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?

¡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).

Field trip to the cooperative Joaquin Costa in Binefar

As part of our Kick-off meeting in October 2014, the Agri/Cultures project research team and advisors visited the farmer cooperative Joaquin Costa in Binefar. During this visit we had the opportunity to talk with members of the cooperative about their organisation, their breeding programs in maize and their relationship to GMOs.

Visita Joaquin Costa

We also had the opportunity to see some of the field trials taking place as well as the harvesting process.

IMG_2961 camps panís


Through our conversations it became clear what a significant role water plays in the decision-making of farmers, both in terms of the timing of their planting but also in the selection of their varieties. We also learned about how difficult and resource intensive it was to monitor for potential mixing between GM and non-GM crops and to maintain separation between them.

IMG_2952 Additionally, we observed how important yield was as a breeding criteria and heard about the rapid turnover in the varieties that were available to farmers from year to year.

A surprising issue that got a lot of attention during the field trip was the apparent presence of Teosinte (the wild ancestor of maize, which is native to Latin America) in the fields of Spanish farmers and the difficulty farmers were having with its removal and control.

Our visit to the cooperative sparked significant media interest and many of the project’s researchers and advisors were interviewed for radio programs and newspapers during our visit.

kickoff media        media kickoff 2