Reframing plant research to serve global food security

Week of 13–20 July 2021 (date and time to be confirmed)
Online (hosted by CSHL)


You need to be attending the ISHPSSB 2021 conference.

Session details

  • Chair: Sabina Leonelli (University of Exeter)
  • Speakers:
    • Rachel A. Ankeny (University of Adelaide),
    • Helen Curry (University of Cambridge),
    • Sabina Leonelli (University of Exeter),
    • Hugh F. Williamson (University of Exeter)
  • Commentator: Paul B. Thompson (Michigan State University)

Session abstract

Research on plants and crops is crucial to informing innovation and policy relating to food security around the world, yet the development of efficient systems to link and interpret data acquired through such research has lagged behind other fields such as climate or human health. Such data management systems are viewed as indispensable to developing an evidence base for a range of technologies and interventions that include crop breeding, genetic modification and synthetic biology, modelling, decision support systems and growing procedures. Not only does this require a complex set of standards and tools to integrate genomic, phenotypic, environmental and socio-economic data; even more importantly, such standards and tools need to incorporate and remain responsive to a wide and diverse range of stakeholders all over the globe. Unsurprisingly, this means engaging with a highly fragmented landscape with multiple levels of locality and coordination, ranging from institution- and experimental system-specific solutions to international research projects, breeder- and farmer-led groups, transnational communities of practice such as those assembled within the Research Data Alliance and global programmes sponsored by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

This panel explores the challenges encountered by philosophers, social scientists and historians collaborating with stakeholders across this complex landscape, and the lessons learnt from qualitative empirical engagement with these various dimensions of plant and crop research, which bring into sharp relief some of the most urgent concerns underpinning global approaches to food security. Significant questions remain about how to link different data types and infrastructures while preserving the domain-specific properties of the data and metadata, which are necessary for ensuring their reliability and usability. The governance of plant data infrastructures and circulation poses a range of unresolved questions regarding the ownership and benefits of data and the agricultural biotechnologies that result from their application. And the social, economic and political matters that predominate in food security programmes continue to be overlooked in plant scientists’ formulation of technical and scientific challenges.

All participants in this panel have experience in bringing such concerns to the attention both of researchers in the relevant domains and of national and international policy bodies, and will discuss both the challenges involved in engaging science in this way and the opportunities for philosophical, social and historical insight and understanding that are offered by such engagement. Drawing on empirical research and ongoing collaborations with plant scientists, policymakers and related parties, the panel will also discuss the pitfalls of attempting to capture and represent such a dispersed landscape, as well as finding effective means to engage key policy actors with the results of this research.

The panel will take the form of four 15 minute presentations by the speakers, followed by a 10 minute commentary and general discussion. The first paper will introduce the philosophical and technical issues involved in plant data management, their implications for policy and the speakers’ own engagements with policymakers and the aggrotech sector. The second paper will discuss an exercise in mapping the highly fragmented landscape of plant data infrastructures and users, focusing particularly on the challenges of identifying relevant actors and visualising this material to produce effective interventions. The third paper will address concerns emerging from the history of strategies used to conserve plant genetic resources, and their significance for contemporary seed banking and its envisioned role in supporting food security. The fourth paper will turn to the public perception of GM technologies and the institutional partnerships through which agricultural biotechnologies are produced. Central to issues of trust that have undermined GM technologies is public suspicion of the public-private partnerships through which they have been developed. The commentary will highlight the place that this kind of research may have in the broader landscape of food security studies and policy initiatives, and prompt questions for general discussion.

Contributed papers abstracts

Sabina Leonelli: From the philosophy of plant data to international science policy… and back

This paper reflects on the challenges and opportunities raised by a philosophical and historical investigation of plant data management, re-use and related semantics at the global level, and what this means in terms of who gets to do which research, and on what empirical grounds, in plant and crop science. I focus on the collection and analysis of plant phenomics in the field. There are countless parameters of potential relevance ranging from the information about the soil, relevant microbiomes, plants at different stages of development, changing climatic conditions and so forth; and no universal approaches to identifying and labelling relevant traits. My research investigates the issues arising from attempts to share phenomic data about crops across different locations, and especially between high-resourced and low-resourced research environments. Understanding the conditions under which plant data can travel is particularly relevant in the context of interdisciplinary, global collaborations targeting food security, where the linking of data coming from different sources constitutes at once a tantalizing opportunity and a significant problem.As a specific example, I discuss the case of the Crop Ontology and its efforts to document and link the diversity of tools, terminologies and variables used to describe widely diverse species in different parts of the world. I have argued that such practices do not relate in straightforward ways to traditional taxonomic practices, and in fact defy existing understandings of systematisation in biology and beyond. Here is a case where reliance on a universal approach to identifying and labelling traits has repeatedly proved problematic, and yet the attempt to articulate semantic differences is generating new ways to develop and communicate biological knowledge. This philosophical argument has emerged as much from engagement with researchers on the ground as with engagement with the large ecosystem of international agencies and policy organisations involved in the governance and management of plant and crop data with relevance to agriculture. By explicitly discussing this approach to philosophical engagement and research, this paper intends to: (1) elicit debate over the enormous complexity of “big” and “open” plant data governance and its various publics; (2) relate some of the challenges I experience as a philosopher working with social scientists, plant and data scientists, and various stakeholders in policy and agriculture; and (3) reflect on how much there is to learn for the philosophy, history and social studies of science from such engagements.

Hugh F. Williamson: Mapping plant data communities and the challenge of engagement

Recent developments in high-throughput technology have significantly increased the scale of data production in plant science and expanded the scope of research, most notably in the development of phenomic techniques that integrate visual imaging and a range of sensor data to track plant growth at a very high resolution and in near-real time. Increasingly, these technologies are being taken out of controlled environments such as the lab and greenhouse and into the field or farm, especially in areas of crop research such as plant breeding and agronomy. These experiments frequently require the integration of plant data with complex environmental and climate data. Such large quantities and diverse types of data are exceptionally difficult to handle, creating an increasing need among plant research communities for appropriate data management platforms and for semantic and metadata standards that facilitate the interoperability and reusability of data. A wide range of actors have responded to this challenge, through the development of institution- or project-specific platforms, through the collaborative efforts of transnational communities of practice, and through policy shifts within international organisations such as the CGIAR. The result has been a wide range of platforms and standards distributed across an uneven landscape in which existing systems are not always visible to one another and may reduplicate other efforts. Moreover, platforms respond to different needs that include not only data handling in research contexts but also funders’ demands for greater unification of purpose and outputs in order to solve global challenges of food security, and the need to make data available to communities beyond research and policy fields, such as farmers.

This paper discusses an ongoing project to map the landscape of plant data infrastructures and to engage policymakers with the results of this empirical research. Mapping methods facilitate a detailed comparative perspective on the creation, development and intersection of different platforms, mobilising historical detail and a philosophical attention to the implications of particular technical choices, that can serve to guide the choices of policymakers and related actors. Nevertheless, the dispersed landscape of plant data communities and platforms presents several challenges for research and engagement: Firstly, identifying and documenting the widest possible range of existing and defunct projects; secondly, finding ways to visualise maps in adequate historical detail and with sufficient attention to their technical form and philosophical implications; and thirdly, engaging several different levels of policymaker with this empirical material, from food security concerns at the global level through to science policy and institutional commitments. Drawing on our mapping experiences, this paper addresses the specific nature of these challenges to the fields of plant science and food security policy and some responses to them.

Helen Curry: The History of Seed Banking and the Hazards of Backup 

In this presentation I reflect on my efforts to draw lessons from the history of crop genetic resources conservation for present-day research and practice. Here I focus two concepts currently prevalent in seed bank strategizing: safety duplication and rationalization. Contemporary efforts to salvage endangered crop diversity in seed and gene banks emphasize "safety duplication" as a key strategy. Important collections of seeds or other genetic materials are copied, in whole or part, and sent to physically distant sites to provide a backup in the case of local disaster. At the same time, undetected or unnecessary duplication within and across seed banks seen is as a threat. Since the 1980s, researchers have described "rationalization" of collections as an urgent need and devised systems—chiefly, by creating and linking diverse and dispersed data sets—for rooting out unwanted duplication in the name of increased efficiency. My historical research shows that the ascent of safety duplication in seed banks cannot be understood apart from anxieties about social, political, and cultural survival during the Cold War and amidst catastrophic environmental change. Meanwhile, the dichotomization of wanted from unwanted redundancy bears the distinct mark of neo-liberal reorganization: after years of urgent salvage of endangered seeds, state-funded seed banks found themselves under pressure to reduce expenditures, including even if it meant culling collections of the same resources they'd labored to protect. This history therefore invites reflection not only on the history of seed banking and backup, but also the nature of security as promised and (not) achieved through backup and the costs of (not) backing up well.

Rachel A. Ankeny: Between plant research and food politics: revisiting the GM debate

Research on and use of genetic modification (GM) to alter crops and other plants is becoming more common despite continued widespread public concerns about GM. Our empirical research with various stakeholders in Australia has revealed that there are diverse values associated with GM, and that opposition (or support) for it is rarely based on one consideration or factor but depends greatly on the type of application under consideration, perceived risks and potential benefits, and the nature of the research partnerships associated with any particular project. Many consumers and community members are most concerned about why GM is being used and who will benefit, for instance to make profit for big corporations or retailers, versus public research in collaboration with farmers and others aimed at improving nutrition, lessening environmental impacts, or improving productivity for farmers. Most are less concerned about the technical and scientific details of how GM works, and often collapse concerns about additives or pesticides/herbicides with their understandings of GM. Some consumers simply reject all uses of GM particularly in the food supply because of fears about the unknown risks, or because it is what they consider to be unnatural. However people have very different understandings of what counts as a risk, what is natural, and how GM might (or might not) align with their values. This paper contends that a more complex approach to considering the potential and the risk of GM is needed, particularly in the face of climate change and other drivers; and this may affect how research on crops is designed, communicated and conducted.