Resilience for Development colloquium – on reading landscapes and imagining agri/cultural futures


Performative artwork titled Eland and Benko which was burned onto the landscape by artist Hannelie Coetzee as part of a science – at collaboration where scientists were studying burning of grasslands and the effect on grassland species and habitats.

Last week i attended the Resilience for Development Colloquium which was held in Johannesburg. The colloqium was organised by  GRAID (Guidance for Resilience in the Anthropocene: Investments for development) and SAPECs (Southern African Program on Ecosystem Change and Society) which falls within the Stockholm Resilience Centre. GRAID has been set up to “generate the latest knowledge on resilience thinking, synthesize and employ insights to assess and build resilience in the context of development across Global South”.

Busiso Moyo’s keynote provided a deeply insightful place from which to think about South Africa’s social-economic challenges rooted in the complex history of the country which underpins the current lived realities. Lorenzo Fioramonti’s key note speech on the ‘well being economy‘ provided an  introduction to imagining  development without the economic growth being at the centre of decision making in South Africa and globally. And finally Michelle Lee-Moore’s keynote provided an overview of the history of resilience thinking and how its is growing in appeal globally as tool for approaching the social-ecological challenges and oppourtunities were are faced with today in a development context.

The colloquium explored the importance of a resilience perspective within development and in finding ways to work collectively towards human and ecological wellbeing. It also focused on workshopping research methodologies and approaches towards monitoring and sustaining longterm resilience focused projects or “transformative development projects”. The program was extensive and comprised of 3 sets of 3 parallel session over 3 days. Therefore it was not possible to attend all the sessions but i was able to attend most of the ones that i was interested in and which i felt would be useful for the agri/cultures work. Themes of talks and workshops ranged from thinking about resilience in agriculture and food security, to marine ecosystems, and urban environments. A  number of practitioners who are exploring resilience as a lens in their work shared their experiences from around the globe. Some of the discussion focused on how a resilience approach has been interpreted widely by practitioners and it was agreed that while some tools and methodologies are valuable to guide practice,  tools must be flexible so as to be adaptive to different contexts.

The colloquium was a great opportunity to learn more about the resilience work being carried out and also learn more about the focus within this field on social-ecological connections and research and how practitioners are approaching this. In attending thecoloquium i was curious about how a resilience perspective may add insights to exploring agri/cultural futures in South Africa.  Within the PhD project i have been exploring changing social-ecological knowledge in agri/cultural systems and how agri/cultural knowledge of both farmers and scientists (involved in maize agri/culture) in South Africa has changed over time and specifically in relation to the introduction of new seed varieties and technologies. As new technologies are introduced agri/cultural knowledge shifts, leading to changes in social-ecologial relationhips and knowledge.  I am interested in how a resilience perspective may support the the growth of research and development that moves beyond the dominant models ( which are largely geared towards supporting industrial agri/cultural systems) and which take seriously diverse agri/cultural knowledges (which are ever changing) as vital for building social-ecological resilience for the future of agri/culture in South Africa.

The colloquium program also had a strong focus on interdisciplinary research methodologies as being important within the resilience field. It was an opportunity to share experiences with other researchers making use of visual and sensory data collection methodologies. Over the past year while i have been very excited about the interdisciplinary component of the project this has also been a challenging part to develop and often i have felt a bit disconnected from others working in this way and it is extremely useful to have the change to engage with other researchers experiencing similar challenges and excitement around the use of these methods.

I attended 3 sessions which explored the use of visual disciplies. One was on paricipatory mapping and “photo voice”, one was on photograpy and research and the final was presenting a case study art-scince collaboration between a team of ecologists and a fine artist (Hannelie Coetzee – see art work in the top image) who works with ecological materials and concepts. In the collaboration the ecologists had set out to explore the effect of annual fires on grassland ecosystems. In the process they would burn a patch of grassland annually and record data as the area evolved from the fires over time. Hanellie Coetzee joined up with this team of ecologists and designed an image of a human and an Eland antelope that would be burnt into the landscape (rather than a square). They described how the art science collaboration got each other thinking about their tools and methods in new ways and how it brought a new set of dialogues and a new audience to the project. This third session was an extremely powerful session and stimlated a great dialogue around the value of interdisciplinary work and the value art can bring to scientific research.  In recent months i have been contemplating the how people from different vantage points, interact and read landscapes in different ways – whether it be scientist or artist, farmer or researcher. I asked the   collaborators if they were inspired by each others reading of landscape/ or relationship with landscape and this evolve into a very interesting dialogue on how multiple knowledges may contribute to building more resilient futures.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.

Drought, Seeds & Resilience in Pongola

Two weeks ago I was invited by Biowatch to attend a seed ceremony that was taking place in Pongola. The annual seed ceremony is an opportunity for farmers who are working with Biowatch throughout the region to come together to share experiences and bless their seed before the beginning of the planting season, which starts with the first rains. Biowatch had invited guests who are experts in seed from a number of countries in Africa and who are part of the Seed and Knowledge Initiative to share their knowledge and learn from the projects in Pongola.  Dr Regassa Feyissa traveled from Ethiopia where he has worked for decades towards the conservation of genetic resources through his work as the conservation manager at the Plant Genetic Resources Center/Ethiopia (PGRC/E), as a Director of the Center to the Institute of Biodiversity and the Executive Director of Ethio-Organic Seed Action (EOSA).  Charles Nkhoma came from Zambia where he is the Director of the Community Technology Development Trust. Kudzai Kusena came from Zimbabwe where he is the Genetic Resources Manager at the National Genebank of Zimbabwe. Kuzdai is also doing his PhD on farmer seed systems in Zimbabwe through UCT and is affiliated with the Bio-economy Research Chair.

dry river bed

Dry river bed in the sugar growing region of Swaziland, with sugar cane fields behind

To get to Pongola I traveled via Swaziland and so drove through the Lowveld region to get to Northern KwaZulu-Natal and Pongola, which is situated only 30 km from the border of Swaziland. This low lying area is prone to dry conditions. However after 2 years of drought, it is drier than usual this year. South Africa has over the past two years received the lowest rainfall ever recorded since recording began in 1902. In many areas there is no ground cover left at all and livestock are left to search for any vegetation, which is often a little more plentiful on the road verges. Driving through Big Bend I passed many sugar growing areas. In contrast to the dry indigenous bush and empty small-scale farms, the sugar fields are green from irrigation. This stark contrast raises many questions about this industry. In a sense, the sugar industry appears to be like a machine that keeps churning despite its ill fit with so much that surrounds it. Each year workers strike against low pay, the drought burns on and 100 000’s of liters of water are pumped into the growing of this commodity crop that has no nutritive qualities and is responsible for so much damage to human health. However, while it is not immediately apparent, the sugar industry is also suffering from the drought, these fields are showing signs and are less green than usual. During the time in Pongola, we spoke a lot about drought as potentially being a watershed period of change. Perhaps the reality of changing climatic conditions could be the beginning of change for the sugar industry.


Sugar cane fields in Big Bend


Lowveld region of Swaziland ( near Pongola)

We spent two days in Pongola and on the first day we visited some of the farmers  that we had visited earlier in the year on the GenØk visit. We visited some of the farmers home vegetable gardens and then attended a workshop coordinated by Lawrence Mkhaliphi and Mpho Ncube from Biowatch . On the second day, the farmers held a seed ceremony at a small Church. During the workshop, farmers spoke about the successes and challenges from the previous year, comparing and sharing experiences and knowledge and setting out their vision and goals for the way forward. The discussion highlighted the challenges of drought that farmers have been facing for the past two years, but surprisingly, farmers did not dwell on this. Farmers spoke of their plans for ‘when it rains’ and while many spoke of the challenges, none were ready to give up on their farming and looked forward to being able to expand and grow more seed. When we visited the farmers gardens it was amazing to see how despite the severe drought they had managed to keep their home gardens producing food using agro-ecological methods such as mulch and swales to keep the small amount of moisture available in the soil.

goat proof fencing

A farmer’s field doing extremely well despite the drought conditions. The fence is lined with straw bunched together in a beautiful pattern. This not only looks good but keeps out the drying wind and keeps goats from seeing the vegetables and breaking into the garden

A key topic of the workshop was to speak about and envision ways forward that involved seed multiplication and the development of a thriving local seed network. While the Biowatch farmers now all have seed plots on their farms that are dedicated to the growing of seed, they want to start producing larger quantities of seed that can be shared within the network and eventually sold as open pollinated varieties. Many of the farmers expressed that they would like to be able to have enough seed to share with other farmers and spoke of how this would improve the seed they would be able to produce and help ensure seed sovereignty in the future. In the workshop and over the two days, the link between boosting the resilience of farming systems and the sharing of seed was discussed many times. Farmers brought up how they felt strongly about the importance of sharing seed (which had occurred more in the past but has been lost in many areas due to a large extent to commercial bought seed replacing heritage varieties) and how this would ensure the abundance of seed for the future as well as a variety of seed suited to different conditions. Over the two days, I learned a great deal from the farmers and other members of the group about the evolution of seed diversity and just how intricate a process the development of farmer seed varieties is. I learned more about how the growth and development of varieties happens over time in relation to a complex network of factors including the soils, the availability of water, the aspect of the land, the preferences and cultural interests of farmers, and the relationships with and between other living organisms. In this web of relationships, diversity is created and seeds that have specific qualities are born.

At the closing of the workshop the guests shared some of their experiences of being involved with projects that aimed to bolster small-scale farming through agro-ecology and to multiply local seed and build local seed systems. Dr Regassa Feyissa spoke of his lifetime work in Ethiopia building a thriving national farming system built on principles of agro-ecology and seed sovereignty.  In relation to the challenges farmers are facing in South Africa, he spoke about how it was in fact the terrible drought during the mid 1980s in Ethiopia that spurred their work to go about finding ways to preserve national heritage seed. He spoke about the challenges of drought but also the fact that drought is a time of change and thus new opportunities can come from it. He spoke of how in some ways it was the drought that shifted the direction of National agri/culture in Ethiopia. Drought conditions create a break from the usual routines and a time to consider and try out what seed may help in building a more resilient future in the face of climate uncertainty. The topic of resilience surfaced many times over the two days. Kuzdai Kusena’s thesis is interested in the resilience of small-scale farmer seed systems and the complex sets of relationships, knowledge and conditions that could contribute to bolstering seed security and seed systems. Charles Nkhoma shared how in Zambia during the ‘hungry season’ (a time when there is little left in storage and new crops have yet to produce a yield) there is s small-cobbed variety of maize that forms a vital food for some farmers. This maize cob matures early due to its small size and can therefore be eaten fresh before other varieties are harvested. Its value therefore lies in the small size of the cob, which counteracts dominant industrial ideals of producing maize with large cobs to boost yield. This story provides insight into the the way that farming knowledge and seed are so delicately woven into culture and context and just what kinds of relationships are at stake when seed is lost and replaced by new varieties that don’t consider these complexities.

These two days in Pongola provided a huge amount of learning for me and it was a great privilege to be able to spend time with so many people actively involved in the regeneration of seed, from the farmers who are doing such amazing work in Pongola to Biowatch and their visitors from other parts of Africa.

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:

The Agri/Cultures Team meeting in South Africa – A reflection on a week in the field in KwaZulu Natal

The Agri/Cultures Team meeting in South Africa – A reflection on a week in the field in Kwa-Zulu Natal

red maize growing in a 'seed garden' on one of the permaculture farms

red maize growing in a ‘seed garden’ on one of the agro-ecological farms

In mid April we had our first team meeting in South Africa. The visit was both a team meeting and a chance for Fern, Amaranta and Rosa to spend two weeks in South Africa getting to know some more about the South African context in relation to maize agriculture. We spent the first week in KwaZulu- Natal where we visited a number of farms and the second week in Cape Town where we had project meetings as well as were involved in some seminars at the University of Cape Town.

The aim of the first week was to visit some of the sites that I will be working in for my PhD. While the broader project in Spain and in South Africa looks at the wider maize agriculture system, for this trip we focused only on visiting small-scale farms which are a big part of the focus for my PhD project (the other key area I will be focusing on will be the Research and Development stage, which I will expand on in my next post).

A key factor to take into consideration during the trip was the current drought that farmers in KwaZulu-Natal are facing. Many farmers in the province were unable to grow a maize crop this year as a result of late and minimal rainfall. We were able to find some maize growing but most farmers had not planted and those who had had small yields.

On the first day we accompanied one of the masters students from my department to her field area in Hlabisa where she had planned to report back her project fieldwork to the farmers that she had interviewed over the past two years who are involved in growing GM maize varieties on a small-scale. This took the form of a meeting in a community space that was accessible to farmers coming from a wide are in Hlabisa.

After the meeting one of the farmers at the meeting he welcomed us to his farm where he showed us the land where maize would usually be growing this time of year. There was no crop this year due to the drought. Instead of maize, the field was covered in a knee high mono-crop of weeds which the farmer pointed out to us. He explained how this was a new weed for which he had no name and that had only emerged over the past season. The weed appeared to be resistant to the herbicide he had been using along side the GM maize. He said that he would try and dig in into the soil if he could get his tractor working and failing that look for another kind of herbicide that may kill the weed. He said that the agricultural extension officer for the area had not been around recently and so he as yet had not been able to get assistance with this problem. This farmer told us that he had not been framing for a long time in the area and so it was possible that the weed is known by other farmers in the area. I would like to speak to more farmers about the emergence of new weeds or changes in the types and volumes of weeds that are now present. The following week During the Seminar at UCT, Rosa presented on ‘The emergence of Glyphosate resistant weeds in Argentina’ and I learned more about the complexities of weed resistance and the immense social and ecological affects they have had in Argentina. Rosa spoke about how due to the use of pesticides, there had been a reduction in experts in universities studying weeds and many farmers have lost touch with traditional methods of farming and thus knowledge useful in relation to dealing with weed problems. There has therefore been a break in the transmission of knowledge and capacity to find solutions. With the introduction of new technologies and the consequent layers of socio- ecological changes that ripple outwards, it is possible that farmers find themselves in place with little understanding or access to information that can help them to solve critical problems associated with new farming methods they are using. A sense of disconnection with vital information needed by farmers appeared to be a theme in the maize farms we visited that were growing GM or Hybrid seed. Later in Pongola farmers expressed their concern around the use of pesticides and the dangers associated with them. They asked for our thoughts on this, as they were unable to access such information themselves due to their remote geographical location and access to information.

On the second day we traveled to Pongola where we met with one of the members of Biowatch. He took us to visit some of the ago-ecological farmers that were affiliated with the organisation and who were growing traditional maize varieties along side many other vegetables and grains on small-scale farms. We met with 5 women from the project. First we spent some time introducing our project to the group and then learned about their farming histories and how they had come to be involved with Biowatch. We also learned about their recent activism against Monsanto and their work to mobilize the Department of Agriculture to recognize their needs as agro-ecological farmers. When we had finished talking we shared a delicious meal that one of the members of the group had prepared. Almost all of the ingredients had been grown on her land such as traditional savory melon mixed with maize meal, samp, morogo (wild spinach) and jugo beans. After this we visited some of the members gardens. Here farmers grown food for the home as well as some to sell. With the guidance of Biowatch farmers have also started growing ‘seed gardens’ and curating a central seed bank in one of the members homes. It was very inspiring to see the diversity of seeds that were being collected. The enthusiasm and knowledge that the farmers in the group had was very inspiring as well as to witness how farmers, supported by Biowatch were mobilizing to get support to grow their farms and get better access to resources and build more resilient farming systems. Reflecting on the farm we had encountered the previous day one was able to note a very different feeling that accompanied on one hand the empty (but for weeds) field where GM maize usually grew and the complexity and diversity of the field in which traditional maize grew on these farms.


savory melon growing on one of the ago-ecological farms

On the last day in the field we accompanied an extension officer from the Pongola Department of Agriculture to farming area where small-scale farmers were growing a mixture of GM and Hybrid seed. I drove with the extension officer and along the way he showed me the areas where maize would normally, outside of the drought be planted. We met with group of women farmers at the home of one of the farmers. Here we sat under a tree and spoke for a long time about their farming histories and how they had come to be growing GM and Hybrid maize as well as about their experiences, successes and difficulties associated with this over the years. One of the farmers still grew her traditional maize but none the others still grew it. They spoke about how they no longer had the seed and would like to be able to get some. They had been growing GM maize since 2013 as well as hybrid seed. They had access to hybrid seed at no cost via the Department of Agriculture and some farmers who have the available income buy GM seed in addition to this. Once the maize is harvested farmers hire transport to take their produce to the mill in Pongola. But sometimes the price they are offered for it at the mill is too low and they bring it back and sell it within their community area. In 2013 a mill that was intended to specially target the needs of smallholder farmers was launched in Pongola. It had been my intention that we visit this mill in Pongola but I found out that it had never gotten off the ground and had closed down last year. I will explore the details surrounding small-scale farmers experiences of selling their produce in my next field visit.

During our time in KwaZulu-Natal we saw a diversity of small-scale farming systems and learned a great deal from farmers about their experiences with growing different types of maize. It was also valuable experience to be there with the team from Norway and Spain and compare how the Spanish and European context differs and what factors and concerns may be shared between the different contexts.  I was also able to identify some areas to explore further in my next field visit. One of the areas I would really like to explore more is the use of a multi-species lens for gathering stories about agri/cultural relationships with insects and how this can open up narratives concerning socio-ecological change within farming systems. I would also like to explore in more detail the theme of visibility and invisibility in relation to genes, pesticides and other ‘un-seen’ elements that are experienced on farms and how this related to changing systems of knowledge and scientific vs experiential knowledge. I am interested in comparing the Research and development stage with the farm stages and we spoke about this in our team meeting as a way of focusing in detail on these parts of the maize agriculture system. This will form my next post!



Seminar on Critical Perspectives on GMOs at Cape Town University


The last two weeks we have been in South Africa. It has been truly a very insightful experience that has helped us understand slightly better some of the complex realities that shape maize production in this amazing country. During the first week, we visited three very different small-scale farming communities in Kwazulu Natal, and for the second week we traveled to Cape Town to have our team meeting and to participate in two seminars at the University of Cape Town.

The first seminar was with postgraduate students conducting research related to GMOs in South Africa. It was a really interesting session that allowed us to share our own experiences with other researchers working on this topic from different perspectives and contexts. It also helped us us very much to better understand the functioning of the food systems where GM maize has been introduced in the country, the driving forces, circumstances and changes produced. Finally, we also focused on the ethical implications of our research, our challenges and strategies.

The second seminar was titled “Critical perspectives on GMOs”, and was organised by the Bio-economy Chair at the University of Cape Town.

critical-perspectives-posterThe seminar brought together different critical perspectives on the analysis and assessment of GMOs. The session was chaired by Rachel Wynberg from the University of Cape Town and Maya’s PhD co-supervisor. First, Fern Wickson presented her paper on exploring the advantages of using feminist care ethics lens for the assessment of agricultural biotechnology. Following this presentation, the three other presentations explored the concept of resistance related to GM crops from very different approaches. In the second talk, I discussed the emergence of glyphosate-resistant Johnsongrass and the situation in relation with herbicide-resistant weeds in Argentina by analysing the driving forces behind the initial spread of GR johnsongrass, its impacts and the social, economic and environmental implications of response strategies, including the institutional conditions and constraints involved. Then, professor Johnnie van den Bergh from the Northwest University explored the insect resistance in Bt GM crops in South Africa, its consequences for the future use of Bt maize and for the conservation of heirloom seeds. It was very interesting to see many coincidences in the processes of resistance evolution in both cases, as well as in the responses given to it. Finally Amaranta Herrero introduced a paper we are currently working on the everyday forms of human resistance to the expansion of GM maize by exploring the often no-visible practices of farmers and other actors practicing non-GM agriculture in Spain.

The seminar ended with a vivid round of question and discussions, and a shared lunch. It was again a great opportunity for us to share our research and to learn from all the assistants at the seminar.




Responding to increasing water-scarcity and drought in South Africa

Livestock drink from a drying river outside Utrecht, a small town in the northwest of KwaZulu-Natal, November 8, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Livestock drink from a drying river outside Utrecht, a small town in the northwest of KwaZulu-Natal, November 8, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

2015 has been labelled as the hottest year ever recorded and this past month of February had the highest mean global temperature (breaking January’s record) to date. This temperature increase is affecting different areas of the world in different ways. In South Africa, drought conditions are escalating. While in November last year the drought was being labeled the worst drought in 30 years, 4 months later it is being referred to as “the worst drought in a century.” This time-scale stretches beyond the bounds of individual memory and experience, placing us in an unknown and uncertain terrain and highlighting the need to draw on a diversity of resources to move forward.

In recent months I have been following the coverage of the drought in South Africa and how this crisis is being responded to by maize farming – the staple crop in the country. There has been much debate about the approaches, funds and means made available by the government to support farmers and those suffering the worst effects of the drought. Currently, articles in newspapers warn of how the drought threatens to tip South Africa into economic recession. The price of rising agricultural imports, of which a large part includes maize, will feed into inflation and increase already rising food prices and high levels of poverty. More importantly, since the middle of 2015, South Africa (usually a net exporter of grains) has been forced to begin importing maize from neighboring countries that are also suffering from drought.

The drought, which is affecting 5 provinces, is hitting particularly hard in the province where my research is based and maize is grown extensively by small-scale farmers. In fact, small-scale farmers are likely to be the worst affected by changes in climate due to a lack of resources. Given this, drought has emerged as an important theme within the Agri/Cultures research project here in South Africa. It seems increasingly relevant to look at how water scarcity and drought is experienced and related to within different cultures or systems of agriculture and socio-ecological relationships. What kind of solutions and ideas concerning the crisis of drought are being put forward? How do these reflect (or not) dominant agricultural discourses?

Strategies for climate adaptation in South Africa have to date “mainly centered on crop improvement of a limited set of major crops” through crop breeding and genetic modification (the development and release of new drought resistant varieties in South Africa was discussed in some detail in a previous post). However, there is also a quieter but growing interest in the use of indigenous crops as a response strategy in the face of drying climatic conditions. This week the South African Water Research Commission (WRC) put out a press release about a short-term study they are conducting on drought-tolerant indigenous and traditional crops. Recognising that these increasingly underutilised crops (often termed Neglected and Underutilised Crop Species (NUCS)) urgently need to be investigated as part of the solution to providing a food ‘secure’ future.

The director of the WRC project explains that “The agricultural landscape of South Africa in many ways reflects the dominance of modern crops that originated from outside of Africa. Their rise has led to a decline in cultivation and knowledge about indigenous crops…The complexity of the problem posed by water scarcity, climate variability and change, population growth, and changing lifestyles requires unique solutions. Indigenous crops have the potential to fill this gap.”

The executive manager of the WRC envisions that this research will “propel these indigenous crops from the peripheries of subsistence agriculture to the promise of commercial agriculture, through scientific research”. It is interesting that here we see commercial agriculture looking to marginalized agri/cultural practices as sources of innovation. Within the Agri/Cultures Project I hope to explore how the crisis of water scarcity is being approached and experience within different systems of agri/culture and how it is forcing the agriculture industry to rethink relationships with nature and the importance of biological diversity and diversity of knowledge.

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This photograph was taken by Christopher Mabeza and is part of his article titled Metaphors for climate adaptation from Zimbabwe: Zephaniah Phiri Maseko and the marriage of water and soil” in the Book Contested Ecologies. Here Mbeza explores how the well known farmer Zephaniah Phiri Maseko’s relationship with water is an integral part of the agro-ecological systems he creates on his land in Zimbabwe. His work is an inspiring example of the importance of exploring different systems of agriculture. The book is freely available online:

Following maize seeds through time and space – grounding some fieldwork sites in KwaZulu Natal

For this week’s post I wanted to reflect on how my fieldwork is unfolding in relation to the methodology i have proposed using. As discussed previously the team in Spain and myself are using a follow the thing methodology and actor network approach as a basis for gathering information about the multiple sites in maize agri/culture systems, how these systems function and have changed over time and in relation to seed. As Fern explained in her July 2015 post “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”. This July post reflected on the compelling-ness of using a kernel of corn as a character (actor), specifically for the purpose of the internet documentary that the team in Spain is putting together.

Over the past few months I have found following a kernel of maize to be a very useful methodology. The sequential approach it provides offers a good framework from which to proceed and begin plotting fieldwork sites but also allows space for other tools and methodologies to be added in. The recognition drawing from Actor-network Theory that maize seed is not just an object but a powerful actant and force provides much space to explore the complexities of relating at play in each site.

In previous posts I have spoken about the multispecies and sensory methodologies that I wish to bring in as a way of mapping, noticing, recording and interacting within each site I visit as I follow the journey of maize seed through 3 small-scale maize agri/culture systems. In addition to the maize seed, the multi-species lens has opened up space for a conversations around a multitude of other living organisms that enter into the conversation and how they affect and are affected by the other actors and actants involved. After having done some preliminary trips i feel excited about the possibilities of combining these methodologies in the field.

At this point having spent much time discussing theory and methodology in previous posts i wanted to provide an update on the sites that I will be visiting over the next few months. Having done two short scouting trips to different maize growing regions in South Africa as well as doing much desktop research I am starting to get some insight into who I may be speaking to, what places I will need to travel to and what processes I may be encountering by means of following maize seed through the system. Below i have outlined some of the sites and also located them on a map.

As mentioned previously I have decided to focus my attention on small-scale maize farming systems in KwaZulu Natal. Firstly I will be visiting the area of Hlabisa, 3 hours from Durban where GM maize has been grown since 2001 by small-scale farmers. I will also be interviewing farmers in nearby KwaHoho where farmers are using traditional varieties using ago-ecological methods.

I will then be traveling up North to Pongola where GM, hybrid and traditional varieties are grown. It is an interesting area to explore issues of coexistence because here there are farmers growing different varieties of maize side by side or on neighboring plots of land. I am told that some are farmers in the area believe strongly in GM technologies and others who are very against it and would like to be able to talk to farmers of both opinions and perhaps others that have perhaps not chosen a strong opinion. I was told in Hlabisa that the GM maize seed depot that was established by the department of agriculture which was formerly in Hlabisa has now been relocated to Pongola. I would like to visit this depot and see if i can establish any contacts for interviews here. From what I am able to gather online I have established that Pongola is also the home to a relatively new micro milling facility that was established in 2013 by the Department of Agriculture in collaboration with a business cooperative called the Sikulungele Pongola Enterprise who run the mill. Before the establishment of this mill small-scale farmers were unable to mill their maize and sell it as maize meal and so it is likely that this has had much influence on the neighboring agri/culture systems. I would like to see if it is possible to visit the mill and interview key stakeholders about the changes this mill has facilitated and put into motion. I am also interested in using a multi-species lens here to ask questions around maize storage, pests and how these are managed.

Further, I hope to also visit the Kuvusa Mill* located just outside Durban. This mill was established in 2013 and described as “The first small-scale mill in Durban“. Its objective like that in Pongola is to provide milling capacity in rural areas and thus reduce the milling cost and accessibility to small-scale farmers. The company hopes to continue rolling out more mills of its kind. I would like to set up some interviews with Kuvusa Mills.

I will also travel North East to Ngwavuma where traditional varieties are grown and there is a local market where I hope to find traditional seed being exchanged and sold. I am interested in mapping maize seed systems around this market.

  • Update May 2016: It had been my intention that i visit this mill in Pongola but I found out recently that it had never gotten off the ground and had closed down last year. I will explore the details surrounding small-scale farmers experiences of selling their produce in my next field visit.

I hope that these sites will offer a good start into mapping the relationships around maize seeds in KZN of course the follow the thing methodology is all about seeing what actually happens on the ground so I will see as I go.

Next I am starting to try and gain an understanding into the research and development stages which happen upstream from the farms!

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


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.

maize kwawhowho

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.