The changing face of global agricultural research

A few weeks back we hosted a conference on ‘Contested Agronomy’. I was asked to provide some comments in the final session. I first wondered how agronomy and the practice and politics of agricultural research had changed in recent decades. There were three things that struck me:

‘Projectisation’ – Much agronomy is done in the context of ‘projects’ these days – short-term, focused, and geared to deliverables. Generalisable, silver bullets are what is demanded. Projectisation is the consequence of the way funding is delivered (often via NGOs without research capacity); the short cycles of publication that are required in the context of the professional career tracks of scientists (impact, impact, impact); and the management, institutionalisation and governance of agronomic science in both the public and private sectors. And the result is we get obsessed with ‘fixes’ – whether conservation agriculture, the system of rice intensification or GM crops. Such iconic technologies end up being the focus for polarised debate, rather than the socio-technical and political challenges of wider change. All such approaches may be useful in the right circumstances, but taken out of context, the debates are often polarised and unhelpful.

Privatisation – Most agronomists don’t work in public institutions any more, but in private (or quasi private – like many universities or public institutions with commercial sponsorship) settings. The ratio has shifted radically since the Green Revolution days of the 1960s and 70s. Today Monsanto and Syngenta have between them 50,000 employees globally, while the CGIAR has 10,000. Agronomy has been privatised and commodified; often in the context of large, multinational companies. The focus is therefore on products, patents and profits. The neoliberalisation of agricultural research and agri-food systems more generally generates a normative ordering and framing of agriculture, linked to a concentration of capital in a particular style of modernised, industrialised, agribusiness-dominated, fossil-fuel dependent agri-food system. Contestations need to be less about the particular technology, but more about the wider political economy, and how this influences how agricultural systems are changed and controlled.

Globalisation – All this becomes more acute in the context of globalisation. Today there are more sources of knowledge-technology, from different contexts. Whether this is from the ‘rising powers’ (such as India, China, Brazil – as discussed last week) or from large philanthropic organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or from social movements such as La Via Campesina, the sources of contested knowledge-making are diverse – and not just located in Euro-North American circuits, and their mirror in the CGIAR (the international agricultural research centres). Knowledges and technologies spread faster, and there are new sources of power, located in relation to new hubs of capital and finance. Thus today the processes of mutually-constructing socio-technologies is different, and so requires deeper insight into the knowledge politics of the globalised landscape of knowledge production, across diverse sites and organisations.

Given these fundamental changes in the contexts for agricultural research over the past decades, where are the new areas of contestation? Where should we be challenging, unpacking, and reframing approaches? I identified four areas:

First, the idea of ‘transfer’. Technology transfer has long been part of the lexicon of agricultural development, and has long been critiqued, often in relation to the contrasts of ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ versions. But actually we have to understanding ‘transfer’ in terms of the journeys travelled, and the social, political and cultural contexts of this. And this means understanding technology – and its transfer – in relation capital, states, class and other dimensions of social difference. Agronomy is obviously about farmers and farming, but it’s also about labourers, traders, technology manufacturers and more. As we show in our research on China and Brazil in African agriculture highlighted last week, political economy – and the relations of and politics of production – really does matter.

Second, fundamental debates about ‘epistemology’ (how we know things). At the conference there were various sessions on data, methods, trials and experiments, and there has been a long debate on how to improve these – taking a ‘systems’ approach, incorporating ‘complexity’ and adding on ‘participation’, for example. This is well rehearsed. But are there fundamentally different ways of knowing relevant to agronomy, where radically different frames, processes of knowledge building, agency and practice and so politics of agronomy come into play? Here, perspectives from the field, from farmers, labourers, rural activists and others become highly relevant. A point long made in the context of the ‘Farmer First’ debates (and trio of books). Such groups, from different standpoints, may understand the idiom of experiment and evidence in very different ways – and it’s not just a question of adding participation… and stirring.

Third is the popular issue of scale. Everything these days has to be done ‘at scale’ and ‘rolled out’ to maximise reach. Science and technology must be generalizable, even universal. Scale neutrality is seen as the ultimate achievement. But what is being scaled up? Is ‘scaling up’ about the multiplication of technologies and their reach across geographic space, or the sharing of principles, processes and relations? Is it the nutrient-enriched sweet potato (the technology) or improved livelihoods and reduced malnutrition (through multiple, diverse pathways)? Is it about scaling ‘things’ or ‘ends’, ‘needs’ and ‘demands’. There are very different ways of thinking about scaleability, and what you do about it, from these perspectives.

Fourth is ‘impact’. This was a strong theme of the earlier Contested Agronomy book, which analysed the way ‘success’ in agriculture is constructed – and manipulated. But despite the critique, the pathology has not disappeared. Impact is perhaps the biggest buzzword of the moment, and success must be sought at all costs. Impact in the field of agriculture is very often seen in terms of adoption (of things), and often a simplistic assessment of who is using what (the widget view of the world). Instead, I’d argue, we need to understand complex system change not patterns of adoption (a lesson long learned in agriculture – from the Farming Systems Research efforts 40 years ago). But too often we see such change framed in terms of managerial transition, not more fundamental, transformational change.

The most fundamental contestations are linked to values and politics, and our diverse collective imaginings of a better world. This is not an either/or choice – of industrial agriculture or agroecology for example – but it requires a much more nuanced debate about directions for agricultural development and their consequences for different people in different places. This is where the real contestations need to happen, and where we need more effective institutional mechanisms for deliberation and debate about agricultural futures that take politics into account.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland. An earlier version appeared on the STEPS Centre blog.




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  1. Pingback: The changing face of global agricultural research | Zimbo News

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