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Knowledge that grows on the fields: Bottom-up approaches for agricultural research

Knowledge stands at the beginning of everything purposefully created. It takes knowledge to build farms and machines, to build firearms, or to steward the land. Having knowledge often means having power. Inequalities in access to knowledge often lead to power-inequalities. 

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A seed is a form of knowledge, contained in specific gene sequences within the nuclei of its cells, just like an architectural drawing is a plan for a building. Seeds and knowledge are self-replicating: While it can be used to produce, it can also be modified, and shared. A seed will produce more seeds that can be shared, similar to how farming knowledge can be used to produce on one farm, but could also be transferred to another farm, allowing for production there. 

The following is an account of the traditional ways in which farmers used to steward their seeds of knowledge, and how this stewardship has been undermined by modern day capitalism.


Traditional Farming Systems and Knowledge Transfer

In traditional farming systems, farmers are stewards of their own knowledge, meaning that they are using knowledge they were also nurturing. 

That knowledge was so essential to their life, that without it, it was impossible to produce. They would pass on that knowledge (and seeds) from generation to generation, allowing for an evolution of knowledge through a slow process of discovery, trial and error. From a scientific point of view, traditional farming system were perceived as primitive and misguided, because:

The attitudes towards these qualities has changed over the course of the last decades and can now be seen as desirable goals in modern agricultural systems. 

It has been noted, that the richness and accuracy of observations traditional farmers make can be compared with those that one can gain through scientific methods (Chambers , 1983). Agricultural science is rediscovering the fruits of the traditional knowledge evolution such as raised fields, polycultures, and agroforestry systems (M. Altieri). 

Modern science allowed for testing narrow claims from which new/current systems have been derived. This is based on the philosophy of reductionism, or the view that a whole is the sum of its parts and analyzing parts can provide a comprehension of the whole. Modern research often has narrow research questions tested in controlled environments. Their applicability to real-world environments are often limited. On the contrary, traditional farming knowledge evolution has not to be field-tested separately because it is field-developed. It also does not have a narrow research question, its aim is to evolve production into the long-run (sustainability).

Scientific claims are generalizations for a part of the whole, and should not be mistaken for generalizations about the whole farming system. It seems however, that exactly this has happened as industrial farming systems focus on a limited set of variables as they relate to yield. Whereas scientific claims often look at maximizing yield through maximizing input variables, traditional farming knowledge must have stemmed from observation on limiting factors to production and how to regulate those, to keep production at a sustainable level. 

Industrial Agriculture, and the Restriction of Flow of Knowledge

Current knowledge transfer systems predominant in capitalistic economies differ inherently from those engrained in traditional farming systems. Farming knowledge used to be passed down from generation to generation, whereas each generation was educated to become a steward of that knowledge, both nurturing and using it. In the recent century, the origin of new farming know-how has changed profoundly. Since knowledge is power, and its origin has changed, many farmers find themselves in a top-down approach to knowledge, where they are at the bottom end. 

A farmer from the Fogler family that operates a 1000+ cow diary farm in Exeter, Maine, said, that earlier, the University Extension educated them to use pesticides levels on their fields that proved to be 5 times higher than what was actually required, about which they only found out later when studies showed the toxicity of those chemicals. Now, the extensions educate for save handling and minimizing contact with those chemicals. “Many farmers view with skepticism the dominant agricultural research and extension education model, in which new knowledge on farming practices is developed by researchers and delivered through extension programs (Gerber, 1991). Farmers, once complete stewards of their own knowledge find themselves as guinea-pigs in ongoing research on agriculture. 

What has happened?

Privatization of Knowledge and Seeds. 

Capitalism is based on the practice of privatization, which is the exclusion of others to access to resources. That resource can be land, but also knowledge. Patent rights are helping individuals but mostly corporations to protect their knowledge from unauthorized third-party use. By taking part in capitalism, farmers are entering a realm in which knowledge is not traded freely, in fact, the restriction of other’s access to knowledge is what keeps the system running. 

The commercial development of seed varieties that do not produce offspring illustrates the capitalistic approach to knowledge generation, and how it shifts power away from the farmer. In the 1990s, the US Department of Agriculture collaborated with the Delta and Pine Land company on developing Genetic use restriction technology (GURT or ”terminator seeds”). Monsanto, a 11.365 billion $ multinational corporation employing 21,700 workers worldwide producing crop seeds, herbicides and pesticides has acquired Delta and Pine Land company. Stakeholders expressed their concern that this technology might lead to dependence of small-holder farmers. “In 2000, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity recommended a de facto moratorium on field-testing and commercial sale of terminator seeds; the moratorium was re-affirmed in 2006. India and Brazil have already passed national laws to prohibit the technology” (wiki, 2011). Hybrid seeds produce offspring, but that offspring will have different characteristics than the hybrid. They are similarly trapping farmers into seed-dependence. 

Research conducted by government-, non-government organizations and agribusiness firms, is distributed through agricultural extension. Agricultural extension was the  application of scientific research and new knowledge to agricultural practices through farmer education, but now encompasses more participatory approaches such as farmer-to-farmer exchanges. It is a service often funded by the state and executed through universities. Apart from that, farmers are educated in external institutions about their profession, which gives external agents even more power over what knowledge farmers are exposed to. The close collaboration of the corporations with the state, as well as their capability to fund research, puts them in a favorable place to influence agricultural extensions. In many countries the agribusiness firms themselves run the extension services. 

Extensions in India, Personal Experience

During my time in India, I researched the sugarcane cultivation in the Mulshi Valley, in West-central India. Fist I wanted to research traditional sugarcane farming methods, but I quickly found out that sugarcane cultivation was not farmed traditionally in that valley, it was a phenomenon that had only started to take place in the last 10 years of my arrival in 2006. A 25km far away sugarcane mill used to import raw sugar to cover the local shortage, but through agricultural extension, the firm managed to create surplus production in the region. They established “Local Offices” in every bigger town that would educate the farmers, distribute seedlings, fertilizer and pesticide, and help organizing migrant-labour for share-cropping. The farming methods used were strongly influenced by the methods the agribusiness-funded Local Offices provided, all-though there were variations in manure and fertilizer use among farmers, as well as farmers generally using longer rotations periods than recommended. (MUWCI, 2008)

Examples for Bottom-Up Research

Some farmers have organized themselves to collaboratively create and nurture the knowledge from which they produce. Three methodologies stand out: Farmer-to-farmer exchanges, participatory research and peer-to-peer collaboration. 

Farmer-To-Farmer Exchanges

Facilitating the flow of information between farmers. This can be culturally rooted (such as farmers meeting and discussing their methods and innovations) or facilitated through external organizations. Facilitating farmer interaction and exchange of farming practices across valleys in India have proven to increase overall production of the region (P.S. Ramakrishnan). 

A farmer in Ethiopia rehabilitated his land and experimented with alternative watering systems. Now being recognized as an innovator in his village, he is being visited by farmers from the region while an NGO facilitates exchanges between him and other farmers. 

Participatory Agricultural Research

When scientists work together with farmers. 

Science Shops

Science Shops emerged in the 1970s in the Netherlands aiming at providing awareness and access to scientific services to the public. Universities and NGOs integrate this approach to community based research (CBR) by providing both teachers and students with the opportunity to do requested research. A variety of science shops have arisen, some of them relating to agriculture. A request usually gets redirected to the science shops that can deal best with it. 

Practical Farmers of Iowa

The Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) show one alternative way in which farmer-interests are crucial to the research being carried out by professional researchers. It is the farmers themselves who discuss their questions and what research they need to have done. Then they partner up with professional researchers who help them designing and carrying out the study, whereas both the farmer and the researchers contribute resources, such as time and land. 

Peer-to-peer Collaboration

In the age of the internet, new ways of collaboration have arisen. The Open Source software phenomenon and Wikipedia have proven, that global collaboration on an intellectual commons is possible. Can we create a Wikipedia for farmers, where farmers can exchange their innovations and build on others’? 

Open Source Ecology at Factor e Farm, Missouri

An example is Open Source Ecology, a network of farmers, engineers and supporters who have in the last few years been developing the Global Village Construction Set, a set of the 40 Industrial Machines that it takes to create a small civilization with modern day comforts

They have prototyped 8 of their 40 machines and found out that on average, the cost of production for these machines is 8-times cheaper that the industrial price. 

Their readily available innovations include a Compressed Earth Brick (CEB) Press, a hydraulic tractor LifeTrac, a backhoe, a baler and a chicken incubator. 

All their building plans are available for potential builders on their wiki at openfarmtech.org. Just like permaculture is inviting people to become conscious stewards of their land, the open source movement allows farmers to become stewards of their own knowledge, by collaborating globally on the building plans for life. Farmers are in the ideal position to take part in such a collaborative process, as many of them know how to build and maintained farming machines themselves, and hence bring the knowledge to understand and contribute to the building plans.

Editorial Notes: Click on the pdf link above to see the accoompanying illustrations and links. -KS

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