This article is based on research undertaken last year at Cardiff University with colleagues in The School of Geography and Planning, notably Dr. Gareth Enticott and was funded by the ESRC. It provides an overview of initial findings on the knowledge production challenges Brexit is posing for agricultural/rural economy membership bodies. This is in terms of the volume of work they are undertaking to keep their members informed on current thinking and scenario planning regarding Brexit, Agriculture and the rural economy. These membership bodies include those working with agricultural businesses, the rural economy and wildlife focused organisations.

brexit field
Image from European Parliament Committees

Brexit was a publically endorsed decision based on contested knowledge claims. In terms of Brexit and agriculture, many organisations are addressing the current policy vacuum and uncertainty by working to forecast future scenarios and communicate limited knowledge on the future for farming and rural economies in the UK. Both the UK and Welsh Government have established listening and knowledge sharing processes by working with organisations that represent key agricultural and rural sectors. Although Brexit can be seen as one of the most significant controversies of our time, there are voices in the agricultural and environmental sectors that view it as a significant opportunity for change. However, whilst media reports view farmers as being largely in favour of Brexit this research brings to the fore, more nuanced positions that foreground the challenges the sector faces as the UK leaves the European Union.

This research is based on 46 interviews with mostly food, farming and environment-focused membership organisations, industry bodies and welsh government officials. Half of interviewees were in Welsh based organisations and the project had links to the Welsh Government’s department for Environment and Rural Affairs. These organisations are playing a central role in knowledge sharing and listening processes as they work towards a way forward for agriculture post-Brexit.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

This quote from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ appears an apt reflection on perspectives surrounding Brexit. As a highly contested referendum that is now generating a number of disputed laws, Brexit is controversial. From the pub to the Cabinet table, Brexit invokes a range of deeply held views. From its legal basis, to the UK border and future trading relations, it seems that there is more that ‘divides than unites’ those considering its far-reaching effects[1]. Controversies can be seen as issues around which knowledge forming processes gather and that generate ‘shared uncertainties’. The Actor Network Theorist Venturini (2010)[2] argues that:

“…controversies begin when actors discover that they cannot ignore each other and controversies end when actors manage to work out a solid compromise to live together. Anything between these two extremes (the cold consensus of reciprocal unawareness and the warm consensus of agreement and alliance) can be called a controversy.”

With Brexit, the potential impacts of which are being debated, the effects of empty promises and impact of numerous contingencies has helped to create a problem with few “undisputable facts”. Rather to quote Latour (2004)[3]:

“To provide complete undisputable proof has become a rather messy, pesky, risky business. And to offer a public proof, big enough and certain enough to convince the whole world of the presence of a phenomenon or of a looming danger, seems now almost beyond reach – and always was.Latour 2004

Whilst most people can agree that Brexit is currently comprised of many unknown potential scenarios, organisations have been coalescing around specific issues in order to attempt to chart a way ahead. Through the generation of reports, briefings, scenario planning and discussion on Twitter, Brexit debate is being publically aired.

Venturini’s common descriptors of controversies fit well with the issue under view.

  • Controversies involve all kind of actors
  • Controversies display the social in its most dynamic form
  • Controversies are reduction ­resistant
  • Controversies are debated
  • Controversies are conflicts

Brexit and Agriculture is generating the association of a range of strategic actors, working to shape the future of agriculture and the rural economy post-Brexit. Many of these actors are membership organisations whose Brexit work engages with their grassroots, as well as governmental bodies. This work is responsive, adapting to dynamic circumstances such as changing scenarios, new governmental announcements and the ongoing Brexit negotiations, plus extramural work. To date, the overlapping scope and themes of reports on Brexit and Agriculture by these bodies, suggests that reductions, or solutions are not easily generated. Conflict and debate could be said to be at the heart of exploring future scenarios.

Whilst the complexity of Brexit and Agriculture work is undisputed, the work of membership organisation has been conducted via simple practices that can be summed up as: Dialogue –Fact finding –Analysing Data & Communicating findings.

The organisations interviewed for this project largely approached the uncertainty of Brexit for the agricultural sector/rural economy by attempting to form knowledge via engagement with members and government departments as well as undertaking data analysis. These knowledge formation practices involved joined-up programmes of dialogue and knowledge exchange to address some of the questions that the challenge and opportunity of Brexit raises. The Welsh Government Dept. for The Environment and Rural Affairs established a cross sectoral stakeholder group, joining up voices from policy-makers, industry bodies, farming, fisheries and environment-focused membership bodies, civil society organisations, businesses, charities and more. Many of these organisations were interviewees for this project and it was clear that there was much common ground in their perspectives, particularly in regard to identifying the impacts that Brexit will, or perhaps already is, having on food and farming. Plus there were commonly identified potential solutions for certain challenges. However thorny issues were also raised such as, contrasting and competing visions for the future of the rural economy along with differing perspectives on how new trade framework scenarios will impact food and farming sectors.

Dialogue, engagement, collaboration and participation are all practices that stakeholders, the UK government and Welsh Government have been undertaking. However most participants reflected that the UK government is ‘in listening mode’ and that knowledge traffic has been a one way process. Whilst many participants appreciated the reasons for this, it does not help address the uncertainty that Brexit has created. Many participants are membership bodies and are therefore, the point of contact and information regarding Brexit impacts. Most Welsh focused participants praised the Welsh Government for running their stakeholder groups. These were seen as being effective and an important forum for dialogue and knowledge exchange. However whilst information shared about Brexit has been enabling the formation of ideas amongst industry stakeholders, it has not been circulating more widely to public domains. Mainstream media has been more focused on day by day developments concerning the negotiations between the UK government and the EU.

A lack of information directly from Westminster has placed the onus on membership organisations to create information for members in the form of new policies, strategies and scenario analysis. Under Brexit, these stakeholders have become important knowledge exchange actors creating evidenced information that enables knowledge to circulate. The range of work exploring the future for agriculture and the rural economy has produced a wealth of new reports, new strategies, scenario plans, workshop outputs, evidence gathered, blogs, Tweets and more. As this interviewee quote highlights, all this has created significant labour for the organisations as they work to listen to policymakers, analyse evidence and inform members:

‘Brexit has become our biggest piece of work, and we’re forming positions, producing various reports…so as you can imagine, virtually everything we do in our role as an organisation has had to change…we’ve taken on extra staff to enable us to make sure members’ views are fully represented through this process.’ Membership body Interviewee

Whilst Brexit becomes the locus of activity for these bodies, what other important issues may have been sidelined?

Our research questions asked participants to explore what challenges and opportunities Brexit may bring. Across all interviewees (from Wales and the UK), the most commonly identified challenges were: Trade and Tariff Changes, Vulnerable Agricultural Sectors, and impacts to Labour of new migration policies. Closely following on from these were issues raised relating to changes to agricultural funding support and impacts on the rural economy. Across all interviewees, the most commonly identified opportunities were: import substitution, new trading markets and changing regulatory frameworks. The complex nature of determining a new funding framework was also commonly agreed as both a challenge and an opportunity along with the importance of developing a ‘working domestic agricultural policy’. Creating a domestic agricultural funding framework does raise a number of complex questions, particularly that of preserving the integrity of devolved matters. Westminster was seen to be listening but not offering information, which created commonly held frustrations and concerns regarding the future of UK agriculture and potential impacts on Welsh governance of agriculture. The uncertainty that was commonly referred to also created unease concerning future funding and regulatory structures relating to governance, farm payments, trade, labour and more. This raises questions of whether Westminster is taking sufficient notice of the remit of devolved administrations when considering new funding frameworks?

Brexit has created a huge work programme for Westminster, devolved administrations, industry bodies, food, farming and environmental membership groups and more. This work is ongoing and generating a significant amount of materials examining the future for post-Brexit UK agriculture and food. Membership organisations are stretched and will require resources to manage this demand and to continue knowledge dissemination practices. Information sharing practices are important mechanisms for navigating the complexities of Brexit, and are creating inter-sectoral dialogue. However materials produced are not of obvious interest to the general public and the work of these organisations could be said to be generating ‘knowledge silos’. The slippery nature of knowledge materials shared, which are largely speculative, has had little traction with the public more widely. Generating interest from the public will be an important step but will require greater certainty in terms of strategies and policy that envision change for the years to come. Digestible strategy and policy communication is essential. Media discourse has focused on the lack of progress, the lack of information and lack of certainty regarding Brexit. There is some need to translate the Brexit work created by industry stakeholders and others into public focused media in order to create a more diverse Brexit discourse.


[1] UCL Insights (2017). Brexit: Constitutional and legal requirements. Retrieved from:

[2] Venturini (2010).Diving in magma: how to explore controversies with actor-network theory. Public Understand. Sci. 19(3) (2010) 258–273

[3] Latour 2004a- From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik or How to Make Things Public





Sustainable Food Cities: More-than-localised food movements

Thanks to The Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University, and in particular Dr. Luke Owen, for inviting me to present a seminar on initial findings on working with Food Exeter. The presentation investigates how Sustainable Food Cities are comprised of ‘networks within networks’ which at times creates tensions and contested agendas. However commitment to working group activity and campaigns can bring divergent groups together to take unified action.

Please click on the image below to watch the live recorded presentation:



RGS-IBG Pre-conference event 1st September 2015 -‘Food Matters Symposium’

Organised In collaboration with Love Local Food, West Town Farm, OrganicARTS, Ashclyst & Shillingford Farm

Panellists – Prof. Mike Goodman, University of Reading, Dr. Emma Roe, University of Southampton and Dr. Matt Reed, The Countryside and Community Research Institute, Andy Bragg –West Town Farm, Martyn Bragg –Shillingford Organics and Ashclyst Farm

With support from the Nature, Materialities & Biopolitics (NaMBIO) research group of the Department of Geography in the University of Exeter, the Social & Cultural Geography Research Group of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (SCGRG RGS-IBG), the South-West Doctoral Centre of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC SWDTC), and the Catalyst Project at the University of Exeter.


Although food waste is beginning to appear on academic and political agendas there has been a tendency to frame the problem around individual food practices, and much less work has been done on how food becomes framed as waste at other nodes within food systems. Through employing a mixture of panel sessions, provocations, hands on sessions and group work, this symposium will bring together academics, food producers, food retailers and food activists in order to approach the problem of food waste. We hope this symposium will enable a collaborative process of agenda setting for future research into food waste, food knowledge and food practices.


Food matters are increasingly contested as lively materials that shape issues around human health and wellbeing as well as impacting on ecosystems through their production, consumption and disposal. Food materials decay rendering food inedible. Food material can be seen as unknown, unfamiliar and undesirable for consumption. Food matters can contain anxieties over provenance, authenticity and wider material impacts into our ecosystems and our bodies. However solutions to knowing food, addressing food waste and increasing access to fresh food are contested. Examples of this include the use of waste food to address issues of food poverty, processing technologies precluding edible food from reaching the consumer, or food labelling inhibiting edible food from being consumed. Through this participatory event we seek to explore these issues by not only generating debate for academic research, but by also getting our hands on food matters, and engaging with local producers’ food stories and food knowledges. By incorporating practical hands- on sessions to produce our lunch with ‘waste’ food and hearing on-the-ground experiences of producers and activists, we seek to ground academic debate in production- consumption-waste pathways with the matter of food itself, and to co-create knowledges for ongoing research collaboration.

Limited tickets -Follow the link below for more information and to register-

Social Media and the Internet – All in this together?

Image from Sanjay Sharma's presentation
Image from Sanjay Sharma’s presentation

The Association of Research Ethics brought together expert presenters to explore the practice and problems of using social media in academic research. This event effectively brought to the fore key issues for ethics committee members and researchers. This post will give an over view of the key messages and points of debate. Below is a link to a storify of the tweets shared under the hashtag #AfREethics.

Academic research projects are exploring the activity of users on social media platforms. The speed of updating posts and responding to live events means that large volumes of data can be generated. This data contains metrics that can shape the focus of analysis and results can be published to ensure user anonymity. However the recent emergence of these techniques and the fast pace of change in this field have prevented a clear consensus on academic approaches to ethical issues around consent and privacy. For University ethics committees the implications and impact of social media research are largely only beginning to be considered. The speakers invited to present on these themes provided insight into this field of research as well as highlighting specific issues of concern.

Carl Miller, from Demos began the day with an overview of social media research into the UK general election campaign 2015. Social media research, he contends, is based on the belief that social media offers a window into political and social processes. Understandings of the impact of social media are developing, as illustrated by how political parties are using social media platforms in #GE2015. Posts from politicians join a crowded space on these platforms and can be responded to in unexpected ways (eg with the rise of photoshopped images). Carl and colleagues are using a variety of tools including social network analysis to explore networks emerging through Twitter posts. Computational analysis via machine learning is at the forefront of their methods and Carl highlighted how algorithms are ‘trained’ to detect sentiment. However Carl insists that issues of demography etc. mean that Twitter is not an alternative polling tool. The question of ethics in such work is complex and frameworks are regularly updated. Questions around individual harm and the effects of aggregating data need greater attention.

Farida Vis from The Visual Social Media Lab pointed to the near saturation of smartphone use that is increasing the widespread sharing of images. It is these acts of sharing that intensify ethical issues of social media data and breakdown boundaries between the production and consumption of information online. Farida urged that as researchers, we need to talk about the ethical frameworks that we want to see in place. By sharing and reflecting on practices we can help shape this debate. In particular Farida and later Anne Burns underscored the point that just because data is available doesn’t mean that we should use it. However as research analyses are often interested in broad trends rather than individual users, privacy can be protected.

Sanjay Sharma from Brunel University uses his own research of ambient race talk on Twitter to foreground issues that ethics committees need attending to. He pointed out that even recently research ethics statements often did not mention the internet. Research committees are, he stated, struggling to catch up with the implications of social media research. Whilst core issues have to be addressed, ‘ethics creep’ can result in prescriptive and regulatory approaches. Instead a position of open-ended dialogue can best serve research needs. The norms of platforms are commonly translated into what is seen as possible in research. Sanjay’s work exploring the #notracist Twitter stream highlights the power of the researcher in judging what is or is not racist posts. This interpretative element highlights the importance of qualitative approaches to understanding meaning behind users’ posts.

Some of these themes were echoed in Anne Burns presentation. Anne stated that personal information is the oil of the digital economy with the sharing aspect of social media platforms inciting a confessional approach. Anne claimed that privacy concerns are commonly seen either as a responsibility for individuals or as an uncontrollable matter. However researchers need to consider the implications of their actions when online material is repurposed as this can create new relations of visibility. Therefore as with research, ethics need to be seen as a process that needs regular attending, not simply as a matter agreed at the outset of a project.

Please follow the link below to see a collection of tweets posted on this event

Storify: SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE INTERNET – ALL IN THIS TOGETHER? #AfREethics (with images, tweets) · sandysom · Storify.

Discovering the Geo in Social Media data

This blog is based on research undertaken for The Contagion project at  The University of Exeter

This week Scraperwiki announced that their scraping service would now carry the functionality to include user location information in Twitter datasets. For non-programming geographers and others wanting to explore the geographic origins of social media postings, this opened up an important dimension of digital data. Of course there are many projects and users who have been successfully geolocating Twitter data by accessing the API, developing bespoke tools, such as Floating Sheep, Tweet Map or through using paid-for platforms such as GNIP. However researchers using open source tools and with limited coding capabilities have been not been able to access Twitter’s geolocating potential.

As Scraperwiki’s announcement came on Monday 16th June, it seemed an obvious call to explore the global origins of #worldcup2014 tweets. A quick scrape harvested just under 20,000 tweets that included the additional metadata columns–user_time_zone and user_location. On cleaning in OpenRefine the dataset was reduced to 10,957. This significant reduction of the dataset was due to the number of blanks in the geolocated columns. As expected when using data scraped from users’ profiles, not every entry contained useful information. User location is based on the stated location from a user’s profile. This could be helpfully accurate, such as London, UK, or creatively inaccurate such as ‘Middle-Earth’ or vague, such as ‘Worldwide’ or ‘everywhere’. The information in the time zone column hopefully would be accurate. However one anomaly in this column stood out –the official FIFA 2014 profile -@2014_FIFA was given the time zone of Chennai (which is in India) and the user location of Brazil. This does not fit with their profile or their expected current activity. An SQL query in Open Office revealed some of the most popular timezone results, giving London, UK 10.4% of time zone entries. However results with ‘null’ were 32% of entries pointing again to the limitations of this time zone information.

This dataset was then uploaded to a Google Fusion table that created a map based on the results for user location


This quick and dirty geolocation exercise based on a trending hashtag provides a window into the global spread of #worldcup2014 Twitter activity. This dataset provides an antidote to the dominance of Twitter analysis based on English speaking countries. Clusters are seen not only in the UK and the USA, but are also visible in India, Japan, East Africa, Indonesia and Malaysia.

It is, however limited -32% of the cleaned dataset is shown to have a ‘null’ entry. If this number was combined with the 9,031 blanks removed on cleaning, this figure would significantly rise.