Two reflections on agro-ecological research

Below are two reflections on recent agro-ecological research.  The first is from The World’s Fair and the second the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog.

Benjamin Cohen on The World’s Fair presents a discussion A Scientific Response to Agro-environmental Crises about Agroecology in Action: Extending Alternative Agriculture through Social Networks (MIT Press, 2007), with its author Keith Warner. The book aims uses interdisciplinary science studies and ecology to address current agricultural problems.

WORLD’S FAIR: How did your interest in agrofood issues lead you into the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS)?

KEITH WARNER: I have been interested in alternative agriculture (or sustainable agriculture) for more than a decade. I am a California native, and I have witnessed alarming losses of farmland due to development, and when I decided to pursue doctoral studies, I wanted to study the intersection of sustainable agriculture policy and land use. …

As I began to poke around rural California looking for some way to formulate a study that would interest me, I learned about the “agricultural partnerships” by which a range of social actors were simultaneously addressing environmentally problematic farming practices and the power dynamics in the relationships between scientific experts and farmer-practitioners. I discovered that underneath the discourses of omniscience on the part land grant universities and the farm bureau, a significant portion of the farming community questioned the inevitability of contemporary, polluting practices. This rarely looked like an insurgence, but more like a questioning of the singularity of the science. Farmers (or as we say in California, growers) are a pragmatic lot, always looking for opportunities to cut costs and often, to informally experiment with new technologies and practices. Often, the success of these experiments is determined by local ecological conditions, many of which are invisible to university scientists.

I became interested in these partnerships — and their challenge to conventional wisdom – at the same time that I began reading Bruno Latour, in particular Science in Action, and Pandora’s Hope. These two unwrapped some of the cloaking of the “official story” of science, and inspired me to undertake an effort to explain what was really happening in California agriculture, or at least part of it. Latour contributed a couple of key concepts that I found essential. First, he proposed following scientific actors around to find out what they really do, not just what they say they do. Second, he explained how scientists work in networks, and how technologies, knowledge and resources circulate through networks. Third, he described the essential role of non-scientists in scientific networks. With these ideas rolling around in my head, I set off to do my field work. I interviewed roughly 225 people, plus attended dozens of field days and indoor meetings where growers, scientists and others debated the feasibility and desirability of novel, alternative farming practices. …

WF: How did science and social power intersect in your study?

KW: A particularly salient feature of my field work was the divergent assumptions held by actors about the evaluation of novel practices in farming. Many advocates of alternative agriculture argue for a systems-based approach to selecting and managing technology in farming systems, and critique dominant forms of agriculture as reductionistic (or simply narrow minded). Ironically, many of the university researchers, even those in favor of “sustainability,” insist on being able to “prove” the scientific advantage of new practices or technology, but use reductionistic approaches to do so. One of the reasons I used “agroecology” in my title is because ecology asserts the need to take a systems approach to evaluating the relationship between the biotic and abiotic. Many small to mid-sized growers take a whole-system approach to evaluating a reduction in the use of pesticides, or an alternative practice of cultivation. Some of them are skeptical of what they perceive to be narrow scientific criteria used by research to establish viability in farming. Leaders of several partnerships critiqued the “transfer of technology” pipeline approach to extension (or field education) as well as the expert-lay imbalance of social power.

On the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog, geographer Jacob van Etten reflects on some of Harold Brookfield‘s in his article Combining intervention and research:

Harold Brookfield and Edwin A. Gyasi now write in Geoforum about geographical action research. They argue it is time for geographers to get their hands and boots dirty. PLEC and the Wageningen-led Convergence of Sciences (CoS) project illustrate that research and service can and should go hand in hand. Geographers are late to recognize this, and in sister-discipline anthropology there is a far longer tradition of activism.

PLEC started by making inventories of farmers’ practices and knowledge in the areas they worked. As a result, the researchers got to know the most knowledgeable and innovative farmers. These farmers, they write, are likely to be hiding in the corners.

They cite Kojo Amanor’s poetic comment that “rather than sitting under the fig tree at the chief’s palace with dignitaries, [indigenous environmental knowledge] is best explored by taking off along the winding paths and discovering the extremities of the village, the chop bars with their bush-meat soup, the drinking spots, the jokers, the old women with their pithy comments, and the young women carrying water.”

The contacts with innovative farmers helped to set up networks in which knowledge was exchanged and new things were tried. Projects like this demonstrate how much academic scientists have to offer to the people among whom they work, and how research interests can be both broadened and deepened in so doing. There is profit in combining a measure of intervention with research.

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