Contested Agronomy: Agricultural Research in a Changing World

Jim Sumberg
John Thompson

For an interesting analysis of the directions taken in agricultural research in the global South over the past few decades, a book well worth reading is Contested Agronomy: Agricultural Research in a Changing World, edited by Jim Sumberg and John Thompson of the STEPS Centre at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK. The editors see three strong trends that have influenced agricultural research in developing countries in different ways: the expansion of the private sector selling agricultural inputs; the growing importance of the environmental agenda which favours low-external-input and sustainable farming systems; and the increased attention to participatory research and development approaches – both to make research more demand-led and to empower smallholder farmers.

As a basis for their “political agronomy” analysis, they use several case studies of agricultural research: on conservation agriculture, anthropogenic dark earths and biochar, biofortification of staple crops, irrigation and other forms of water management, agricultural intensification, System of Rice Intensification (SRI), participatory soil fertility research, and the selling of success stories in agricultural research to convince donors and taxpayers of its impact. They highlight the economic, social and – above all – political context of the research, which determines the framing of the problems addressed. They show that continuing research on and even widespread promotion of certain technologies are often not based on scientific technical evidence of their usefulness for small-scale farmers.

It is fascinating to read about the politics behind the various research and development agendas. A pity, though, that the focus is only on agronomy – the science of crop production and land management. It would have been equally fascinating to read about the politics of research related to livestock.

It is certainly a book that stimulates reflection by putting agronomic science in a different – sometimes dubious – light. Because it calls all approaches (including participatory ones) into question, the book tends to be more sobering, indeed unsettling, than inspiring. But it is necessary every once in a while for us to see our work in a less rosy (more realistic) light than we would like to believe. This keeps us on the ground and challenges us to reflect more honestly on what we are doing there.

Details about the book:
Contested Agronomy: Agricultural Research in a Changing World
Edited by James Sumberg and John Thompson
Routledge (2012)
220 pp, ISBN 978 0 415 50714 1(Pb), £19.99
Click to order.

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