By Stephen Whitfield, Lecturer: Climate Change & Food Security, University of Leeds
Often operating at the margins of sustainability, for smallholder farming systems in Africa the challenge of adapting to uncertain climatic change is particularly acute. Across international research and development programmes, a variety of technologies, agronomic innovations, and cropping systems are advocated as the means to a green revolution; a future agriculture that is productive and farmers that prosper. But such envisaged futures are associated with uncertainties of their own.
Whilst a new crop variety might show promise in the controlled trialing regimes of its developers, claims of its potential to revolutionize production and transform livelihoods, inevitably depend on assumptions about its real world manifestation; its compatibility with the multiple priorities and constraints that shape on-farm decisions making and its effectiveness within changeable and often hard-to-predict environmental conditions.
Those development strategies that get backed by significant donor investment, make their way into the campaigns and extension work of civil society organizations, are written into government strategies, and manifest in the fields of farmers, rarely do so solely on the strength of their supporting evidence. Rather, it is in the inherently social and political processes through which incomplete evidence is interpreted and passed on, that pathways of change are shaped.
To understand agricultural adaptation and development, we must look to its narratives and knowledge politics. The book Adapting to Climate Uncertainty in African Agriculture: Narratives and Knowledge Politics documents a four year long effort to do just that.
From the premise that pathways of agricultural change can emerge and be transformed anywhere – from research stations and modelling endeavours, to the board rooms of international development initiatives, and the fields and communities of farmers themselves – I set about following knowledge and narratives across these multiple sites.
Drawing on examples of the Gates Foundation-funded Water Efficient Maize for Africa project in Kenya, the promotion of conservation agriculture in Malawi and Zambia, and a variety of ‘climate smart’ development strategies, the book critically examines the strength of evidence bases and assumptions that underpin ‘green revolution’-type claims of success. It unpicks the complex and nuanced messages that come from climate impacts models and explores the varied rationalities and constraints of farming communities; questioning throughout the ways in which these become narrowed down and communicated in order to legitimize development agendas or political debates.
Biosafety regulation (which governs the development and use of genetically modified crops), was being hotly disputed in Kenya at the time of researching the book. This debate represents an explicit playing out of knowledge politics, in which, on both sides of the debate, (incomplete) evidence has become a means to religiously legitimizing arguments and delegitimizing alternatives. The impasse that has resulted in this debate might be taken as a worst case metaphor for the broader agricultural development community.
The central thesis of this book is that adaptation to uncertainty is most effective when it involves collective learning; engagement and information sharing between farmers, technology developers, research organizations, civil society, and policy makers. Several examples of such collective action are encountered and described across the chapters of the book. What becomes clear from the successes and failures that are described is that desirable outcomes require that incomplete knowledge is not overlooked or denied for socio-political gain, but honestly and openly reflected on, such that space for learning is created.
The book presents easily accessible case studies that can be engaged with by non-academic audiences, inform related research, and be used in teaching across broad disciplines, from International Development and Agronomy, to Political Ecology and Social Policy. But at its core it is a call to all, in these particular sectors and locations as well as far beyond them, for critical and honest reflection on knowledge gaps, and for collective actions to address them.
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