Why we should argue about agronomy

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.

Agronomy in public

If indeed there was a time when agronomists were less willing to argue in public, it was not because of an absence of politics, but rather it reflected a different kind of politics in a different context. The withdrawal of the state as the primary funder of agricultural research and the growing importance of private sector and development-oriented funding; the opening of public debate around science and science policy; the rise of the environmental movement; and the revolutions in communications technology have all contributed to opening agronomy to public scrutiny and debate to a degree that would have been unimaginable only forty years ago.

These developments, combined with the growing influence of new public management — stressing targets, delivery, accountability, “value for money”, and particularly for international development, “impact at scale” – have created strong incentives for individuals and organisations to establish and defend their contributions. A one time-honoured way to do this is to promote a particular technology as the next big breakthrough. For instance, the FAO has done this with conservation agriculture in the developing world, and is now showing signs of doing the same with agroecology. Norman Uphoff at Cornell University has very effectively played this role for SRI. There are many other examples.

Why details matter

There is a delicate balance to be struck. While making information available and highlighting experiences is clearly desirable, doing so in ways that are one-sided or uncritical is not. It is when information provision spills over to single-minded promotion that the nature of debate and contestation changes. One hypothesis is that it is in these situations that the frustration with “playing politics” arises. Again, it is not less politics that is needed around agronomy and agronomic research, but different politics.

We can see the blinkered promotion and systematic “bigging-up” of individual agricultural technologies, and their real or imagined impacts, as a direct result of the uncritical acceptance of the language of “impact at scale”. The great irony is that at a time when agriculture is back on the policy agenda, this self-reinforcing dynamic masks the critical insight that successful and sustainable agriculture is, by its very nature, situated and specific. It may seem counter intuitive, but in agriculture, the only viable route to impact at scale is through the details, nuance and performance of situated farming practices and systems.

The author is an organiser of the conference Contested Agronomy: Dynamics, Cases & Implications, which takes place at the University of Sussex in March 2016. A call for contributions is open until 30 April 2015.


  1. Jim Sumberg’s blog raises some very useful points, but he sadly misunderstands and misrepresents my role with the surfacing and spread of SRI. I have not presented SRI as a ‘breakthrough’ (that is others’ construction) but rather as an ‘opportunity’ — something to be tested and evaluated, to see in how far the outside-the-box ideas of SRI can help us meet our objectives in agriculture. I have not ‘promoted SRI’ but rather I have promoted ‘evaluating SRI.’

    That is a not-very-subtle difference which seems to have eluded many skeptics and critics. Jim might take note that the first written response of IRRI (in RICE TODAY, July-Sept. 2004), presented as a rebuttal to my presentation of SRI and my call for its being evaluated, was to say (and I quote from T. Sinclair’s ‘Agricultural UFOs Waste Valuable Scientific Resources’): “Discussion of the system of rice intensification (SRI)is unfortunate because it implies SRI merits serious consideration. SRI does not deserve such attention.” No discussion, no consideration, no evaluation. This contention was based on several ‘well-established principles’ that have since been clearly shown in published, peer-reviewed articles to be quite wrong.

    When this dismisal of SRI was written, the capacity of SRI practices to evoke more productive and resilient phenotypes from given rice phenotypes had been seen in >20 countries; now that number is >50.

    Sinclair’s rejection of SRI, as not worthy of discussion, let alone of evaluation, was based on an article published in FCR (Sheehy et al. 2004) which was itself untenable as a scientific evaluation. This can be seen from a meta-analysis of Chinese studies of SRI, comparing even incomplete use of the methods with scientists’ BMPs, published on-line yesterday in the journal PLANT & SOIL, published on line yesterday (Wu et al.).

    Sumberg’s concern with the ways that ‘politics’ impinges on — and impedes — good, scientifically-based agronomic work is well justified. and should be pursued. But his analysis and formulations in today’s blog are not very well informed or well framed so that it can get at some of the core issues. The presence of ‘controversy’ can mean many things and have many different motivations.

    The evidential base for SRI — like that for CA — has become massive But both must deal with the inertial effects of stereotypes, unwillingness to assess (now large) bodies of evidence in an open-minded way, and the influence of vested interests, some commercial, but others institutional. It would be helpful if Sumberg could become better and more deeply informed about the SRI experience, which I think is very instructive. I and others who have the most knowledge of its history would be glad to share it with him.

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