Countdown to release our interactive website

It’s been a while since I last update about the development of our interactive website.

The aim is to create an interactive tool to explore and understand some of the main traits of each of the different agri-food systems we have been studying in the last 3 years, as well as offer a way to be able to compare these systems and facilitate the identification of their main differences. It is meant to be used mainly by students and, of course, anyone else interested in the issue.

Slow but steady, we are getting there. Now we have on board a web designer and a programmer who is about to start putting the different pieces developed (i.e text, video, fotos, design) together. An important part of the content is the creation of short videos which can illustrate or add valuable information to the text content found in each of the nodes. We aim at releasing in in early January. We’ll keep you updated about this issue!

As a part of the content for the interactive website, a couple of weeks ago we interviewed a GM farmer. He was a kind man and his interview was very interesting. When asked about the benefits of GM crops, he answered that, even if GM crops around his area are claimed to be less productive and he is aware of some of the controversy regarding GM crops (i.e he actually literally said that he did not know whether GM crops were actually good for consumers), he used them because they gave him ‘tranquility’ and avoided him headaches with the potential problem of the corn borer plague. His fields were actually not exactly next door where he lived and he could not go often to see how they were doing. By sowing GM crops, he perceived that his task as a manager of the field was facilitated.

Of course, this could raise questions about whether his ‘tranquility’ is a legitimate reason to grow GM crops despite its potential implications (e.g social and ethical aspects). Or whether by sowing GM crops it meant the creation of ‘headaches’ for others (e.g organic maize farmers). Actually, when asked about this latter question, he said that luckily in his area there were no organic farmers, so that potential conflict did not exist. Most of his neighbours were, in fact, sowing the same variety as him. However, I wonder if, perhaps, there are not organic farmers because of the potential risk of contamination.

Unravelling relationships in agricultural ecosystems

Image showing holes on maize leaves – on the left made by the invasive fall army worm and right by the native borer, chilo partellus

Over the past month I have travelled to Potchefstroom, Pretoria and Pongola for fieldwork. During this time I have been interviewing scientists and researchers involved in maize research, government employees involved in agriculture and small scale farmers who are growing GM, hybrid and traditional maize for household and some commercial use.

In my first week in Potchefstroom I was greeted by the reality of the army worm situation  currently facing farmers and the maize agriculture system in South Africa. This is a very significant and worrying event as this species now confirmed to be the Fall Army worm  (Spodoptera frugiperda) has never been seen in South Africa before its recent discovery in the Limpopo province in Early February 2017. This species native to eastern and central North America and South America has only recently begun being sighted on the African continent – The first sighting was in 2016 when it was reported in Nigeria and has since moved South. It has a rapid lifecycle and can quickly multiply if not dealt with. Over the past weeks in South Africa, the FAW has been found in Limpopo and Mpumalanga and parts of Northwest, Gauteng, Free State, the Northern Cape and KZN provinces. It is suspected that the pest may have come into the country with grain imported due to low regional yields following the severe drought over the past two years. Biowatch has drawn a connection between drought periods and the invasion of army worms in the past. However it is not known exactly how it came into the country.

The emergence FAW, a new species in the region offers an opportunity to explore the response of the agricultural research system in South Africa and how this threat is responded to. A multispecies perspective provides a lens through which to track the response to this pest and through this think about changing social – ecological relationships within systems of agri/culture.

The  Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) has  initiated a pest action group.  The group brings together members  from  provincial departments, researchers, several producers’ associations and industries whom might be affected by the presence of the Fall worm.

Within such an emergency situation there is a great pressure for experts to come up with solutions quickly. There has been talk of instating an “emergency registration of agricultural chemicals “. The minister of Agriculture Minister Senzeni Zokwana stated that “Luckily, with respect to the worms we are dealing with, we already identified a number of tools and chemicals that are already registered amongst various crops… We are confident that if growers and farmers use those products, the products would be used safely.” A Farmer’s weekly article has claimed that Bt maize may be less susceptible to the FAW. The approaches being put forward in media bring into question what solutions that are not reliant on chemicals are being investigated and if such R&D capacity exists in South Africa.

It is also a chance to think about knowledge in relation to agricultural systems in South Africa. In recent interviews with scientists I have been told how farmers and many technicians responsible for supporting farmers have little knowledge about ecological systems and insect ecology of agricultural systems. This has been attributed by some to changing focuses of research and the use of pesticides or Bt varieties as a”silver bullet” solutions to pest management.  The Minister of Agriculture explains that Diagnostic support would be increased to help with the identification of the pest. This comes after many farmers have been calling in to find out if the caterpillars they are witnessing are in fact FAW.

Interestingly the emergence of the FAW has set into motion the importation of pheromone traps which will be used determine the

image showing holes in maize leaves – on the left holes made by the Fall Army worm and holes on the right made by the native chilo partellusextent of the spread and the specific strain of FAW present in South Africa. This technique has not been used since the 1980s when light traps were used to track stem borer flight patterns when it was understood as a necessary part of pest management.  Situations such as the emergence of the fall worm bring into question the relationships between ecological systems, knowledge and agriculture. What kinds of precarious ecologies we may be contributing to building through the use of industrial farming techniques and technologies while at the same time becoming more and more disconnected from agro-ecological knowledge.

The small scale farmers I was visiting in Northern KwaZulu Natal have yet to experience the FAW and hopefully it will not reach this region. However the diversity of farmer growing methods in the region brings into question what farmers using traditional, organic or agroecological methods (who are not  already growing bt maize or using pesticides) might do. As it is clear that the dominant approach and approach recommended by authorities and experts in the field for dealing with the FAW will be the use of  pesticides (perhaps warranted in an emergency situation?).

Small-scale farmers that I have spoken to who do not use pesticides or Bt maize have described how they have stem-borer but that it usually does not significantly impact on yields or maize quality and this varies depending on when maize is planted. They use various techniques for keeping these borers under control such as ash, placed in the centre of germinating crops, to burning damaged stems. Smallholder farmers who are using traditional seed and more agroecological methods could potentially find themselves in a difficult situation and will be in need of assistance and research in grappling with this new species. There is a need for research that moves beyond a reliance on anymore chemicals which also bring into question the already pressing question of resistance.

 

 

 

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.

 

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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.

New paper published! Should Organic Agriculture Maintain Its Opposition to GM? New Techniques Writing the Same Old Story

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This new open access paper from The Agri/Cultures Project reflects on whether organic farming should accept GM technologies as an additional tool to use, especially in light of new breeding plant technologies (NBPT). Below you can find the abstract and here the full text. Enjoy!

Abstract: Biotechnology is diversifying rapidly through the development and application of new approaches to genome editing and ongoing research into synthetic biology. Proponents of biotechnology are enthusiastic about these new developments and have recently begun calling for environmental movements to abandon their campaigns against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and for organic agriculture to reconsider its exclusion of Genetic Modification (GM). In this article, we begin by describing the diversity of practices that cluster under both the terms GM and organic and show that although there is a clash of different cultures of agriculture at stake, there is also a spectrum of practices existing between these two poles. Having established the terms of the debate, we then go on to analyse whether the organic movement should reconsider its position on GM in light of new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs), using the criteria highlighted as important by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) in their 2016 draft revised position on GMOs. Through this analysis, we suggest that given the in-context-trajectory of biotechnology development, the continued narrow framing of agricultural problems and the ongoing exclusion of important socio-economic, political and cultural dimensions, the organic movement is justified in maintaining its opposition to GM in the face of NPBTs.

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

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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!

GMOs: Assessing Social and Ethical Aspects

In addition to my work as a researcher, I also serve on several national and international committees. This includes a position as member of the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board.

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The role of this board is to both encourage public discussion and debate and to provide advice to the Norwegian government on issues related to biotechnology, and particularly on social and ethical issues. The work of this advisory board covers both the use of biotechnology in medical applications and the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture. The board is made up of a diverse range of professionals with very different perspectives, beliefs and areas of expert knowledge. Our discussions are always extremely interesting, informative and very often involve canvassing a range of issues and different positions on controversial topics of public interest. For example, since I was appointed as a member, we have come with advice on topics as diverse as whether single women should have State supported access to in vitro fertilisation (IVF), whether parents should be allowed to perform genetic testing on their children, whether sperm donors should be subject to genetic testing, how the regulation of genetic testing for medical research may differ from that for clinical applications and whether Norway should accept GM crop products for import. Our recommendations on the topics we discuss are always made publically available (in Norwegian) and when the Board is divided in its views, the positions of each Board member are made clear in the recommendation.

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As part of its work and in addition to the meetings of its members, the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board also regularly arranges public events, lectures and seminars. On June 8th, I was fortunate enough to be invited to give a breakfast seminar in Oslo on the topic of assessing social and ethical aspects of GMOs, which was videoed and is now available online. In this talk, I drew on the research we have been performing in The Agri/Cultures Project and sought to explain why assessing social and ethical issues around GMOs is important, as well as show different ways in which this can be approached and argue that we need to be considering these matters at various points along the innovation chain.

What was particularly interesting for me was to see how the announcement of this seminar was treated on social media. Before I even got a chance to give my talk, groups on Facebook and users of Twitter were already dismissing the content as biased and irrelevant, as well as criticising me and GenØk Centre for Biosafety for being anti-GMO activists. Although none of the net trolls seemed to have the courage to attend the event, actually hear my thoughts on the topic and have a face to face conversation with me, it is amazing how the GMO debate continues to generate such strong emotional reactions amongst people. Indeed, in my talk I try to highlight how this emotional response is indicative of the importance of addressing social and ethical dimensions of the technology. I also challenged this approach to the debate by suggesting that we need to move out of the current trench warfare approach of pro-anti GMO camps dug in and defending their positions by throwing bombs at the other, and actually start to have more sophisticated conversations in which we look at concrete cases, contexts and empirical research. This is becoming increasingly important as biotechnology is now diversifying rapidly through the use of genome editing techniques like CRISPR-Cas9 and we need to carefully consider what we mean by the term ‘GMO’ and whether all biotechnology techniques should be considered alike in terms of their potential social and environmental impacts, ethical aspects and regulation.

Seminar on Critical Perspectives on GMOs at Cape Town University

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The last two weeks we have been in South Africa. It has been truly a very insightful experience that has helped us understand slightly better some of the complex realities that shape maize production in this amazing country. During the first week, we visited three very different small-scale farming communities in Kwazulu Natal, and for the second week we traveled to Cape Town to have our team meeting and to participate in two seminars at the University of Cape Town.

The first seminar was with postgraduate students conducting research related to GMOs in South Africa. It was a really interesting session that allowed us to share our own experiences with other researchers working on this topic from different perspectives and contexts. It also helped us us very much to better understand the functioning of the food systems where GM maize has been introduced in the country, the driving forces, circumstances and changes produced. Finally, we also focused on the ethical implications of our research, our challenges and strategies.

The second seminar was titled “Critical perspectives on GMOs”, and was organised by the Bio-economy Chair at the University of Cape Town.

critical-perspectives-posterThe seminar brought together different critical perspectives on the analysis and assessment of GMOs. The session was chaired by Rachel Wynberg from the University of Cape Town and Maya’s PhD co-supervisor. First, Fern Wickson presented her paper on exploring the advantages of using feminist care ethics lens for the assessment of agricultural biotechnology. Following this presentation, the three other presentations explored the concept of resistance related to GM crops from very different approaches. In the second talk, I discussed the emergence of glyphosate-resistant Johnsongrass and the situation in relation with herbicide-resistant weeds in Argentina by analysing the driving forces behind the initial spread of GR johnsongrass, its impacts and the social, economic and environmental implications of response strategies, including the institutional conditions and constraints involved. Then, professor Johnnie van den Bergh from the Northwest University explored the insect resistance in Bt GM crops in South Africa, its consequences for the future use of Bt maize and for the conservation of heirloom seeds. It was very interesting to see many coincidences in the processes of resistance evolution in both cases, as well as in the responses given to it. Finally Amaranta Herrero introduced a paper we are currently working on the everyday forms of human resistance to the expansion of GM maize by exploring the often no-visible practices of farmers and other actors practicing non-GM agriculture in Spain.

The seminar ended with a vivid round of question and discussions, and a shared lunch. It was again a great opportunity for us to share our research and to learn from all the assistants at the seminar.

 

 

 

A New Era for GM Crop Regulation in Europe?

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Before the holiday season, we published a short piece in The Conversation on the new situation concerning the cultivation of GM crops in Europe. The article was titled “Why Europe will let member states opt out of GM crops” and described how the new European Directive 2015/412 now gives Member States more freedom to decide for themselves whether they wish to allow the cultivation of GM crops within their territories.

While we have been following (and critiquing) the development of this new Directive over the past 5 years that it has been under negotiation, we were inspired to write this piece after reading an article by Mark Lynas published in the New York Times, which we felt seriously misrepresented the new Directive and what it opens for. We therefore wanted to write an article that accurately described the new rules in a way that was accessible for a general audience, and particularly those in the US that may not be so familiar with the European regulatory system.

This turned out to be quite a challenging task. Trying to accurately convey the nuances of a rather complicated piece of legislation, developed within the even more complicated history of European debates and disagreements over GMOs, in a style that presented some of the new legislation’s strengths and weaknesses and made sense for a lay audience, was certainly not easy. It was especially not easy since our section editor at The Conversation had given us a limit of just 1000 words to work with.

Through offering comments on our text, the editor also regularly reminded us of just how little a US audience may be expected to know and understand of the European regulatory system, especially given how different the two systems are in their foundational beliefs and approaches. For example, the US system is based on a product  based approach and the idea that GM crops and conventional crops are substantially equivalent, with no federal requirements for traceability or labelling. The European system, however, regulates on a process-based approach, meaning any crop created using modern biotechnology has to pass through a specific regulatory system, and there is a committment to freedom of consumer choice that requires GMOs to be detectable and traceable throughout the agri-food system, e.g. through measures such as labelling schemes. (If you are interested in more detailed analyses of US-EU differences over GMO regulation you can read some different views here, here or here).

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We still have some serious questions and concerns regarding the new Directive and how it may play out in practice. Including, for example: the power granted to biotechnology corporations to deny a Member State request to have their territory excluded from GM crop cultivation, the inability to use scientific grounds and alternative scientific assessments as a reason for opting out, and the questionable ability of non-scientific reasoning to hold firm if challenged in international trade courts. However, we were all quite surprised at how when writing this piece for a US audience, the Directive emerged as a much more postive development than we had expected.

The Directive arguably breaks a long held dictatorship of science and opens for a much more democratic approach to decision-making on GM crop cultivation – an approach in which questions of acceptability are not simply reduced to a narrow concern with “Is it safe?” but can also expand to include questions such as: “Is it sustainable?”, “Is it socially desirable?”, “Is it ethical?” and “Is it in line with broader policy objectives?”. This allows Member States to consider and balance assessments of health and safety concerns with assessments of other types of concerns, policy objectives and socio-economic impacts. Furthermore, the new directive allows Member States to make these assessments on a case by case basis, allowing them to accept some GM crops (e.g. those modified to resist a certain disease) while rejecting others (e.g. those tolerating ever higher levels of applied herbicides).

While it will be important to follow how engagement with the new Directive takes place over the months and years to come, we see this opening up for a more flexible approach to GM regulation in Europe, and particularly its recognition of the legitimacy of reasoning based on both scientific and social grounds, as a largely positive move. We are wondering how others out there feel about it though, so if you are not familiar with the new Directive, read our short piece and let us know your thoughts!

Responsible Risk?

At the end of November, the Agri/Cultures project joined with Dr. Frøydis Gillund from GenØk Centre for Biosafety and Dr. Sarah Hartley from the University of Nottingham (with funding from the Norwegian Research Council BIOTEK 2021 program and the Leverhulme Trust) to organise the workshop “Responsible Risk? Achieving good governance of agricultural biotechnology”. Our interest in organising this event was to explore the relationship between risk assessment, ethics, and the emerging governance discourse of responsible research and innovation. Specifically, we were interested in whether these different approaches to governing the development and use of GMOs had anything to learn from each other and whether they could be integrated in such a way as to make the most of each approach.

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The event began with an open round table held at UiT the Arctic University of Norway. Here, three international experts in the fields of risk assessment (Prof. Erik Millstone), ethics (Sir Roland Jackson), and responsible research and innovation (Prof. Richard Owen) were invited to present their visions for good governance of agricultural biotechnology. These visions were then commented on by three national stakeholders from the Norwegian Environment Agency, the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board and the Research Council of Norway, followed by an open discussion with the audience.

After a networking lunch, the organisers, the invited international speakers and national stakeholders, together with 5 other global experts invited to attend from across the different fields, retreated to the GenØk offices to spend the afternoon working on how to implement the visions that had emerged during the morning session.

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Here the focus was on working through questions such as:

  • Who has a role for putting this vision into practice? Which actors need to be engaged, and how?
  • What would need to be addressed? What would have to change?
  • Who has agency and power to bring this about?
  • What might be the obstacles or challenges with implementing such a vision and how can we overcome them?

Of course this is where the true difficulties were encountered! While it seems many in the group were very good visionaries, concrete ideas for how we can overcome some of the obstacles facing good governance of agricultural biotechnologies were a little harder to pin down. Interesting overlaps were observed though and it was clear that there was indeed potential to bring together the practices of risk assessment, ethics evaluation and the demands of responsible research and innovation in interesting and useful ways.

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The results of the workshop are therefore now being written up so that we can share the ideas that emerged with everyone in the near future. However, if anyone else out there would like to share their visions for good governance of agricultural biotechnology, or strategies and ideas for overcoming obstacles to enacting these visions, we would love to hear about them!