Not since the Green Revolution half a century ago has there been such a golden age for agronomy. But unlike the hey-day of new high-yield varieties of rice, wheat and corn, there is no consensus today about where the science of farming should be headed and what it should be trying to deliver.
Is the aim to maximise yield, to feed the world’s growing urban masses, to improve the lot of rural households, to rescue the world’s soils from rampant over exploitation, or to drive economic growth in developing economies?
Can all be delivered at the same time? Or is agronomy being taken over by fads – many with a green patina, such as conservation agriculture, agro-ecology, climate-smart agriculture and sustainable intensification – that promise all but too often deliver little. Do they too often turn into a new imposition on the rural poor?
Such questions framed a sometimes heated debate on Contested Agronomy at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), part of Britain’s University of Sussex, in February.
Ken Giller of Wageningen University waged war against those who proclaim the death of the plough. So-called conservation agriculture, with zero or low-tillage of fields, promises reduced erosion, an accumulation of carbon in soils, better water use, improved soil heath and higher yields across farming landscapes around the world.
Sometimes it can deliver, he agreed. On high-tech farms and with lots of herbicides, for instance. But, despite heavy promotion by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization since its 2009 New Delhi Declaration on Conservation Agriculture, no-till “doesn’t fit with agriculture in Africa”, Giller insisted. Without access to herbicides, it just means hard-pressed smallholders must spend more time weeding. And worse, unploughed and unmulched soils can form a crust which accelerates soil erosion.
He had never found a satisfactory source for an FAO claim that, in trials, conservation agriculture “increased maize yields six-fold” in southern Africa. And — despite a suggestion in the name that it might be green or even organic — successful conservation agriculture required high inputs.
“Agronomic knowledge is being twisted and sold,” Giller concluded. Why? “Maybe we need an anthropology of agronomy.”
Breaking it down
In the new golden age of agronomy, everyone wants to sell their recipe for success, especially to Africa. But success varied. Lidia Cabral of the IDS said progress in transplanting the low-till high-input agriculture pioneered in the Brazilian cerrado grasslands to fellow Portuguese speakers in the African savannas of Mozambique often “depended more on personal attributes and epistemiological inclinations than on Brazil’s presumed agricultural successes or South-South credentials.”
And what did such new templates for agricultural transformation actually deliver? Who wins? Is it, asked Bart de Steenhuijsen Piters of the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam, the rural poor? “They feature strongly in funding proposals for agronomy research, but are strangely absent in impact evaluation reports on those projects,” he said. “As the money is spent, the poor seem to evaporate.”
Agronomy conventionally seeks to maximise yields for profit, rather than to optimise outcomes for poor farmers. It can, the meeting heard, often seem largely irrelevant to the lives of farmers who spent most of their time tending home gardens to feed their families, and whose priorities are secure food supplies.
Examining the data
For income, most poor rural households depend more on selling their labour. “Yet this is ignored in our research agenda.” Likewise, few agronomists talk about land rights, even though the evidence is strong that farmers who secure their land live better and wealthier lives.
And gender and generational divides rarely feature in agronomy research agendas either. “Most of the rural poor are women, and most are young, yet we ignore both these groups,” said Steenhuijsen Piters.
“I agree there is a need to intensify agriculture to feed cities,” he said. “But do not claim that you are reducing rural poverty that way.” Farming systems that only maximise output may end up worsening rural poverty and driving the young to cities to add to the food crisis there.
Are agronomists even investigating the right crops? Sieg Snapp of Michigan State University made the case for research into perennial versions of grains, which can provide greater security against famine, and will often grow in poor soils where the agronomists’ recent favourite, maize, will not grow.
Diversifying the portfolios
Perennial sorghum, rye, wheatgrass, Lima beans, pigeon peas, chick peas and many others are “completely ignored” by, among others, the Gates Foundation’s Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, she said. They were once a feature of African farming landscapes, but “today there is no perennials research going on anywhere in Africa,” she said.
“I don’t imagine landscapes of perennials, but I do think we need a range of options for farmers. They have a role in sustainable intensification. But the research vision is all about annuals.”
Why this fixation? Seed companies like annuals because they help avoid farmers recycling their own seeds, which is bad for business. Agronomists like annuals because they fit their metric of choice, maximising yields. Technology salesmen like annuals because you can harvest them mechanically, and all at once. Economists like annuals because they slot into established trade markets.
But do smallholder farmers like them? Who knows? As Steenhuijsen Piters pointed out, probably nobody asked them. “They need a voice in setting the research agenda. But we rarely sit round a table with them.”
Time for a grassroots green revolution?