Faculty Feature: Julia Freeman

The Office of Sustainability spoke to Dr. Freeman about her interest in sustainability and her current research projects.

Dr. Julia Freeman is a Faculty Lecturer in the McGill School of Environment. In her research, Dr. Freeman investigates sustainability challenges and their related social controversies. Most recently, she has explored the governance of emergent agricultural biotechnologies in the Global South. In her role as a Faculty Lecturer, Dr. Freeman has taught a variety of courses with a focus on applied student research. She is responsible for coordinating and teaching part of the Montreal Urban Sustainability Experience, a summer field semester that focuses on exploring aspects of urban sustainability and emphasizes hands-on and interdisciplinary learning. The Office of Sustainability spoke to Dr. Freeman about her interest in sustainability and her current research projects.

What stimulated your interest in environmental issues?

I came to environmental research by way of Anthropology. I’ve had a longstanding interest in the relationships between people and plants, and what this looks like in political and ecological terms. So, for example, I’ve examined the risk debates and regulatory challenges facing genetically engineered agriculture in India. Prior to that work I examined the organic coffee certification process in rural Mexico. I suppose in both of those projects I wanted to cut through the hype and find out if farmers were benefiting from these interventions, how the land is being impacted, and their potential contributions toward more just and sustainable agricultural practices. More recently I’ve become interested in what sustainability looks like right here in Montreal, be it through urban agricultural initiatives, waste management practices or food security mobilizations.

In your recent work, you have investigated the governance of emergent biotechnologies in the Global South. How is biotechnology impacting small-scale farmers?

That’s a big question! And the unsatisfying answer is that it depends where you’re looking. What I can say with more precision is that I was surprised by the results of my fieldwork in India where every conventional small-scale farmer I spoke to was enthusiastic about using Bt cotton (a genetically engineered cotton that resists lepidopteran pests). There was one exception, a village of organic farmers who worked closely with a local NGO and had a lot of support for integrated pest management techniques. But apart from that group, there was unanimous support for Bt cotton and it forced me to revisit some of my assumptions about what might be going on out there in the fields. It certainly gave me a much deeper appreciation for the difficult conditions farmers facing possible bollworm infestations had been living with prior to the arrival of a biotech option. So, in Andhra Pradesh this new biotech crop meant farmers were less vulnerable to having their crop destroyed by infestations, and they could use dramatically fewer applications of highly toxic chemical pesticides. Farmers were reporting reductions from 20 or more sprays a growing season down to 3 sprays over the same time period. That’s a big deal. Especially when you consider all of the side effects that can come with heavy pesticide usage: headaches, nausea or vomiting, respiratory or skin problems, even death.

Now that’s not to say that Bt cotton isn’t having other impacts. It has been taken up so widely across the country that researchers are starting to see new pest ecologies, so more problems with, say, mealybug instead of bollworm. But the common idea that farmers are being duped by huge corporations and that biotech has been a disaster for them really doesn’t stand up to the evidence in this case. And that’s why it’s essential that when we’re talking about the impacts of agricultural biotechnology around the world, we get specific. What kind of genetic trait are we talking about? Is it a useful one from farmers’ perspectives, or does it reflect industry priorities? What kinds of crops are we talking about? Subsistence or cash crops? Are they of particular cultural significance? Are we talking about using biotech seeds in a center of origin (and hence uniquely rich genetic diversity) for a particular crop? Are we talking about governance systems that allow seeds to circulate and be saved in traditional ways while protecting intellectual property rights? It’s in thinking through the answers to these kinds of questions that we can begin to address the bigger question of what agricultural biotechnology really means on the ground.

You are an interdisciplinary social scientist. What are the benefits of studying environmental issues with an interdisciplinary perspective?

Understanding environment requires multiple perspectives. There’s a classic Indian story I love about a group of blind men arguing over how to describe an elephant. One does this by touching the elephant’s smooth tusk, another by the other huge rough wall of its side, and the third from its thin flapping ears, the last from its ropey tail. To compare these descriptions, it seems impossible that they’re talking about the same thing! It’s in the bringing together of those understandings that we can start to appreciate the elephant more fully.

So, what does that mean in terms of some of my past work? Seeds have fascinating social lives. Some manage to slip through formal regulation. Others become superstars. Anthropologists have been sensitive to the ways that can happen, and what it means for landscapes and communities. But as I said, we also need to appreciate the changing ecologies where these seeds are being planted, the historic context from which they’ve emerged, as well as the economic and political constraints under which they circulate. In this way I think interdisciplinary work offers us additional lenses to understand our elephants, metaphorical or otherwise.

What are your favourite classes to teach at McGill? 

I’m lucky to teach the courses I do since they’re all pretty interesting and we use a team-teaching model at the School of Environment, which keeps things lively. But I particularly enjoy teaching those courses that center around applied research experiences. For instance, I coordinate and teach part of MUSE (Montreal’s Urban Sustainability Experience) a month-long intensive set of summer field courses. In the course “Montreal’s Urban Sustainability Analysis” (ENVR 422) we get to critically investigate what’s being done in the city to help us move toward a more sustainable future. We ask what’s working, what’s not, and how do we know? We get out of the classroom and into Montreal’s gardens and streets. It’s demanding and fast-paced and very rewarding. And when MUSE students share the results of their research at our annual symposium I always learn something new about life in Montreal.

By the way, in the spirit of understanding our city from many different perspectives, MUSE courses are actually open to U2 or U3 undergraduates from across McGill’s programs and Faculties. Anyone who’s interested can learn more at: http://www.mcgill.ca/mse/study/fieldstudies/muse

Originally published on April 28, 2017

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