Contested Agronomy: Imagining different futures for food and farmers

8 March 2016

The question of how to improve farming to feed and sustain people in developing countries is as important as ever, and the science of agronomy can help by evaluating how crops and farming techniques perform under different conditions. But, as with any science, there are battles and debates over what works, and which problems to solve. 

Contested Agronomy - Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

The Contested Agronomy conference, which took place on 23-25 February at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) brought together over 80 participants from 18 countries to examine the politics of knowledge within the field of development-oriented agronomy.

What is agronomy for?

On the first day, Bart Steenhuijsen Piters (KIT) asked “will conventional agronomy ever reach the rural poor?” The answer, according to his reading of the literature, is that there was little evidence to suggest it will.  

Much conventional agronomy focuses on intensification and increased production of food for markets, and the needs of the rural poor are often forgotten in practice. Steenhuijsen Piters suggested a greater focus on the needs of poor rural households and individuals, nutrition, risk reduction, labour, gender and skills. 

What – and who – is left out?

The story of agronomy is also a story of what gets neglected. Sieg Snapp (Michigan State University) talked about pigeonpea growing in East Africa as an example of crops that are popular among some farmers but under-researched.

What questions does agronomy ask?

Other participants pointed out the need to reframe the fundamental questions being asked and who is asking the questions: whose knowledge and whose agronomy? Ken Giller (Wageningen UR) pointed to the importance of healthy scientific debate, using the case of Conservation Agriculture. Though undoubtedly useful in some settings, this no-till technique has also been promoted by campaigners and donors in places where it is ineffective, he said.

Listening to farmers

Much research – both in the South and North – does not take into account farmers’ viewpoints, according to Klara Fischer (Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences)

After a literature review of research on the social impacts of GM crops, out of 99 publications, Fischer found very little on farmers either in the literature about the north or the south: “farmers are at the bottom of the value chain”. And most research about the South is carried out by western researchers or researchers from the North – where many centres of agronomic research are based.  

‘Transferring’ knowledge

This was an issue that cropped up in presentations on exporting China and Brazil’s agricultural know-how to Africa. Can China and Brazil use their home grown agricultural knowledge, which has driven phenomenal agricultural productivity at home, to transform agriculture in Africa? Lidia Cabral (IDS) gave an example of a Brazilian agronomist who had bought long-handled hoes for farmers in Mozambique to replace their ‘primitive’ short-handled tools, only to find that they broke them in half. He later realised that the farmers needed short handles so they could carry the hoes at the same time as babies, and other materials. 

China’s 23 agricultural demonstration centres in Africa are an example of “a top-down policy being implemented at the grassroots” says Xu Xiuli (China Agricultural University), who has developed case studies and research on four of the centres

Agronomy in context

Many participants pointed out that “context matters”, as Ian Scoones reflects in a blogpost after the conference. Agronomy as a science could not be divorced from the social, cultural and political forces that shape it and the way it is applied. Unfortunately, there is increasing pressure on agronomists to remove their studies from farm contexts and construct them as projects, often in short time scales. 

Opening up dialogue

Joshua Ramisch (University of Ottawa) said many of the participants at the conference were ‘interdisciplinary-curious’ – agronomists and social scientists keen to learn from each other’s insights. 

Making agronomy work for poor farmers means taking seriously different forms of knowledge, technology and practice. It was clear from the discussion that the physical and social sciences could ask different questions about food, farming and rural futures. Events like the Contested Agronomy conference, by bringing together these different questions, could create a much-needed dialogue between the disciplines, which might better address the needs of farmers and rural economies in an increasingly complex and changing world. 


Contested Agronomy: Whose agronomy counts? on 23-25 February 2016. It was supported by the ESRC STEPS Centre and hosted by the Institute of Development Studies, the Plant Production Systems Group, Wageningen University and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

The conference built on an earlier workshop at IDS and the edited collection Contested Agronomy: Agricultural research in a changing world. Edited by James Sumberg and John Thompson and published by Routledge, it is part of the STEPS Pathways to Sustainability book series.