Finding Transgenes in Maize Landraces

In another project that I lead, biodiverSEEDy, we have been doing some work to see if transgenes have spread to landraces in the center of origin and diversity of maize, Mexico.

The potential for transgene flow into both landraces and wild relatives is a well recognized biosafety issue and therefore an important component of the regulatory risk assessment performed on GM crops prior to their approval for cultivation. The case of transgene flow into traditional maize landraces was first reported in Mexico 15 years ago and drew the world’s attention to the possibility of contaminating crop varieties at their center of origin and diversity.

The reported presence of transgenes in Mexican maize sparked an intense scientific, political and environmental dispute over the extent to which the culture and traditions of indigenous people were being threatened by the unchecked spread of GMOs owned as the patented inventions of multinational corporations. This controversy lead to a long-standing legal battle over the regulatory status of GM crops in Mexico, which continues today as approvals of GM maize for cultivation remain subject to contestation in the courts.

Although maize is currently not permitted for cultivation in Mexico, in a recently published study, we found transgene contamination of landraces being grown by indigenous farmers, as well as maize being sold in government stores as grain, which some farmers then plant as seed. This study also demonstrated how societal organization and the seed management systems of local communities significantly influence the extent and frequency of transgene flow. The work showed how socio-biological factors (such as seed saving and sharing practices, communitarian organization and land tenure arrangements) are highly important determinants affecting the frequency of transgene presence and the potential for spread within farming communities. In doing so, the work also highlighted how social practices and arrangements may be used as a resource to minimize the potential for or scale of transgene flow.

In debates over transgene flow into landraces of maize in Mexico, there has been significant scientific disagreement over what are appropriate and reliable methods to use for GM detection. The use of diverse approaches and a lack of harmonized methods specific to transgene detection in landraces have generated both positive and negative results regarding GM contamination of Mexican maize over the years. In a second newly published paper, we reviewed the scientific debate over methods for detecting transgenes in landraces and wild relatives and made recommendations for sampling, testing and policy. We used this review to inform our own approach to trasngene detection in the work described above. Some of the recommendations we made include: an integration of social and biological data, development of threshold levels and limits of detection relevant for environmental monitoring of low level presence, and the establishment of a public registry with open access to transgene sequence information and all event approvals.

Both of these new papers seek to advance the establishment of good practices for transgene detection and monitoring, issues that are also very important in the contexts where the Agri/Cultures Project is working (Spain and South Africa), as well as anywhere that there is an attempt to achieve co-existance between GMOs and other cultures of agriculture.

GM in Spain (infographic)

Last week we collectively worked on creating an infographic that captured in a single image the main issues around GM Maize in Spain. Of course, as any infographic, it just highlights some of the relevant dimensions of the controversy of GM crops in Spain. But we think it can help to understand what is going on in the European country with higher number of cultivated area of GM crops. Actually, it is both a simplified, visual and updated version of what we tell in the section “Spain, a telltale case of the impossibility of coexistence” of our paper Just Existing is Resisting: The Everyday Struggle against the expansion of GM Crops in Spain.

It is also an infographic to be used in the interactive website we are preparing in which we are condensing much of the knowledge we have acquired through all these years of agri/cultures research.

Below you can see the result. Please, share it widely!

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.

 

Systems perspective on GMOs at the EASST Conference

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Last week we attended the European Association of the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) Conference in Barcelona. It was an enormous conference (around 2000 participants) which was exciting but it also made it challenging to stay on top of everything that was going on. Conferences such as this one are useful platforms for networking with people who are working on similar issues in order to build and strengthen academic communities.

The interdisciplinary nature of our project makes us somehow academically promiscuous in the way that we do not belong to a single academic community of reference, but rather we transit and have conversations with people from a multiplicity of academic worlds that speak to different dimensions of the project. EASST is one of these communities we transit, as it contains part of the academic community who does Science and Technology Studies (STS). For us this is a very interesting academic community to be in contact with since GM crops have a major technoscientific component.  The project hugely benefits from dialogues and reflections related to the roles technoscience plays within the GMO socio-political controversies.

We participated in a track called “Governance of agricultural biotechnologies”, facilitated by Andrew Stirling and with other very knowledgeable speakers such as Robert Smith, Georgina Catacora-Vargas, Anne Ingeborg Myhr and Brian Wynne. Our presentation was about how a system perspective can be useful when assessing and regulating GMOs. This presentation stemmed from one of our papers:

Seeing GMOs from a Systems Perspective: The Need for Comparative Cartographies of Agri/Cultures for Sustainability Assessment.

For this presentation we focused on the cartographies that we have been producing over recent months, which illustrate interesting differences between GM, chemically intensive, certified organic and agroecological systems.

The audience seemed to really enjoy the presentation and one participant said she felt that we were developing – a very much needed – ‘applied STS’. 🙂

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.

The Agri/Cultures Team meeting in South Africa – A reflection on a week in the field in KwaZulu Natal

The Agri/Cultures Team meeting in South Africa – A reflection on a week in the field in Kwa-Zulu Natal

red maize growing in a 'seed garden' on one of the permaculture farms

red maize growing in a ‘seed garden’ on one of the agro-ecological farms

In mid April we had our first team meeting in South Africa. The visit was both a team meeting and a chance for Fern, Amaranta and Rosa to spend two weeks in South Africa getting to know some more about the South African context in relation to maize agriculture. We spent the first week in KwaZulu- Natal where we visited a number of farms and the second week in Cape Town where we had project meetings as well as were involved in some seminars at the University of Cape Town.

The aim of the first week was to visit some of the sites that I will be working in for my PhD. While the broader project in Spain and in South Africa looks at the wider maize agriculture system, for this trip we focused only on visiting small-scale farms which are a big part of the focus for my PhD project (the other key area I will be focusing on will be the Research and Development stage, which I will expand on in my next post).

A key factor to take into consideration during the trip was the current drought that farmers in KwaZulu-Natal are facing. Many farmers in the province were unable to grow a maize crop this year as a result of late and minimal rainfall. We were able to find some maize growing but most farmers had not planted and those who had had small yields.

On the first day we accompanied one of the masters students from my department to her field area in Hlabisa where she had planned to report back her project fieldwork to the farmers that she had interviewed over the past two years who are involved in growing GM maize varieties on a small-scale. This took the form of a meeting in a community space that was accessible to farmers coming from a wide are in Hlabisa.

After the meeting one of the farmers at the meeting he welcomed us to his farm where he showed us the land where maize would usually be growing this time of year. There was no crop this year due to the drought. Instead of maize, the field was covered in a knee high mono-crop of weeds which the farmer pointed out to us. He explained how this was a new weed for which he had no name and that had only emerged over the past season. The weed appeared to be resistant to the herbicide he had been using along side the GM maize. He said that he would try and dig in into the soil if he could get his tractor working and failing that look for another kind of herbicide that may kill the weed. He said that the agricultural extension officer for the area had not been around recently and so he as yet had not been able to get assistance with this problem. This farmer told us that he had not been framing for a long time in the area and so it was possible that the weed is known by other farmers in the area. I would like to speak to more farmers about the emergence of new weeds or changes in the types and volumes of weeds that are now present. The following week During the Seminar at UCT, Rosa presented on ‘The emergence of Glyphosate resistant weeds in Argentina’ and I learned more about the complexities of weed resistance and the immense social and ecological affects they have had in Argentina. Rosa spoke about how due to the use of pesticides, there had been a reduction in experts in universities studying weeds and many farmers have lost touch with traditional methods of farming and thus knowledge useful in relation to dealing with weed problems. There has therefore been a break in the transmission of knowledge and capacity to find solutions. With the introduction of new technologies and the consequent layers of socio- ecological changes that ripple outwards, it is possible that farmers find themselves in place with little understanding or access to information that can help them to solve critical problems associated with new farming methods they are using. A sense of disconnection with vital information needed by farmers appeared to be a theme in the maize farms we visited that were growing GM or Hybrid seed. Later in Pongola farmers expressed their concern around the use of pesticides and the dangers associated with them. They asked for our thoughts on this, as they were unable to access such information themselves due to their remote geographical location and access to information.

On the second day we traveled to Pongola where we met with one of the members of Biowatch. He took us to visit some of the ago-ecological farmers that were affiliated with the organisation and who were growing traditional maize varieties along side many other vegetables and grains on small-scale farms. We met with 5 women from the project. First we spent some time introducing our project to the group and then learned about their farming histories and how they had come to be involved with Biowatch. We also learned about their recent activism against Monsanto and their work to mobilize the Department of Agriculture to recognize their needs as agro-ecological farmers. When we had finished talking we shared a delicious meal that one of the members of the group had prepared. Almost all of the ingredients had been grown on her land such as traditional savory melon mixed with maize meal, samp, morogo (wild spinach) and jugo beans. After this we visited some of the members gardens. Here farmers grown food for the home as well as some to sell. With the guidance of Biowatch farmers have also started growing ‘seed gardens’ and curating a central seed bank in one of the members homes. It was very inspiring to see the diversity of seeds that were being collected. The enthusiasm and knowledge that the farmers in the group had was very inspiring as well as to witness how farmers, supported by Biowatch were mobilizing to get support to grow their farms and get better access to resources and build more resilient farming systems. Reflecting on the farm we had encountered the previous day one was able to note a very different feeling that accompanied on one hand the empty (but for weeds) field where GM maize usually grew and the complexity and diversity of the field in which traditional maize grew on these farms.

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savory melon growing on one of the ago-ecological farms

On the last day in the field we accompanied an extension officer from the Pongola Department of Agriculture to farming area where small-scale farmers were growing a mixture of GM and Hybrid seed. I drove with the extension officer and along the way he showed me the areas where maize would normally, outside of the drought be planted. We met with group of women farmers at the home of one of the farmers. Here we sat under a tree and spoke for a long time about their farming histories and how they had come to be growing GM and Hybrid maize as well as about their experiences, successes and difficulties associated with this over the years. One of the farmers still grew her traditional maize but none the others still grew it. They spoke about how they no longer had the seed and would like to be able to get some. They had been growing GM maize since 2013 as well as hybrid seed. They had access to hybrid seed at no cost via the Department of Agriculture and some farmers who have the available income buy GM seed in addition to this. Once the maize is harvested farmers hire transport to take their produce to the mill in Pongola. But sometimes the price they are offered for it at the mill is too low and they bring it back and sell it within their community area. In 2013 a mill that was intended to specially target the needs of smallholder farmers was launched in Pongola. It had been my intention that we visit this mill in Pongola but I found out that it had never gotten off the ground and had closed down last year. I will explore the details surrounding small-scale farmers experiences of selling their produce in my next field visit.

During our time in KwaZulu-Natal we saw a diversity of small-scale farming systems and learned a great deal from farmers about their experiences with growing different types of maize. It was also valuable experience to be there with the team from Norway and Spain and compare how the Spanish and European context differs and what factors and concerns may be shared between the different contexts.  I was also able to identify some areas to explore further in my next field visit. One of the areas I would really like to explore more is the use of a multi-species lens for gathering stories about agri/cultural relationships with insects and how this can open up narratives concerning socio-ecological change within farming systems. I would also like to explore in more detail the theme of visibility and invisibility in relation to genes, pesticides and other ‘un-seen’ elements that are experienced on farms and how this related to changing systems of knowledge and scientific vs experiential knowledge. I am interested in comparing the Research and development stage with the farm stages and we spoke about this in our team meeting as a way of focusing in detail on these parts of the maize agriculture system. This will form my next post!