Contested Agronomy: Agricultural research in a changing world


Agronomy – the science of crop production and land management – is increasingly a field for political debate. This book from the STEPS Centre explores how arguments about agricultural research have changed in the last 40 years, with a focus on developing countries.

Dramatic food price rises, climate change, food security and poverty are high on the agenda, provoking debate in old arenas as well as new ones. This new book looks at how three key developments since the 1970s – the emergence of neoliberalism, and rise of the participation and environmental agendas – have changed agronomic research in the developing world.

Although agronomy is often seen as a technical subject, the book calls for an analysis that takes into account the politics of agronomy: the way problems are framed, narratives, communities of knowledge and the increasing pressure to demonstrate ‘success’ on both agricultural research and the farmers, processors and consumers it is meant to serve.

Contested Agronomy: Agricultural Research in a Changing World explores a series of case studies, exploring debates in biofortification research, conservation agriculture, water, rice, dark earths in Africa  and pesticides in India.

The book is part of the STEPS Centre’s Pathways to Sustainability book series.


Order the book

Contested Agronomy: Agricultural Research in a Changing World
Edited by James Sumberg and John Thompson
Earthscan / Routledge, 2012
Paperback, £19.99 GBP
Order online



Contested Agronomy: Dynamics, Cases and Implications
23-25 February 2016
Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, UK

Visit the conference website (external site)



Why agronomy in the developing world has become contentious by James Sumberg, John Thompson and James Woodhouse, Agriculture and Human Values, 2012

In this paper, the authors argue that changes over the last 40 years to the context of agronomic research in the developing world have opened up new spaces for contestation around the goals, priorities, methods, results and recommendations of research. This contestation is having important effects on how agronomic research is conducted and used, and deserves detailed study – particularly at a time when food security, rising food prices and climate change are in the policy spotlight. The authors outline a research agenda for ‘political agronomy’.

Helping farmers find their own solutions by Ken Giller in New Agriculturist

Ken Giller, one of the book’s authors, looks critically at how Conservation Agriculture has been promoted in Africa – a solution which sometimes fails to account for the complex and varied constraints facing smallholder farmers.


“Explored through compelling case studies, this book is a gripping account of the recent history of agronomy and agricultural research, and how these disciplines have been shaped by emerging challenges such as climate change, erratic weather, and increasing food prices.” – Prof. Judi W Wakhungu, Executive Director African Centre for Technology Studies

“This is an important and necessary book. For too long agronomy has been used as a means to increase productivity of only a few crops responsive to high inputs. By contextualizing the science economically, socially and politically, we learn of its potential as a system science that can serve more than the stockholders of major input providers” – Professor Cornelia Flora – Iowa State University

“It has been a long time since there was consensus in agricultural development approaches. Contested Agronomy lays out the difference between different practitioner groups and marks an important step forward in the continuing dialogue” – Dr Tom Remington, Principal Agriculture Advisor, Catholic Relief Services

Contested Agronomy shows how much both the technical questions asked by practitioners and the broader questions asked by supporters of and detractors from agronomic research have changed over the past several decades. Moreover, it asks tough questions about the contested politics that drive particular research agendas globally. Not only agronomists, but anyone interested in the future provision of food should read this book” – Lawrence Busch, Michigan State University

“This book is a much needed contribution to the discourse on science in society and a challenge to agricultural scientists. Previously the invention of ‘political ecology’ has provided a focus for scholars from different academic disciplines to explore understandings derived from environmental science and to relate them to the needs of society. In this book we are presented with a much needed ‘political agronomy’ analysis which enables us to ask how we can make agricultural science respond better to the needs of society as we grapple with problems of future food security. I congratulate the authors in occupying the challenging interdisciplinary space of science in society and providing us with evidence to inform the debate on the complexities surrounding agricultural research and sustainable development” – John Gowing, Reader in Agricultural Water Management, Newcastle University

A book for all those involved at the heart of agricultural research.If you think themes such as Biofortification and Conservation Agriculture are driven mainly by technical discussions, think again. Development policy, vested interests and even religion may also mould how investigation unfolds. The book’s main message: how to get Research back on course – Prof. Louisa Sperling, Principal Researcher, International Center for Tropical Agriculture

“Readers… will find Contested Agronomy both fascinating and, at times, disturbing reading.” Book review, New Agriculturist