Dear Friends and Colleagues
New Crop Technologies for Africa Not Scale-Neutral
During the past decade, new crop technologies have been at the centre of debates on how to revitalise African smallholder agriculture. Parallels are frequently drawn with the Green Revolution (GR) in Asia, where new varieties of wheat and rice were described as scale-neutral, i.e. of equal benefit to large-scale and small-scale farmers. The term is now reappearing in the debate on the potential of new crop varieties in general, and genetically modified (GM) crops in particular, with the claim to benefit African smallholders.
A new paper draws on the literature, ideas and concepts from the field of social shaping of technology and the concept of biological embeddedness to critically explore the extent to which the term ‘scale-neutral’ assists or hinders one in drawing lessons from the Asian GR when analysing the role of new crop technologies for African smallholders today.
The paper describes how the corporate shaping of crop technology R&D has significantly shifted the technological trajectory away from smallholders’ needs and interests. This has been strengthened by biological factors inherent in the crop technologies promoted as key drivers in the transformation of African smallholder agriculture today. By virtue of their biological functions, hybrid crops and, even more so, GM crops, facilitate corporate control over crop technology. The paper suggests that GM crops in their current form have reinforced a trajectory established with hybrid technology and directed it away from smallholder practices and agroecologies.
This paper shows that referring to crop technology as inherently scale-neutral depoliticises the issue in a way that undermines rather than supports African smallholders in their need for crop technology adapted to their practices and contexts. It also indicates that, in order to support smallholder agriculture, it might be more effective to target the policy structure, which currently in many respects disfavours smallholders, than to focus on technological development within the current policy context.
With best wishes,
WHY NEW CROP TECHNOLOGY IS NOT SCALE-NEUTRAL—A CRITIQUE OF THE EXPECTATIONS FOR A CROP-BASED AFRICAN GREEN REVOLUTION
Poverty reduction during the Asian Green Revolution has been attributed to the inherent scale neutrality of new crop varieties making them equally beneficial to small-scale and large-scale farmers. The term ‘scale-neutral’ is now reappearing in debates on agricultural development in Africa with claims that crop technology is inherently scale-neutral and that African smallholders will significantly benefit from new crop varieties not specifically developed for their contexts. Using a social shaping of technology (SST) perspective and the concept of biological embeddedness, this paper critically examines whether it is helpful to describe crop technology as scale neutral when drawing lessons from the Asian Green Revolution about how new crop technology can be of benefit to African smallholders. The paper describes how political commitment, rather than inherently scale-neutral crops, was central for the outcome of the Asian Green Revolution. It also highlights that while the effects of crop biology are often disregarded in adoption studies, biology significantly affected the ability of Green Revolution crop technology to benefit smallholders, and continues to do so today. Using maize and GM crops as examples, this paper suggests that GM crops in their current form have reinforced a technological trajectory established with hybrid technology and directed it away from smallholder practices and agroecologies. Consequently, describing crop technology as inherently scale-neutral is not helpful for understanding how crop technology works in Africa today and prevents important lessons being learned from the Asian Green Revolution.
This paper describes how the crop technologies used and the political and economic environment have both changed since the Asian GR, in ways that are not favourable for smallholder farming. Governments today spend less on support to agriculture, including agricultural advice, and the corporate shaping of crop technology research and development has significantly shifted the technological trajectory away from smallholders. This corporate control of crop technology and the shift away from smallholders’ needs and interests have been strengthened by biological factors inherent in the crop technologies promoted as key drivers in the transformation of African smallholder agriculture today. In hybrid technology and the more recent GM technology, a highly controlled development process is needed to ensure the functioning of the technology. By virtue of their biological functions, hybrid crops and, even more so, GM crops thus facilitate corporate control over technology. This is not to say t hat the relationships are fixed, but it indicates that significant political and economic commitment is needed if new crop technology is to be of benefit to African smallholders. Analysis of the factors that were central for the empirically observed scale neutrality of crop technology during the Asian GR shows that all these factors act in different ways today than during the Asian GR. As a result, it has become more difficult for small-holders in Africa and elsewhere to benefit from crop technology:-
· many African countries today do not have the same access to cheap labour as was the case in many parts of Asia during the GR (Hull, 2014; White, 2012) (i.e. labour-intensive technology does not necessarily favour smallholders)
· financial and advisory support was central for observed crop scale-neutrality during the Asian GR (Feder et al., 1985). Today the trend is a reduction of government spending on agriculture in Africa and globally (FAO, 2016), which increases the financial risk for smallholders
· financial risk is increased further by the fact that seed is much more expensive today than during the Asian GR (Bonny, 2014). In addition, farmers are now seldom allowed to share and recycle seed (Netnou-Nkoana et al., 2015). This applies to most seed, but in particular to the seed of GM crops
· while government spending on advisory services has generally been reduced since the Asian GR (Tripp, 2001; Stone, 2004), GM crops increase subjective risk compared with conventional crops, as it is more difficult for farmers to learn about how GM crops work (Jacobson, 2013; Jacobson and Myhr, 2013)
· corporate control over crop technology increasingly directs crop R&D to serving large-scale, capital-intensive farmers (Parfitt, 2013). Fewer crop varieties are thus being developed for marginal environments (Jacobson, 2013). At the same time the effects of climate change are predicted to be particularly severe in parts of Africa (Boko et al., 2007), meaning that we will need crop varieties that can grow in such increasingly marginal environments.
In summary, this paper provides support for the idea that referring to crop technology as inherently scale neutral depoliticises the issue in a way that undermines, rather than supports, African small-holders in their need for crop technology adapted to their practices and contexts. It also indicates that, in order to support smallholder agriculture, it might be more effective to target the policy structure, which currently in many respects disfavours smallholders, than to focus on technological development within the current policy context. From a theoretical perspective, this paper suggests that crop technological trajectories are significantly shaped by political, biological and agroecological factors. It also shows how these factors interact and produce outcomes that cannot be fully understood if they are studied in isolation. Combining insights from FSR with SST is therefore valuable in analysing biologically embedded farm technology such as crops. Without the systemic (agroeco logical) perspective on crop technology development provided by FSR, the co-shaping of crop biology, environment and technology development, which currently reinforces the strength of dominant market interests and disadvantages smallholders, would have been difficult to discern.