No women farming maize in Spain

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During the last years working on alternative food systems and food sovereignty, I have had the opportunity to conduct research on agri-food systems from a gender perspective. In more concrete terms, during recent years I became particularly interested in aspects such as the role of peasant women in advancing socio-political changes like agroecology and food sovereignty, the situation of small-scale food artisan women in Spain and the links between food, environment and gender in alternative food systems in Spain (some of this research was done with my colleague in the Agri/Cultures Project Amaranta Herrero).

Unfortunately, it has, however, been rather difficult to link this previous work with women in agriculture with the work we are currently conducting in the Agri/Cultures Project. Basically this is because we are dealing with different cultures of agriculture for cultivating maize in this project and this is a task performed almost exclusively by men in Spain. After more than 15 years interviewing farmers producing maize in Catalonia and Aragón, I only heard from one woman cultivating maize commercially (who Amaranta had the opportunity to interview some months ago). We can also find some exceptions in the case of peasant women who are producing maize in backyards or small plots for the consumption of animals raised at home, but not at a commercial scale.

This absence could respond, however, to some of the conclusions of my previous research. First, maize production at a large scale is an expensive activity in Spain, with important investment costs in terms of seeds, irrigation, fertilizers, etc and the few available statistics indicate that women are usually not the holders of the land on family farms (the most common land tenure form in Spain) and when they are, they hold the smallest farms. They also tend to be in charge of non-mechanised tasks on these farms. We have also observed that women are usually linked to small-scale agricultural projects that prioritize quality, diversity and local food production, which is a very distant model from the highly mechanized and super-specialized commercial maize production in Spain in which maize is essentially considered a commodity used for the production of feed (around 85% of the maize in Spain).

It may be interesting to compare this situation in Spain with what we see in South Africa, although also there we see indications that women are the primary people running the farming activities when they are on a small-scale for subsistence but as soon as it moves into large-scale commercial business, it becomes a mans business. Does anyone else have any information on these kinds of gender issues and dynamics within maize farming in their own context?

Paper Published…and therefore no longer ours

In an earlier post, I described a paper I was working on together with Assoc. Prof. Christopher Preston on the value of using a care ethics lens in the governance of emerging technologies, using agricultural biotechnology as an example. I am pleased to report that that paper has now been published. While the general content of the article was outlined in the earlier post, anyone wanting to read the work in all its glorious detail can access it here.

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Or at least, they can access it via that link until May 3rd. After that, all readers (or their supporting institutes) will have to pay to see the full content of the paper. Alternatively, for us as authors to make the content free to everyone through the open access mechanism, we will have to pay $US 1800.

The challenge of weighing up different criteria when publishing a paper was something I presented in a previous post. The topic of how to handle the competing demands of publishers wanting to recoup their costs (and make a profit) and authors wanting to reach as broad an audience as possible (and minimise their research costs) was also the topic of a lunch discussion here at GenØk this week. Are researchers ethically bound to respect the exclusive contract they sign with their publishers, or can it also be acceptable for them to take additional actions to enable their work to reach as broad an audience as possible?

As new players in facilitating scholarly networking and communication, such as Academia.edu and ResearchGate, gain users and popularity, publishers are increasingly having to police the way their papers are spread online. This is because while researchers routinely share pdfs of their papers online, this usually constitutes a breach of copyright because when academics publish in scholarly journals, they typically transfer their copyright to the journal’s publisher. This effectively means that they are no longer the owner of the article’s content.

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To help authors swallow this bitter pill, we are offered concessions, like the link I have shared in this post which gives everyone free access to the article for 50 days after the date of publication. So I suggest you access this link while you can, download the paper, read and enjoy it, because after May 3rd, my ideas are no longer mine to share as I wish. Unless of course I can find $US 1800 to pay the open access fee.

Perhaps my next paper should be about what a care ethics lens may reveal for the context of academic publishing.

Assessing the Ethical Justifiability of Agricultural Biotechnology?

Later this week I am heading to Montreal for the annual conference of the Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies (S.Net). At the conference I will present a paper that I have been working on together with Dr. Christopher Preston (an environmental philosopher from the University of Montana) on what happens if we look at agricultural biotechnologies through the lens of feminist care ethics.

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This is part of the work of the Agri/Cultures project to contribute to the requirement within the Norwegian Gene Technology Act to assess GMOs for their ethical justifiability. Not an easy task!

In today’s political decision-making on emerging technosciences, two frameworks dominate the landscape of ethical assessment: consequentialist and deontological approaches.

Within consequentialist approaches, a technology is judged to be good or bad on the basis of its consequences. This is typically tied to utilitarianism, in which the aim is to maximise the utility or the good (e.g. often referred to as creating the greatest happiness for the greatest number). Within this approach, a technology would be assessed as ethically justifiable based on the consequences of its development, uptake and use.

In contrast, deontological approaches to assessments of what is good or bad, right or wrong, are based on the actions themselves, rather than on their consequences. Within this approach, ethical judgements are based on whether the action follows appropriate principles, rules or norms. In our case, this can be interpreted to mean that the ethical justifiability of a technology would consider the extent to which its creation, uptake and/or use violates social norms, rules or principles.

There are, however, other approaches that have received less attention. The first of these is virtue ethics, which was the dominant ethical framework applied in pre-modern societies and focuses on the underlying attitude rather than the action. That is, an ethical assessment within this approach does not primarily consider the nature of the action, or the consequences of the action, but the attitude that motivates the action. Virtue ethics is going through somewhat of a revival now as an increasing number of scholars explore what it may offer the range of socio-ecological challenges facing the modern world.

The approach that I have started exploring in the current paper though, is that based on an ethics of care. A ethics of care comes out of feminist scholarship and emphasises the importance of the concrete and context specific relationships that people are engaged in when making an ethical assessment. In this sense, an action is not considered right or wrong based on whether it follows agreed rules/norms, or solely on utilitarian calculations of consequences, but rather on how it impacts relationships. For our purposes, this includes not only relationships between human beings, but also relationships with and between other types of beings as well. Furthermore, feminists emphasise ethical assessments as not only involving a set of rational calculations, but also importantly involving emotional reactions.

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In the developing paper, we outline six key themes within feminist theories and care ethics – relationality, contextuality, dependence, power, affect, and narrative – and show how considering emerging technologies through the lens of these themes can shine a light on a number of salient issues that are typically missed by the dominant and largely consequentialist risk assessment frame used in political decision-making today. We also argue that the care ethics lens is a better fit when technologies are understood not simply as devices designed to create a certain end experience for a user but as transformative systems that smuggle in numerous social and political interests. Exploring the advantages of these feminist care ethics themes for the assessment of agricultural biotechnology, we show how this lens might have anticipated the very questions that have proved themselves to be the sticking points for GM crops.

For example, a focus on relationality allows you to see how the relationships between farmers and seeds change in significant ways with patented GM technologies. A focus on contextuality opens for different countries, regions and contexts to make different assessment choices. Being attentive to issues of dependence and power allows friction points such as concentration and monopolies within agri-food systems to be deemed relevant for the assessment. Opening for affect allows emotional responses to the roll out of these crops to be taken seriously, while a commitment to narrative encourages people to tell their own stories, which can reveal the underlying worldviews and socio-technical imaginaries that are often in conflict in GM debates.

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Through the paper we therefore argue that applying a care ethics lens can significantly broaden the frame of appraisal processes used for the governance of emerging technologies and usefully grant legitimacy to questions and concerns that are prominent in public discourse but typically left out of practices of risk assessment.

Hopefully we get some great feedback on the  paper at the conference and we would absolutely welcome comments and interactions with our ideas here as well!