In this paper we argue that over the last 40 years the context of agronomic research in the developing world has changed significantly. Three main changes are identified: the neoliberal turn in economic and social policy and the rise to prominence of the participation and environmental agendas. These changes have opened up new spaces for contestation around the goals, priorities, methods, results and recommendations of agronomic research. We suggest that this dynamic of contestation is having important effects on how agronomic research is planned, managed, implemented, evaluated and used, and is therefore worthy of detailed study. This is particularly so at a time when food security, rising food prices and the potential impacts of climate change on agriculture are in the policy spotlight. We outline a research agenda that should help illuminate the drivers, dynamics and impacts of this new ‘political agronomy’.