparts when compared to their conventional isolines.

Despite these mixed reports, during my frequent participation in debates related to GMOs, I hear the same argument repeated over and over again. Broad claims are regularly made about the potential of GM technologies to tackle the food crisis, and to contribute, through enhanced yield, to improving poor farmers’ livelihoods.

Scientific literature shows, however, that an increase in yield really depends on the specific crop-event, the context of application, the level of pest pressure, the timing of the research (e.g. shortly after introduction or years later), the period of research, etc. It has also been shown that real progress in yield has in fact been made by using conventional breeding (Stone and Glover, 2011). In completing any assessment, it is arguably important to take into consideration the sustainability over time since a high amount of inputs are usually required to maintain yield consistently. Furthermore, a systemic approach is  needed in order to ensure that the crops are not only productive, but also that biodiversity, soil fertility and ecosystem health are not compromised. 

The direct link between yields and improving livelihoods is also largely unexplored in such pro-GM statements. This is arguably connected to the predominance of an economic growth narrative. This narrative basically asserts that agriculture – and other sectors – are a means for economic growth (and in turn for addressing poverty, food insecurity, gender inequality and environmental degradation, etc) if they can be transformed into ‘modern’ and market-oriented production systems. Once again, academic research shows us a much more complex picture in practice, e.g. showing a combination of diverse political, economic, social, institutional and agronomic problems as drivers of deprivation and famine, rather than a simple lack of food or production.

Do you know of any similar examples of differences in the assessment of crop yields – either for GM over time and under different conditions or between GM and conventional counterparts?

Strategies for keeping feed free from GMOs

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Last week Amaranta and I attended a roundtable and a thematic workshop on GM-free feedstuff for organic and non-GM sectors organised by IFOAM EU in Ulm, Germany. The events gathered key stakeholders along the organic and GM-free feed value chain, from farmers to retailers, but also taking into account certifiers, researchers, policy-makers and advisors or consumers’ associations with the objective to find strategies for increasing the availability of GM-free feed in Europe. The activities are part of the project Keeping GMOs out of food coordinated by IFOAM EU aiming to strengthen the capacity of organic and conventional sectors in Europe to stay GMO-free.

Europe is highly dependent on inputs from third countries for fulfilling the internal demand for feedstock, a problem which is aggravated in the organic sector. In this sense, major changes in production are required (including the introduction or re-introduction of alternative and/or traditional protein sources and/or the reduction of livestock). In this context, I did a presentation on the situation in Spain, which is highly aggravated by the very difficult coexistence between GM and non-GM maize, which is almost impossible for organic maize in the GM maize producing areas (e.g. Catalonia and Aragon) (Binimelis, 2009). Besides the consequences for food sovereignty, the environmental impacts connected to the importation of millions of tonnes of soy and maize (among other crops) are also high, especially since agriculture – and the transport of commodities worldwide – is a key source of greenhouse emissions and a depletion of energy resources.

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I found it a very interesting and strategic initative to bring together stakeholders from both the organic and conventional production systems in order to share their main challenges for the production of GM free feed, but also for defining common strategies to face common problems, to increase availability of GM-free feed and to better communicate to the consumer which are the systems (and the values associated to them) that he or she is contributing to when choosing a product at the shop shelves. We had very interesting debates on aspects such as the pros and cons of establishing GMO-free labels (as exist in many European countries like France or Germany not only for the GM products themselves but also for the animal derivatives (e.g. eggs or milk) from animals fed with GMOs), and the possibility to harmonise the standards of the different national labels. Can the organic and conventional sector agree on a common strategy on labeling taking into account that the organic production is not using GMOs by definition? Would such a label induce the consumer to think that conventional products labelled as non-GM do not contain GMOs but organic products do?

PicMonkey Collage etiquetatge

We also had enlightening discussions on the conventionalisation of organic agriculture and the risks this poses for losing the essence of its character by leaving aside values such as simplicity, localising production in both spacial and social terms, trust or transparency.