‘The social and political life of seeds’ at the AIBR Conference

Last week, Amaranta and I attended the AIBR Conference in Barcelona. AIBR stands for the Network of Iberoamerican Anthropologists, an international organisation of Spanish, Latin American and Portuguese anthropologists.


On Tuesday 6th of September was the opening session of the conference, with an excellent presentation by the Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar. He is one of the most important Latin American anthropologists, with extensive work on political ecology, social movements and post-development studies. His talk introduced aspects such as the ethnic-territorial struggles in Latin America being ontological struggles for building a world in which all worlds have a place or the resurgence of the “commons” as a transitional discourse.

queremos un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos

After the opening, we presented in a panel titled “The social and political life of seeds“, coordinated by Susana Carro Ripalda and Marta Barba Gassó. In our presentation “Una perspectiva sistémica en la evaluación los OGMs: El viaje de una semilla de maíz transgénica“, we introduced the value of the systemic perspective for assessing GMOs using the multi-sited ethnography approach that we are implementing in Spain. This is also what we explained in our paper: Seeing GMOs from a Systems perspective. During the talk we also had the opportunity to present the cartographies of GM, chemically-intensive, certified organic and agroecological cartographies that we have recently developed using this approach.

During our session, other very interesting talks were presented, on topics like the cultural aspects of GM vs indigenous maize in Mexico, the story of how a tomato variety became a “traditional” seed in the Basque Country from a gender perspective, and the socio-cultural value of seed conservation in two study cases in Spain. All presentations shared the vision of seeds as entities that shape and are shaped, beyond their biological substrate, by the interests, values and visions that emerge in the contexts where they are developed and used. At the same time, seeds influence the discourses, practices, knowledges and skills of the other agents with whom they interact. The session was in fact very rich despite the fact that, as very often happens in academic conferences, there was too little time to discuss and share.

After the session ended, we discussed potential collaborations on this topic, which would give us the possibility to keep exploring these visions about seeds in the future.

¡Hemos participado en un documental!

Pablo amb la càmera

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

Aquí podéis encontrar un breve resumen del contenido:

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

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

Y aquí podéis ver el documental (en catalán).


We participated in a TV documentary!

grabació a Joaquin Costa

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

Here you can find a short summary:

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

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


Choosing Study Sites: A Visit to King Williams Town in the Eastern Cape of South Africa

maize banner

In July I travelled to King Williams Town in the Eastern Cape of South Africa to explore the different types of maize farming there, especially what types of maize are being grown at different scales and the various farming methods being used. King Williams Town is part of the former Ciskei Bantustan created during apartheid. The Eastern Cape is considered one of South Africa’s poorest Provinces and as a result has been the focus of a number of governmental supported agrarian programs.

I had never been to visit any maize growing areas in the Eastern Cape before. While I grew up on a farm surrounded by maize fields in Swaziland, I had also never experienced GM maize being grown. I was curious about what those systems looked like and how it felt to walk through a GM maize field and if it felt different from the fields I had known growing up. I have recently been excited about exploring a multi-species ethnographic approach for my PhD research within the project and have been contemplating how this approach may be used to document different maize systems. How, for example, might the human and other species’ relationships with GM maize differ from those around traditional maize, and what kinds of data collection, observations and creative methodologies could be used to explore this?

harvested field GM maize proj

During this visit to King Williams Town,  I accompanied Hilde (a masters student at the University of Cape Town who was interviewing small-scale farmers that had adopted GM maize as part of a series of government interventions in the area), while she was doing her fieldwork. The area has been and still is a site for many trial GM projects, including maize but also GM cotton and GM soya. The interviewees told different stories about their experiences with GMOs. While there were some who highlighted the GM crop failure for this season and mentioned that this had already happened with GM cotton, others attested that the GM crop was a great success.

In King Williams Town I also met up with representatives of the Zingisa Educational Project, a gender sensitive organisation based there that supports people’s organisations to lobby and advocate for pro-poor land and agrarian policies and to develop alternative models of land access and land use in favour of the rural poor, emerging farmers and the landless. For a number of years Zingisa have been involved in research concerning the spread of GM crops (including maize) in the area and in providing information about the possible effects of GMOs. They are at present mobilizing farmers to grow vegetables and grains using traditional seeds and methods and are developing a system of community seed banks. Zingisa research has shown that it is most often the case in the area that small-scale farmers do not have access to information about the GM seeds they are given through various sponsored projects. We visited two gardens where traditional maize is grown in the area of Nxarhuni. One belonged to an elderly man who farmed organic vegetables and maize and saved his own seed. The other was a community seed bank and garden that had been recently set up.

GM maize just harvested     old maize silo in KWT now dept of sprots and rec

An interview with the owner of an agricultural cooperative in the town revealed how in the past farmers would have sold maize to a centralized mill but that this had been shut down. In fact, the enormous and ominous old silo, which stands in the centre of King Williams Town (now converted into the Department of Sport and Recreation), stood abandoned as a reminder of a different time. Now many farmers in the area grow yellow maize (preferred for animal feed) which they sell directly to livestock farmers or to Epol, an animal feed company with a central storage and distribution facility located near by. The market for yellow maize used for animal feed has resulted in most farmers both small-scale and larger scale in the area focusing on planting this crop. The owner of the agricultural coop explained an important factor for the poultry industry and another reason for the choice of yellow maize: “yellow maize makes yellow eggs”. This pointed to the connections between what happens on the farm and in seed choice, with retailer and consumer preferences further down the supply chain. While the ways in which farmers sell their maize varies, in general it appears that supply chains are in a sense quite short and compact in this area relative to other parts of the country where white maize is grown commercially for human consumption, which creates longer supply chains including milling and product development stages. It could therefore be important to explore different regions and supply chains in relation to each other. The next phase of my work will involve exploring further what kinds of maize systems exist in different parts of the country and then choosing which sites I will focus on for the study going forward.

The challenge of categorising maize seeds and systems

If we are to transparently report on our research process (as we intend to do in this blog), we must say that we have been experiencing some difficulties with the framing of our task. With this entry, we aim to reflect on the process we have been going through to try and categorise the different seeds and systems we are investigating in this research project.


Our first idea, presented in the funded project proposal, was to map and compare different models of agrifood systems, namely organic, conventional and GM. This initial approach made sense since it is a common distinction made between agricultural systems of production by both policy makers and publics. Since the regulation of GMOs typically uses what are labeled ‘conventional’ alternatives (i.e. chemically intensive, industrial models of agriculture) in comparisons of risk acceptability, while much of the social resistance to GMOs draws on organic farming models as the relevant comparator, we thought it was interesting and important to empirically consider and compare all three systems of production. However, we were also aware from the beginning that this distinction implied many difficulties, especially since in the realities of practice, these systems are often not as clearly separable as the theoretical categories imply. For example, in Spain, many farmers cultivate both conventional and GM maize at the same time. There are also significant differences between organic farms depending on whether they are large or small scale, as recognised in what the academic literature calls the ‘conventialisation of organic farming’ as it increasingly adopts mainstream models of large-scale production, globalised distribution and supermarket-based consumption.


Furthermore, our early research has uncovered that in Spain, the maize seeds that are produced to be sown in commercial organic fields are not actually organic themselves. That is, they do not come from organic parental lines. They are seeds that are produced in a ‘conventional’ way. The difference is that before the ‘organic’ seeds are put into the packages to be sold to farmers, they are not treated with fungicides and insecticides, as conventional and GM seeds are (indicated by their bright pink or orange colour). The reason behind this is that in Spain, organic parental lines are not available and therefore, the Organic Farming Certification Scheme accepts untreated but conventionally produced seeds.


Becomingly increasingly uneasy with the distinction we had originally adopted for our mapping exercise, and after many difficult discussions, we therefore decided to try shifting the criteria we were using in order to approach the different systems. We decided to try mapping different agrifood systems by following different types of seeds, namely GM seeds, hybrid seeds and traditional varieties.

After two months working with this new distinction, however, new difficulties have arisen. We are forced to recognize that in practice we are actually sliding between the two differential criteria (both the gm-conventional-organic system distinction and  the gm-hybrid-traditional seed distinction). This is because the former is, whether we like it or not, widely used among all the stakeholders we are engaging with while the latter is marginal and only found in very few nodes of the food web. Also, when referring to hybrids, there are significant differences between their use in conventional and organic models of production. We also met an organic farmer with a small family farm who was sowing both hybrid and traditional varieties. He was sympathetic towards and valued the traditional varieties, but was also very keen on the hybrids, because they performed well and helped him to get a living. So, in that case, we saw that both distinctions were relevant and complementary for the study. This means that the research is currently employing both frames, depending on the situation. How this challenge develops in the future, and how it influences the maps of different agrifood webs that we produce, remains to be seen and described in a later post.