I was busy too, we just had our big production meeting.
> Farmers and researchers are asking different questions. In
> our end of the world, most producers are, as you said, pushing the
> capital- and resource-intensive paradigm in which that they have
> invested a lifetime of work, capital, and ego. No surprise there.
> The research which is being done - usually with funding from their
> commodity organization - supports their interests, with perhaps a dab
> of "environmental" or "sustainable" or some other buzz word thrown in
> for appearances sake. But within that paradigm, the questions asked
> reflect the source - producer or researcher.
What do you mean by "paradigm"? Don't you think people can break out
of their "paradigms." In fact, I'll bet that many big, aggressive
growers are very good at breaking out of paradigms, and shedding
preconceived ideas. The fact that some mainstream practices are not
good for the environment might result from a failure of the market to
include external costs rather than from a lack of vision.
> Researchers will usually ignore, or at best, try to remove all
> sources of "extraneous" variation, e.g. preceeding crop, crop
> rotation history, manure management practices, slope, aspect,
> presence/absence of livestock on the farm, educational/experience
> level of the producer etc. etc.
Sure, there is a lot of bad research done, but don't try to blame it on
some "paradigm." The best work is done by adequate replication across
the recommendation domain. Good agronomic experiments try to include,
rather than exclude, interacting factors. In fact, investigation of the
interaction structure is a lot of fun (if you are a stat-head like me).
None of this is new, or particularly "agroecological".
> Now, a producer - if asked to design the same experiment - might
> frame the question quite differently, measure quite different
> parameters, and tailor the research more effectively to his/her own
Precisely! The producer is dealing with a spatially smaller
recommendation domain. By "parameters", I assume you mean responses.
If so, researchers who fail to measure things that farmers are
interested in, are simply irresponsible.
> So, this is what I mean when I say we are asking different questions.
> You don't even have to go so far as to bring in the "environmental"
> vs. "conventional" split. Within either paradigm,
Every time you use the p- word, I think of Thomas Kuhn. Are you being
trendy, or are you trying to apply the hypothesis of incommensurability
of competing "paradigm communities."
> researchers are
> asking the wrong questions, unless they actively involve farmers in
> the design, conduct, and interpretation of the studies - so-called
> "farmer participatory research", which we discuss in the CJPS paper.
Farmers will do their own research, efficiently, or poorly. They can
benefit from design and analysis expertise from extension personnel and
other farmers. But I disagree that farmer participation is a
pre-requisite for quality research, or that farmer participation
gaurantees that the correct questions are asked. Contact with, and
understanding of farmers is obviously needed.
> Farmers are often induced to buy
> stuff that they don't need, sometimes by the "Joneses" process, but
> more often by slick ads and one-sided research that reveals benefits
> but not costs. It is only after the fact, when they have already
> bought the thing, that reality intrudes.
I think most farmers are a little more conservative than most people,
and don't immediately jump on bandwagons. And the coffee-shop
discussions help too.
> Ann says: true enough. There are a few people who manage to perform
> the impossible. How few? See Lipson's new publication Searching for
> the O-Word, which documents how perishingly small is the amount of
> USDA funded research that bears, even tangentially, on the real
> issues facing organic farmers.
If you confine "sustainability" to "organic" farmers, you will stay on
the fringe. There is much good work on the interaction of agriculture
and environment being done by those who are not ideologically pure.
> Agribusiness is into making money - no problem with
> that. I happen to like the stuff myself. My argument is not with
> them, but with
> a) the premise that what is good for business (agribusiness profits)
> is good for farmers, the environment, and society. It isn't.
It is probably a mixed bag. The people I know in the seed industry are
really trying to make products that are good for farmers and the
environment. I know that some self-justification and obfuscation
occurs, but what I keep hearing is "Do whatever it takes to please the
> b) the publicly funded researchers and especially funding sources
> which should be providing a counterbalance to the wholly unbalanced
> partnership between agribusiness and farmers/environment (leaving out
> consumers for the moment)- and aren't.
Again, I don't see this as so adversarial. If there is an adversarial
element (to use the seed industry as an example) it is competition among
companies. Besides Pioneer, Novartis, Dekalb and Monsanto, the regional
companies will keep us honest (as long as decent genetics can be had on
the open market - but that is another story).
> Ann says: We'll have to disagree on this, perhaps due to
> terminology. The term "private sector", in the context of the
> discussion, refers not to farmers but to those supplying the farmers.
When I use the term in this context I mainly mean farmers. Perhaps this
gets down to certain unspoken assumptions of the sustainable ag
"There isn't any delicious odour of new-mown hay in the haying
operation. The Arcadian delights of it are only apparent to the
on-lookers, and, if there is any satisfaction to the workers themselves,
it depends a great deal on whether hay is worth twelve dollars a ton,
and who owns it" (Wheeler, 1901).
IMO, the movement (just as the parallel movement did in the late
nineteenth century) tends to romanticize farming, seeing it as primarily
a lifestyle. But the majority of farmers see it as a business. This is
especially true today, since most farmers are clearly part of the
mainstream culture, hooked up, cable-TV, suburban style home, vacation
I'm trying to tease out what I see as a largely unspoken political
agenda of the sustainable ag movement. Talk to any true believer and
see if sustainability simply means the ability to keep doing agriculture
on into the future. For example, Altieri writes:
"Clearly, new sustainable agroecosystems cannot be implemented
without modifying the socio-economic determinants that govern what is
produced, how it is produced, and for whom it is produced. Agroecology
should deal with technological issues in such a way that these assume
their corresponding roles within a political agenda that incorporates
social and economic factions [sic] in its development strategy."
(Altieri, Miguel, A. 1989. Agroecology: A New Research and
Development Paradigm for World Agriculture. Agriculture, Ecosystems and
I'm not saying these issues are unimportant, or that I believe our
society is a paragon of virtue, but to a techie like me, the term
"sustainable agriculture" seems overloaded, political, and turgid. I
prefer terms that are easier to define. Perhaps you use adversarial
language because deep down this is a political issue.
> As for net
> beneficiaries, even a cursory review of the evidence on where the
> money is going in agriculture supports the view that agribusiness
> suppliers and marketers are getting almost all of it.
Sure, as gross income. But it takes a lot of money to run a big
company. Genetics is a numbers-game, and the more hybrids you can
screen, the better the product. Large companies have an inherent
advantage. And all the regulatory stuff is REALLY expensive, which also
favors bigness. I know, from personal experience, how competitive and
difficult the seed industry is.
These industries are no different from other industries in an ethical
sense. The reason they seem different is the romantic view of farming,
the Jeffersonian paradigm of the self-sufficient yeoman farmer.
...it is argued with merit that US consumers pay the
> lowest % of disposable income on food of any nation in the world.
> However, this comforting assessment explicitly excludes from
> consideration the indirect and externalized costs...
I fully agree. Agricultural policy should seek to eliminate
externalities. IMO the market is the most important system in
agroecology. It must be brought to bear to solve environmental
problems. And it can be. The big political problem is how are the
externalities to be priced? What political mechanisms exist to do this?
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