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?

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.