Thursday, 20 October 2011

CGIAR SCIENCE FORUM, BEIJING

By ERIK MILLSTONE, STEPS Centre Member

The 2nd Science Forum of the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) took place in Beijing this week, and the discussions represented a challenging occasion for a member of the STEPS Centre, or at any rate for this member of STEPS. (Photo: still from STEPS film on maize pathways in Kenya) 

One challenge is to remain awake during the meeting, at least on the first day, not just because of the effect of jet lag, but also because of the unintentional efforts of so many speakers to diminish the global deficit in clichés. The most commonly articulated cliché was the Malthusian assumption that the size of the human population is exploding and will explode so quickly that rapid increases in food production are and will be urgently required. That assumption serves to portray agricultural science and technology (not to mention the scientists and the technologists themselves) as of pivotal importance.

I am not suggesting that the scale and direction of population change are not going to be important variables, but I am suggesting rather that the main challenge to the food and agricultural system, namely chronic under-nutrition, is a function of the prevalence of poverty, rather than a consequence of a presumed scarcity of food or supposed excess number of mouths. Since there is already more than enough food in the world to feed the current population, and more, it is evident that hunger is a consequence of poverty not of scarcity. Moreover people can be a resource as well as a drain on resources; it depends on how societies are organised and how they function.

Fortunately several contributors to the debates insisted on pointing that out. Credit goes for example to Mark Holderness of GFAR, Hans Herren of the Millennium Institute and Bernard Hubert of Agropolis, all of whom insisted on highlighting those key facts, although too many of the other presentations continued to be predicated on Malthusian assumptions.

Another problematic cliché concerned the assumption, expressed by the Chairman of the opening plenary session, that discussions should focus only on science to the complete exclusion of politics, as if debates about priorities for research and resource allocation issues were entirely technical and apolitical. The choice however is not between taking a political position or an apolitical one, but between being explicit about normative framings and interests on the one hand or leaving issues of power, interests and control implicit. In practice, a vocal minority of those attending the forum declined to conform to the chairman’s injunction, and instead emphasised the values they espoused and presumed, for example by arguing that what matters is not aggregate levels of foods production or consumption, but their (mal-)distribution. While the majority chose to talk about aggregates and averages a vocal, and hopefully influential, minority emphasised distributional issues.

One of the discursive tactics that is being adopted by those who choose to keep political issues implicit has been the repeated use of the idiom that I propose to refer to as the ‘referentially opaque “we”’. For example, agricultural researchers and economists repeatedly used expressions such as ‘we can do X’, or ‘we should do X’, or spoke about how ‘we’ could or should manage some problem, where they implicitly represented themselves as if they represented humanity as a whole, or as if they could speak on behalf of poor smallholder farmers in developing countries. That way of talking fails to acknowledge the importance of empowering the poor in developing countries to make and implement their own decisions, rather than just doing what the cosmopolitan technocratic ‘experts’ think they ought to do. For example some influential speakers said things such as ‘we must transform smallholder farmers into agribusinesses’ not ‘as and when, and to the extent that, smallholder farmers wish to become agribusinesses the research and policy community should be clear how they can and should assist those farmers in taking greater control of their lives and choosing their own pathways’.

In a talk about zoonotic diseases arising from the intensification of livestock production, a speaker referred to how ‘we’ should manage such challenges. That form of discourse failed to acknowledge that in practice those challenges must be met by a wide range of different stakeholder groups, but primarily by farmers and farm workers themselves, not by the research community. Of course, other groups such as animal health workers, veterinary authorities and those trading in meat, milk and dairy products have relevant interests and responsibilities too, but theirs may not coincide with those of the farmers or farm workers, let alone the veterinary researchers. Fortunately other participants recognised the need to explore and comprehend the perspectives of a wide range of stakeholders, and to explore the extent to which those diverse perspectives may be congruent or incongruent. The forthcoming STEPS project on zoonotic diseases should fit directly into a knowledge gap that was identified and highlighted by several participants. The forthcoming STEPS project on Commodities: Chains, Networks and Pathways will also find a ready audience amongst some for the more enlightened participants at this meeting.

In his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn argued that, in the natural sciences, new paradigms displace and replace the old ones not because their assumptions, analysis and arguments are superior to those of the old ones, but because young scholars adopt and accept the new paradigm, while those committed to the old paradigm simply die out, leaving the field to the young. That model seemed briefly plausible on this occasion until I realised that not all of those articulating the old paradigm are elderly, and not all of us articulating a new paradigm are particularly young. I guess I disagree with Kuhn, groups such as the STEPS Centre and colleagues elsewhere do have a more powerful and plausible paradigm, and the shortcomings of the reductionist and technocratic paradigm mean that its proponents are simply unable to account for or adequately respond to the realities and complexities of poverty and hunger in developing countries.

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