PhD candidate Maya Marshak reflects on a week in the field in KwaZulu-Natal.

In mid-April 2016 we had our first Agri/Cultures project meeting in South Africa. The AgriCultures project which falls within the work of the Norwegian research institute GenØk, is focused on developing novel concepts, methods and empirical knowledge for understanding and assessing the complex relational networks embodied in and performed by agricultural biotechnologies. The AgriCultures project research is being carried out in Spain and South Africa as both countries grow large amounts of GM maize. For more on the project, visit

The visit was both a team meeting and a chance for our colleagues, Dr Fern Wickson, Dr Amaranta Herrero and Dr Rosa Binimelis, to spend time in South Africa getting to know 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 small-scale farms; and the second week in Cape Town where we had project meetings, as well as a public seminar titled ‘Critical Perspectives on GM crops’ at UCT.

The aim of the first week was to visit some of the small-scale maize farming sites we will be focusing on as part of the South African research component which will take the form of a PhD research project. This project explores the socio-ecological impacts of new maize seed technologies in small-scale farming systems in KwaZulu-Natal. The interdisciplinary methodology uses visual and sensory approaches to try and illuminate narratives around the complexities of introducing new seed technologies into farming systems.

A key factor that emerged during our 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 maize and those who had had small yields.

On the first day we accompanied a Masters student Hellen Mahlase to her research area in Hlabisa. This visit was planned as an opportunity to report back to farmers on the research she had been conducting over the past two years. This took the form of a meeting in a community space that was accessible to farmers coming from a wide area in Hlabisa.

After the meeting one of the farmers 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 crop of weeds which the farmer pointed out. 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 alongside the GM maize he planted. He said that he would try and dig 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 noted that the agricultural extension officer for the area had not been around recently, so he had not been able to get assistance with this problem. This farmer told us that he had not been farming for a long time in the area and so it was possible that the weed was known by other farmers in the area. As part of my research I plan to speak to more farmers about the emergence of new weeds or changes in the types and volumes of weeds that are now present.

Rosa Binimelis’ work on the emergence of glyphosate resistant weeds in Argentina has revealed the complexities of weed resistance and the immense social and ecological effects they have had in Argentina. In the public seminar at UCT, Rosa spoke about how the use of pesticides had led to a reduction in experts in universities studying weeds. Many farmers have also lost touch with traditional methods of farming and thus have lost knowledge that could be useful to deal 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 a 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.

In Pongola farmers expressed their concerns around the use of pesticides and herbicides and the dangers associated with them. They asked for our thoughts on this, as they were unable to obtain such information themselves due to their remote geographical location and lack of access to advice. Also in Pongola, we accompanied a Biowatch staff member on a visit to some of the agro-ecological farmers he works with; they grow traditional maize varieties alongside many other vegetables and grains. We met with five women from the project. 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 heard about their recent activism against Monsanto and their work to mobilise the Department of Agriculture to recognise 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, including traditional savoury melon mixed with maize meal, samp (the maize kernel), morogo (wild spinach) and jugo beans. After this we visited some of the members’ gardens. Here farmers grow 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 encouraging to see the diversity of seeds being collected.

The enthusiasm and knowledge of the farmers was very inspiring. It was exciting to witness how farmers were mobilising to get support to grow their farms, get better access to resources, and build more resilient farming systems. Differences were stark when comparing this experience to that we had encountered the previous day when visiting farmers growing GM crops. 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 presented two very different scenarios of small-scale farms in South Africa.

On our last day in the field we accompanied an extension officer from the Pongola Department of Agriculture to a farming area where small-scale farmers were growing a mixture of GM and hybrid seed. Driving with the extension officer, he indicated the areas where maize would normally, outside of the drought, be planted. We met with a group of women farmers at a homestead. Here we sat under a tree and spoke about their farming histories and how they had come to be growing GM and hybrid maize, hearing about their experiences, successes and difficulties over the years. One of the farmers still grew traditional maize but the others had lost their traditional seed when they switched to hybrid or GM seed. Most expressed the desire to replant traditional seed.

Farmers here explained that they had access to hybrid seed at no cost via the Department of Agriculture. Some farmers who had available income bought GM seed in addition to this. Once the maize was harvested farmers hired transport to take their produce to the mill in Pongola. But sometimes the price they were offered at the mill was too low and thus they brought it back to sell within their community. I will explore the efforts of small-scale farmers to sell 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 a valuable experience to be there with the team from Norway and Spain and to compare how the Spanish and European context differs and what factors and concerns may be shared between the different contexts. It will be interesting to see how this learning dialogue continues as the project develops.