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.

 

Undisciplined Environments and Food as Commons

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Two weeks ago I attended the Undisciplined Environments Conference, aka the International Conference of the European Network of Political Ecology, in Stockholm.

Activists from all over the world and scholars from a wide range of disciplines met over four days to discuss the political intersections between environmental and societal issues. I went to present on the Spanish socio-environmental conflicts represented in the Environmental Justice Atlas, with an emphasis on the conflict we are now researching in detail: GM crops.

Some of the presentations were great. Kim Tallbear gave a talk during a plenary on post-colonisation studies, indigenous feminism and the role of technoscience in the colonisation of indigenous peoples and others. She talked about multi-species ethnographies and presented some of the traits of the indigenous ontologies, which usually exceed the dominating binomial (and hierarchical) categorisation of reality (e.g male-female, culture-nature…), and pointed out to the ability of non-human beings and things to co-construct reality. This strongly resonated with the process of following maize through the food web and the actants of The Agri/Cultures Project.

Also, Ugo Mattei gave an interesting talk about his latest book, “The ecology of law”. In this book, Ugo Mattei and Fritjof Capra, they explore the intimate links and alignments between the mechanistic science and the making of modern law. They argue that the perception of the world as a “machine-world” (with its controllable, replaceable and disconnected parts) has profoundly shaped modern law and its main pillars (individual, private property, State sovereignty) and this is also deeply responsible for the global ecological crisis we face. They state that a paradigmatic shift regarding law is urgently needed and put forward the idea of The Commons as a key aspect of this shift (the commons as a legal institution). Its potential relies on transcending traditional public-private property dichotomies and putting more emphasis on the power of communities.

In fact, the commons was a concept very present throughout the conference. I attended a presentation about food as commons that inspired me to want to explore this thread in relation to our project (e.g food as commons or, perhaps, more specifically, seeds as commons). In my view, the commons are not just resources. The commons are intimately involved with all living beings as they are also part of the web of life. They shape and are shaped by reality (in fact, our lives depend on their health) and they are at the heart of many heated conflicts worldwide.

This is just the beginning of a thread that I hope to keep building on but…  do you know of any interesting work done on ‘seeds as commons´ or ‘food as commons’ with an ecologically-inspired perspective?

Small-scale farming systems in KwaZulu Natal – visiting field sites and thinking about multi-species methodologies

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View over some maize farms in Hlabisa which are badly affected by the country-wide drought conditions.

Last week I travelled to KwaZulu Natal to visit some potential field site areas with my supervisor, Rachel Wynberg and Hellen, a master’s student who is also looking at the impacts of GM maize on small-scale farmers in South Africa. Hellen was conducting some focus groups with members of a cooperative who are using GM maize in Hlabisa near the town of Mtubatuba. We decided that Hlabisa would be an important site for my fieldwork as it has a long history of farmers growing GM maize seed varieties due to a number of interventions in the area. There have been a number of studies done in the area looking at the social and economic benefits and impacts of GM maize for small-scale farmers here over the past decade, however little research on socio-ecological dimensions. Hlabisa was one of the first sites in South Africa where Monsanto rolled out Bt maize through government programs in 2001. It is estimated that throughout the country 3000 small-scale framers attended introductory workshops on using GM maize.

While we were in Mtubatuba we met with one of the key members of Biowatch who is based at their offices there. He has worked in the area for a long time and was able to advise me on what small/scale maize agri/culture sites he felt would be suitable for the project. We discussed how Pongola, which is on the border of Swaziland could be a good site as farmers there grow both traditional and GM maize, however there is a strong resistance to GM maize by some of the farmers in the area. He also suggested that the area of Ngwavuma could also be good as it has a very high diversity of traditional maize seed varieties present. While I was unable to go to these sites further North this trip we will be going there during our project meeting in March which will be in South Africa.

We spent one day visiting a group of women from an agro-ecological cooperative affiliated with Biowatch located near Mtubatuba. We spent a few hours speaking with the chairperson (whose home we met at), the vice secretary and an additional member. The farmers here grow a number traditional maize varieties as well as a diversity of other food crops (see the photograph below). Their crops are spread out between 3 different growing sites. They each have a ‘summer’ and a ‘winter garden’ located at their homes ans these are farmed for household use. The summer garden is where maize is grown and despite the drought some maize had been planted and was growing. In addition they also all work collectively on a large ‘market garden’ which they use to generate income through selling produce such as spinach, leeks, green peppers and other vegetables to a nearby supermarket. All gardens are tended to using agro-ecological methods which BioWatch provides training in.

This visit was a great opportunity to reflect on method. We had a long discussion about how the farmers in the cooperative had come to grow the maize they grow now and farm using the methods they currently use. We also spoke a lot about drought and the survival of different maize varieties as well as other crops in times of drought. The farmers explained how they had only recently begun farming again over the past few years. While they were born in families where their parents were farmers, grown up farming and gotten married into farming families (often receiving a diversity seed as part of a dowry), many factors had cause them to move away from farming. They told us of how during a period of drought in the 1980’s many oxen had died and so they started to plant by hand or hire tractors when they were available. Another problem that started to increase was that of stray animals (goats and cows) would always come into their fields as no one was herding them anymore due to various social changes and pressures I have not explored at this point.

This story of how a changing relationship with cattle is an important part of the changing agri/cultures was also expressed in Hlabisa during the focus groups Hellen was conducting. In Hlabisa farmers mentioned that they started to vaccinate their cattle in the 1980s as well as adopt foreign breeds of cattle introduced by white farmers which weren’t as resilient. Some felt that the vaccinations affected the cows health as well as the quality of milk and meat. Cattle are a key species in small-scale maize farming systems in South Africa. I feel I have much more to explore and understand here around the importance of cattle in small-scale agri/cultural systems and how relationships with cattle changing over time due to climate and political history is connected to maize growing.

As explored above many farmers in Kwawhowho had given up on farming due to the loss of oxen, drought and other pressures until Biowatch came to the area to carry out training workshops. Biowatch motivated people to start planting again, first on a small-scale with household gardens and then through the introduction of ‘market gardens’. But drought has been a constant a problem. Last year it was bad however they did manage to keep seed. This year it threatens to be worse. When I asked about the types of maize being grown the chairperson went to collect some maize cobs as well as buckets of seed in various jars and we laid these out and leaned about the different types of maize and other kind of seed as well as how it is planted and what insects are both good and bad some of which had gotten into the jars. We were shown a variety of traditional maize with a small pink cob that grows well in drought. There were also some other vegetable species that were considered good survivors in times of drought.

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Maize varieties we were shown in Kwawhowho ( we were told the one on the left fairs well in drought conditions)

Talking around the different seeds offered a great way of learning about the complexity and diversity of the agri/culture system. We also walked around the garden and explored what was there and how things were planted as well as looked as some of the insects and other specie sin the system and how they are connected. These maize systems are not part of a supply chain but are rather closed systems. Maize seed is saved and in times where seed is running low farmers trade with nearby farmers and farmers rely little on external or bought inputs. During the few days we were in KwaZulu Natal  I began to see how the multi-species methodology can be a powerful tool for uncovering socio-ecological connections and wider narratives about agri/culture systems. Reflecting on some writing I read recently I started to see how a multi-species approach in conjunction with the use of photography and sensory data collection could provide a way for engaging with agricultural system in a way that draws out new complexities. George Monbiot in his recent book Feral writes how: “Most human endeavors, unless checked by public dissent, evolve into monocultures. Money seeks out a region’s competitive advantage – the field in which it competes most successfully – an promotes it to the exclusion of all else.” (Monbiot, 2014: 153)

I look forward to exploring many different systems of small-scale agriculture and how an interest in the multi-species as a window into understanding these systems better. I am interested in looking at a range of systems from those that sustain an increased level of diversity growing various kinds of traditional maize varieties as well as other crops to those that resemble monocultures growing only one varitety of GM maize. In March we will be be visiting various types of small-scale maize farms in the Northern part of KwaZulu near the borders of Swaziland and Mozambique where farmers grow traditional, hybrid and GM maize more commercially and so that will be an opportunity to explore the supply chain linkages and the use of the multispecies as a way of researching maize agri/culture systems.

Sensory Ethnography: Methods for moving beyond the human and a reliance on words

crossing paths - tractor tyre tracks, bird and goat footprints in mud on a small-scale GM maize farm in the Eastern Cape South Africa

Crossing Paths – tractor tyre tracks and bird and goat footprints in mud on a small-scale GM maize farm in the Eastern Cape South Africa

Over the past few months I have been exploring how I may be able to move beyond a sole reliance on interviews and spoken words to collect information about each of the three small-scale maize agri/culture systems I will be exploring in South Africa (these are defined by the kind of maize seed being used – traditional, hybrid or GM seed) . As the intention is to map socio-ecological relationships, I have been searching for methods that are suited to exploring the human-nature relationships happening in each part of the agri/culture system.

In a previous post ‘Unlikely’ protagonists: a multispecies approach, I wrote about a multi-species approach as a methodology that may help the researcher move beyond a human centered narrative by focusing on other species vital for the existence of the agricultural system. Building onto this, a sensory ethnography approach could also offer a way of engaging beyond the human and carrying out such a multispecies inquiry.

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An interest in the multi-species world and in socio-ecological relationships requires methodologies that work beyond words. It requires approaches that can expand the ‘sensory noticing’ of the researcher in each space.

A ‘sensorial turn’ has gained interest in a number of disciplines over the past decade – e.g. through ‘sensuous scholarship’, ‘sensuous geography’, ‘sociology of the senses’ etc. Within visual anthropology, this turn has lead to the development of Sensory Ethnography.

The Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab (HSEL) define Sensory Ethnography as:

“combinations of aesthetics and ethnography as a means of engaging in research that is beyond a reliance on language”, encouraging “attention to the many dimensions of the world, both animate and inanimate, that may only with difficulty, if it all, be rendered with propositional prose” (Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab).

The Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) promotes innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography to explore the natural and unnatural world and points of intersection. Artists and Ethnographers experiment with how this way of being in the field opens up new types of noticing and awareness that may be missed if attention is mostly focused on language. Sarah Pink’s (2015) book Doing Sensory Ethnography offers a valuable field guide to the research being done within this realm and urges that the “greater use of multi-sensory-experimental data (vision, taste, hearing touch etc)” be used in combination with other ethnographic methods. I feel that sensory ethnography offers an exciting approach for engaging in nature/culture research and multi-species engagements and therefore intend to use it in combination with more traditional interview techniques.

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For my project, the sensory component will involve using observational drawings, photography, film, and sound recordings as a way of observing and engaging with each site. As each site is different, the kinds of activities I choose to undertake will depend on the site. Sound recordings may be appropriate in agricultural fields, whereas photography may offer a useful way of observing and recording a laboratory. Drawings may present a way of expressing location, proximity, or geographical relationships, such as how close GM varieties are planted next to traditional varieties. In addition, Sensory Ethnography could offer an interesting way of engaging in dialogue with human actors in the spaces I enter. The sensory material could then present a set of interactive materials able to stimulate and help facilitate conversations with farmers, scientists or other stakeholders. Furthermore, this process will build an archive ‘other than words’ about each system that will provide a valuable set of interactive communication tools and potentially material for an exhibition at the end of the project.

In January I will be traveling to Hlabisa in KwaZulu Natal with some other researchers who are looking at GM maize adoption in South Africa. They will be conducting focus groups with small-scale GM maize adopters and during this trip I plan to begin exploring the use of some sensory ethnography methods. I hope to report back on this in my next post!

‘Unlikely’ protagonists: a multispecies approach.

European Corn Borer

Multispecies ethnography has become a popular area of research in recent work concerned with nature/culture relationships and moving beyond anthropocentric perspectives. As Kirskey and Helmrich (2010) explain “multispecies ethnography centers on how a multitude of organisms’ livelihoods shape and are shaped by political, economic, and cultural forces”. Furthermore, how now “creatures previously appearing on the margins of anthropology—as part of the landscape, as food for humans, as symbols—have been pressed into the foreground. Animals, plants, fungi, and microbes once confined in anthropological accounts to the realm of zoe or “bare life”—that which is killable—have started to appear alongside humans in the realm of bios, with legibly biographical and political lives”.

Multi-species researchers are interested in working beyond previously defined sets of ideas within anthropocentric discourses in which humans are conceived as occupying a higher position to ‘other’ life forms. This effort has opened up a space for an enlivened body of work that moves between human and other lives that matter. Van Dooren and Bird Rose put forward the concept of “lively ethnographies”, which they describe as “a mode of storytelling that recognises the meaningful lives of others”, in which they mean ‘other’ than human. An interest in species beyond our own, and a curiosity about our entangled engagement with them, offers a different set of stories that can open up a new set of possibilities for thinking about the present and future of life on earth.

In Anna Tsing’s (2012) famous multi-species work, she explores the lives of fungi and through this reflects on the phenomena of domestication of species and our tendencies to try and create mono-crops and farmed spaces that are disconnected from ‘nature’ (seen as set apart from the human realm). She states that “Domestication is ordinarily understood as human control over other species” however humans are also affected by these same species and their behaviors and tendencies and this is usually ignored. The idea that one is either in the realm of the human or of nature she explains “supports the most outrageous fantasies of domestic control” whereby on the one hand we find ourselves subjecting other species to life imprisonment and on the other we preserve wild species in gene banks “while their multi-species landscapes are destroyed”. Further, she argues that we need to explore how despite our efforts and habits towards compartmentalizing ourselves there are complex relations of interdependency at play and attention to this can perhaps “be the beginning of an appreciation of interspecies species being.” .

James McCann in his book Maize and Grace (1999) explores relationships between people and maize in Southern Africa between 1500 and 2000. Before McCann’s work, much of the story of how maize came to be such a pervasive crop was left unwritten. In order to write this (without a lot of written records) McCann explores the history expressed by maize “through its genetic make up, its varieties, its agronomic imperatives, its qualities as food, and its own peculiar symbiosis with its human hosts and the land they inhabit”. In this way, the maize species becomes the protagonist in the book. McCann explores maize as a species with particular character and ability to relate to humans as well as a crop that lent itself to mono-crop agriculture (linked to concentrated state and corporate power) and that these characteristics were important for it becoming such a successful crop in South Africa. This provides an insightful and creative approach to thinking beyond the human while at the same time offering insights about human-maize connections that would not have unfolded without this vantage point. This book is a foundational resource for the work I am hoping to undertake over the next few years looking at small-scale maize systems in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Recently I have been working on the idea of incorporating a multi-species approach into this work.

Beyond maize as a protagonist species though, I would like to explore a diversity of multi-species nature/culture relationships within maize agri/culture. By paying close attention to a range of protagonist species I hope to unfold new narratives concerning nature/culture interactions, how these shape and are shaped by agricultural systems and how the replacement of seeds with new seed technologies may disrupt or alter the complex interrelationships at play.

As I am at the very beginning, I have just started to map some of the species that are likely to play a part in the story, however, I also look forward to exploring this in the field and meeting some unlikely protagonists there.

One emerging protagonist is the corn borer Ostrinia nubilalis. This species has definitively shaped the history of GM maize and been the catalyst or ‘poster’ bug driving the development of GM Bt Maize. I am curious to explore the prevalence of this insect, the human relationships with it, the traditional ‘control’ methods in KwaZulu Natal where small-scale farmers are being encouraged to adopt Bt crops. Do the ways of the South African relative of the corn borer Busseola fusca (often termed the stem borer in South Africa) warrant the use of GM Bt maize varieties on small-scale farms? What other non target insects native to these regions play a role or may be threatened and what are the human connections and knowledges of and with these species?

 

Citrus Swallowtail Papilio demodocus – Butterfly species common to Southern Africa and found in Kwazulu Natal: Photo Source

As I start to map the multi-species that play a part in the story of maize as it moves through the supply chain, the list keeps growing, from Bacillus thuringiensis – the bacteria that lends its genes to scientists to insert into the DNA of Bt Maize, to molds that grow on maize cobs, to mice and weevils who threaten stored maize, to the pigs who produce good manure to boost the soil fertility on traditional fields to the cows who are fed on GM maize. I am excited to begin developing and applying this multi-species approach to my work to map maize agri/cultures and highlighting the stories that connect us together.

a pair of pigs i came accross in the Eastern Cape South Africa on a traditional maize farm

The noses of pair of pigs I came across in the Eastern Cape South Africa on a traditional maize farm

 

 

We published a paper!

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We are thrilled to announce you that we published the first paper of this project! Woohoo!

Its title is Seeing GMOs from a Systems Perspective: The Need for Comparative Cartographies of Agri/Cultures for Sustainability Assessment. It is open sourced and it explores the methodological tools and challenges we foresee when studying GMOs as systems and it also outlines a new approach to map agri-food networks.

You can access the paper here:

And here you can read a short summary:

In this paper, we aim to make a unique theoretical and methodological contribution by advancing a systems-based approach to conceptualising and assessing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The paper takes as a starting point that agricultural biotechnologies cannot be usefully assessed as isolated technological entities but need to be evaluated within the context of the broader socio-ecological system that they embody and engender. The paper then explores, compares and contrasts some of the methodological tools available for advancing this systems-based perspective. The article concludes by outlining a new synthesis approach of comparative cartographies of agri/cultures generated through multi-sited ethnographic case-studies, which is proposed as a way to generate system maps and enable the comparison of genetically modified (GM) food with both conventional and alternative agri-food networks for sustainability assessment.

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

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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?

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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.