July 20, 2012

An exercise in social construction of technology vs. technological determinism

I felt like writing this instead of my prospectus today. Comments appreciated, as always.

Point 1: Agricultural technologies are shaped primarily by human interests.
The "best" technology doesn't always get picked in agriculture. Sure, farmers are innovative, perceptive, and incredibly economics-driven, but that doesn't mean that they end up making the right choices. Truth is, a ton of political and social decisions that get made at much higher levels often determine what farmers grow. In the early 20th century, people working for seed companies had to start convincing farmers that bigger ears of corn were the most desired trait. When hybrid corn was discovered, this was a boon for the seed industry. Hybrid has two different parent crops, making it's second generation offspring genetically unpredictable, and thus farmers have to keep buying the seed from the company, year after year. It didn't hurt that Henry A. Wallace, founder of Pioneer Hi-Bred Seed Company, and on of the discoverers of hybrid corn, was Secretary of Agriculture from 1933 to 1940, spearheading the USDA's campaign to get farmers to adopt hybrid corn. 

Hybrid crops are more responsive to fertilizers, so the more chemicals farmers can pump into the ground, the more corn they can grow in a small area. Today just about 100% of corn grown in the U.S. is hybrid. But what if hybrid corn wasn't adopted? Some people hypothesize that non-hybrid corn yields could be just as high as hybrids, if companies had invested the same amount of resources. Social scientists and historians also tell as similar story about the development of "miracle rice" at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in the 1960s. Apparently the director of IRRI had a very specific "model" of what type of rice the scientists at IRRI should be developing. Scientists at IRRI were told, "all we want are results, to get the yields up; be on the constant look out for it" (Oasa 1981, p. 174). Administrators at IRRI didn't want just any innovation coming from their research labs; they wanted something radical, highly visible, what they called the "big jump" (Oasa 1981 p. 177). And once they developed the so-called "miracle rice," they played it up all over Asia, even when the yields weren't so great certain locations.

So what does this mean for adapting crops to climate change? It means that we should pay really close attention to who sets the research agenda-- is it the president of the World Bank? Bill Gates? And whose best interest do they have in mind? From these two examples, we have seed companies looking out for their own profit, but we also have IRRI, and public research organization that just wanted to feed the world. But even people with good intentions can have, shall we say, complicated outcomes. Did you know that North Vietnam actually really liked the Miracle Rice, and are still one of the largest growers of it? The upshot is that people who we want to use the technology should be very involved in its development, so that we make sure new innovations benefit the public good rather than a small handful of corporate interests. It also means that we should keep our eyes open for new practices and technologies that will help with adaptation, because narrow visions of climate solutions can restrict the types of research that scientists undertake. We should keep the options open, with dialogue between farmers, scientists, and private companies who will commercialize the innovations.

Point 2: Technologies fill necessary gaps.
The market gets what it wants. Adam Smith's doctrine of the invisible hand doesn't just apply to economics-- it also applies to the development of new technologies. And in agriculture, when farmers and consumers demand high yields and cheap food, companies respond by innovating to meet their demands. American agriculture is particularly suited to large, mechanized farms of soy, wheat, and corn, and because farmers have grown these crops for so long now, it's difficult for them to switch. So companies keep innovating new ways to increase production: better pesticides, biotechnology (GMOs) that makes crops resistant to herbicides and produce their own insecticides, more efficient application of fertilizer and irrigation, etc. In fact, the proliferation of GPS and smartphone technology gives farmers an incredible management tool called "precision agriculture."

What academics call "induced innovation" can also help with climate change adaptation. Over time, improvements in plant breeding has allowed farmers to expand the growing range of crops such as soybeans and wheat in North America. Places where farmers would be crazy to grow wheat 50 or 100 years ago, it's now common! These same principles can be applied to climate adaptation. Scientists and policy-makers should understand what technologies have historically worked well in certain areas-- we know that rice farmers in Japan will never switch to large-scale, mechanical agriculture-- so stick with with farmers know. Make the transition between crops easy by encouraging farmers to adopt new varieties. But because farmers are discerning customers, they will likely drive the market demand anyway.

More technologies, such as integrating the use of regional climate forecasts so that farmers can adjust what they plant, when they plant it, and how they irrigate it, will help farmers. Because crops and soils often have predetermined biophysical and genetic limits, we should pay careful attention to how crops can be applied to areas predicted to have similar climates and conditions, but realize that they are not endlessly malleable.

It's also worth noting that private seed companies and public agricultural research (universities, non-profits) are complimentary, as private companies fulfill market demands and public research fulfills public goods. If farmers live in a place where agriculture is not very profitable, the public research is more likely to benefit them. If they are in a highly productive area, private research will have more impact for their income and be better for the overall economy. In either situation, the institutions are already in place to help farmers technologically adapt agriculture to climate change. It doesn't matter where the research comes from; what matters is that it is reaching farmers and meeting their demands.

Can you tell what side I'm on? :)

Oasa, E. (1981). The International Rice Research Institute and the Green Revolution: A Case Study on the Politics of Agricultural Research. University of Hawaii.

For further reading:
Cleveland, D. A. (2001). Is plant breeding science objective truth or social construction? The case of yield stability. Agriculture and Human Values, 18, 251-270.
Fitzgerald, Deborah (1990). The Business of Breeding.
Kloppenburg, J. R. J. (2004). First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 1492-2000 (2nd ed.). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

July 9, 2012

Summer vegetable-themed link harvest

Perhaps you've been drawn in by my clever title, which does sound like a delicious salad, but I sadly have no recipe to share with you. Instead, here's a snapshot of my favorite science/food policy articles this week. Per usual, many thanks to Arijit for curating interesting links on his blog.

Food and agricultural news:
  • This column by Mark Bittman has gotten a lot of love from my friends. For years, the argument of junk food producers has been that in moderation, even sweets and fats can be part of a healthy diet. One recent study investigated whether diets of different fat/carbohydrate/protein amounts led to different weight loss results, showing that a Atkins-like diet is more successful. Mayor Bloomberg rejoices! But Marion Nestle digs deeper into the study and finds that the study was under highly controlled conditions, and the diet only lasted 4 weeks. So while I usually love Mark Bittman, I'm disappointed that his column relies on standard news-cycle hype of a single scientific article. [Update:] Here's a good rebuttal, showing that a calorie is a calorie, whether it's from fat or sugar or protein. I prefer Nestle's approach:
"--If you want to lose weight, eat less (it worked well for the subjects in this study).
--It may help to avoid excessive consumption of sugars and easily absorbed carbohydrates.
--Once you’ve lost weight, adjust your calorie intake to maintain the weight loss.
--And understand that science has no easy answers to the weight-loss problem."
  • A recent book on the history of tomato production, and a handful of recent scientific articles that explain how the flavor and sweetness of heirloom varieties have been bred out of modern varieties in favor of uniformity and efficiency. The tomato's been a lightening rod for controversy, from Jim Hightower's Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times in 1973, to the Flavr Savr GMO tomato debacle in the 1990s, to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers movement which protests against the low wages and terrible working conditions of farm workers in Florida. If you're feeling academic, this article will give you a good overview of the politics of agricultural research over the past 40 years. If you're feeling completely non-academic, enjoy some Stephen Colbert testifying about migrant farm workers and salad bars: "Apparently, even the invisible hand doesn't want to pick beans." If you're feeling like you might want to make a dirty joke, go read about cucumber straighteners (and stay for a bit about the history of agricultural tools).
Science policy goings-ons:
Finally, please enjoy this article on how academic writing can be sexy, but usually isn't.