Contested Agronomy: Four big questions to debate

We have just finished a fantastic conference co-hosted by the STEPS Centre on ‘Contested Agronomy’ with 80 participants and a vibrant discussion. I was asked to give some comments at the end. Here are some of these thoughts.

Throughout the conference it was clear that ‘agronomy’ had to be understood both as a technology and practice, which is always connected to social, cultural and political contexts. Agronomy is always mutually constructed, situated and relational. Agronomy is thus a set of socio-technologies and practices, but also hooked into particular social imaginaries and policy narratives. So, in other words, context matters, and technologies (and practices) cannot be separated from this. This much is obvious – and is always the case, and a very basic insight from science and technology studies.


But what is particular about agronomy, particularly in relation to development, and how have the contexts that co-construct agronomy changed? Why is there controversy and contestation?

I identified three changing contexts that influence the nature, style and form of contestation. They were mentioned in multiple papers and sessions (I went to four sessions and listened to 16 papers, so this is only a sample of the richer set of papers to come).


 Much agronomy is done in the context of ‘projects’ these days, which are short-term, focused, and geared to deliverables. Generalisable silver bullets are what is demanded. ‘Projectisation’ is the consequence of the way funding is delivered, the cycles of publication that are required, the professional career tracks of scientists, and the management, institutionalisation and governance of agronomic science. And so we get a focus on annuals not perennials, crops not systems, production not institutions or governance, and particular assumed ‘fixes’ – whether conservation agriculture, the system of rice intensification, or GM crops. Much contestation ends up unhelpfully around iconic cases (such as these three), rather than the implications of the wider context.

All such approaches may be useful in the right circumstances, but taken out of context the debates are often rather polarised and unhelpful. We should not be debating whether such and such an approach is good, bad or indifferent, but the contexts within which it is produced.


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. I don’t know the figures, but I’d bet that the ratio has shifted radically since the Green Revolution days of the 1960s and 70s.

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 again should therefore be less about the particular technology, but more about the wider political economy, and how this influences how we see the challenge and respond to it.


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) 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.

They are not just located in the Euro-North American circuits, and their mirror in the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a global partnership that unites organizations engaged in research for a food secure future.

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.

So, given all these changing contexts and vibrant sources of contention, I was surprised how subdued the debates were. In many ways they were there, but were not unearthed and made explicit. This was partly out of being polite (we were in England after all), partly because of time (it was a crammed agenda), and partly from the way cross-disciplinary discourse can evolve around ‘boundary terms’, but often without clear and concrete engagement (and so (dis)agreement). At the conference, there were multiple registers, with similar vocabularies, yet different meanings, and very often quite conflicting frames. We didn’t quite get to having the debates (except a few sparks) that would have tackled these head on.

What were some of the areas that I think needed a bit more unearthing – and so more heated debate? I identified four keywords.

Technology transfer: in what context?

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 understand ‘transfer’ in terms of the journeys travelled, and the social, political and cultural contexts of this. Technologies are, as I said at the beginning, not separate from this. And this means understanding technology – and its transfer – in relation to 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. Political economy – and the relations of and politics of production – really does matter.

Epistemology: are there different ways of ‘knowing’ relevant to agronomy?

Second, fundamental debates about ‘epistemology’ (how we know things). 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 politics of agronomy come into play? These seemed only partially present in the debate, and rather silenced. Perspectives from the field, from farmers, labourers, rural activists and others become highly relevant. 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.

Scaleability: what is being scaled up?  

Third is the popular issue of scale and scaleability. 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.

How is ‘success’, ‘impact’ and ‘change’ defined?

Fourth is ‘impact’ and ‘success’. This was a strong theme of the earlier Contested Agronomy book, which analysed the way ‘success’ in agriculture is constructed. 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 (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 change.

Here the STEPS Centre’s ‘pathways approach’ becomes relevant, as a way of understanding more radical transformations – linking social, cultural, technological shifts – to new pathways (sometimes not yet imagined) for agriculture and development. Here the most fundamental contestations arise, linked to values and politics, and our collective imaginings of a better world. This is not an either/or choice – of industrial agriculture or agroecology for example – but requires a much more nuanced debate about directions for agricultural development and their consequences for different people in different places.

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