Seeds and sovereignty

Some days ago I was invited to participate in a seminar organised by the Xarxa de Consum Solidari and other civil society organisations linked to the food sovereignty and the agroecological movement in Catalonia. The seminar posed a very interesting question, that forced me to think on seeds and GMOs beyond my “comfort zone”: how a food sovereignty agenda should be included in the new Catalan constitution?

In the midst of a very hectic political moment in Catalonia, the political agenda for 2017 includes, in principle, the start of a constituent process to create new political and social models. Many questions remain unanswered. To what extent this constitutes a real opportunity for a grass-root movement to get involved and participate to guarantee deep social change is still to be seen. In despite of all these doubts, I thought it was for sure appealing to engage in a dialogue exercise for enhancing the imagination and discussion of the practical implications of a food sovereignty agenda.

In order to answer this challenge, the seminar counted with the participation of several social movements campaigning for food sovereignty and the right to food, politicians and lawyers that have actively participated in the discussions of constituent processes which included food sovereignty in other countries, and also representatives of different political parties and movements.

In particular, I participated in a round-table on how essential aspects of food sovereignty – such as the right to food or the access to seeds, land and water – can be part of a new constitution. The experience in Ecuador, shared by Alberto Acosta and Mario Aparicio, was very inspiring, arguing in favor of focusing not only on the proposals and contents (articulated as “spaces of possibilities”) but also on the processes themselves. I presented my talk on seeds and GMOs jointly with Ester Cases from Refardes, a project aiming at the conservation of the cultivated agrobiodiversity in Catalonia. I did a short introduction explaining the situation to the access to heirloom seeds globally and in particular in Catalonia while Ester focused on the legal aspects and concrete proposals made by Red de Semillas.

Although the public was rather scarce, the open discussion was focused on the possibilities of  both implementing a local policy based on our own food sovereignty, and accessing seeds based on the peasants’ rights. This led to acknowledge some of the opportunities and challenges of having a commons framework in the midst of the global international trade flows. Is it possible to be sovereign while being immersed in a capitalist economy? What kind of realistic proposals can we make? Which are our degrees of freedom? What is the role of the social movements?

Although the challenges are huge, to participate in this open discussion was really interesting for me, and also it was an opportunity to let the dreams flow and reflect on what kind of society -and consequently what kind of agri-food system- we want for the future.

‘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.

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!



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.

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 9.34.00 AM

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:

Derechos de propiedad intelectual sobre la biodiversidad cultivada

El pasado viernes asistí a unas jornadas técnicas organizadas por el Departament d’Agricultura de la Generalitat de Catalunya con la colaboración de l’Era y Red de Semillas Cultivando e Intercambiando sobre los derechos de propiedad intelectual sobre la biodiversidad cultivada.

Las jornadas trataron sobre los derechos de obtentor, patentes y derechos de propiedad intelectual en las semillas, y las repercusiones que tienen la implementación de los marcos regulatorios y la gestión que se hace de estos mecanismos para la conservación de semilllas de variedades tradicionales. El acto contó con una participación muy activa de personas vinculadas a bancos de semillas de Cataluña, agricultores/as, personas que trabajan en la administración e investigadores/as.

En su intervención, María Carrascosa, de la Red Andaluza de Semillas y la Red de Semillas Cultivando e Intercambiando presentó el Manifiesto por el derecho de los agricultores y agricultoras a vender sus propias semillas de variedades tradicionales que se publicó con motivo de la 5ª Semana Estatal por la Biodiversidad Agrícola en 2015.

sembrant a mà

Manifiesto por el derecho de los agricultores y agricultoras a vender sus propias semillas de variedades tradicionales

En el contexto de una agricultura campesina diversificada y desde la perspectiva agroecológica, la gestión de la biodiversidad agrícola es clave para mantener la sostenibilidad de las explotaciones familiares y conseguir la soberanía alimentaria. Así, las variedades tradicionales1 y semillas libres2 permiten a las fincas agrarias reforzar su resiliencia a las perturbaciones exteriores, los cambios climáticos, ambientales o las crisis de mercado; aumentar la estabilidad del agrosistema; y reducir el grado de dependencia del complejo agroindustrial de producción de semillas y agroquímicos.

Las variedades tradicionales muestran una mayor adaptación a las condiciones de cultivo de la agricultura ecológica y campesina, ya que han sido seleccionadas en el contexto de una agricultura con bajo aporte de insumos externos, buscando su adaptación a las condiciones edafoclimáticas y de patógenos locales. No se han seleccionado buscando la productividad, como las semillas industriales, sino los usos y cualidades específicas que, por un lado, se ajusten a las exigencias del agrosistema y, por el otro, diversifiquen la base alimentaria de la sociedad tradicional. Son una herencia cultural de gran importancia que no debe desaparecer, al igual que las culturas y saberes tradicionales a las que van ligadas, ya que son fruto de una coevolución con la naturaleza. Las variedades tradicionales permiten a los agricultores y agricultoras recuperar el control sobre sus cultivos.

Los agricultores, agricultoras y redes de semillas participan activamente en su conservación, intercambio y uso en sus fincas, en la recuperación y difusión de los conocimientos campesinos sobre prácticas culturales y el manejo de agroecosistemas tradicionales, que representan un patrimonio irreemplazable y que irremisiblemente se está perdiendo en la actualidad. De igual modo las personas consumidoras participan, de forma activa, en muchos de los procesos a nivel local y territorial ligados a la recuperación de variedades locales3.

El contexto legislativo

A nivel internacional, la FAO, junto con los gobiernos de más de 130 países, puso en marcha en 2004 el Tratado Internacional sobre los Recursos Fitogenéticos para la Alimentación y la Agricultura (TIRFAA) que, en su artículo 9, defiende el Derecho de los agricultores a producir y vender sus propias semillas. En 2006, en el Estado español, se aprobó la Ley 30/2006 de semillas y plantas de vivero, que está vigente en la actualidad. Esta ley incorporó elementos del Tratado, abre las puertas a una regulación específica sobre el uso de los recursos fitogenéticos para su conservación in situ, por parte de agricultores y agricultoras. Además insta a las Administraciones Públicas a establecer mecanismos que:

  • faciliten la conservación, utilización y comercialización de las semillas cultivadas en sus fincas;

  • la protección de los conocimientos tradicionales;

  • y su participación en la adopción de decisiones sobre asuntos relativos a las variedades tradicionales y reparto de beneficios derivados del uso de los recursos fitogenéticos.

Lamentablemente, desde 2006 el Gobierno español no ha desarrollado ningún Reglamento técnico específico sobre recursos fitogenéticos que desarrolle estas cuestiones tan fundamentales para su uso sostenible y el respeto de los derechos de las comunidades campesinas. Esto viene impidiendo que las variedades locales estén presentes en los nuestros campos, y que los agricultores, especialmente los ecológicos, las puedan incorporar en sus ciclo productivo, lo que colabora al incesante incremento de la erosión genética de este material.

En mayo de 2013 la Comisión Europea presentó la Propuesta de Reglamento del Parlamento Europeo y del Consejo relativo a la producción y comercialización de los materiales de reproducción vegetal (Reglamento sobre materiales de reproducción vegetal – MRV) 4. Tras dos años de intenso trabajo de seguimiento por parte de redes de semillas y otros colectivos de diferentes países de Europa, en marzo de 2015 la Comisión Europea retiró la propuesta. Actualmente, todo apunta a que no se va a retomar en los años que le restan a este organismo europeo..

Las organizaciones que fomentamos el intercambio y venta de variedades locales como herramienta para su reintroducción en el sistema agroalimentario cuestionamos la utilidad de la normativa de semillas vigente. Nuestra preocupación se debe, entre otras cosas, al incremento de la pérdida de biodiversidad agrícola y a las restricciones impuestas a los propios agricultores y agricultoras, a usar y vender sus semillas de variedades locales. En el caso del Estado español, las diferentes trasposiciones han ido encaminadas a proteger el mercado de semillas y la apropiación privada de la biodiversidad cultivada, en detrimento de la conservación del patrimonio genético agrícola común; y a establecer trabas a las iniciativas de uso e intercambio de variedades en peligro de erosión genética, en vez de facilitar su cultivo a través un marco normativo más amable. Además, no debemos olvidar que el Estado español es el único en la Unión Europea que cultiva transgénicos a escala comercial, lo que compromete la gestión dinámica y sostenible de las variedades locales y su propia integridad. En este sentido exigimos la puesta en marcha instrumentos jurídicos para llegar a una agricultura, ganadería, transformación, distribución y consumo libre de transgénicos.

Propuestas y peticiones

Desde la Campaña “Cultiva diversidad. Siembra tus derechos” instamos al Gobierno Español a poner en marcha las políticas necesarias para hacer efectivos los Derechos de los agricultores y agricultoras a conservar, utilizar y comercializar variedades tradicionales. Estos recursos genéticos agrícolas deben poder formar parte de sus medios de vida.

Pretendemos inducir un cambio en normas jurídicas y en las políticas gubernamentales que consideramos injustas a la luz de los principios que rigen nuestra vida social, y con los fundamentos constitucionales del Estado democrático.

Por ello, promovemos y manifestamos nuestro apoyo firme a la autogestión de la producción y venta de semillas por parte de los propios agricultores y agricultoras y las iniciativas campesinas de producción artesanal como un acto público, no violento, consciente y político, contrario a la ley, cometido con el propósito de ocasionar el cambio en la legislación y la actuación del gobierno. Actuando de este modo apelamos al sentido de justicia social y ambiental, y declaramos que, según nuestra opinión, los principios de la cooperación social entre personas que hacen posible el pleno derecho a la alimentación no están siendo respetados. Las variedades tradicionales son un recurso esencial para obtener alimentos sanos, respetando el ambiente mediante el uso correcto de los recursos naturales, potenciando la cultura rural, los valores éticos y la calidad de vida, por lo que es imprescindible devolver estas variedades a los campos de las personas productoras y a los platos de las consumidoras.

Pedimos que se defienda el conocimiento campesino, y muy especialmente el relacionado con el uso sostenible de biodiversidad agrícola. Estos saberes son indispensable para evitar la degradación de la cultura local en sus aspectos productivos, culinarios y gastronómicos, de usos de la tierra y de conformación de paisajes. Por eso solicitamos que en el Inventario Nacional de los Conocimientos Tradicionales que elabora el Ministerio de Agricultura, Alimentación y Medio Ambiente (MAGRAMA), que se ha circunscrito a las plantas silvestres, se incluyan las cultivadas.

Además, instamos al Gobierno español a que desarrolle mecanismos políticos, administrativos y legales que apoyen la gestión dinámica de las variedades locales en el marco de una agricultura campesina. En particular:

  • El respeto la venta directa de sus semillas por parte de agricultores y agricultoras como complemento de su actividad. Esta actividad debe quedar fuera del ámbito de aplicación de la legislación de semillas y debe estar exenta de las mismas exigencias que el resto de operadores.

  • Las microempresas artesanales que producen y comercializan semillas de variedades locales necesitan reglas adaptadas a su actividad, completamente diferente a la que realizan las grandes empresas de semillas de producciones deslocalizadas y distribución kilométrica.

  • Es necesario fomentar el uso de variedades locales a través de nuevos marcos normativos que posibiliten la comercialización de sus semillas, reconociendo su heterogeneidad y capacidad de adaptación como características positivas y de necesaria valorización. Así mismo, deben crearse mecanismos que agilicen la utilización de estas variedades en la agricultura ecológica, siendo éste tipo de producción un espacio inmejorable para su utilización.

  • Las personas productoras y consumidoras deben tener la posibilidad de elegir los alimentos que consumen y las plantas que cultivan. Demandamos transparencia en los métodos de selección utilizados para generar las variedades y la propiedad intelectual que gestiona su uso. Esta información debe constar obligatoriamente en el etiquetado.




Promotores de la Campaña

Red estatal de Semillas “Resembrando e Intercambiando” (Coordinadora estatal que aglutina a las siguientes entidades: Centro Zahoz (junto con sus entidades Red de Guardianes de Semillas y la Asociación para el Desarrollo y Estudio de la Agroecología) (Castilla León), CIFAES-Universidad Paulo Freire Tierra de Campos (Castilla León), Xarxa Catalana de Graners (Catalunya), Gaiadea – Les Refardes (Catalunya), Esporus – L´Era (Catalunya), Ecollavors (Catalunya), Triticatum (Catalunya), Llavors d´Ací (Pais Valencià), Asociación Albar (Pais Valencià), Associació de Varietats Locals de les Illes Balears (Illes Balears), Asociación APAEM – Banc de Llavors de Menorca (Illes Balears), Red de Semillas de La Rioja (La Rioja), Red Extremeña de Semillas (Extremadura), Red Canaria de Semillas (Canarias), Red de Semillas de Cantabria (Cantabria), Red de Semillas de La Palma (Canarias), Red de Semillas de Gran Canaria (Canarias), Rede Sementes Galega (Galiza), Red Andaluza de Semillas “Cultivando Biodiversidad” (Andalucía), Red de Semillas de Aragón (Aragón), Nafarroako Hazien Sarea – Red de Semillas de Navarra (Navarra), Red Murciana de Semillas (Región de Murcia), Red de Agroecología y Ecodesarrollo de la Región de Murcia (Región de Murcia), Biltar (Asturias) y Euskal Erico Hazien Sarea – Red de Semillas de Euskadi (Euskadi).

1 Son variedades originadas por un proceso de mejora que han practicado los agricultores y agricultoras a través de métodos tradicionales desde los orígenes de la agricultura hasta nuestros días. Gracias a este proceso continuo de mejora, estas variedades de cultivo están adaptadas a las actuales condiciones locales de clima y suelo y presentan resistencias frente a plagas, enfermedades y condiciones edafoclimáticas difíciles. Además permiten la autogestión de la producción, ya que agricultores y agricultoras ganan independencia y autonomía al poder seleccionar sus propias semillas e ir adaptándolas a sus necesidades, sin tener que comprarlas anualmente. Estas variedades están presentes en la cultura y gastronomía campesina y tradicional ya que desde hace miles de años forman parte de los hábitos de alimentación de los lugares donde se cultivan (RAS 2011a).

2 Son variedades de cultivo que aglutinan las variedades de dominio público, variedades locales / tradicionales y variedades comerciales descatalogadas, todas ellas de polinización abierta obtenidas a través de método de mejora convencional (RAS 2011a).

3 En el presente texto se recogerán las menciones “locales, antiguas, autóctonas, campesinas y del país”, para citar a las variedades tradicionales.

4 Propuesta de Reglamento del Parlamento Europeo y del Consejo relativo a la producción y comercialización de los materiales de reproducción vegetal (Reglamento sobre materiales de reproducción vegetal). 06-05-2013. COM (2013) 262 final – 2013/0137 (COD). En línea:




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.

¡Hemos participado en un documental!

Pablo amb la càmera

Durante los últimos meses que hemos pasado haciendo trabajo de campo, hemos estado a menudo detrás de la cámara. Sin embargo, recientemente también hemos tenido la oportnidad de cambiar nuestro rol, ya que también hemos participado junto a muchas otros expertos en un documental para el programa Latituds del Canal 33. El programa se titula “Dependencia o Soberanía Alimentaria

Aquí podéis encontrar un breve resumen del contenido:

“El sistema alimentario actual se basa en la producción intensiva para la exportación. Esto lleva a una creciente dependencia del mercado global, cada vez más concentrado en grandes empresas vinculadas al sector financiero. Otro sistema alimentario surge con el principio de la Soberanía Alimentaria. Plantea que son los pueblos los que tienen que decidir su modelo de alimentación, priorizando la calidad de los alimentos y los mercados de proximidad.

Así mismo surgen bancos de semillas locales que, sin ánimo de lucro, conservan variedades tradicionales, que a menudo no se encuentran en el mercado. Son semillas locales que los campesinos y campesinas pueden reproducir, a diferencia de lo que pasa con muchas semillas comerciales, y que por su diversidad genética están muy bién adaptadas al territorio. Mucho/as consideran que en el marco de la creciente degradación de los suelos y del clima, de aquí a unas décadas las semillas locales serán las que garantizarán la alimentación”

Y aquí podéis ver el documental (en catalán).


We participated in a TV documentary!

grabació a Joaquin Costa

During the last months of fieldwork, we have been very often behind the camera. However, we also recently had the opportunity to change our role, and participated as experts in a TV documentary produced by Canal 33 (a Catalan public TV channel) titled “Dependency or Food Sovereignty“.

Here you can find a short summary:

“The documentary describes the dependency of the Catalan food system on imports for the production of feed for intensively produced animals, which are then exported. This involves a growing dependency on the global market, and a concentration of power in huge companies linked to the financial market. This trend is counterbalanced by another food system based on the principles of Food Sovereignty. In this system, the people decide on their own food model, giving priority to the quality of food and local markets.”

And here you can watch the documentary (only in Catalan).


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.