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Healing from Enclosure: A Political Agroecology of a Science-and-Society Potato Controversy in Belgium

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - HealingFromEnclosure (Healing from Enclosure: A Political Agroecology of a Science-and-Society Potato Controversy in Belgium)

Berichtszeitraum: 2017-09-01 bis 2019-08-31

The main objectives of the Healing from Enclosure action research project were to help understand relations between the enclosure and commoning of agricultural research and food systems in Belgium, and to envisage changes towards more democratic agricultural knowledge systems contributing to more just and ecologically sustainable global food systems and more equal distributions of power in society.

To address these goals the project developed a political agroecology approach to agrifood research and innovation. Conceptually, it brought together insights from political ecology, agroecology and science, technology and society studies (STS). Empirically the project developed case studies around biotechnology research, development and innovation in Flanders, and around participatory action research for sustainable and resilient food systems in Brussels. These case studies were undertaken through action research in close cooperation with concerned groups.
The action research project Healing from Enclosure developed a biotechnology research case-study that critically questioned arenas of science and innovation by documenting the dynamics in play around various modes of ‘public engagement’ by scientists, corporations and public authorities before, during and after field trials with genetically modified organisms in Flanders. The study showed how the network of alliances formed between research institutions, policymakers, corporations, and mass media outlets, deploys experimental field trials to sustain and concentrate corporate power. At the same time, it explored the ways alternative pathways toward socio-ecological sustainability and justice which do not subscribe to the same economic dictates or meet the criteria of ‘scientific progress’ become marginalised.

Another core element of the research was the convening of biotechnology knowledge conversations. Across a diversity of venues and occasions, the project brought together academics, NGOs, activists and business representatives to collectively deconstruct, and find new ways to shape, current debates around agrifood research and biotechnology in particular. This is particularly relevant in the wake of a push for deregulation of new techniques of genetic modification in plant breeding at the level of European policy. These events transcended disciplinary and institutional boundaries and pushed for collective forms of knowledge production that address vital contemporary concerns.

The second site of study, which revolved around participatory action research for sustainable and resilient food systems in Brussels, offered a site for deepening reflexivity around the democratizing of agrifood research. Through close collaborations with various actors involved in an ongoing research programme, we analysed lessons-learned as well as collectively imagining possible futures and pitfalls in the institutionalization of a situated research and funding initiative. We showed how stimulating reflexivity and collective relational learning, hold promise as part of strategies for resisting the potential drawbacks in current modes of institutionalization of participatory food system research. The relational learning strategies pursued within the programme focused on changing frameworks of reference, values and research approaches. These strategies are based on an ethic of non-control. An approach which created discomfort as part of the creation of learning spaces for reflexive and relational learning in fostering attitudes of openness to diversity and change.

Moreover, in the framework of the Healing from Enclosure project, a conference gesticulée or ‘lecture-performance’ about agricultural research as an issue of public concern was performed in a wide diversity of settings. In spaces that ranged from academic spaces, to cultural centres, to summer schools, classrooms and agrifood related festivals in five different countries, the lecture-performance created an experience that demonstrates –as Sheila Jasanoff and others have developed extensively— that knowledges are both the products of, and constitutive of, social and ecological life. Agricultural research is “neither a simple reflection of the truth nor an epiphenomenon of social and political interests” [1].

The lecture-performance approach uses conventions both from lectures and from theatre and performance. The hybrid format of a lecture-performance allows sharing themes outside their usual circles and networks. The group or panel discussions following the lecture performance were effective in opening-up public debate in relation to the politics of agrifood knowledge and research.

[1] Jasanoff, S. ed., 2004. States of knowledge: the co-production of science and the social order. Routledge, p 3.
Through a diversity of forms of engagement and dissemination, the Healing from Enclosure project propagated the co-production framework as an analytical lens, as well as an act of creating the conditions under which it becomes possible to open up knowledge production processes to include hitherto unheard voices. For example, how to create means for people to engage effectively with agricultural sciences? This may sound obvious, but it is marginalised in most science communication, were the main focus is on giving people ‘access to truth’. Participatory research approaches in which people are simply invited to participate in data construction structured by specific questions defined in advance by researchers, fail to create the conditions for substantive epistemological or ontological changes. The central challenge remains unaddressed, of who is doing the knowing. By broadening seemingly narrow technical questions into openly political ones, the project questions the exclusive attribution to technical experts of ‘all the knowledge that counts’.

The project managed to involve a wide range of people from different disciplinary and professional backgrounds. As such, it created lived-experiences for people both within and outside universities to engage with agrifood knowledge systems, as a crucial element in the larger quest for social justice and ecological health. Creating spaces to ask inconvenient questions contribute to the disruption and transformation of existing science and society relations. Within university environments, the project contributed to a culture of being more open and reflexive about knowledge politics.
A fenced off research experiment with GM potatoes in Flanders (May 2011). Courtesy Guillaume de Crop