Reflections on Rain – maize seed systems in a time of drought



silo reflected in a rain puddle, source:

At this time of year in the summer rainfall regions of South Africa, maize should be a budding crop, however this is not the case this season for many large and small-scale maize farmers. Heavy summer rains, which are expected from September to October have not fallen yet and as a result, South Africa is currently experiencing the worst drought since 1982. The news over the last few weeks has been full of articles concerning the looming drought and images of dry maize stalks and cracking soils.

Five of the nine provinces in South Africa have in recent weeks been declared drought disaster areas. These include South Africa’s key maize growing areas; North West, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the Free State.

The lack of rainfall, combined with dust storms, fires and soil degradation has led to a recent ‘mass exodus’ of farmers from parts of the Free State. The Free State is responsible for 44% of South Africa’s maize production. Following a reduced harvest last year, it is expected that this will fall again this year. While in the past weeks some rain has fallen, forecasts warn that it would take a lot more rain to alleviate the current drought situation in the affected provinces.

scorched maize fields

dry maize fields, Source:

In recent weeks it has been confirmed that my project here in South Africa will focus on small-scale maize farming systems in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). Here I will be tracing traditional, hybrid and GM maize seed systems which can all be found in a relatively small geographical area. I will be traveling to KZN in January for the first time to meet the NGO BioWatch that works in the Upongolo Municipality with farmers who are growing traditional maize. I will also be visiting the Hlabisa Municipality where small-scale framers are using both Hybrid and GM maize seed to see if I can potentially work in this area too.

Since both of these areas are currently experiencing drought conditions, it is likely that much of the conversation will concern relationships with rain. In south Africa, small-scale maize farming is for the most part rainfed agriculture and thus is likely to be severely affected. It is within this context that drought resistant maize varieties (both GM and non-GM) are positioned as solutions to improving food security and livelihoods of small-scale farmers.

In this post I want to reflect on maize and drought in South Africa in light of the current conditions and the recent authorization of new drought-tolerant maize MON 87460. In December 2014 the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) launched 2 types of conventional drought-tolerant maize hybrid varieties. On June 19th, this year, the GM maize MON 87460, licensed from Monsanto to the Water Efficient Maize for Africa Project (WEMA) was authorized for general release in South Africa.  This approval means that Monsanto can now sell GM maize seed MON87460, to farmers in South Africa for cultivation. WEMA was founded in 2008 as a partnership between the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and Monsanto to develop drought tolerant maize varieties for small-scale framers in Sub-Saharan Africa (Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda). In South Africa the ARC is WEMA’s partner organization.

Recently, Dr Kingstone Mashingaidze, the Country Coordinator of the WEMA project in South Africa, called the authourization of MON 87460 “a significant step forward” in terms of assisting small-scale farmers and fighting food shortages. The ARC believes that this new trait can contribute to expanding arable land. The often quoted figure is that only 13% of South Africa’s landmass is agriculturally viable.

The announcement of the authorization of MON 87460 has been met by much resistance from civil society organisations and NGOs. According to La Via Campesina, non-governmental and farmer organizations from South Africa, Tanzania, Mozambique, Kenya and Uganda strongly condemn the go-ahead issued by South African authorities to release MON 87460 for cultivation. The African Centre for Biosafety (ACBio) lodged an appeal on 7th August 2015 to the Agriculture, Water Affairs and Forestry Minister Senzeni Zokwana. The ACBio advocate for food sovereignty and have outlined their concerns in their appeal.  They illustrate that decision making is not done thoroughly and transparently and often summarizes claims made by Monsanto without investigating them thoroughly enough. They are concerned about the introduction of new proteins / genetic material into human and animal feed and the potential impact on pollinators. Furthermore, they query the effectiveness of the ‘drought-tolerance’ of this trait in South Africa, given a lack of peer reviewed studies exploring this. The ACBio is also concerned about the potential social-economic impacts on small-scale farmers as recent studies caution that previous projects which encouraged small-scale farmers to plant GM seed led to a number of difficulties for those farmers (a potential topic to explore in a future post).

Given the current reality of drought and its effect on maize in South Africa, and the likelihood that this may become an increasing concern in years to come, it is important to consider relationships with rain for small-scale farmers. While creating more drought-resistant varieties is posed as a solution by some, others strongly disagree that this is the right approach for small-holder agriculture. Some rather believe that solutions lie in boosting food yields through crop diversity and supporting agro-ecological systems. For a future post i would like to explore these viewpoints in more detail.


‘Unlikely’ protagonists: a multispecies approach.

European Corn Borer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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




Grain elevators and changing agricultural landscapes in South Africa

This entry carries on from the conversation started two weeks ago exploring the abandoned public silos and granaries in Spain. Abandoned grain elevators and silos are also something I began to notice in the beginning phase of my fieldwork in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. At the heart of King Williams Town is an abandoned grain silo that is now home to the Department of Sports and Recreation. Noticing this, I also became interested in the history of the old silo at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town where I am based. Hearing about the case in Spain, I became curious about the similarities and differences between the Spanish and South African histories connected to these silos.

Researching abandoned grain silos opens up a world of books, photographs and video clips related to these structures, in which they are often referred to as “iconic”, “cathedrals” or “sentinels”, towering above the various landscapes in which they found. Their tall, brooding appearance sparks a sense of curiosity and engagement and therefore in many places, just as in Spain, efforts have been made recently to re-purpose these structures. Often, they become refashioned into cultural spaces such as museums, galleries or canvasses for artists.

Screen Shot 2015-09-22 at 9.46.06 AM

Grain Silo art – Perth. See:

The Cape Town silo (also known as a grain elevator) was built as part of a networked grain storage system constructed in the early part of the 20th Century. The construction of the 57m high Cape Town grain elevator began in 1921 and was completed in 1924 and at the time was the tallest building in the city. In 1995, a year after South Africa became a democracy, the elevator was decommissioned. Over it’s 71 year life-span, the structure stored and exported wheat, yellow maize, white maize, sorghum, tapioca, soya, oats, sunflower oil cake, cotton oil cake and malt. During its life-time this building, and the country-wide infrastructure that it formed a part of, also stood witness and helped fuel the concentration of political control and power over the food system in South Africa. In this way, the situation mirrors the Spanish case, in which the state network of silos arose and were in use during a period in which political power was concentrated in a dictator rather than dispersed through a democracy

After the formation of the Union in 1910, white owned agribusiness in South Africa was supported and bolstered by a series of governmental Acts that continued into the apartheid regime. These included the 1913 Native Land Act and the 1939 Cooperative Societies Act as well as others which came together in the 1937 Marketing Act. This gave the South African state complete control over all domestic markets and trade. As a result of these laws, the industrial agri-food system was built on the one hand through land-dispossession and marginalization of black farmers from market systems and on the other hand through  subsidization of white farmers activities. Under apartheid, co-ops owned by white farmers were in essence extensions of the state – serving the National Party’s interests. White owned farmer cooperatives had rights to the market within 60km in all directions of a silo located in their vicinity.

Silo Art in Sacremento. See:

Starting in the 1970s, and increasingly into the 1980s, state control within domestic markets began to loose hold and private companies began to buy up assets. After 1994, reforms were implemented to further liberalize domestic and foreign markets. However, given the history of unequal market access, this allowed for those who had historically had access to gain a foothold and buy up large parts of the system. Today, similar to in Spain, grain handling has been fully privatized. In 1994 when farmer cooperatives became privatised, they automatically gained grain storage monopolies across vast areas of agricultural land. The largest 3 of these companies today (which now are engaged in a variety of agribusiness activities) control up to 74% of grain storage in South Africa.

The Cape Town silo formed part of a “networked landscape” of nationally built grain infrastructure developed in the early part of the 20th Century. This comprised of 2 port elevators, of which the Cape Town elevator was the first to be completed in 1924 (the other is located in Durban and another built much later in East London during the 1960s) and a further 34 smaller elevators located inland, all connected by rail. The networked system was seen as vital for boosting the country’s exports of maize. The inland elevators were “built to the same specifications; by the same builder for the same purpose; fitted by the same engineers; with the same machinery; owned and financed by the same authority; and staffed by the same labour pool” (Worth, 2005). This fleet of grain elevators continued to be run by the South African Harbour and Railways until 1963, when they were transferred t0 the maize control board and then to white farmer cooperatives under apartheid state.

In 1987 the Cape Town grain elevator was leased to the Western Cape Farmers coop. In 2001 this lease was terminated and until recently, the elevator lay abandoned. Recently, the Cape Town grain elevator site has, however, begun to be re-fashioned into an extensive set of luxury apartments and offices, a hotel and art museum and a gallery space which is set to launch in 2017. The museum is being showcased as Africa’s first Museum for Contemporary African Art. This will be know as the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) and is expected to draw visitors from all over the world. Efforts will be made to retain large parts of the original structure and preserve parts of the original machinery. It is interesting to consider how these structures that have shaped and been shaped by history, are being brought into present day use and how much of this history is referenced and remembered going forward.


The Cape Town grain silo currently being re-fashioned into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA).


Worth, D. (2005). “Gas and Grain: The Conservation of Networked Industrial Landscapes” in Industrial Archaeology: Future Directions. E. Conlin Casella and J. Symonds. New York, Springer Science and Business Media: 135-154.

Greenberg, S. (2010) Contesting the food system in South Africa: Issues and Oppourtunities. PLAAS. Available on:

African Centre for Biosafety. (2013) GM Maize: Lessons for Africa: cartels, collusion and control of Africas staple food. Available on:


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

maize banner

In July I travelled to King Williams Town in the Eastern Cape of South Africa to explore the different types of maize farming there, especially what types of maize are being grown at different scales and the various farming methods being used. King Williams Town is part of the former Ciskei Bantustan created during apartheid. The Eastern Cape is considered one of South Africa’s poorest Provinces and as a result has been the focus of a number of governmental supported agrarian programs.

I had never been to visit any maize growing areas in the Eastern Cape before. While I grew up on a farm surrounded by maize fields in Swaziland, I had also never experienced GM maize being grown. I was curious about what those systems looked like and how it felt to walk through a GM maize field and if it felt different from the fields I had known growing up. I have recently been excited about exploring a multi-species ethnographic approach for my PhD research within the project and have been contemplating how this approach may be used to document different maize systems. How, for example, might the human and other species’ relationships with GM maize differ from those around traditional maize, and what kinds of data collection, observations and creative methodologies could be used to explore this?

harvested field GM maize proj

During this visit to King Williams Town,  I accompanied Hilde (a masters student at the University of Cape Town who was interviewing small-scale farmers that had adopted GM maize as part of a series of government interventions in the area), while she was doing her fieldwork. The area has been and still is a site for many trial GM projects, including maize but also GM cotton and GM soya. The interviewees told different stories about their experiences with GMOs. While there were some who highlighted the GM crop failure for this season and mentioned that this had already happened with GM cotton, others attested that the GM crop was a great success.

In King Williams Town I also met up with representatives of the Zingisa Educational Project, a gender sensitive organisation based there that supports people’s organisations to lobby and advocate for pro-poor land and agrarian policies and to develop alternative models of land access and land use in favour of the rural poor, emerging farmers and the landless. For a number of years Zingisa have been involved in research concerning the spread of GM crops (including maize) in the area and in providing information about the possible effects of GMOs. They are at present mobilizing farmers to grow vegetables and grains using traditional seeds and methods and are developing a system of community seed banks. Zingisa research has shown that it is most often the case in the area that small-scale farmers do not have access to information about the GM seeds they are given through various sponsored projects. We visited two gardens where traditional maize is grown in the area of Nxarhuni. One belonged to an elderly man who farmed organic vegetables and maize and saved his own seed. The other was a community seed bank and garden that had been recently set up.

GM maize just harvested     old maize silo in KWT now dept of sprots and rec

An interview with the owner of an agricultural cooperative in the town revealed how in the past farmers would have sold maize to a centralized mill but that this had been shut down. In fact, the enormous and ominous old silo, which stands in the centre of King Williams Town (now converted into the Department of Sport and Recreation), stood abandoned as a reminder of a different time. Now many farmers in the area grow yellow maize (preferred for animal feed) which they sell directly to livestock farmers or to Epol, an animal feed company with a central storage and distribution facility located near by. The market for yellow maize used for animal feed has resulted in most farmers both small-scale and larger scale in the area focusing on planting this crop. The owner of the agricultural coop explained an important factor for the poultry industry and another reason for the choice of yellow maize: “yellow maize makes yellow eggs”. This pointed to the connections between what happens on the farm and in seed choice, with retailer and consumer preferences further down the supply chain. While the ways in which farmers sell their maize varies, in general it appears that supply chains are in a sense quite short and compact in this area relative to other parts of the country where white maize is grown commercially for human consumption, which creates longer supply chains including milling and product development stages. It could therefore be important to explore different regions and supply chains in relation to each other. The next phase of my work will involve exploring further what kinds of maize systems exist in different parts of the country and then choosing which sites I will focus on for the study going forward.