February 27, 2013

Fieldwork in Bihar, once again

I spent the past 9 days in the state of Bihar to complete the first leg of my fieldwork in India. Now, I'm doing what I would call "fieldwork-lite (TM)," i.e. I am by no means calling my work ethnography or anthropology. But, a more positive way to put it is that I'm getting a "snapshot" perspective of different actors in India's agricultural research system. So I spent the week divided up into visiting Bioversity's field sites (first 2 days; more about their field trials here from my previous visit); interviewing agricultural scientists from the regional research station and university; visiting CIMMYT's field trials for climate adaptation; interviewing farmers; and, in a true act of participatory research, drinking beer and arguing about science with agricultural scientists. So all in all I was very pleased with the progress I have made this week, and I had a good time and some wonderful hosts at the guesthouse I stayed at. It was a nice change to be able to walk outside and smell things growing, rather than things decaying.

I don't really want to say too much about my interviews because they are confidential, but what I will say is that I think the scientist interviews went well; I learned a lot, and I think I have some good qualitative data that I can draw from for my analysis. I got a diversity of opinions and hit on some "controversial" topics, which to a social scientist is always fun. The farmer interviews were more challenging, for a variety of reasons, but I'm still glad that I did them. It was especially interesting to me that the farmers who I interviewed were pretty marginal-- they were growing fairly old seeds that were released in say 1977 or 1995 (but still modern varieties)-- and they had no contact with agricultural extension. I read this article today and I would say it definitely applies; they don't have access to any scientific consultants and are extremely resource-poor. Although they have grown the Green Revolution wheats, they adopt only parts of the technology packages.

This week and next I plan on clocking some time in the library so that I can start to get more serious about my historical work. Although the interviews are important, I think that the majority of my data will come from my archival sources. I have a lot of ideas brewing, but I will need something solid to base my research on.

February 19, 2013

Drinking the Kool-Aid while attempting to be an unbiased researcher

I realized today that I’ve spend the past week and a half drinking the Bioversity Kool-Aid; meaning that I’ve been surrounded by great ideas like “custodian farmers”; researchers who are really interested in “farmer first” technologies, networks, and access to resources; and in the past few days, getting a chance to talk to farmers who are involved in Bioversity’s projects here in India. Which is all great, especially considering that Bioversity’s mission aligns with my own ideological commitments. But this is something my academic committee has pushed me to think about: how will I deal with my own pro-farmer, pro-local biases when conducting my research?

One of the things I’m studying is the difference between/evolution of the scientific paradigms of “wide adaptation of crops/top-down technology transfer” and “location-specific adaptation/participatory research.” The first approach is dominant in the state-run agricultural organizations; the second (I’m hypothesizing) is more likely to crop up among NGOs and individual researchers. But, is one approach necessarily “better”? My own bias pushes me towards thinking the second approach is better, because it takes into account the local socio-economic as well as environmental conditions of farmers. But from an innovation systems perspective, we probably need some combination of both approaches. The first approach works well for large farmers on productive lands; the second works better for marginal farmers/areas. I think if I’m able to take a more even-handed (or “academically agnostic”) approach to my research, my scholarship will be better. One step I can take to reduce my bias is to be very careful in my interviews, and to carefully consider what my respondents say. In my historical research, I think the best strategy for now is just to document all relevant material, and then sort out my theoretical argument later.

Theoretically, I find the correlation of the “wide adaptation/top-down” approach with a socialized political system extremely interesting. This would require me digging into more political science than I currently have under my belt, but I think it would be really interesting to compare 20th century agricultural development in the US, Soviet Russia, and India. For example, what was the political context; proportion of public vs. private research investment; scientific paradigms; and ultimately the success of agricultural technologies in each of these nation-states during critical periods of agricultural development? Maybe I can find someone already working on this stuff and collaborate…

In other news, baby goats are the cutest things ever and I want one!

February 14, 2013

Custodian farmers and global agro-biodiversity

This week I attended two conferences in Delhi (and have one left to go): one on "custodian farmers" and the other on global agro-biodiversity. My host organization did a large part of the work for the custodian farmers conference, which brought together 20-30 farmers from south and southeast Asia as well as experts in agro-biodiversity. It was interesting, definitely innovative, and somewhat logistically challenging to bring together farmers, some of whom had not travelled before, and who spoke at least 5-6 languages between the group. They each gave a short presentation that was translated by their country's research/NGO partner. Throughout the meeting I learned exactly what a custodian farmer is: someone who actively maintains, conserves, adapts, and shares agricultural biodiversity. Similar to what we might call "early adopters" or innovative farmers, although in some cases they said their communities did not recognize the importance of what they were doing. They have a lot of different motivations for doing this. Many of the farmers (which was a limited sample size, for sure, and only included one lady farmer) seemed to have some intrinsic motivation to conserve different species and varieties of crops. They were also motivated by financial benefit, and were very interested in how they could get more education, technology, and access to markets to make value-added products or to market their rare varieties. The two-day workshop was very interesting to hear about some of the research and policy related to custodian farmers, and we also had some interactive (participatory agricultural research, you could call it) activities with the farmers about what they valued and what suggestions they have to get more people to become custodian farmers.

The next conference was a global consultation on agro-biodiversity, more specifically, plant genetic resources (for a brief background, see my previous posts here and here). I know that at previous conferences on this topic, there's always a lot of strain between the "global north" and the "global south" because the global south contains most of the in-situ (in nature, or on-farm) biodiversity, but the global north has historically housed most of that diversity in seed/gene-banks while southern countries sometimes struggle to build their capacity at collecting and banking different plant (and animal, insect, and microbial!) species/varieties. But attendees at this conference were mostly Indian scientists (India has one of the largest biodiversity collections), country-representatives from the global south, and international research center representatives. So it was interesting to hear the perspectives from this group of people, and for me to talk to a bunch of scientists who I have studied so much about!