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.



COPMOP8 in Cancun

On Sunday, the 13th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 13) to the Convention on Biological Diversity, COP-MOP8 of the Cartagena Protocol and COP-MOP2 of the Nagoya Protocol began in Cancun. Fern and I are attending the meetings and participating in some of the sessions that take place in parallel to the negotiations. Here are some of the first impressions.

El domingo empezó en Cancún la 13ª reunión de la conferencia de las partes (COP 13) de la Convención de Diversidad Biológica, la COP-MOP8 del Protocolo de Cartagena y la COP-MOP2 del Protocolo de Nagoya. Fern y yo estamos asistiendo a las reuniones y participando en algunos de los actos que se realizan en paralelo a las negociaciones. Aquí podéis ver algunas de las primeras impresiones.

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


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

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

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

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

Follow our tweets from the conference @agri_cultures!

Confusing statistics regarding GM maize in Spain


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.

What does the Paris Agreement mean for the agri-food system?


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Action from Oxfam. Author: Ainhoa Goma/Oxfam

On 12th December 2015 the Paris Agreement was reached at the COP21 negotiations. I was in Paris at the time participating from the emerging global climate movement that took the streets during the weeks prior to the event, despite the state of emergency declared after the terrible terrorist attacks. Considered by many as an historical turning point in the global fight against climate change, while others describe it as an epic failure, this agreement brought together 196 parties (195 countries and the EU) to agree on a common long-term strategy on how to tackle climate change. Since the Agri/Cultures project is assessing different agri-food systems in terms of their contribution to sustainable development (as well as their social utility and ethical justifiability), we wondered, what does the Paris Agreement mean for the future of agri-food systems?

Agriculture is both profoundly impacted by and impacts climate change. The global agri-food system is responsible of an astounding 44-57% of global GHG emissions, including not only the farming component of the system but also the connected deforestation, food waste, transport, processing, packing, retailing and freezing involved.

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  1. Ambitious targets without a concrete plan

The overall problem of the Paris Agreement is that despite setting surprisingly ambitious targets to limit the temperature increase below +2ºC, or even +1.5ºC, there is no agreement on any actual plan to reach the target (which is important since the current national commitments do not collectively add up to the target emissions reductions.)

In December 2015, the world was +1ºC warmer and more humid than pre-industrial levels. In order to stay below a +1.5ºC increase, the world would have to stop burning fossil fuels by 2030, which would need measurable, strict and binding guidelines to achieve it. Regardless of such a significant change being required to meet the target though, the new agreement doesn’t actually take effect until 2020, so the window of possibility to achieve the +1.5ºC goal will arguably have passed if nations wait until the Agreement enters into force to act .

176 of the world’s 195 countries that went to Paris wrote down what their plans to tackle climate change were. However, even if all of these actions were taken, the world would still be heading for 3 degrees or more of global warming by the end of this century. This would put us in a dangerous and uncertain world, with floods, droughts, superstorms and permanent hostile weather conditions that will severely affect societies and ecosystems. Agriculture, thus, may be intensely impacted in the dystopian future we are heading to because even a difference of half a degree will make a world of a difference for the food we eat.

2. No new climate finance mechanisms

“Climate finance means paying developing countries to move beyond reliance on fossil fuels that made the U.S. and other developed countries rich. It also means paying for vulnerable communities and ecosystems to adapt to the climate change that’s already happening”, as Oscar Reyes, from the Institute of Policy Studies, puts it.

Not only have rich countries repeatedly failed to provide climate finance on anything close to the scale needed, but also, in the Paris Agreement there is no binding requirement for financial contributions from individual countries, only a new ‘collective’ financing goal of at least $100 billion per year set for developed countries. This is despite the estimated need, according to the Climate Fairshares tool, being upwards of $400 billion per year. This is especially relevant for farmers and subsistence communities from poorer and more vulnerable countries (often predominantly women), since in the years to come, their production will face increasing uncertainty due to instability in weather conditions and without support to adapt to the changing conditions, pursuing farming as a livelihood will become increasingly difficult and unappealing for younger generations.

3. There are no legally binding targets to reduce emissions

As Oscar Reyes states:While the now defunct Kyoto Protocol set binding targets for rich countries related to their responsibility for causing climate change (admittedly, with some considerable loopholes), the new deal takes an “anything goes” approach. Countries are free to promise whatever they want, and there’s no penalty if they break these promises”. The only obligation that is mentioned in the Paris Agreement is for nations to come together again in 2023 (and every 5 years) after this.

Through the lens of agri-food systems, this means that there are no clear pathways to or binding targets for change in this sector. This leaves the current trend of pursuing agricultural systems for increased production, trade and consumption of foods that are big emitters of GHG to continue. Tangibly, this means that models of  industrial farming oriented towards global export, with the accompanying long geographic and temporal production-consumption chains (i.e. requiring extensive processing, packaging, freezing and transport) will continue to be promoted as the ideal model for the future over local farms and food systems.

4. There is no reference or clear timeline for the phasing out of fossil fuels nor for GHG intensive agricultural systems.

Oil plays a major role in many dimensions of the agri-food system (e.g. in the practices of high input and highly mechanized industrial farms, as well as in transport, processing, packaging and freezing). To stay below the 2ºC target and have a chance of surviving in a disrupted future, it has been argued that we would have to leave 80% of fossil fuels in the ground. As such, it seems imperative to actively promote low-carbon agri-food systems. This would imply, among many other things, favouring small production-consumption trade dynamics, short supply chains, organic farming methods and cutting back on meat and dairy production, consumption and trade. Despite this, the only two mentions of food and farming in the Paris Agreement are not in the binding part of the text and are more vague references to care for food security and world hunger, with no real attention given to how food is produced or any mention of ‘small-holder farmers’, even if they produce around 70% of the food we consume. As Hilda Elver, UN Special Rapporteur of the Right to Food, puts it: “In most developing countries, agriculture is a major sector of the economy. It has become crucial to understand that the interests of the small-holder farmers and agribusinesses are not easily reconcilable.”

5. There are no guidelines on land use.

In short, despite high ambitions on the question of what level of temperature rise needs to be avoided, the Paris Agreement does not seem to provide enough details to support the kind of radical structural changes needed in societies to avoid dangerous climate change. For agri-food systems, which are a hugely important but very often overlooked or neglected contributor to climate change, this means effectively reinforcing the existing power dynamics of an industrial, globalised, concentrated and highly carbon intensive agricultural model.

In preparing this post, we struggled a little bit to find specific critical analyses of the interrelated themes of climate change and agri-food systems. Do you know of any good research or additional articles that further develop this topic? If so, leave us a comment and we will be very happy to look into them!

Strategies for keeping feed free from GMOs


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.


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.

Academic Research & Making an Interactive Documentary: Compatible Worlds?

Chapter 2: Practicalities 

This post follows on the one I wrote a couple of months ago about the challenges of using audiovisual documentation devices and techniques to do research simultaneously.

As I mentioned in that previous post, The Agri/Cultures Project attempts to investigate new ways to document and communicate scientific data. Our intention is to create an interactive documentary (also known as i-doc, web documentary, web doc or multimedia documentary). An i-doc differs from traditional forms of documentary by having a non-linear narrative, containing different sorts of interactive information (audio, infographics, photography, video and text material). In this type of documentary, interactivity offers more power and agency to users. It also allows them to navigate through a network of relations, exploring an ecosystem of dynamically interlinked nodes.

This time I will focus on the differences regarding some of the practicalities required for both processes.


For qualitative research, the equipment we need is quite simple. Basically, we need a recorder for the interviews, a notebook and a pen for the observations and it is convenient to bring a photo camera to illustrate the contexts we visit. For the documentary making, however, we need the video camera, the sound equipment (including headphones), the tripod and, additionally, depending on the situation, it might be also convenient to have a camera stabiliser, and a white screen for light management. That amount of equipment items makes it advisable to have more than one person to carry out all the tasks involved. Actually, most professional documentary teams are likely to consist of at least 3 people (one for the camera, one for the sound and one for running the interviews).

In our research there are mostly two of us doing the fieldwork: one takes care of the development of the interview and the other takes care of the technical aspects of filming. A couple of times, however, only one of us could attend the interview and the multitasking became extremely challenging. In this situation the researcher is required to meet the interviewee, have some small talk with him or her, explain again the aims of the project and how the interview will take place, run the interview, have a strong presence with all the senses and interact according to the interviewees responses. At the same time, the researcher needs to prepare all the equipment, do a soundcheck, look for an aesthetic spot to shoot and take care of the technical needs that might happen during the interview, as well as make sure there are different shots in the scene to be able for editing purposes. The few times that only one of us has done all the work alone, the audiovisual part has been slightly neglected (e.g not changing the shot in the whole interview and having some problems with the sound) because it was impossible to develop all these tasks well simultaneously. Specifically the ability to maintain full presence during the interview is a real challenge since for the research is really important to be engaged and active listen to the interviewee in that specific situation. If the interviewer is trying to manage the camera and the technical aspects at the same time while running the interview, the interviewee might feel slightly disrespected and the interviewee, also aware of the low presence, might feel overwhelmed by the situation.

In all her colorless glory.

Also, while audiovisual filming can occasionally happen at night, it is worthwhile to take into account the emotion tone triggered by images of certain weather conditions or the strength of light during the different hours of the day. Sometimes it might be better to reschedule the interview in order to have different nuances (e.g the effect of filming an interview under the midday sun or on a rainy day is very different). Research interviews in a more traditional form, on the contrary, are more time-independent and simple to perform, as they do not depend so much on the light conditions.

We are experimenting with all these processes and trying to navigate these waters the best we can. Any practical advice is greatly welcome.

Do you think are there additional practical challenges between these two (sometimes mixed) processes?


Academic Research & Making an Interactive Documentary: Compatible Worlds?

  Chapter 1: Discourses vs Characters

The Agri/Cultures project attempts to investigate new ways to document and communicate scientific data.

To be experimental, the project has begun fieldwork with an intention to create an interactive documentary (also known as i-doc, web documentary, web doc or multimedia documentary). An i-doc differs from traditional forms of documentary by having a non-linear narrative, containing different sorts of interactive information (audio, infographics, photography, video and text material). In this type of documentary, interactivity offers more power and agency to users. It also allows them to navigate through a network of relations, exploring an ecosystem of dynamically interlinked nodes.

The process of creating a web-doc:

I will be writing a series of posts related to the challenge of using audiovisual documentation devices and techniques to do research. I will try to summarise some of the difficulties and opportunities we have found when trying to reconcile these two logics.

The first difficulty deals with the different focus: Discourses vs Characters

On the one hand, when doing research, we are interested in identifying, describing and explaining different discourses. That is, different ways people understand, talk about and interact with the world.

In research, these discourses are fragmented and partially reproduced by many of the research subjects. Our job is to explore, categorise, reconstruct, and weave these fragmented discourses.


In the communication sphere of documentary-making, however, the main focus is not discourse, but character. There is a use of compelling and moving characters who can act as vessels to help users navigate through a story or a topic. Sadly, not everyone can be a good character for a documentary. For those selected though, more visual information about each character is needed so audiences can empathise with them. This has important implications for us as researchers.

For an i-doc (or a more traditional documentary) we need to go beyond filming talking heads from interviews, which is a bias researchers who use cameras to focus on discourses often take. To go beyond implies filming activities that the character does in his/her daily life or familiar places in which she or he lives, things he or she likes to do that will illustrate his or her talk. It is about creating an emotional connection with the character.


This creates a practical limitation to the number of characters that can appear in a film or a story. It has to be a manageable number, so audiences can connect with them in a relatively short space of time.

We are trying to find a compromise between these two demands of research and i-doc making, but the truth is that it’s not very easy.

On the one hand, we already know that we will have many more interviewees than our documentary can have. Asking all of them to show us their homes or places of work is also intensively time-consuming. This creates hundreds of hours of recorded material that is difficult to store and handle and not very efficient for the editing. Interviews by themselves take time, approximately 2 hours, which increases to 3 if we are filming. So, if we also add more time to be able to film additional material, it goes well beyond 3 hours for each interviewee.

Usually, when making a documentary, there has been  research about the main characters of the story and they are identified from the very beginning. The research project has just begun. Now it’s summer in Spain. We are having an extreme and unprecedented series of heat waves with temperatures going beyond 38 degrees, and it is a busy time for farmers. It gets very difficult to steal more time from them to film something that we are not even sure we will be using.


So, what are we doing with these different demands in practice? We are currently prioritizing the research (and therefore, the discourses) and we are trying to do as much filming as possible. We are playing it largely by ear in relation to the changing context we are seeking to map. While we continue to learn about the tools available for i-doc making in our digital age, we film the interview and if there is time and the interview went well, we ask to film more images about the person’s workplace and environment. If we later identify an engaging character that we want to have as a main character for our i-doc, we can ask them about filming further.

As we navigate this new territory though, we welcome any advice and ideas on how to continue moving forward.