“The 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.