GMOs: Assessing Social and Ethical Aspects

In addition to my work as a researcher, I also serve on several national and international committees. This includes a position as member of the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board.


The role of this board is to both encourage public discussion and debate and to provide advice to the Norwegian government on issues related to biotechnology, and particularly on social and ethical issues. The work of this advisory board covers both the use of biotechnology in medical applications and the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture. The board is made up of a diverse range of professionals with very different perspectives, beliefs and areas of expert knowledge. Our discussions are always extremely interesting, informative and very often involve canvassing a range of issues and different positions on controversial topics of public interest. For example, since I was appointed as a member, we have come with advice on topics as diverse as whether single women should have State supported access to in vitro fertilisation (IVF), whether parents should be allowed to perform genetic testing on their children, whether sperm donors should be subject to genetic testing, how the regulation of genetic testing for medical research may differ from that for clinical applications and whether Norway should accept GM crop products for import. Our recommendations on the topics we discuss are always made publically available (in Norwegian) and when the Board is divided in its views, the positions of each Board member are made clear in the recommendation.


As part of its work and in addition to the meetings of its members, the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board also regularly arranges public events, lectures and seminars. On June 8th, I was fortunate enough to be invited to give a breakfast seminar in Oslo on the topic of assessing social and ethical aspects of GMOs, which was videoed and is now available online. In this talk, I drew on the research we have been performing in The Agri/Cultures Project and sought to explain why assessing social and ethical issues around GMOs is important, as well as show different ways in which this can be approached and argue that we need to be considering these matters at various points along the innovation chain.

What was particularly interesting for me was to see how the announcement of this seminar was treated on social media. Before I even got a chance to give my talk, groups on Facebook and users of Twitter were already dismissing the content as biased and irrelevant, as well as criticising me and GenØk Centre for Biosafety for being anti-GMO activists. Although none of the net trolls seemed to have the courage to attend the event, actually hear my thoughts on the topic and have a face to face conversation with me, it is amazing how the GMO debate continues to generate such strong emotional reactions amongst people. Indeed, in my talk I try to highlight how this emotional response is indicative of the importance of addressing social and ethical dimensions of the technology. I also challenged this approach to the debate by suggesting that we need to move out of the current trench warfare approach of pro-anti GMO camps dug in and defending their positions by throwing bombs at the other, and actually start to have more sophisticated conversations in which we look at concrete cases, contexts and empirical research. This is becoming increasingly important as biotechnology is now diversifying rapidly through the use of genome editing techniques like CRISPR-Cas9 and we need to carefully consider what we mean by the term ‘GMO’ and whether all biotechnology techniques should be considered alike in terms of their potential social and environmental impacts, ethical aspects and regulation.

Bridging science and society with movie animations

One of the aims of The Agri/Cultures Project is to develop new ways to communicate scientific results and during the last 10 days I have been working with an artist to create a stop motion animation that narrates some insights from our latest paper (still to be published). This paper is focused on the everyday – mostly practical – forms of resistance to GM crops in contexts where there is unregulated coexistence, such as Spain.


As part of a social group whose job specifically aims at producing collective knowledge, scientists have a duty to share our research results and discussions with the rest of society, especially in the case of publicly funded science. But, unfortunately, very often scientific production remains trapped in a self-reproductive bubble primarily only accessible to a small elite.

In order to explore new ways to bridge the gaps between science and (the rest of) society and broaden the spectrum of audiences that might be interested in our research, we are producing a couple of short movies to help explain some aspects of our research. In fact, visualisation of concepts, experiences, practices, processes, and situations has been proven to be a great tool for enhancing learning processes generally and scientific knowledge specifically.


In our case, we thought that an animation could tell the story of the ordinary struggle of the actors within the non-GM agri-food systems to avoid GM contamination and fight the expansion of GMOs. We involved an artist in the process because artists are experts in the field of visual communication and can offer valuable resources to say things differently. Of course, a 3 minute video is not a 15 page text and there is certainly a notable degree of simplification required which represents a constant challenge in terms of balancing form and content. That is to say that watching our short movie will not be equal to reading the full paper. It is just a different format that helps us introduce some of the main ideas to different audiences (e.g people who normally would not spend their time reading scientific journals). As we will link the animation with the paper (which we hope to publish as open access), we expect it to be a double directional channel and a way to introduce non-scientists to scientific knowledge production.

Actually, although our short animation movie may not primarily be for scientists-as-audience, they might also find it interesting for other purposes. For instance, it can be an introductory tool to present the topic to students, journalists, NGOs, or even politicians and a way to create a context for generating fruitful discussions.

We’ll keep you updated about the forthcoming paper and about its short-animation movie release!

¡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).

Academic Research & Making an Interactive Documentary: Compatible Worlds?

Chapter 2: Practicalities 

This post follows on the one I wrote a couple of months ago about the challenges of using audiovisual documentation devices and techniques to do research simultaneously.

As I mentioned in that previous post, The Agri/Cultures Project attempts to investigate new ways to document and communicate scientific data. Our intention is to create an interactive documentary (also known as i-doc, web documentary, web doc or multimedia documentary). An i-doc differs from traditional forms of documentary by having a non-linear narrative, containing different sorts of interactive information (audio, infographics, photography, video and text material). In this type of documentary, interactivity offers more power and agency to users. It also allows them to navigate through a network of relations, exploring an ecosystem of dynamically interlinked nodes.

This time I will focus on the differences regarding some of the practicalities required for both processes.


For qualitative research, the equipment we need is quite simple. Basically, we need a recorder for the interviews, a notebook and a pen for the observations and it is convenient to bring a photo camera to illustrate the contexts we visit. For the documentary making, however, we need the video camera, the sound equipment (including headphones), the tripod and, additionally, depending on the situation, it might be also convenient to have a camera stabiliser, and a white screen for light management. That amount of equipment items makes it advisable to have more than one person to carry out all the tasks involved. Actually, most professional documentary teams are likely to consist of at least 3 people (one for the camera, one for the sound and one for running the interviews).

In our research there are mostly two of us doing the fieldwork: one takes care of the development of the interview and the other takes care of the technical aspects of filming. A couple of times, however, only one of us could attend the interview and the multitasking became extremely challenging. In this situation the researcher is required to meet the interviewee, have some small talk with him or her, explain again the aims of the project and how the interview will take place, run the interview, have a strong presence with all the senses and interact according to the interviewees responses. At the same time, the researcher needs to prepare all the equipment, do a soundcheck, look for an aesthetic spot to shoot and take care of the technical needs that might happen during the interview, as well as make sure there are different shots in the scene to be able for editing purposes. The few times that only one of us has done all the work alone, the audiovisual part has been slightly neglected (e.g not changing the shot in the whole interview and having some problems with the sound) because it was impossible to develop all these tasks well simultaneously. Specifically the ability to maintain full presence during the interview is a real challenge since for the research is really important to be engaged and active listen to the interviewee in that specific situation. If the interviewer is trying to manage the camera and the technical aspects at the same time while running the interview, the interviewee might feel slightly disrespected and the interviewee, also aware of the low presence, might feel overwhelmed by the situation.

In all her colorless glory.

Also, while audiovisual filming can occasionally happen at night, it is worthwhile to take into account the emotion tone triggered by images of certain weather conditions or the strength of light during the different hours of the day. Sometimes it might be better to reschedule the interview in order to have different nuances (e.g the effect of filming an interview under the midday sun or on a rainy day is very different). Research interviews in a more traditional form, on the contrary, are more time-independent and simple to perform, as they do not depend so much on the light conditions.

We are experimenting with all these processes and trying to navigate these waters the best we can. Any practical advice is greatly welcome.

Do you think are there additional practical challenges between these two (sometimes mixed) processes?


Team Meeting in Tromsø: September 2015

In September we had a team meeting in the beautiful Norwegian city of Tromsø.

The meeting aimed at discussing our advances so far, and preparing for the next round of field work now that the maize harvesting season is about to arrive in Spain. We also had time to discuss our next steps in our communication strategy, the analysis of the interviews and the future team and advisory meetings we plan for in South Africa and Oslo. The meeting also coincided with the first anniversary of the project, so we also took some time for evaluating the progress of the project during this period (and reporting on this to our funders!), as well as celebrating the achievements so far. Fortunately we were also able to meet and share our thoughts in an informal way over meals and relaxation time since we were all staying together in the magnificent Kaldfjord. This location also gave us wonderful views of some very impressive auroras early in the season.


Our meeting also included a workshop on the software that we are using for  data management, excerpting, coding, and analysis (Dedoose) with our colleagues from the SEED (Society, Ecology and Ethics Department) at GenØk. Also during our meeting days, GenØk held a breakfast seminar for teenagers at the Tromsø library to talk about some of its research projects and were able to use this opportunity to have our first public showing of our introductory video of the Agri/Cultures project, which was a very nice – and unexpected – “premiere” for our movie.

For conducting our evaluation of the project and its progress so far, we decided to do it in the “Norwegian way” and climb a mountain! In other words, we performed our evaluation in the style of a “walkshop” – going beyond traditional forms of academic interaction by working and talking while walking.

Tromso mountain

It was a great opportunity to enjoy the Norwegian countryside, while evaluating the project, our work and relations in a more relaxed and inspiring way! We have no doubt that this evaluation will help us continue the next year of the project with the same level of energy, enthusiasm, interest, engagement and success that we saw throughout our first year.

Introductory short movie to The Agri/Cultures Project

Ladies and gentlemen! Damer og herrer!

Damas y caballeros! 

We are glad to present you today our introductory short movie to The Agri/Cultures Project!

It summarises in only three minutes what this project is about and you can find it dubbed in Spanish and Norwegian in our Youtube and Vimeo channels. This is the first video of a series of short movies that we will create during the development of this project to show some aspects of our research on maize agrifood relational networks.

Actually, one of the aims of this project is to explore new ways to capture and communicate scientific results to non-specialisied audiences. We think it is essential to make efforts to transcend the scientific bubble and the scientific public and give knowledge back to the rest of society, especially if it is publicly funded. This is our first humble step towards that end, although we know there is room for improvement and experimentation on this area.

We hope you enjoy it!

Thanks to everyone who helped making it!

PS. We are interested in knowing more research projects that use short videos to communicate results. Do you know of any?

Academic Research & Making an Interactive Documentary: Compatible Worlds?

  Chapter 1: Discourses vs Characters

The Agri/Cultures project attempts to investigate new ways to document and communicate scientific data.

To be experimental, the project has begun fieldwork with an intention to create an interactive documentary (also known as i-doc, web documentary, web doc or multimedia documentary). An i-doc differs from traditional forms of documentary by having a non-linear narrative, containing different sorts of interactive information (audio, infographics, photography, video and text material). In this type of documentary, interactivity offers more power and agency to users. It also allows them to navigate through a network of relations, exploring an ecosystem of dynamically interlinked nodes.

The process of creating a web-doc:

I will be writing a series of posts related to the challenge of using audiovisual documentation devices and techniques to do research. I will try to summarise some of the difficulties and opportunities we have found when trying to reconcile these two logics.

The first difficulty deals with the different focus: Discourses vs Characters

On the one hand, when doing research, we are interested in identifying, describing and explaining different discourses. That is, different ways people understand, talk about and interact with the world.

In research, these discourses are fragmented and partially reproduced by many of the research subjects. Our job is to explore, categorise, reconstruct, and weave these fragmented discourses.


In the communication sphere of documentary-making, however, the main focus is not discourse, but character. There is a use of compelling and moving characters who can act as vessels to help users navigate through a story or a topic. Sadly, not everyone can be a good character for a documentary. For those selected though, more visual information about each character is needed so audiences can empathise with them. This has important implications for us as researchers.

For an i-doc (or a more traditional documentary) we need to go beyond filming talking heads from interviews, which is a bias researchers who use cameras to focus on discourses often take. To go beyond implies filming activities that the character does in his/her daily life or familiar places in which she or he lives, things he or she likes to do that will illustrate his or her talk. It is about creating an emotional connection with the character.


This creates a practical limitation to the number of characters that can appear in a film or a story. It has to be a manageable number, so audiences can connect with them in a relatively short space of time.

We are trying to find a compromise between these two demands of research and i-doc making, but the truth is that it’s not very easy.

On the one hand, we already know that we will have many more interviewees than our documentary can have. Asking all of them to show us their homes or places of work is also intensively time-consuming. This creates hundreds of hours of recorded material that is difficult to store and handle and not very efficient for the editing. Interviews by themselves take time, approximately 2 hours, which increases to 3 if we are filming. So, if we also add more time to be able to film additional material, it goes well beyond 3 hours for each interviewee.

Usually, when making a documentary, there has been  research about the main characters of the story and they are identified from the very beginning. The research project has just begun. Now it’s summer in Spain. We are having an extreme and unprecedented series of heat waves with temperatures going beyond 38 degrees, and it is a busy time for farmers. It gets very difficult to steal more time from them to film something that we are not even sure we will be using.


So, what are we doing with these different demands in practice? We are currently prioritizing the research (and therefore, the discourses) and we are trying to do as much filming as possible. We are playing it largely by ear in relation to the changing context we are seeking to map. While we continue to learn about the tools available for i-doc making in our digital age, we film the interview and if there is time and the interview went well, we ask to film more images about the person’s workplace and environment. If we later identify an engaging character that we want to have as a main character for our i-doc, we can ask them about filming further.

As we navigate this new territory though, we welcome any advice and ideas on how to continue moving forward.