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.


No women farming maize in Spain


During the last years working on alternative food systems and food sovereignty, I have had the opportunity to conduct research on agri-food systems from a gender perspective. In more concrete terms, during recent years I became particularly interested in aspects such as the role of peasant women in advancing socio-political changes like agroecology and food sovereignty, the situation of small-scale food artisan women in Spain and the links between food, environment and gender in alternative food systems in Spain (some of this research was done with my colleague in the Agri/Cultures Project Amaranta Herrero).

Unfortunately, it has, however, been rather difficult to link this previous work with women in agriculture with the work we are currently conducting in the Agri/Cultures Project. Basically this is because we are dealing with different cultures of agriculture for cultivating maize in this project and this is a task performed almost exclusively by men in Spain. After more than 15 years interviewing farmers producing maize in Catalonia and Aragón, I only heard from one woman cultivating maize commercially (who Amaranta had the opportunity to interview some months ago). We can also find some exceptions in the case of peasant women who are producing maize in backyards or small plots for the consumption of animals raised at home, but not at a commercial scale.

This absence could respond, however, to some of the conclusions of my previous research. First, maize production at a large scale is an expensive activity in Spain, with important investment costs in terms of seeds, irrigation, fertilizers, etc and the few available statistics indicate that women are usually not the holders of the land on family farms (the most common land tenure form in Spain) and when they are, they hold the smallest farms. They also tend to be in charge of non-mechanised tasks on these farms. We have also observed that women are usually linked to small-scale agricultural projects that prioritize quality, diversity and local food production, which is a very distant model from the highly mechanized and super-specialized commercial maize production in Spain in which maize is essentially considered a commodity used for the production of feed (around 85% of the maize in Spain).

It may be interesting to compare this situation in Spain with what we see in South Africa, although also there we see indications that women are the primary people running the farming activities when they are on a small-scale for subsistence but as soon as it moves into large-scale commercial business, it becomes a mans business. Does anyone else have any information on these kinds of gender issues and dynamics within maize farming in their own context?

‘The social and political life of seeds’ at the AIBR Conference

Last week, Amaranta and I attended the AIBR Conference in Barcelona. AIBR stands for the Network of Iberoamerican Anthropologists, an international organisation of Spanish, Latin American and Portuguese anthropologists.


On Tuesday 6th of September was the opening session of the conference, with an excellent presentation by the Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar. He is one of the most important Latin American anthropologists, with extensive work on political ecology, social movements and post-development studies. His talk introduced aspects such as the ethnic-territorial struggles in Latin America being ontological struggles for building a world in which all worlds have a place or the resurgence of the “commons” as a transitional discourse.

queremos un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos

After the opening, we presented in a panel titled “The social and political life of seeds“, coordinated by Susana Carro Ripalda and Marta Barba Gassó. In our presentation “Una perspectiva sistémica en la evaluación los OGMs: El viaje de una semilla de maíz transgénica“, we introduced the value of the systemic perspective for assessing GMOs using the multi-sited ethnography approach that we are implementing in Spain. This is also what we explained in our paper: Seeing GMOs from a Systems perspective. During the talk we also had the opportunity to present the cartographies of GM, chemically-intensive, certified organic and agroecological cartographies that we have recently developed using this approach.

During our session, other very interesting talks were presented, on topics like the cultural aspects of GM vs indigenous maize in Mexico, the story of how a tomato variety became a “traditional” seed in the Basque Country from a gender perspective, and the socio-cultural value of seed conservation in two study cases in Spain. All presentations shared the vision of seeds as entities that shape and are shaped, beyond their biological substrate, by the interests, values and visions that emerge in the contexts where they are developed and used. At the same time, seeds influence the discourses, practices, knowledges and skills of the other agents with whom they interact. The session was in fact very rich despite the fact that, as very often happens in academic conferences, there was too little time to discuss and share.

After the session ended, we discussed potential collaborations on this topic, which would give us the possibility to keep exploring these visions about seeds in the future.

Systems perspective on GMOs at the EASST Conference


Last week we attended the European Association of the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) Conference in Barcelona. It was an enormous conference (around 2000 participants) which was exciting but it also made it challenging to stay on top of everything that was going on. Conferences such as this one are useful platforms for networking with people who are working on similar issues in order to build and strengthen academic communities.

The interdisciplinary nature of our project makes us somehow academically promiscuous in the way that we do not belong to a single academic community of reference, but rather we transit and have conversations with people from a multiplicity of academic worlds that speak to different dimensions of the project. EASST is one of these communities we transit, as it contains part of the academic community who does Science and Technology Studies (STS). For us this is a very interesting academic community to be in contact with since GM crops have a major technoscientific component.  The project hugely benefits from dialogues and reflections related to the roles technoscience plays within the GMO socio-political controversies.

We participated in a track called “Governance of agricultural biotechnologies”, facilitated by Andrew Stirling and with other very knowledgeable speakers such as Robert Smith, Georgina Catacora-Vargas, Anne Ingeborg Myhr and Brian Wynne. Our presentation was about how a system perspective can be useful when assessing and regulating GMOs. This presentation stemmed from one of our papers:

Seeing GMOs from a Systems Perspective: The Need for Comparative Cartographies of Agri/Cultures for Sustainability Assessment.

For this presentation we focused on the cartographies that we have been producing over recent months, which illustrate interesting differences between GM, chemically intensive, certified organic and agroecological systems.

The audience seemed to really enjoy the presentation and one participant said she felt that we were developing – a very much needed – ‘applied STS’. 🙂

Visibility and Invisibility in Maize Agriculture Systems

Image edited from original Source:

Image edited from original Source:

In Klara Fischer’s recent (2016) article she queries the term ‘scale-neutral’ that has recently resurfaced in the literature in relation to GM seed technologies (having been used decades ago in relation to hybrid crops). This term has been used to describe the supposed dual suitability of GM seeds for both large-scale and small-holder agricultural systems.

Fischer (2016) argues that using the term ‘scale neutral’ to refer to GM seed technologies is too generalizing and fails to take into account “both crop biology and context”. She argues that there has not been enough evidence provided to support this claim and how, in fact, much research points to the opposite conclusion. Her previous work has illustrated in detail how GM maize varieties being used in South Africa are often unsuited to use by smallholder farmers.


In recent months, having spent a lot of time on small-scale maize farms in KwaZulu Natal, I have become interested in how the Research and Development (R&D) part/node of the maize agri-food system relates to the on farm part/node. What has been apparent when talking to small-scale maize farmers is that there are many areas in which the communication between these two spaces is not a clear channel. A number of authors looking at the benefits and impacts of GM maize varieties on small-scale farming in South Africa have also pointed to the lack of clear communication channels.

Fischer (2016) points out that often studies or assessments are not tailored to specific contexts – therefore while crop technologies could potentially have benefits, she argues that in order for this to be possible “it must be appropriate for African farmers’ practices and contexts” which “requires a clear understanding of the function of any new crop technology per se and how the technology is co-shaped by its host crop, its end users and their contexts.” There is a deep need for research that is engaged with looking at the complex social-ecological agricultural systems in which seeds are being used.

While certain facts, ideas, world views, substances are visible within the R&D space, they may not be visible in the same way on small-scale farms (or any farm for that matter – but my focus is on small-scale farms). In the same thread, aspects of the complex socio-ecological systems on farms are not always visible to scientists working in the R&D space. Research that tests the effectiveness of new technologies and risks associated with them is often not carried out in the specific places that the technologies end up being used.

For this reason I have decided that I would like to focus on these two nodes – R&D and ‘on the farm’ – as sites for in depth research. I hope that through collection of interviews in addition to the gathering of visual and sensory data, I can begin to build up an archive of narrative and visual information about each space and explore the communication and ‘lack of’ communication between these two spaces.

This image has been adapted from this Source:

This image has been adapted from this Source:

Can a kernel of corn be a compelling character?


In the last post, Amaranta discussed the challenge of balancing the needs of performing research and preparing for its communication as an i-doc. There she talked about how a documentary typically needs compelling characters.

19360222819_610596199f_z seeds 19550982631_37b74e581c_z

When this research project was first proposed, the idea was that a kernel of corn was to be the central character. The plan being to follow the journey of a kernel of corn and map the networks of relations we found across the three different agri/cultures of organic, conventional and GM production (check out our previous post on the challenges we are facing maintaining this categorisation). In the original proposal, it was important that our cartography of these relations documented not just the human actors shaping the different production systems, but also the non-human ‘actants’ involved.

The idea of an actant comes from Actor-Network Theory, developed by Bruno Latour, John Law and others. It captures the idea that non-human entities such as technological devices, also have agency and power to influence and shape social systems (or socio-technical systems as they were relabelled). This means, for example, that technologies such as sowing, harvesting and milling machines need to be recognised for the role they play in structuring the relational networks of different agri/cultures. Furthermore, entities like insects, bacteria and fungi also need to be acknowledged as significantly shaping the practices and processes that take place in these systems (socio-techno-ecological systems?).

18925112143_a68f5828ca_z Corn_borer 15773386595_60d826342b_z rotting corn

This desire to recognise and map the role of non-human actants in agri/cultures, combined with the idea of having a kernel of corn as the central character of our narrative, raises the question of how compelling non-human agents can be. Can we attract an audience and create an emotional connection to such actants without anthropomorphising them?


We find it incredibly useful when explaining our project to talk about how we are following the journey of a kernel of corn through different cultures of agriculture and mapping the various places, people and processes we encounter. But we have to admit that we are struggling somewhat to capture the concept of the actant in our elevator pitch of the project. We are also finding it challenging to explore human discourse and consistently remain sufficiently attentive to actants in our mapping task. It is also not clear for us whether kernels of corn can be compelling enough characters to carry our story as an i-doc.

Can stories about the socio-ecological relations of agri/cultural systems create engaging characters from non-human entities?

How can an analysis of human discourse be woven into a story about the varied journeys of a kernel of corn?

Field work interactive map

We have now created an interactive map to show the locations and actors that we have engaged with in our field work so far. Please click on the image to follow our journey as we attempt to map maize agri-food systems in Spain. Also, feel free to let us know in the comment field if there are additional actors or nodes in the system that you would like us to include as the field work continues.

The challenge of categorising maize seeds and systems

If we are to transparently report on our research process (as we intend to do in this blog), we must say that we have been experiencing some difficulties with the framing of our task. With this entry, we aim to reflect on the process we have been going through to try and categorise the different seeds and systems we are investigating in this research project.


Our first idea, presented in the funded project proposal, was to map and compare different models of agrifood systems, namely organic, conventional and GM. This initial approach made sense since it is a common distinction made between agricultural systems of production by both policy makers and publics. Since the regulation of GMOs typically uses what are labeled ‘conventional’ alternatives (i.e. chemically intensive, industrial models of agriculture) in comparisons of risk acceptability, while much of the social resistance to GMOs draws on organic farming models as the relevant comparator, we thought it was interesting and important to empirically consider and compare all three systems of production. However, we were also aware from the beginning that this distinction implied many difficulties, especially since in the realities of practice, these systems are often not as clearly separable as the theoretical categories imply. For example, in Spain, many farmers cultivate both conventional and GM maize at the same time. There are also significant differences between organic farms depending on whether they are large or small scale, as recognised in what the academic literature calls the ‘conventialisation of organic farming’ as it increasingly adopts mainstream models of large-scale production, globalised distribution and supermarket-based consumption.


Furthermore, our early research has uncovered that in Spain, the maize seeds that are produced to be sown in commercial organic fields are not actually organic themselves. That is, they do not come from organic parental lines. They are seeds that are produced in a ‘conventional’ way. The difference is that before the ‘organic’ seeds are put into the packages to be sold to farmers, they are not treated with fungicides and insecticides, as conventional and GM seeds are (indicated by their bright pink or orange colour). The reason behind this is that in Spain, organic parental lines are not available and therefore, the Organic Farming Certification Scheme accepts untreated but conventionally produced seeds.


Becomingly increasingly uneasy with the distinction we had originally adopted for our mapping exercise, and after many difficult discussions, we therefore decided to try shifting the criteria we were using in order to approach the different systems. We decided to try mapping different agrifood systems by following different types of seeds, namely GM seeds, hybrid seeds and traditional varieties.

After two months working with this new distinction, however, new difficulties have arisen. We are forced to recognize that in practice we are actually sliding between the two differential criteria (both the gm-conventional-organic system distinction and  the gm-hybrid-traditional seed distinction). This is because the former is, whether we like it or not, widely used among all the stakeholders we are engaging with while the latter is marginal and only found in very few nodes of the food web. Also, when referring to hybrids, there are significant differences between their use in conventional and organic models of production. We also met an organic farmer with a small family farm who was sowing both hybrid and traditional varieties. He was sympathetic towards and valued the traditional varieties, but was also very keen on the hybrids, because they performed well and helped him to get a living. So, in that case, we saw that both distinctions were relevant and complementary for the study. This means that the research is currently employing both frames, depending on the situation. How this challenge develops in the future, and how it influences the maps of different agrifood webs that we produce, remains to be seen and described in a later post.

Some thoughts about social cartographies of agri-food models

Our project aims to compare the convergences and divergences of agri-food systems. It proposes to do this by following kernels of maize through different systems of production (e.g. organic, conventional and GM) and to map and learn from the networks of relations embedded in and enabled throughout those journeys.

This locates us in the realm of creating cartographies; the art and science of map-making. Maps are symbolic representations of places, objects, ideas, themes or relations. They can be either real or imagined and despite the fact that most famous examples of maps are geographical, maps can also be used to represent different types of phenomena (such as relations, ideas or emotions).

Social cartography is related to mapping different styles of thinking and understandings of how the world works. Often, social cartography is also concerned with the locations, relations and movement of ideas, persons or groups in social space. Maps are great for capturing complexity due to their non-linear story telling. Some even consider the map-making process as a radical political practice.

But what does it mean to map agri-food systems in practice? How can we do that? What possibilities do we choose? How do we face the gargantuan task of mapping and comparing three different agri-food systems in two different socio-cultural contexts? We are just starting the fieldwork and we know one of our strengths is our grounding focus on kernels of maize. We are using the journey of three different types of kernels of maize through the food web to elicit the network of relations that constrain and emanate from it. We are aware that our research task will require the creation of spatial order, the selection of symbols, the decisions of what is placed in the centre and what in the periphery and the establishment of boundaries.

We are also aware that by doing this task worthy of Sherlock Holmes, we’ll be identifying and re-constructing the different narratives that order the experience of the characters met during these voyages through time. Indeed, taking into account the inseparability of space and time, maps tend to emphasise spaciality, which actually is a very relevant dimension of the dominant and globalised food system.

In the process of map-making epistemological questions quickly arise. Maps not only represent part of a reality out-there, but they also contain and display the ways for researchers to see and analyse that concrete reality. It’s a great visible example of the co-construction of reality. Indeed, nothing can be said from nowhere, but these and other epistemological thoughts are worthy of another post.