January 30, 2012

STS perspectives on the Green Revolution

Over the next few weeks, you'll be hearing a lot from me and some collaborators about the future of food and agriculture. Consider this a warm-up, although it's a bit academic. And if you're in the Phoenix area, check out this panel I'm participating in this week, "Feed 8 Billion."

The Green Revolution is an era of rapid agricultural innovation and diffusion that is critical to my own research, and I would argue, to the future of agricultural research. Narratives of the Green Revolution are invoked by different actors for different purposes; Robert Zeigler might invoke the Green Revolution as a reason to support public agricultural research. Activists like Vandana Shiva might invoke it to warn of the dangers of monocropped agriculture and top-down international development projects. I prefer to take the middle road, but the aim of my research is not to make a normative judgment about the Green Revolution. Instead, I aim to interpret how different visions of agricultural change and innovation drive organizations and technological development.

I have created a public folder of my essential Green Revolution articles, and I would also highly recommend these books by Kloppenburg, Perkins, and Cullather for an even richer perspective. There are so many things written about this topic, but I've attempted to cull it down to my favorites. I've also included my paper on the Green Revolution and the Population Bomb in Asia from 1960-1970, which I wrote for a class last year and hope to turn into a dissertation chapter. Please ask for permission if you'd like to cite or circulate my paper.

I'm going to highlight 3 papers for this post. They are articles I picked because they cover the basics of the Green Revolution, biotechnology, globalization, and some of the core STS concepts I want to explore in my research. The common theme between these 3 articles is agricultural innovation systems, and the dynamic between technologies and institutions/organizations.

Let’s start with Parayil’s 2003 paper on technological trajectories from the Green Revolution to the “Gene Revolution” (biotechnology and molecular techniques for plant breeding). Parayil borrows the concept of technological trajectories from a paper by Giovanni Dosi in 1982. The unique contribution of Dosi’s theory is that technological development occurs in a specific technological paradigm that both produces innovations, but also constrains these innovations to a specific trajectory. The physical properties of the technology and its path of development, the institutional environment that produce technologies, and the economic forces driving innovation all contribute to a specific technological trajectory. 

Parayil uses this theoretical framework to explain how the research organizations, technologies, and economic incentives during the Green Revolution are very different than today’s Gene Revolution. Other factors, like globalization, neoliberalism, and intellectual property rights also characterize today’s innovation environment. To Parayil, it is wrong and possibly dangerous to imagine the Gene Revolution as a continuation of the Green Revolution. I am proposing to empirically study an actual innovation system, using the case study of northwest India. What actors are involved in research, seed sales, and extension? To what extent are farmers included in participatory research, and does this feed back into the system? How do conceptions of biotechnology and the Green Revolution shape future imaginations of agricultural adaptation to climate change?

Onto the next article, Brooks (2011) on international agricultural research and global public goods (GPGs). Brooks discussed how the CGIAR (an international consortium of public agricultural research centers, several of which were critically involved in the Green Revolution) markets itself as a purveyor of GPGs and that the “CGIAR centres would now play a ‘brokering’ role in global, heterogeneous networks comprising a wide range of public and private institutions (Rijsberman 2002, 3). The implication was that ‘the CGIAR was uniquely placed to act as honest broker’ and steer these complex networks in directions consistent with a public goods research mandate (Brooks 2010, 4)” (Brooks, 2011, 70). Brooks frames her argument against a 2008 paper by Dana Dalrymple, an economist at the USDA who has promoted public international agricultural research since the Green Revolution. 

She uses the case studies of Golden Rice, iron biofortification, and the CGIAR’s HarvestPlus program to show how despite the CGIAR’s claims of knowledge brokering and new research paradigms, and despite ostensibly new research partnerships and institutional innovations, the CGIAR has maintained both institutional dominance (in a top-down paradigm) and technological and economic reductionism (assuming scale-neutral technologies, and silver bullet solutions to complex social problems). My research on climate change adaptation and agricultural research aims to uncover similar dynamics. How do international, national, and local agricultural research organizations (including public, private, and NGOs) use climate change as a leverage point for power? Have research paradigms actually changed because of climate change, or are the same technological and institutional goals maintained? 

Finally, Busch and Juska (1997) discuss political economy, actor network theory, and globalized food and agricultural systems. The authors frame their article against political economy approaches, which focus on social power. They claim that this approach generalizes and simplifies the range of actors involved, and demands that non-human actors (such as food and nature) are passive. Instead, they recommend embracing actor network theory, which seeks to remedy these oversights. They use the case study of Canadian rapeseed (canola) to show the relationships between scientific institutions (particularly plant breeding and organic chemistry), technologies, and nature that were necessary to make rapeseed oil edible for humans. Furthermore, the liberalization of global rapeseed markets led to shifts in production and consumption. I find the actor network theory approach to agricultural systems extremely helpful in empirically conceptualizing the connections between scientific research, commodity chains, and producers and consumers. In my own research, I plan on conducting a network analysis of rice and wheat research in northwest India. I’m not as interested in the global commodity chain, but rather the interaction between local, national, and international actors.

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