Three ceramic pots which are white with blue drawings on them representing food

food crops, sustainability & GM

Guest blog by Daksha Patel

This new work – a group of three ceramic pieces – explores themes of global food security and the impact of climate change and new pests and diseases upon food crops.

Three ceramic pots which are white with blue drawings on them representing food

We are today increasingly reliant on a very small number of food crop species worldwide. According to a report by the New Scientist only 0.1% of the planet’s edible plants are currently used to feed people. Research at Kew is exploring how traditional and wild food crop varieties, which are more resilient to shifting climatic conditions and emerging pests and diseases, can be used to breed genetic diversity into today’s food crops to make them more resilient.

I was commissioned to create this work as part of ‘A Modest Show’ collateral events at BAS9 (The British Art Show 9) in Manchester, 2022. The ceramic pieces featured at the event I’ll Bring You Flowers, a pop up meal and exhibition with fellow Suite Studio artists Fiona Donald and Lisa Remers. This brought together curators, artists, feminist chef and sommelier duo Anna Søgaard and Kim McBride from SUPPher, for an evening of wonderful food, wine and conversations with the general public. Some very interesting discussions about the environment, plant diversity, climate change and plant genetics ensued!

I often start new work by drawing. These sketches are of traditional food crops such as Akkoub (part of the sunflower family which grows in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine) and the Morama bean (an oilseed which grows in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and the Kalahari desert). It is of course impossible to ignore the other man-made threat to global food security: the impact of war and conflict on the supply chains of staple foods such as wheat. I incorporated mapping lines into the drawings to suggest coastlines and shipping routes, connecting different plants and geographical regions together.

I wanted the forms of the pots to reflect glass instruments such as conical flasks and beakers typically used in research laboratories. They were thrown in porcelain by Steve Graham at Clay Studio Manchester who skilfully and precisely followed my designs.

I used cobalt oxide to decorate the pots, an intricate process using tissue paper to transfer my drawings with a fine brush. It was very difficult to see what the final result would be, as the cobalt oxide was gritty and didn’t emulsify in the way water colours do. It was simply a question of making different concentrations of oxide by mixing with water, and waiting to see what emerged after firing.

A white ceramic pot raised on a potter's wheel with a design

The genetic modification of food crops is enmeshed in all kinds of inter-related, unresolved and ongoing issues. Farmers may become increasing reliant upon expensive seeds from the very small number of biotech companies who own the intellectual property for the genetic variations. The impact of GMO contamination in the environment is an ongoing concern that needs more research. Ultimately, scientific research is implicated in wider social, political, economic and environmental issues.

Finely decorated porcelain pots and food are both deeply connected to social practices and culture. The juxtaposition of traditional crafts with the laboratory-based forms and drawings on the ceramics, positions the scientific research into food crops and genetics in wider social contexts.