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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge
Joeva Sean Rock

Joeva Rock recently joined the University of Cambridge as an Assistant Professor in Development Studies in the Department of Politics and International Studies. An anthropologist, she uses ethnographic methods to study the interplay of food, politics, and development. She is a fellow of Murray Edwards College and a member of Cambridge Global Food Security's Steering Group. 

She is the author of We Are Not Starving: The Struggle for Food Sovereignty in Ghana published in September 2022 by Michigan State University Press. 

We talked to her about her new publication, her research and life in Cambridge.

The title of your book, We Are Not Starving: The Struggle for Food Sovereignty in Ghana is intriguing.  How did it come about? 

The book’s title comes from a conversation I had with a food sovereignty campaigner in Ghana, Constance. We were discussing a recent World Economic Forum, where Bill & Melinda Gates had made an impassioned plea for the adoption of genetically modified (GM) crops in Africa, an effort their foundation has invested heavily in. At the Forum, Bill Gates spoke in sweeping generalizations, referencing “Africa” in the singular, and suggested that GM crops were a tool to tackle “malnutrition and starvation” [].

Constance took issue with this characterization, and with powerful people like the Gates’ using long-held stereotypes of the African continent (as singular and starving) to advance their philanthropic goals. She said, “I was reading Melinda and Bill Gates during the… World Economic Forum … and [they said] the answer to African hunger is GMOs. I’m like, ‘how do you know that?... How do you know that is the answer to our hunger? And even who said we are hungry?’ We are not starving.”

Read in this context, “we are not starving” is not a denial of hunger, but rather a critique of the discourses and politics of development that so often frame the African continent as hungry, and so often privilege outside voices and expertise – like wealthy philanthropies – to define challenges and develop interventions. Constance is calling attention to this.

What led to your interest in GM crops in Ghana? 

Prior to pursuing my PhD in anthropology, I had worked in development in Ghana, and so had long been interested in the politics of development from a series of vantage points. When I first began to learn about the development of GM crops in Ghana – and the growing opposition to them from groups like those that Constance worked for – I realized what was at play was much more than an agricultural technology. Conversations around GM crops, whether with scientists, farmers, activists, or development officials, often waded into larger issues; that of sovereignty, of the trajectory of a relatively young nation, of the structural challenges facing the country’s agricultural sector, of global discourses around GM crops, of seed patenting, of global agribusiness, and of the power development donors hold. In other words, it was a deeply complex field, and one I was eager to understand better.

Raj Patel, research professor at The University of Texas at Austin says your book leads the reader, ‘with admirable clarity to understand what is at stake when humanitarian urgency becomes an alibi for a broad spectrum of political reconfigurations and contestations.’ Could you say a little about what those political reconfigurations and contestations are? 

I would be remiss if I didn’t say that Raj Patel’s blurb – and indeed all the blurbs provided -- are extremely generous. But to the point: I researched this book between 2013-2021, during which time multiple GM crops were under development (and contestation) in Ghana, but none were being grown commercially (which is still the case today). During this time, the Ghanaian state, along with some donor partners, pursued legislative changes to make way for the roll out of GM crops, and to make the country more attractive for seed and fertilizer companies generally. This included the passage of a bill that liberalized laws around seed importation, the creation of a national biosafety authority (which is required by the Cartagena Protocol, to which Ghana is a signatory), and the development and eventual passage of another bill called the Plant Breeders Bill. The latter was a source of deep debate, as it would establish patenting rights for new and novel varieties of plants. Many food sovereignty activists opposed the bill, arguing that its broad definition of a plant breeder (an individual or entity) and its narrow definition of a patentable plant (new, distinct, uniform, and stable) would privilege foreign breeders and corporations over those in Ghana. Due in part to this opposition, it took almost seven years for the bill to pass parliament. So, the Plant Breeders Bill is one example of the political reconfigurations, and subsequent contestations, spurred by efforts to introduce genetically modified seeds into Ghana.

You’re a fan of interdisciplinary projects and suggested in an interview that getting, for example, a plant biologist, a historian, an anthropologist, and an economist in a room together could offer some really exciting possibilities.  What would you have them discuss? 

These are academic fields that have much thematic overlap, but often aren’t in conversation – let alone collaboration – with each other. It’s been a few years since this original interview, and I would now want to add additional people to the room: farmers, market-sellers, and policymakers, at the very least. I wonder what sort of synergies there might be if this group discussed their various approaches to, for instance, agricultural development. What sort of questions might a historian and plant biologist ask and pursue together? What would a farmer and economist define as the largest challenges to food production? And how would each of these groups characterize the causes of food insecurity? These questions might seem like the basics, but it seems to me they’d be an important start.

Finally, we hope you’re settling into your new role here in Cambridge.  What's your favourite place in Cambridge so far? 

Thank you! Cambridge has definitely been a transition from the Bay Area. It’s hard to pick a favourite, but I’m really enjoying runs along the River Cam, taking my dog to Grantchester Meadows (he’s fascinated by the cows!), and searching for the best filter coffee in town.