August 29, 2011

Is agricultural technology the answer to Malthus?

Just a quick update today, based on some interesting articles I've come across related to agricultural technology and climate change. To start, maybe you'd like to refresh your memory with some of my previous posts on this topic? For a few years now, I've been following news articles about agriculture and climate change, and I'm noticing a pretty obvious theme. Biotechnology(!) Climate models(!) Nanotechnology(!) and other promising new technologies in the pipeline are heralded as the next big thing in adapting agriculture to climate change. Listen, I don't want to sound like a ranting environmentalist here, but I believe there's value in taking a slightly more critical approach to these technological fixes. As I've said before, technology and technological innovation plays a hugely important role in global agriculture. Yet social contexts of innovation are equally important.

Rodrigo Cortes-Lobos, a graduate student at Georgia Institute of Technology, explores this is at CSPO's Soapbox. He proposes a participatory, adaptive management approach to developing agricultural technologies for smallholder farmers:
No matter the location, small farmers require new technology development, but under frameworks that foresee potential risks or disadvantage that the new technology can produce, with enough time to amend those negative consequences before the cost to the users is too high.
Related, here's an interesting article on the importance of farmer communication networks in adopting innovations: in this case, a radio program about new agricultural technologies.

Finally, two articles on food prices, climate change, and Malthusian predictions. This NYTimes article is from a few weeks ago, on Jeremy Grantham and his reframing of climate change as a resource depletion issue. His argument seems to be that if we can frame it this way, it will attract rich investors who respond to market signals. Grantham reflects classic neo-Malthusian views about population growth, soil degradation, and now climate change. He is hoping for a second Green Revolution, driven by commodity markets. The second article is by Michael J. Roberts, an agricultural economist and writer of this blog. Roberts has a great analysis of food price volatility, market signals, and climate change. But his proposed policy solutions are as follows:
First, we could restore some of the funding to crop sciences. Research dollars could be directed toward the basic research that private companies are less inclined to undertake. Some might also be aimed at developing crop varieties more tolerant of warmer temperatures. 
Second, we could persuade countries to reform their processes for approving new genetically modified crops. Ingo Potrykus’s genetically engineered golden rice, developed in 1999, promises to substantially reduce the millions of deaths worldwide each year that stem from vitamin A deficiency. But due to regulatory hurdles, this life-saving variety of rice will not reach the market until at least next year.
Sure, it might be great if we could have global regulatory standards for GMOs. But the likelihood of this happening? GMOs are one of the most value-laden, contentious topics in agriculture. Patent rights are a huge problem. And when are we going to get over Golden Rice? The chances of it ever significantly catching on seem to be getting slimmer. As for funding more basic research, it's one of the easiest to make because it sounds so apolitical. But research, from the outset, can be inherently political. Scientists and donors are driven by humanitarian pursuits, but how do we know they are the right ones? Who gets to decide what are appropriate research goals? Is it possible to ignore the reality that private research is driving the global agricultural agenda? Why are we so obsessed with sustaining staple crop production in regions that are struggling to keep up with market prices as is? What about developing livelihoods rather than substituting technological inputs? 

I'm wondering whether this blog post comes off as ranting? My goal is not to be anti-science or technology at all; but I think anytime we bring up accepted tropes such as Malthusianism, the Tragedy of the Commons, and other narratives that really don't have any empirical backing (again, "miracle rice"), it's worth delving a little deeper into these embedded assumptions about human behavior.

Here's some interesting opposing viewpoints to Malthus. Population: more than a number. Agroecology as the next green revolution. An academic article on agricultural research and technological lock-in. World Bank paper on seeds, biodiversity, and patents.

I promise that the pika blog post is coming soon! In the meantime, do a google image search for pikas.

August 26, 2011

Narrative break

Exploring some narrative writing today. Possible introduction paragraph for my personal statement?

It’s 105 degrees as I cruise through Phoenix’s historic neighborhoods on my surprisingly rust-free 1979 Schwinn bicycle. From the canals laid by the prehistoric Hohokam Indians; the palm and citrus trees lining the flat, wide streets; the crunchy, dry grass that carpets the lawns of many homes; to the occasional lone, vaguely anthropomorphized saguaro cactus, these features reveal the complex history of societal-environment interactions in Arizona. Hidden from view are the peri-urban agricultural fields, buffering Phoenix’s water supply and keeping the desert landscape at bay, but facing a questionable future due to the impacts of climate change. This landscape is drastically different from the familiar cherry orchards and cornfields in my home state of Michigan. The hot, dry air is like breathing in front of an open hot oven, and the sun grates against my skin like tiny, burning needles. But a year into my graduate studies at Arizona State University, I know that I am in exactly the right place.

Next week: How does politicization of science explain the connection between these cute critters and climate change?

August 22, 2011

"How science works": A jaded pursuit of knowledge?

As I get back into the swing of graduate school classes, I'll likely be blogging less frequently. But if you all keep sending me interesting articles, the more fodder I have for new posts!

A staple of STS theory, and other post-modern theories, is that "science" (defined roughly as an organized pursuit of/production of knowledge) is less objective than we'd hope. After all, scientists are human, and all human artefacts are shaped by our own experiences, biases, and institutional environments. So although not all STS scholars adhere to the full-blown post-modern relativism that there is no objective truth, I see the STS perspective as simply more critical of taken-for-granted assumptions about science.

There are plenty of examples from the History of Science about how science, at the time, was taken as the paragon of truth, only to later be totally de-bunked. The regime change from one scientific theory to another is what's known as  "paradigm shift." But perhaps science isn't just about finding out what's right and wrong in the universe. What matters is even what we decide to study. For example, STS scholar Scott Frickel writes about science and activism. In his 2004 book, Chemical Consequences: Environmental Mutagens, Scientist Activism, and the Rise of Genetic Toxicology, he describes how a group of scientists, influenced by the 1970s environmental movement, started a new, interdisciplinary field of "genetic toxicology." While building the scientific legitimacy of their field (which Frickel points out, is an act of advocacy itself), the scientists also strategically distanced themselves from the more "activist" arm of their academic society. I have a more detailed analysis on science and activism linked at the end of this previous post.

The recent controversy of science and activism centers around, of course, climate change scientists. The question is whether scientists can be pro-climate policy activists while still maintaining scientific integrity? However, the scientists themselves don't see themselves as activists. Here's a recent excerpt from an NPR article:
Science advances through a self-correcting system in which research results are shared and critically evaluated by peers and experiments are repeated when necessary. Disagreements about the interpretation of data, the methodology, and findings are part of daily scientific discourse. Scientists should not be subjected to fraud investigations or harassment simply for providing scientific results that are controversial. Most scientific disagreements are unrelated to any kind of fraud and are considered a legitimate and normal part of the scientific process.... (AAAS, 2011
Climate research works precisely in the same way. To politicize it, to persecute and scrutinize individual scientists as if they were corrupt politicians, is not only misguided but useless. Not all scientists are virtuous (and not all doctors, lawyers, bankers, or teachers either), but the whole point of the scientific process is to free itself from such personal flaws: sooner or later, fraudulent or wrong data is uncovered and the path toward certitude is restored. Errors may persist for a while, but not for a very long while.
The author is speaking of traditional paradigm shifts, and the self-correcting view of science described by Michael Polanyi. The problem is that this view of science ignores what we know about scientists: they too, are human. A "free market" pursuit of science is not necessarily best for society as a whole. This might be partly because scientists have long been a homogenous social group, although this is changing.

A round-up of recent news articles adds some interesting perspectives to the mix:

"Biased by Brilliant" (bonus points for referencing philosopher of science Heather Douglas)
Doesn’t the ideal of scientific reasoning call for pure, dispassionate curiosity? Doesn’t it positively shun the ego-driven desire to prevail over our critics and the prejudicial urge to support our social values (like opposition to the death penalty)?

Perhaps not. Some academics have recently suggested that a scientist’s pigheadedness and social prejudices can peacefully coexist with — and may even facilitate — the pursuit of scientific knowledge.
"It’s Science, but Not Necessarily Right"
Scientists can certainly point with pride to many self-corrections, but science is not like an iPhone; it does not instantly auto-correct. As a series of controversies over the past few months have demonstrated, science fixes its mistakes more slowly, more fitfully and with more difficulty than Sagan’s words would suggest. Science runs forward better than it does backward.
"The objectivity thing (or, why science is a team sport)."
In both the ideal of reproducibility and the practice of peer review, we can see that the scientist’s commitment to producing knowledge that is as objective as possible is closely tied to an awareness that we can be wrong and a desire not to be deceived — even by ourselves.

Science is a team sport because we need other people in order to build something approaching objective knowledge.
However, teamwork is hard.
"Toni Scarpa: Reviewing peer review"
The goal was to ask people to focus more on impact and significance. Peer review is simple — I think it should ask only two questions. First: Is it worth doing? That is impact and significance. If the answer is yes, then you ask the second question: Can they do it? In the past we were asking those questions in reverse.
So I'm not sure if I'm ready to come to any conclusions about what this means for climate science, but it certainly highlights science as a human pursuit, subject to the same biases and ethical dilemmas as any other.

August 15, 2011

Climate change and food security vs. famine

Image courtesy of Adrianne Daggett.

I'm back to blogging after a week-long road trip to move from Michigan to Arizona for my second year of graduate school. While I'm catching up on my news  and getting my brain back into academic gear. One thing I can tell you is that I'm really excited to write my research proposal. A recent conversation with a professor and a series of other academic readings on agriculture and climate change have prompted me to frame my research around "food security." What does food security mean to different people (scientists, farmers, policy-makers), and how to we envision a "food secure" future in a changing climate? This also allows me to explore some foreign policy themes that I hope to trace back to the Green Revolution era.

But for now, I will leave you with some articles/blogs that better articulate what I'm trying to say! First is a blog by Ed Carr, which I'm mentioned before, called "Open the Echo Chamber." Here are some excepts from two recent posts.
From "Stories, Development, and Adaptation":
My entire research agenda is one of unearthing a greater understanding of why people do what they do to make a living, how they decide what to do when their circumstances change, and what the outcomes of those decisions are for their long-term well being. Like Hulme, I am persistently surprised at the relative dearth of work on this subject – especially because the longer I work on issues of adaptation and livelihoods, the more impressed I am with the capacity of communities to adjust to new circumstances, and the less impressed I am with anyone’s ability to predictably (and productively) intervene in these adjustments.
From "Early Warning for Climate Tipping Points":
...people seem to forget that agricultural systems are ecosystems; radically simplified ecosystems, to be sure, but still ecosystems. They are actually terribly unstable ecosystems because they are so simple (they have little resilience to change, as there are so few components that shifting any one of them can introduce huge changes to the whole system), and so the sort of nonlinear changes I am describing have particular salience for our food supply. I am not a doomsday scenario kind of guy – I like to think of myself as a hopelessly realistic optimist – but I admit that this sort of thing worries me a lot.
Finally, the famine situation in Somalia is heart-wrenching, but what can social science tell us about policy responses? Here's an article that helped me better understand the context. You'll hopefully be hearing a lot more riffs on these themes over the next few weeks and months.

UPDATE: I just found a few more interesting articles that relate to this post. One is an interview with some agricultural/environment/development experts and public figures on NPR about climate change. Then I found this brief article interesting: "Singapore to address global food security through R&D."

While these articles hit on all of the main themes that have come up in the agriculture/climate change discourse, I find their definition of "food security" quite limited. Food security invokes a range of factors in people's livelihoods, the market, and the environment. Food security is not just higher-yielding rice. It's amazing to me how the narratives of the Green Revolution ("miracle rice," technological fixes, the scientists swooping in to save the day) are perpetuated in climate change adaptation efforts.

It's a lot easier to break problems into small bits- I know this as someone who studied biochemistry for five years! But problems like the impacts of climate change on agriculture are, like I mentioned last week, "wicked problems." They won't be "solved" anytime soon. On the other hand, technological innovation is a major factor in agriculture and our global economy. The problems we face today will be categorically different in 50 years because of changes in technology and society. So I somewhat easily dismiss Lester Brown's warnings that the "agricultural system that we have today has evolved over an 11,000-year period of rather remarkable climate stability.... But now that climate is changing, with each passing year, the agricultural system is more and more out of synch with the climate system, and that's presenting a challenge." I did background research this summer on regional climate change, such as the American dust bowl, or how farmers in Nepal adapt to varying levels of rainfall and soil quality. It's true that overall, we have lived in a "climate stationary" period for the past thousands of years. However, when you increase the resolution of the picture, you see that farmers are incredibly innovative in adapting to changes in technological, economic, and environmental conditions.

August 4, 2011

Video break

I'll likely be taking a break from blogging to move back to Arizona next week, so in the meantime, enjoy these videos!

The first videos are from a recent hire at MSU: Laura Schmitt Olabisi is an environmental scientist-turned social scientist. She describes her journey here:

She also worked on a public engagement with science project in Minnesota, which she describes here:

Watch/read an interview with Roger Pielke Jr. here. The clips are short and it's very interesting!

Finally, for a bit of meta humor, definitely watch this:

Nation's Climatologists Exhibiting Strange Behavior (Season 1: Ep 5 on IFC)

August 2, 2011

Science and public policy: The Social Animal

This summer my colleagues at Michigan State University recommended that I read David Brooks' The Social Animal. Brooks' book merges a narrative of love, life, and career with research about what drives us as humans (the social animals, of course). This relates to our work with climate change, because much of Brooks' research is about how we form values and make decisions. Unlike the economics model of rational behavior, Brooks argues that humans are much more complex and driven by unconscious motivations (not necessarily "animalistic" motives, but rather neurological pathways that have been shaped by both evolution and social/environmental factors). So while public policy tends to rely on economic models of rationality, instead we should look at how people actually work to improve public good. This sort of social science-based analysis is useful for anything from political to public health campaigns. For example, something I've been hearing lately (including in this book) is that to be a good parent, you don't have to be perfect. Social scientists have shown that being "good enough" is really "good enough" to raise a child. So instead of a hypothetical public safety campaign to track your child's every movement with a GPS tracker, a Brooks style campaign might be something like "You can't teach them everything: equip your child with the tools to decide for themselves" (uh-oh, have I been watching too much Mad Men?).

There are downsides to Brooks' approach. One, as pointed out by biologist H. Allen Orr, is that Brooks actually relies too much on over-simplified scientific explanations. Boil it down even further, and it sounds like Brooks might be advocating for policy based on science (in this case, social science), which we know is problematic! Orr writes,
There can, of course, be no doubt that a decent grasp of human nature is a prerequisite for decent public policy. (A policy that assumes, for example, that people mostly want to give away their possessions would not be the most promising.) And there can also be no doubt that a decent grasp of science can help us figure out a thing or two about human nature. (So that’s how people trade goods in a behavioral economic experiment.) But there’s a serious question of whether a scientific understanding of human nature is the main thing that matters. It seems peculiar to believe that a more sophisticated understanding of, say, the genetics or biochemistry or evolutionary basis of human nature will provide special insight into the human condition and thereby allow us to—finally—shape successful public policy. Why, to put it differently, is it so easy to imagine a society that knows very little if anything of the new sciences of humanity but that is exceedingly happy and another that knows all about these sciences but that is thoroughly miserable?
It is exceedingly difficult to broadly characterize populations of people, even with top-notch social science research. A blog post that sums this up well questions whether people (using the example of climate change deniers and scientists) are even inhabiting the same social reality anymore:
What many techno-scientists fail to understand - and thus find most frustrating - about dealing with climate change deniers is that the denier has no real interest in engaging at the scientist’s level of reality.
Others offer solutions to complex problems through deliberative decision-making, which we are finding very useful at MSU Extension. Consider this description of so-called "wicked problems" like climate change, and how to approach them:
Luckily, social scientists have been studying this sort of mess since, well, since 1970. Techniques exist that will allow moderately-sized groups with widely divergent agendas and points of view to work together to solve highly complex problems. (The U.S. Congress apparently doesn't use them.) Structured Dialogic Design is one such methodology. Scaling SDD sessions to groups larger than 50 to 70 people at a time has proven difficult--but the fact that it and similar methods exist at all should give us hope. 
Here's my take on things: our biggest challenges are no longer technological. They are issues of communication, coordination, and cooperation. These are, for the most part, well-studied problems that are not wicked. The methodologies that solve them need to be scaled up from the small-group settings where they currently work well, and injected into the DNA of our society--or, at least, built into our default modes of using the internet. They then can be used to tackle the wicked problems.
As I've touched on before, what all of these "new models" of science and society show is that the Enlightenment vision of rationality is no longer applicable to today's public policy problems. So maybe Brooks has it wrong that "more science" can solve our problems, but I believe he's onto something, which is that we need more than economics, cost-benefit analyses, and risk assessments to create policy.