Jim Sumberg

Jim Sumberg

Research Fellow

Jim Sumberg is an agriculturalist by training and has over 25 years experience working on small-scale farming systems and agricultural research policy in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. A key research interest has been the dynamics of change within agricultural systems.
Google Scholar: Jim Sumberg profile

  • Why we should argue about agronomy

    Published on 17 March 2015

    one way signs pointing both waysThe real problem is that too many people are playing politics with agriculture, and poor people are suffering – agronomists should stick to the facts!”

    Organic agriculture, agroecology, Conservation Agriculture, the System of Rice Intensification, Holistic Management (Savory System), integrated pest management, Green Revolution style intensification, genetically modified crops – what do all of these have in common? Perhaps little more than that they were developed and promoted as important agricultural innovations, and they have all been – and some continue to be – at the centre of controversy.

    Does this controversy and contestation point to a triumph of politics over science and fact? Does it signal the death of agronomy and agricultural science more broadly as an, evidence-based, scientific field of endeavour?

    The answer to both of these questions is an emphatic “No”. An absence of contestation is certainly not an indication of the absence of politics. Nor does an absence of contestation indicate that facts and evidence rule the roost.

  • A new way of bringing ‘farms’ and ‘systems’ together

    Published on 22 October 2013

    farm system drawing

    by Jim Sumberg, Stephen Whitfield and Ken Giller

    How do we understand farms as systems, and farms as part of systems? The terms and definitions that researchers use affect how we see farming and agriculture in relation to ecology, society and politics.

    So is it time for a rethink?

    The words ‘farm’ (or ‘farming’) and ‘system’ are used in many combinations, but three of the most common are:

    1. a ‘farm system’: referring to the conceptualisation of an individual farm as a system, a set of inter-related, interacting components or sub-systems
    2. a ‘farming system’: referring to a single category within a broader typology, where the category groups together farms that are ‘similarly structured’ (Ruthenberg, 1976 [i], p.3; also Dixon et al., 2001 [ii]).
    3. a ‘system of farming’: in the sense of a more or less systematic and consistent way of going about the business of farming; as in: ‘I have my system’ (my way of doing it)

    Another important combination is ‘farming systems research’ (FSR) – a more or less formalised approach within applied agricultural research to describing one or more ‘farming systems’ (in the sense of [2] above) in order to identify and address ‘constraints’ to productivity (e.g. see Collinson (2000) [iii] or any of the many FSR training manuals).

    There is much current research and analysis in relation to (1) above. The literature is characterised by an analytical focus at the farm level; the use of one or more key ‘systems concepts’ (such as boundary, feedback, complexity, emergent properties, equilibrium, dynamics, resilience etc); and methodological diversity (from participatory methods to complex, integrated models).

    Ruthenberg dealt with farms fundamentally as ‘economic units’, but he also had a deep appreciation of their technological basis. At the same time, he recognised that farms are tied to ecological, social and political systems and processes. Over the last four decades, research on ‘farms as systems’ has increasingly sought to grapple with and integrate these other dimensions.

    A new definition of ‘farming system’

    In a new editorial in Outlook on Agriculture, Ken Giller looks again at the terminology of ‘farming systems’. Building on Giller’s piece, we cast the notion of a ‘farming system’ in a new light.

    In identifying different farming systems, both Ruthenberg and Dixon et al. emphasise the homogeneity of farms within a particular farming system (i.e. they have ‘similar structure’). This approach may make for a clean typology, but it does not reflect the reality of agrarian economies – or everyday agricultural production – in much of the world.

    In reality, a given farm is likely to have links (flows, synergies, dependencies etc) to farms with dissimilar structure, as well as to non-agricultural and non-rural parts of the economy.

    These links are integral to the farm system and to the broader economy.  In this sense, a ‘farming system’ is conceptualised as a heterogeneous population of interacting ‘farm systems’ with links to the non-farm and non-rural economies.

    In an earlier blog post, we suggested that incorporating the STEPS Centre’s 3Ds – directionality, distribution and diversity – could help breathe new life into research on farming systems in the tropics. The expanded conception of a farming system that we suggest above creates a more solid basis for this, and should allow more fruitful analysis of the ecological, social and political dimensions of agricultural sustainability.

    About the authors: Jim Sumberg is a researcher with the Future Agricultures Consortium and the ESRC STEPS Centre. Stephen Whitfield is a PhD student at the Institute of Development Studies. Ken Giller is Professor of Plant Production Systems at WaCASA (the Wageningen Centre for Agroecology and Systems Analysis) at Wageningen University.

    (Image: Mixed farming system. Illustr. By Fernando Funes-Monzote from leisaworldnet on Flickr)


    [i] Ruthenberg, H. (1976) Farm systems and farming systems. Zeitschrift für Ausländische Landwirtschaft 15, 42-55

    [ii] Dixon, J., Gulliver, A., and Gibbon, D. (2001), Farming Systems and Poverty: Improving Farmers’ Livelihoods in a Changing World, FAO, Rome.

    [iii] Collinson, M. (2000), A History of Farming Systems Research, CABI, Wallingford.

  • The limits of ‘evidence’: Evidence-Based Policy-making for African agriculture

    Published on 24 January 2013

    By James Sumberg, Martha Awo, John Thompson, George T-M Kwadzo and Dela-Dem Doe Fiankor, Researchers, STEPS Centre Livestock project

    Agricultural policy makers in Africa are now being dragged into the era of ‘evidence-based’ policy (EBP) making. But the quality and availability of evidence in some countries – and debates about what even counts as evidence – create some interesting challenges.

    Globally the proponents of EBP have been criticised for adopting a simplistic, linear understanding of the relationship between evidence and action, and for their normative approach to the desirable relationships between research-based knowledge and policy formulation. However, the literature on EBP, and particularly that associated with the ‘realist synthesis’, increasingly recognises that there are in fact different ‘evidence bases’; that the notion of evidence can be quite slippery and contested; and that different kinds of evidence can be interpreted and valued differently by different groups and individuals. (That’s a theme that will be explored in detail at the STEPS Centre’s symposium on scientific advice in a couple of weeks’ time.)

    Despite the varied view of evidence in the literature, the idea that policy makers should take more account of ‘evidence’ (e.g. of what worked where, for whom and under what conditions) is now generally accepted. Many governments and donor agencies emphasise the central importance of EBP in improving development interventions and outcomes and in holding the policy actors to account. Of course, before the point of evaluating the impacts of various policy options, ‘evidence’ is also critical for establishing basic trends, constraints and dynamics within a sector or around a particular problem of interest.

    But do African policy makers have access to good evidence? The challenges around the availability and quality of baseline data relating to food and agriculture in Africa (e.g. crop areas, yields, livestock populations and offtake levels) are long-standing and well recognised. More often than not, policy analysts, advocates and programme and project developers rely on national data series available through government statistics offices and FAOSTAT from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization because it is ‘the best data available’ (or more often because it is ‘the only data available’).

    The coverage and quality of these data vary, depending on the importance and nature of the crop or species in question, the production systems used, or the market arrangements that are in place.  As one might expect, the data that relate to minor crops and livestock species, those dominated by small-scale producers and mixed cropping systems, or where there is little government intervention, are often more limited and/or of lower quality. It goes without saying that these ‘evidence issues’ have critical implications for efforts to establish evidence-based agricultural policy-making in Africa.

    As our project on the ‘livestock revolution’ in West Africa is finding, chicken meat seems to be an increasingly important part of diets in Ghana (though in truth it’s difficult to support this statement with ‘hard’ evidence, even if it’s well supported anecdotally) so it is not surprising that the origin, availability, price and quality of chicken meat – and the state and future of the domestic poultry sector – are issues of intense public concern and policy debate in the country.

    The main lines along which policy is argued in Ghana have remained relatively constant for at least a decade. These include the restriction (or not) of imports of frozen chicken meat through higher tariffs or an outright ban; the provision (or not) of direct support to domestic producers; the desirability (or not) of national self-sufficiency in poultry products; and the pros and cons of supporting commercial versus backyard producers.

    The arguments that are used to support policy advocacy in relation to poultry highlight national food security (made more poignant by the food price spikes since 2007); the potential for employment generation (and more recently specifically for young people); product quality and public health concerns; the increasing importance of ‘biosecurity’; the link often made between small-livestock like poultry and poverty alleviation, especially for women; and the Government of Ghana’s willingness (or not) to stand up to international financial institutions.

    While contestation around evidence – in terms of quality, relevance and meaning – is central to most policy processes, what is striking in the case of poultry in Ghana is the absence of credible information about even the most basic trends in chicken meat consumption or about the structure, health, growth (or demise?) of the domestic poultry sector. There are good reasons to believe that data available through FAOStat and those from the Statistics Research and Information Directorate (SRID) of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MOFA) (on which the FAOStat data are based) are so fundamentally flawed as to be of little if any value for policy making.

    In principle, this absence of credible empirical evidence about the poultry sector creates a situation where policy debates and processes are dominated by claims and counter-claims that are repeated and embellished, and few of which can be tested. While there are many signs that the consumption of imported frozen chicken parts has increased, there is little data with which to address some key questions (is the domestic poultry sector really in a ‘severe slump’ and ‘on its knees’? Would higher tariffs on the importation of frozen chicken really result in an additional 500,000 jobs in the domestic poultry sector? Is locally produced chicken meat really safer, more nutritious and tastier than frozen imported chicken?)

    While claims and counter-claims, and narratives and counter-narratives, often play important parts in policy debates and processes, and while the ‘meaning’ of various bits of evidence can be hotly contested, those promoting evidence-based policy always assume the existence and availability of something akin to meaningful and systematic evidence. It would appear that for policy questions relating to poultry production and consumption in Ghana this assumption does not hold, and certainly not if we look primarily to readily available official statistics for that evidence.

    In the relative absence of ‘good’ evidence, then, what should governments do?

    One possible response is for government (perhaps with the help of development partners and the poultry industry) to invest in better systems for the collection and analysis of official statistics. Without doubt this is both logical and necessary, but will also be expensive and methodologically challenging, and will not yield results for many years. In any case, much strategic thinking is needed to determine which data are most essential and how these can be collected, stored and analysed in as systematic and cost-effective manner as possible.

    Another is to look to non-traditional sources for ‘evidence’. But what are these sources? How can they be tapped in a cost-effective manner? And what might be the implications of their collection and use for commercial confidentiality in what is a very competitive sector?

    A third response is to reflect critically on the relevance of the EBP agenda in such situations: if EBP is the new gold standard, how can policy outcomes be improved when the traditional evidence vault is empty? This is not to suggest that the policy process should be simply cut free from the anchor of evidence. Rather, it is to be realistic about the contexts and circumstances in which agricultural policy is argued in Africa today, and more open about the need for new and creative approaches to the problem.

    But this is a false choice: ultimately all three can help. Statistical systems need to be improved, new sources of evidence need to be developed and a more critical and politically informed understanding of the interplay between evidence and policy needs to be promoted.

    In the meantime, policy processes relating to poultry consumption and production in Ghana will be prey to claim and counter-claim, narrative and counter-narrative. In such a situation, heuristics such as ‘cheap food’, ‘national self-sufficiency’ or ‘food sovereignty’ may provide the best basis for consistent policy.

    For more information about the STEPS Centre’s project on poultry in Ghana, visit the Livestock project page on our website.

    Photo: Cavorting Chickens from rachelstrohm’s photostream on Flickr

  • Ghana: take 70,900 metric tons of frozen chicken, add politics

    Published on 28 November 2012

    A billboard advertising chicken in Accra, Ghana. By alew on Flickr

    By Jim Sumberg and John Thompson
    Convenors, STEPS Centre Livestock project

    The well known expression – that [something] is ‘as likely as turkeys voting for Christmas’ – makes an intriguing and to date poorly understood link between poultry and electoral politics. But in some parts of the world, poultry has a wider significance for how both voters and politicians behave.

    During some recent field work in Accra, Ghana, while researching pathways to sustainability in the poultry sector, we took the opportunity to conduct a series of rapid, opportunistic ‘interviews’ with taxi drivers. Our focus was on chicken consumption: the last time they ate chicken; the way it was prepared; the origin of the chicken; how often they eat chicken etc.

    The ‘sample’ was 24 male taxi drivers aged between approximately 25 and 50 working in the nation’s capital. We obviously make no claim that these respondents are in any way representative of consumers at large. Nevertheless, a number of interesting points emerged:

    1. While nearly all the taxi drivers reported eating chicken, and some several times a week, nearly two thirds of our informants expressed a preference for fish. They also noted that fish had become more expensive in recent years.
    2. Most had fairly well developed views and preferences in regard to the different qualities (price, flavour, texture, ‘hardness’ or ‘softness’) of different kinds of chicken (e.g. frozen imported, ‘fresh local’ or ‘village’). While many expressed a preference for ‘fresh local’ or ‘village’ chicken, the relatively low price of imported frozen chicken (which can be less than half the price of local chicken) weighs heavily in its favour.
    3. Most expressed a preference for a particular chicken ‘part’, with thighs being the most commonly identified. One young man explained this choice by saying: ‘that piece is a heavy meat’. (Thighs seem to account for a large proportion of the estimated 70,900 metric tons of frozen chicken imported into Ghana annually). Only one said he had no preference and could not tell which part he was eating.
    4. A number of taxi drivers highlighted the fact that when they were children they consumed chicken only very occasionally: one told us that in those days in the village his family ate chicken and jollof rice only once in a year – at Christmas. This shift in consumption appears to be specific to chicken as opposed to all forms of meat. Few of the taxi drivers mentioned either recently eating or having a preference for other kinds of meat (beef, goat, pork, etc).
    5. The ‘turn to chicken’ may have an important generational element, with young people giving chicken a central place on their plates. In the words of our research assistant, a recent university graduate, ‘I cannot even remember the last time I ate beef’’. He frequents ‘chicken and chips’ shops and other fast food eateries, as do his friends.
    6. Health and safety concerns were very apparent. The fact that you could never be sure where the frozen chicken came from or how long it has been frozen arose several times. A number of our informants linked their preference for local or imported chicken, and particular chicken parts, to fat content. They also mentioned radio, newspaper and internet stories about foreign operators having purchased sick and dead birds and dressed them for sale in Ghana, or chicken parts being injected with preservatives or water before being imported.

    Frozen chicken on sale in Ghana. By ethanz on Flickr


    Our field work coincided with the final weeks of campaigning before the December 7, 2012 presidential election. We took the opportunity to ask each of the taxi drivers whether they intended to vote. With only one exception (he did not have the proper identity documents), everyone came back with an immediate and emphatic, ‘Of course!’ and most responded in a way that implied: ‘Why would you even ask such a silly question?’

    Which brings us back to the link between poultry and politics. Colleagues in the Future Agricultures Consortium are exploring the effects of democratisation on the political economy of agricultural policy in Africa. One of their concerns is to understand in what situations policy processes result in outcomes that are favourable to smallholder agricultural development. How do the distinctive features (social, political, institutional and agro-ecological) of individual African countries influence the incentives for agricultural policy making and implementation? And how do these incentives lead to divergent ‘politically feasible’ policy actions?

    Our interviews with taxi drivers in Accra point to another dimension of the story of democratisation, agriculture and food. How is the vibrant, multi-party electoral environment in Ghana affecting food and agricultural policy, and how does this link to the lives of politically aware, informed urban citizens with rising incomes and expectations (such as our taxi drivers)?

    Simplistically, policy processes around poultry in Ghana can be conceived of as dealing with a set of trade-offs between the interests of four groups: small-scale maize and soya producers; commercial poultry producers; urban consumers; and politicians.

    The massive increase in the importation of frozen chicken over the last decade would suggest that, despite much rhetoric about support for the domestic poultry industry, policy makers have consistently favoured the interests of urban consumers over those of domestic poultry producers.

    Put another way, policy makers seem to have prioritised food policy (i.e. to increase the supply of inexpensive, protein-rich foods to consumers) over agricultural development policy.

    Three-storey KFC in Accra.
    By sportivetricks on Flickr

    Part of the reason may be that chicken meat has become a much more central part of everyday food consumption, particular for town and city-dwellers. Indeed, chicken meat may be becoming what has been termed a ‘psychological staple’, associated, particularly among the younger generation, with self-identity as part of a modern, middle income country.

    If this is indeed so, it would be a brave (or foolish?) politician who would make any move likely to result in a significant increase in the retail price of chicken meat. Chicken might be thought of as a ‘politically charged’ food (along with, for example, rice), with important implications for policy processes and electoral outcomes. Just as sensible turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, politicians may not risk making chicken more expensive for consumers – even if local agriculture might benefit in the long run.

    For more information about the STEPS Centre’s project on poultry in Ghana, visit the Livestock project page on our website.


    • SRID. 2011. Agriculture in Ghana: Facts and Figures 2010. Accra: Ministry of Food and Agriculture (full report – pdf)
    • Iwasaki, I. (2004) Rice as Psychological Staple: The Role of Rice in the Creation and Maintenance of Individual and National Identity. Unpublished MA thesis. University of Sheffield, Sheffield