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Knowledge, technology, and the politics of rice

The current financial crisis in Europe brings out politics as we know it. The political leaders of nation states deliberate lessons from the past and negotiate solutions for a new future. We are intrigued by the moves of presidents and prime ministers and expect their decisions to affect our personal economic situation. Reversely, we blame the politicians for the loss of jobs, increase of rent or governmental restrictions. It helps to express anger and frustration, but does it help in negotiating with our employers, landlords or administrators?

The gaze towards the top is a common feature in our understanding of political processes. The politics of knowledge and technology is no exception. What is peculiar here is that the fascination applies to both politics and science and technology. The dominant image is that of ‘big science’ and top-notch technologies dealt with by high-level politics.The dominant focus on advanced technologies and higher-level politics, I argue here, has limited value for understanding crucial elements in processes of technological change that take place in society, therewith touching upon key democratic values. This is illustrated with introduced changes to rice cultivation. Technological change is often associated with innovation.

Think nuclear energy, hydro-electric dams, biotechnology or nanotechnology, and the association is political leaders and ministers confronted by protest and opposition. This is not just an image evoked by the media. It is also engrained in theories and concepts that we use in our understanding of the politics of science and technology.

Driven by images of progress and an urge to outstrip competitors, the only way forward is to get rid of old ideas or cranky tools and embrace novelty and rapid change. This, it seems, is the course of history. Just as steam locomotives replaced draught animals, a better future lies in advanced scientific knowledge and technical novelties. By definition, innovations are unfamiliar to the wider public. This is why financial support from investors and patronage from ministries and political leaders is required. The pattern is visible in the introduction of short-straw, fertiliser-responsive rice varieties (known as high-yielding varieties or HYVs) in the late 1960s. HYVs are innovation. Indeed they were, back in the 1960s, radically different from the rice types grown in most places. Thus, it was thought, HYVs would quickly replace existing (old) varieties simply because what was there could never compete with HYVs. However, HYVs have not fully replaced other rice varieties because in some places they never arrived, in other places they lost to competition with the old (but apparently better) varieties, and even in those many places where HYVs did yield well, other varieties never entirely disappeared.

Currently, the HYVs of rice have lost some of their grandeur. The high output is based on high input of fertiliser and water, making farmers dependent on economic factors, largely beyond their control. Environmental concerns increase the pressure to find alternatives. One alternative currently promoted is the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). Comprising of the use of young seedlings, wider-spaced square planting, reduced water requirements and mechanical weeding, SRI offers a set of techniques that is supposed to increase rice yields with less dependency on external inputs. Moreover, SRI is introduced mainly by civil-society organisations and less so by research institutes. SRI thus seems to move away from too high expectations on advanced science and novelty. However, SRI promoters are not entirely void of the pitfalls of innovation thinking. There is active lobbying for political and donor support to promote SRI. Currently, several governments of states in India and elsewhere are actively engaged in its distribution. Besides SRI being presented as innovative, farmers are commonly considered as traditional or stubborn when expected higher yields do not occur or when they disregard (parts of) the SRI method.

The dominant focus on advanced technologies and higher-level politics, I argue here, has limited value for understanding crucial elements in processes of technological change that take place in society, therewith touching upon key democratic values.

The introduction of SRI reveals the shortcomings of innovation thinking. Innovations need venture capital and institutional support to quickly access markets and convince customers. Science, technology and democracy in this context implies using the leverage of political power and donor money to offer users a simple choice: innovate or remain backward. The organisations pushing the HYVs for rice were good in making a political case for innovation. Persuasion was labelled as ‘training and visit’. SRI is introduced in very similar ways in some places.

In several states in India, we see newly emerging partnerships between organisations promoting SRI and state governments. This, it is thought, helps to distribute SRI and thus improves rice farming across the country.

Leaving aside the question of what we can expect from politicians and ministers, taking the route of high politics drags us further into innovation thinking. Preliminary findings from a research programme on SRI in India suggest that farmers in many places are instructed to take up SRI in very similar ways as they were instructed to plant HYVs in previous decades.

Analyses of processes to enhance public engagement in science and technology in various parts of the world have shown that under the label of participatory processes, powerful actors like governments, companies or other large organisations push for certain decisions or solutions. Not only are views and preferences of people disregarded, there is also underestimation of the knowledge and solutions people have developed themselves. The science and technology of the people are usually adequate for context-specific challenges.

Depending on folk wisdom or existing techniques therefore is not about being backward or not being able to escape old patterns. It is simply asserting that change is not about throwing away everything and starting all over again.

What is the role of science? It is not helpful to oppose scientific knowledge and local or indigenous knowledge. Nor is it useful to oppose innovation and stagnation. Science can help to understand what works where and how. This requires a social science understanding of technology-in-use as well as an understanding on how processes of change work. An on-going research project between our university and several partners in India has taken up this challenge for the changes in rice cultivation induced by SRI. Changes in rice cultivation taken up by farmers are not about rejecting or accepting an innovation. Nor is the politics of rice about meetings and consultation processes on what methods or varieties farmers want. Understanding science, technology and democracy in rice cultivation is about understanding the very changes in the techniques and derived insights from farm-based experimental practices as employed by the farmers.

Recommended reading
Berkhout, E. and D. Glover. 2011. The evolution of the System of Rice Intensification as a sociotechnical phenomenon: A report to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Wageningen, the Netherlands: Wageningen University and Research Centre.
Chataway,, J., H. Maat and L. Waldman (eds.). 2007. Understanding participation through science and technology. IDS Bulletin 38(5). Brighton: IDS.
Edgerton, D. 2006. The shock of the old; Technology and global history since 1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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