The National Agricultural Research Forum -reflections on the future of agricultural research in South Africa

Last week i attended the National Agricultural Research Forum (NARF) annual meeting in Pretoria.  This is an annual governmental meeting open to all food stakeholders that aims to set research priorities for the year and ahead and work towards an integrated future of agri/cultural research in South Africa. Given the project’s interest in the changes that agricultural research and knowledge has undergone over the decades this meeting was an opportunity to understand better government’s interface with agricultural research and various stakeholders in the Research and Development (R&D) system in South Africa. It was also an opportunity to explore how agriculture and the agricultural research that supports it is being imagined for the future in South Africa and what kinds of knowledge are being prioritised. Over the last months in the field i have been interested in how ecological knowledge in agriculture is changing and exploring the theme of agri/cultural deskilling linked to the introduction of new seed technologies developed often out of context of where they are used and with little or no dialogue with farmers. I have been exploring this in the context of small scale maize agri/cultures as well as in the R&D system in South Africa. I have also been interested in the connections and disconnections  between science , research, innovation and small-scale farmers. The meeting allowed a space to explore how farming knowledge, especially that of small scale farmers was being prioritised or not on a national level.

The meeting started off with a keynote address by the Director General for the Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries Mr.M Mlengana. He made reference to the Vision 2030 National Development Strategy as being the base document for the agricultural vision of South Africa in the context of the wider goals of the country as well as the Sustainable Development Goals which guide this. The 2017/18 National Agricultural Development Strategic Plan provides a roadmap to implementing this vision. The 2008 National Research and Development Strategy provides the baseline for setting the priorities in research to support this. At the meeting there was a launch of an APEX Body which will fulfill the role of coordinating agricultural research going forward as well as build capacity and partnerships in this area. Previously this was managed by the National Agricultural Research Forum NARF which was developed in 2002 to “facilitate consensus and integrate coordination in the fields of research, development, and technology transfer to agriculture in order to enhance national economic growth, social welfare and environmental sustainability”.  In his talk the DG stressed the importance of “building an inclusive rural economy”, focusing on “research and innovation” and agriculture contributing to rural growth. He stressed the importance of science for agriculture in a changing global climate and the need for research that will “unpack uncertainties” that we will be faced with. While smallholder farmers are widely acknowledged and mentioned throughout the The 2017/18 National Agricultural Development Strategic Plan they feature less in the The 2008 National Research and Development Strategy.

Globally there is an increasing recognition that small scale farmers are vital actors in the current production and future of food production. In South Africa there appears to strong drive in Policy and related developmental programmes to bring small-scale farmers into monocrop based agricultures while fewer opportunities for small-scale farmers to boost their farming systems in a way that focuses on diversity and alternative agri/cultural models which incorporate the knowledge and skills of farmers. This seemed to be reflected at the meeting which focused a lot on scientific research and technology development for agricultural growth and poverty reduction without much mention of other knowledge holders being key collaborators for future goals. There also appears to be a focus on science and technology as the primary answer to agricultural challenges in the future, while there not a wide exploration of how these technologies may deeply impact systems of agri/culture.

Historically farmers have been the primary keepers and innovators of agricultural knowledge. This knowledge was gained from experience and skills passed down over generations through families and apprenticeships and based on a knowledge imbedded in particular landscapes and ecologies. However from the early 1900s this began to change and scientists began to assume authority over agricultural knowledge. This went hand in hand with an increasing drive to turn agricultural produce into commodities and raw materials. And in the hands of scientists and researchers – through hybridization, seeds would also become valuable commodities.  Scientists who initially relied on farmer knowledge such as in choosing which varieties to focus on in the development of hybrid maize came to dominate the research and development of seed. Agricultural research on maize seed has expanded and shifted over time in relation to political and economic imperatives. During this process the knowledge of small scale farmers has been increasingly sidelined and undervalued and small scale farmers have become increasingly recipients of knowledge and technologies. In her 1993 paper ‘Deskilled: Hybrid Corn and Farmers’ Work’ Deborah Fitzgerald argues that “hybrid corn was an agent by which farmers were effectively deskilled” in the United States. The project here in South Africa has been tracing the introduction of new seed technologies and exploring how social-ecological knowledge in relation to maize agri/cultures may being lost or changed because of the introduction of seed technologies (Hybrid first and then Genetically Modified varieties).  Small-scale farmers are holders of agricultural diversity in the way of seed that has been passed down generationally, and attached to this seed is a wealth of knowledge around growing it in relation to ecological systems. However, this is not always recognised and in many cases is threatened by harmonisation of seed laws, introduction of new varieties such as GM seed and hierarchical knowledge systems and development schemes which promote small scale farmers abandoning traditional varieties and taking up new seed varieties to be grown as monocrops.

I will in the next weeks spend more time exploring the Policy environment and how R&D is envisioned in this in relation to small-scale farming and how this related to current focus of agricultural research. While i have begun to interview a number of government officials and researchers on how small-scale farming is connected to the wider R&D system i would like to interview more stakeholders on how they envision smallholder framer knowledge being incorporated into research and development for the future of food.

 

Keeping Up With New and Emerging Technologies

This year the Agri/Cultures Project has spent a significant amount of time attending and presenting at various international seminars, conferences and events (as our previous blog posts demonstrate). Last week this continued as I attended the annual meeting of the Society for Studies of New and Emerging Technologies (S.Net).

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This interdisciplinary society held its 8th annual conference in Bergen from October 11-14 and had an incredibly diverse program. It included keynote speeches from intellectual heavyweights Silvio Funtowicz, Sheila Jasanoff and Joseph Dumit, as well as presentations from a range of philosophers, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and legal scholars interested in different new and emerging technologies. Beyond the standard academic talks though, the program also included other formats and approaches, such as a hands on do-it-yourself biology workshop analysing microplastics in fish using standard household ingredients, a workshop on art and performance based exercises for advancing responsible innovation and a film night showing short films from the biofiction film festival (which I participated in as a member of the discussion panel afterwards). It was truly wonderful to participate in such a diverse event bringing together different fields of science and art in creative ways to analyse the socio-ecological relations around new and emerging technologies. I would highly recommend anyone interested in social, ethical and legal aspects of new and emerging technologies to consider attending the next meeting, which is planned to be held in Phoenix in October 2017.

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Although at this event I presented work I am doing as a partner in other projects (NANoREGNorNanoReg, REDiG) on responsible innovation within the field of nanotechnology, I also took the opportunity to attend several sessions dealing with biotechnology issues. This included an interesting talk by Koen Beumer on biotechnology in Africa analysed from an identity politics perspective. He was specifically talking about how the identity of “the farmer” is being differentially constructed and performed by those inside and outside the biotechnology community. In another session, the always energetic Dorothy Dankel provided an insight into how the CRISPR/Cas system is being deployed to study and develop sterile salmon for the aquaculture industry and facilitated a debate on whether we would/should be eating GM salmon in 5 years. While in another interesting presentation, Alberto Aparicio presented some of his PhD research on the field of xenobiology (or orthogonal biology) in which scientists seek to develop new forms of life not based on DNA. He presented this work as promoting itself as useful for the potential containment and control of future GMOs.

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All of these talks made me realise that not only do we currently have very little empirical research available on how the GMOs currently in commercial circulation are reshaping our agri/cultures and socio-ecological relations, but also that there is now a groundswell of new developments underway that researchers interested in social, ethical and legal aspects of biotechnology will have to work very hard to keep up with. This makes working at the interface between biology and philosophy, and between biotechnology and society, both extremely exciting and uniquely challenging right now, and perhaps more important than ever before.

Responsible Governance of (New) Agricultural Biotechnologies

In an earlier post, I described an international workshop we held in November 2015 with experts on risk assessment, responsible innovation and ethics of agricultural biotechnology. Happily, I can now report that our learning from that worskhop has been available for everybody in the form of a publication in the journal PLoS Biology.

In the published paper, entitled “Essential Features of Responsible Governance of Agricultural Biotechnology” we argue that changes to the governance of agricultural biotechnologies have become particularly urgent as new genomic tools and products (such as CRISPR-Cas9, RNAi, synthetic biology, and GM animals) continue to emerge and controversies surrounding GM crops remain unresolved.

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What we have seen is that much of the current debate around these new genomic tools and products is focused on whether or not they fit within existing regulatory frameworks. This is no doubt a very important debate that will have significant consequences no matter which way nations decide. However, it is also important to question whether or not the existing regulatory frameworks are sufficient for addressing the issues that continue to generate controversy in this field. Since they have not been capable of allieviating controversy around GM crops, we argue that the new wave of biotechnologies provides a useful opportunity to revise not just our specific regulatory frameworks but also our general approach to governance so as to make it more socially robust and ethically responsible.

Integrating findings from both our dedicated workshop and several decades of work within social studies of science and procedural ethics, we propose five features that are essential to advance responsible governance of agricultural biotechnology. These essential features are:

  1. Commitment to candour
  2. Recognition of underlying values and assumptions
  3. Involvement of a broad range of knowledge and actors
  4. Consideration of a range of alternatives
  5. Preparedness to respond.

Each of these are outlined in more detail in the paper, where we also give specific examples of how social scientists have been working to advance these features in technology governance. In doing so we seek to show how ideas from several fields can be fruitfully integrated into a common framework to advance scientifically and socially responsible forms of governance for both existing and emerging agricultural biotechnologies.

Published in an open access journal, we hope that you might find this paper interesting and encourage you to share it with friends and colleagues. Of course, we would also welcome your questions and feedback!

IPES-Food: 10 principles to guide the transition to Sustainable Food Systems

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) is a new transdisciplinary initiative to support, inform and advise the policy debate on how to reform food systems across the world. This is a new panel guided by new ways of thinking about research, sustainability and food systems. The panel is co-chaired by Olivier De Schutter (former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food) and Olivia Yambi (nutritionist and former UNICEF representative to Kenya). The Panel brings together different disciplines and different types of knowledge, comprising environmental scientists, development economists, nutritionists, agronomists and sociologists, as well as experienced practitioners from civil society and social movements.

This diversity reflects the holistic approach of IPES-Food, based around a broad definition of sustainability that covers not only environmental sustainability, but also social equity and adequate nutrition dimensions. It approaches food systems from farm to fork and encompasses processing, packaging, waste and producer-consumer feedback loops. The approach of IPES-Food values local knowledge and the experience of social actors in exploring pathways for transition, as well as taking into account power relations and the political economy of food systems. Its working methods are based on participatory mechanisms and recognize the need for scientific experts to collaborate with actors across food systems in order to produce policy-relevant knowledge.

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The first report of the panel has been called “The new science of sustainable food systems. Overcoming barriers to food systems reform“, and was launched in May 2015. Moreover, the panel has also identified 10 key principles to guide the urgently-needed transition to sustainable food systems:

What types of knowledge and analysis are needed to support the transition?
– Holistic & systemic. Hunger, obesity, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, the pressures on smallholder livelihoods, cultural erosion, workforce exploitation and other problems in food systems are deeply inter-connected. Holistic thinking is needed in order to identify systemic ‘lock-ins’, and to find integrated solutions and potential levers of
change.
– Power-sensitive. Analysis of food systems must not ignore the differential power of actors to influence decision-making
and to set the terms of debate for reform. Power relations and the political economy of food systems must take center-stage.
Transdisciplinary. Knowledge must be co-produced with farmers, food industry workers, consumers, entrepreneurs, and other social actors and movements who hold unique understanding of food systems. Actors from fields such as public health, environment and rural development also have much to contribute to the debate on food systems reform.
Critically engaged. Producer organizations, retailers and other actors in food chains must be fully engaged in defining and developing sustainable food systems. The interests of some private sector actors, in particular multinational agribusiness firms, have typically been aligned with existing political arrangements, e.g. policies favoring export-led production systems for bulk commodities and processed foods. This makes it all the more challenging, and all the more necessary, to critically engage agribusiness firms in the debate.
Independent. Science and knowledge cannot be made to fit within the parameters set by dominant actors: IPES-Food is
a fully independent panel, without financial or organizational ties to any corporations, governments, intergovernmental
agencies or advocacy groups.

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What principles and values should underpin the sustainable food systems of the future?
Sustainable in all dimensions. Sustainability must be the benchmark of food systems reform, and must include environmental, health, social , cultural and economic dimensions. Sustainable food systems must deliver diets that are nutritious, affordable and culturally acceptable ii , and must provide food security without compromising the ability of future generations to do so iii .
Diverse & resilient. Food systems must be fundamentally reoriented around principles of diversity, multi – functionality and resilience. This shift is required in agriculture in order to sustain yields and agro-ecosystems in the longer-term, and must be complemented by diversity in supply chains and markets in order to support diverse and nutritious diets . As an embodiment of these principles, agroecology must be fully supported.
Democratic & empowering. Decision-making in food systems must be democratized in ways that empower disadvantaged actors and help to realize the human rights of all , including the right to food. Access to these processes must not depend on gender, age, ethnicity or wealth. The needs and perspectives of small – scale farmers, indigenous communities, disadvantaged consumers and other groups must not be drowned out by more powerful and visible actors.
Socially & technologically innovative. The transition to sustainable food systems requires complex and holistic change processes in which social innovation plays as big a role as technological innovation, and extends to food distribution and retail practices, as well as modes of production. The impacts of innovation pathways should not be assumed to be only benevolent, and should be continually assessed.
Adequately measured. New indicators of progress must be developed in order to capture the benefits of equitable, resilient, diverse, nutrient-rich food systems in ways that productivity growth, net calorie availability and other existing measures do not. Efforts and initiatives to improve the sustainability of food systems should be assessed with a view to seeing continuous improvement; accountability must be clearly assigned in order to hold actors to their commitments.
What do you think about these principles? How do you think they could be implemented?

 

The organic sector urges the Commission to classify new genetic engineering techniques as GMOs: Press release by IFOAM Europe

IFOAM Europe just released the following press release.

The organic sector urges the Commission to classify new genetic engineering techniques as GMOs

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BRUSSELS, 14 January 2016 – IFOAM EU has published a position paper on new genetic engineering techniques, ahead of the legal interpretation of the European Commission, expected by March 2016. The European organic food and farming sector considers that there are no legal or technical reasons to bypass the GMO legislation and to exempt these new breeding techniques from risk assessment and other legal requirements that apply to GMOs, and warns of severe economic consequences if some of these techniques are deregulated by the European Commission.

“New techniques bearing the same potential risks as the GMOs currently on the market should not be used in organic farming nor released into the environment, even less be exempted from risk assessment and traceability”, warns Christopher Stopes, IFOAM EU President.

“Any attempt to exempt these new genetic engineering techniques from risk assessment, traceability and labelling would create havoc on the food, feed and seeds markets, and would backfire like the attempt to introduce GMOs in Europe backfired 20 years ago”, adds Thomas Fertl, IFOAM EU Vice-President.

“The Commission could let consumers and the market decide, but the right to choose can only exist if there is a traceability and labelling system in place, like for currently labelled GMOs. Without traceability, it would be impossible to know if and where such products would be in the environment and in the food chain”, he adds.

“We need innovation in the plant breeding sector and new agronomic approaches that make the most of the diversity of plant genetic resources, but innovation does not have to resort to genetic engineering techniques that can lead to unpredictable side effects, and whose benefits will mainly go the companies that will market them”, adds Eric Gall, IFOAM EU Policy Manager.

The so-called “new plant breeding techniques” addressed in the position paper, such as cisgenesis or CRISPR/Cas, interfere at the sub-cellular and genomic level. Therefore, IFOAM EU considers that they would not be compatible with the principles of organic farming and that they should not be used in organic farming.

Deregulation of new breeding techniques would threaten the freedom of choice of breeders, farmers and consumers. If some of these new techniques are excluded from the scope of the legislation on GMOs, the organic sector would face a situation where genetic modification techniques excluded from organic farming could be released into the environment and the food chain while being exempt from any traceability and labelling requirements.

Read the new IFOAM EU position paper

For more information please contact:

Eric Gall, Policy Manager
+32 (0) 2 280 68 43 / +32 491 07 25 37, [email protected]

Laura Ullmann, Communications Manager
+32 (0)2 808 7991 / +32 (0) 486 88 52 12, [email protected]

Or visit www.ifoam-eu.org

Responsible Risk?

At the end of November, the Agri/Cultures project joined with Dr. Frøydis Gillund from GenØk Centre for Biosafety and Dr. Sarah Hartley from the University of Nottingham (with funding from the Norwegian Research Council BIOTEK 2021 program and the Leverhulme Trust) to organise the workshop “Responsible Risk? Achieving good governance of agricultural biotechnology”. Our interest in organising this event was to explore the relationship between risk assessment, ethics, and the emerging governance discourse of responsible research and innovation. Specifically, we were interested in whether these different approaches to governing the development and use of GMOs had anything to learn from each other and whether they could be integrated in such a way as to make the most of each approach.

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The event began with an open round table held at UiT the Arctic University of Norway. Here, three international experts in the fields of risk assessment (Prof. Erik Millstone), ethics (Sir Roland Jackson), and responsible research and innovation (Prof. Richard Owen) were invited to present their visions for good governance of agricultural biotechnology. These visions were then commented on by three national stakeholders from the Norwegian Environment Agency, the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board and the Research Council of Norway, followed by an open discussion with the audience.

After a networking lunch, the organisers, the invited international speakers and national stakeholders, together with 5 other global experts invited to attend from across the different fields, retreated to the GenØk offices to spend the afternoon working on how to implement the visions that had emerged during the morning session.

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Here the focus was on working through questions such as:

  • Who has a role for putting this vision into practice? Which actors need to be engaged, and how?
  • What would need to be addressed? What would have to change?
  • Who has agency and power to bring this about?
  • What might be the obstacles or challenges with implementing such a vision and how can we overcome them?

Of course this is where the true difficulties were encountered! While it seems many in the group were very good visionaries, concrete ideas for how we can overcome some of the obstacles facing good governance of agricultural biotechnologies were a little harder to pin down. Interesting overlaps were observed though and it was clear that there was indeed potential to bring together the practices of risk assessment, ethics evaluation and the demands of responsible research and innovation in interesting and useful ways.

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The results of the workshop are therefore now being written up so that we can share the ideas that emerged with everyone in the near future. However, if anyone else out there would like to share their visions for good governance of agricultural biotechnology, or strategies and ideas for overcoming obstacles to enacting these visions, we would love to hear about them!

Responsible Innovation & Agri/Cultures

The Agri/Cultures Project was recently given some attention by the Giannino Bassetti Foundation, with our project profiled and introduced to their members, supporters and readers. The Bassetti Foundation has a mission to promote responsible innovation in various fields of technoscience.

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Responsible Innovation is a relatively new governance discourse that is rapidly being taken up in European policy, particularly for seeking to ensure that the development of emerging technologies like biotechnology, nanotechnology and synthetic biology moves in desirable directions. The Agri/Cultures project seeks to generate empirical knowledge on the impacts of agricultural biotechnologies on socio-ecological systems through their development and use and to consider these impacts in light of criteria of sustainability, ethical justifiability and social utility. As such, it is very interested in to what implications the emerging ideas of what constitutes responsible research and innovation have for a technology already in use, such as GM crops, and for their governance. We are very supportive of the work the Bassetti Foundation is doing on the important issue of advancing responsible innovation and look forward to future discussions about how this may be achieved in the case of agricultural biotechnology.