Strategies for keeping feed free from GMOs

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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.

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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?

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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.

Team Meeting in Tromsø: September 2015

In September we had a team meeting in the beautiful Norwegian city of Tromsø.

The meeting aimed at discussing our advances so far, and preparing for the next round of field work now that the maize harvesting season is about to arrive in Spain. We also had time to discuss our next steps in our communication strategy, the analysis of the interviews and the future team and advisory meetings we plan for in South Africa and Oslo. The meeting also coincided with the first anniversary of the project, so we also took some time for evaluating the progress of the project during this period (and reporting on this to our funders!), as well as celebrating the achievements so far. Fortunately we were also able to meet and share our thoughts in an informal way over meals and relaxation time since we were all staying together in the magnificent Kaldfjord. This location also gave us wonderful views of some very impressive auroras early in the season.

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Our meeting also included a workshop on the software that we are using for  data management, excerpting, coding, and analysis (Dedoose) with our colleagues from the SEED (Society, Ecology and Ethics Department) at GenØk. Also during our meeting days, GenØk held a breakfast seminar for teenagers at the Tromsø library to talk about some of its research projects and were able to use this opportunity to have our first public showing of our introductory video of the Agri/Cultures project, which was a very nice – and unexpected – “premiere” for our movie.

For conducting our evaluation of the project and its progress so far, we decided to do it in the “Norwegian way” and climb a mountain! In other words, we performed our evaluation in the style of a “walkshop” – going beyond traditional forms of academic interaction by working and talking while walking.

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It was a great opportunity to enjoy the Norwegian countryside, while evaluating the project, our work and relations in a more relaxed and inspiring way! We have no doubt that this evaluation will help us continue the next year of the project with the same level of energy, enthusiasm, interest, engagement and success that we saw throughout our first year.

Team Meeting: May 2015

In early May 2015, we had an Agri/Cultures team meeting to meet and start work with our new research collaborators in South Africa.

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For the meeting we stayed at the wonderful community of Cal Cases, about an hour outside Barcelona.

17752940730_d80abb3ee2_oIn the lovely Spanish spring weather, we were able to sit and work outside every day. At our little table under the trees, we spent many hours discussing the similarities and differences between maize farming systems in South Africa and Spain, how we could develop and coordinate our research methods and frames across such different social contexts, how we might combine social science research with work in the fine arts, and what might be the best way to approach and communicate our work in the planned interactive web documentary.

17325936473_2109e33c76_oWe also began filming some scenes for a short film introducing the project, and all struggled with the challenging task of communicating our complex research project to the video camera in a way that was concise, engaging and understandable for a general audience. This issue resurfaced again as we discussed what would be appropriate metaphors, layouts and structure for our interactive web documentary on different cultur17937322362_938eff9793_oes of maize agriculture. Lots of discussions and ideas on this issue lead to some great decisions in the end, but needless to say it took a little while for us to arrive at a shared vision and understanding. Despite the challenges, we are all excited about working with developing an interactive web documentary as a new approach to communicating our academic work. Stay tuned for further developments on that part of the project! 

In between our working hours, we also took the opportunity to work in the garden harvesting vegetables and to collaborate on cooking a meal together for about 25 members of the community. In a project about food systems, it was really worthwhile to spend some time mindfully harvesting our produce, cooking and enjoying meals together.

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With the research team currently spread across Norway, Spain and South Africa, it was fantastic for the project for us to be able to meet, discuss and negotiate things face to face and we really look forward to our next opportunity to do this in South Africa later this year.

Kick-Off Meeting

In late October 2014, the Agri/Cultures project collaborated with the biodiverSEEDy project and had a joint kick-off meeting involving both the research teams and members of the projects’ expert advisory committees. The meeting was held in a beautiful 15th century farmhouse near Vilanova called Masia Notari.

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The extensive farmhouse site offered various locations for our meeting activities, which involved not just powerpoint presentations but also more interactive and dynamic exercises such as world cafes, social thermometers, cartography drafting and collaborative story building.

IMG_2971The program and location for activities changed over time as new themes and issues emerged through the discussions so we worked hard to maintain an updated version for our participants in the farmhouse courtyard.

The kick-off meeting was extremely useful as a way for the research team to begin planning and preparing for the work ahead with help from the project’s expert advisors.

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