June 2, 2011

The importance of innovation: stories of sugar beets and soybeans

Sugar beets: not the prettiest sight. Image source.

In my last post I highlighted the "myth" of the linear model of science policy, and how this impedes progress in energy policy and ultimately making climate models applicable to local settings (i.e. science for decision-making). An alternative to the linear model is a more nuanced view of innovation. The "innovation approach" is a possible solution to the policy gridlock over climate change and energy. Innovation has been historically important to economic growth in the U.S., and is a more politically palatable solution (investing in clean energy technologies) than setting limits on greenhouse gas emissions. The Breakthrough Institute has some great scholarship on this topic, so check out them and their blog.

So how does innovation actually work? I've already implied that it doesn't follow the linear model of basic to applied research. Interestingly, on Tuesday I had the pleasure of attending a U.S. Senate Agricultural Committee Field hearing at MSU's campus. Many of the speakers called for renewed investment in "basic research," especially at the university. There is certainly a place for basic research at universities, because they often take on more risky research projects than the private sector. For example, I learned that MSU is the only place that researches sugar beet genetics. Sugar beets are an economically important crop to Michigan farmers, and MSU research, coupled with outreach by MSU Extension, is an important asset for improving the productivity of sugar beets.

As you can see from this video (here's the related article), private and public partnerships can yield "sweet success" for farmers. Involving end-users, such as farmers, can improve the social outcomes of scientific research through what Dan Sarewitz and Roger Pielke, Jr. call "reconciling the supply and demand of science." Download their article, which overviews many of the issues I've discussed on this blog, here.

Innovations aren't just serendipitous discoveries in the lab. They are often discovered and shaped by user-needs and preferences, by available technology, and market prices (such as energy, raw materials, market demand, and financing options). Scholars are now investigating the role of climate in inducing technological innovations in agriculture. One of the best examples of this is a study published in 2001 by John Smithers and Alison Blay-Palmer (download here).

These authors aim to open the "black box" of climate-induced technological innovation in the Canadian soybean industry. They link several innovations in soybeans to climate-related factors since the 1970s. Improvements in technology helped farmers manage the risk of normal climate variation (not necessarily related to climate change) and of adapting soybeans to new climates while the growing region expanded. One of the most important innovations in soybeans is the development improved crop varieties from plant breeding, for example, cold-tolerant crops.

Contrary to much of the technological optimism in agriculture towards climate change, the authors list some biological and economic constraints to future climate-induced innovations, specifically the limits of biotechnology and plant breeding. Plant breeding for new crops takes several years, and it can be difficult to predict future local climate conditions. They also list the narrow focus on crop yields as a possible constraint to innovation, as new varieties of crops for future climates may not have higher yields, but rather will help farmers adapt to new conditions. This is why it's important to involve farmers in the research decision process; because it is ultimately up to them whether to adopt a new crop.

The authors also discuss the prospects of public and private research (and the need for alliances), patents and intellectual property rights, and changing markets. In the past, public-private research partnerships had lower transaction costs, but these have risen because of gene patents that are often held by private companies. Addressing these barriers is crucial to future agricultural innovations for a changing climate.

They conclude with the provocative question, “Which adaptations seem likely given the current scientific limits and institutional constraints on innovation, and the competing influence of various other innovation needs in agriculture and society?” (Smithers & Blay-Palmer, 2001, p. 193). Climate change adaptation in agriculture is embedded in a complex social, political, economic, and technological system in which researchers, extension educators, and farmers must make decisions.

Source: Smithers, John and Alison Blay-Palmer. Technology innovation as a strategy for climate adaptation in agriculture. Applied Geography 21 (2001): 175–197.

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