Monday, 30 September 2013

Climate change in Kenya: narratives and dilemmas


A new paper, ‘Agriculture and Climate Change in Kenya: Climate Chaos, Policy Dilemmas’ (download pdf) analyses emerging policy discussions on climate change and agriculture in Kenya.

New reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the state of climate science (published this week) and forthcoming reports on adaptation and mitigation (in March and April 2014) will draw attention once again to international efforts to respond to climate change. Agriculture occupies a central role in these debates, as it is both a contributor to, and affected by climate change. In Sub-Saharan Africa, as in many other parts of the world, national responses are affected and mediated by international initiatives and narratives.

Kenya has been ahead of many other countries in developing a national climate change strategy, and agriculture is one of the key critical sectors of interest. The National Climate Change Response Strategy (NCCRS) dates from 2010, and the National Climate Change Action Plan (NCCAP) was launched in March this year, stressing low carbon development and resilience in the face of climate change.

However, there are concerns about whether policy goals may be achieved amidst the actors’ many and diverging interests. A new working paper on climate change policy in Kenya sets out to map how these debates are starting to take place in practice, and poses the following questions: what are the arguments, who is promoting them, and what are the implications for Kenya’s agricultural sector?

Narratives in Kenya

Two major narratives straddle the debate in Kenya:

1. Climate change as a threat to food security, and
2. Climate change as an opportunity to address energy and forest degradation problems.

For the first of these narratives, concerns over food security are driving climate change adaptation actions, albeit still in an emergency response mode. Experience of drought has strengthened this concern. Some of the responses to immediate climate change impacts include increasing vegetation cover, expanding carbon sinks and bridging the gap between the dry spells. The wider adoption of drought-tolerant and pest/disease-resistant crops is attractive for some, though it risks overlooking small farmers and informal networks.

The key argument on mitigation is that carbon funding holds great promise for the agricultural sector in that it can give major potential contributions to energy security as well as lower degradation.

Development of geothermal power and increasing the country’s tree cover and other forest resources, including agroforestry practices and improved natural resources management systems, are some of the mechanisms already embraced.

Biofuels are another area for debate, both over the appropriateness of land use and accusations of land grabbing, and the risks to farmers of switching to these mono-crops, thus exposing themselves to price fluctuations in international markets. Effort is also being made to implement Reducing Emissions through avoided deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) projects, which resonate with a narrative which places a significant responsibility for environmental degradation on African agricultural practices. A criticism of this narrative is that it can misattribute blame to delegitimise small-scale farming practices which may actually contribute to sustainability.

The working paper also details arguments around Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA); and international carbon finance, where concerns around the influence of external donors are voiced by several actors.

How coherent is the landscape?

Overall, despite the existence of the NCCRS and more recently the NCCAP, much of the climate change and agriculture ‘landscape’ remains largely undefined. For responses to climate change at the local level, the lack of a coherent climate change policy effort leaves significant spaces for powerful actors to shape the agenda and activities.

‘Technical fix’-style interventions are often posited without tackling the underlying reasons which explain why farmers in Kenya are vulnerable in the first place. New actors have taken on board the climate change issues or reinvigorated their advocacy around this issue – some, perhaps, ‘recasting’ themselves as climate change champions. Linked to this, there is significant space for some actors to present existing activities as ‘climate solutions’, even when these may have adverse impacts on the resilience and adaptive capacity of poor farmers.

Climate change and agriculture efforts in Kenya will remain varied and widely spread over many actors, regions and priority areas, at least in the foreseeable future. This calls for a cohesive, adaptive policy which can respond to surprise and allow for ongoing debate and adjustment to new circumstances.

Download the paper
More on Climate Change
Picture: Kenya-Dadaab, August 2011 by ihhinsaniyardimvakfi on Flickr

This post first appeared on the Future Agricultures blog.

Friday, 27 September 2013

IPCC climate report: research, resources and expertise

by Julia Day, STEPS Centre

As the most comprehensive statement on climate science to date is published, we have gathered some of our key resources on the impact of climate change on poor and marginalised people in developing countries.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change summary for policymakers on the physical science of global warming is published today, with the full report to follow. The summary concludes that human influence on the climate system is clear and that warming in the climate system is unequivocal.

“As the ocean warms, and glaciers and ice sheets reduce, global mean sea level will continue to rise, but at a faster rate than we have experienced over the past 40 years,” said  Qin Dahe of the China Meteorological Administration, Beijing, and co-chair of the IPCC working group that produced the summary for policymakers.

The ESRC STEPS Centre and its partners around the world have been working on research projects that seek to address the many different impacts that climate change has on peoples’ lives and livelihoods in sustainable ways that work for those people and the planet, using their own knowledge and expertise.

  • Energy and Climate Change domain With increasing access to modern energy services a key international development priority, the STEPS Centre believes a much broader and ambitious approach to energy and development is needed.
  • Political Ecologies of Carbon in Africa New deals and funding mechanisms aim to reduce emissions. One consequence of this is the growth of a market in carbon. This project examines the power, politics and perceptions of carbon in Africa as new schemes are planned and put into action.
  • Uncertainty from Above and Below How do people deal with uncertainty about the climate? Theories, models and diagrams from “above” may have little to do with the way how everyday men and women live with, understand and cope with uncertainty. This project brings together the views of people who study uncertainty, with the perspectives of people who experience it.
  • Pro-poor, low carbon development This project aims to improve the transfer and uptake of low carbon technologies in developing countries, and to do so in ways that can assist in their economic development.
  • Environmental Change and Maize Innovations in Kenya
    In East Africa, maize is an important staple crop, a vital part of food security. This project examined the various options for farmers in the region – from choosing alternative crops, to using new techniques or technology. It looked at how farmers and others see and make these choices in the context of climate change, uncertain markets and changes in land use.
  • Future Agricultures How will climate change shape agricultural development in Africa over the coming decades and what are the most appropriate solutions?
  • Low Carbon Innovation in China This project explores the extent, nature and social implications of low-carbon transitions in China, a key concern for the whole world.
  • The Rising Powers: Clean Development and the Low Carbon Transition in sub-Saharan Africa Examining clean and renewable energy projects in South Africa and Mozambique, in order to understand how, why and to what extent China, India and Brazil are enabling the transition to low carbon energy systems in southern Africa
  • Climate Geoengineering Governance This project seeks to provide a timely intervention to intensive global discussions about the appropriate ways to govern climate geoengineering – ranging from outright bans to different notions of regulation.
This article was originally posted on the STEPS Centre blog.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector goes from ‘bread basket to basket case’? Or is it (again) a bit more complicated?

With tedious regularity we hear the narrative that Zimbabwe has turned from 'breadbasket', producing sufficient food for the population and even exporting it, to 'basket case', with near permanent reliance on imports, even from Zambia of all places. The reason forwarded is the 'chaotic' land reform that undermined the basis of food production in the country – the large-scale commercial sector (try these from Foreign Policy, The Economist and the UK Daily Mail from the international press for starters – just google for many more!).

Endless repetition often results in such narratives being accepted as fact. I have heard this argument from multiple sources, including those who frankly should know better. It's a nice media sound-bite, and it serves particular interests.

But what's the truth behind these claims? As ever 'myths' of this sort have some element of reality embedded in them. The graph below shows the pattern of maize imports since Independence in 1980. There is no doubt that maize imports have become more regular since 2000. In the coming year, we will likely have another high figure.

Graph 1: Maize imports, 1980-2011 (tonnes)

But the argument that Zimbabwe never had to import food before is simply untrue. The major drought of 1992 resulted in the highest ever import requirements, exceeding even the most dramatic predictions for this year. And there were other occasions too in the period from Independence to the 2000 land reform – in 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, and earlier in 1980 and 1984. Each of these was associated with production collapses, due to multiple causes usually precipitated by drought.

If we look at the total production of maize and the pattern of rainfall (an averaged figure for the country as a whole) we see more interesting patterns. Since 1961, production has fluctuated dramatically, with the contribution of small-scale and large-scale production varying over time. The levels of variability have also increased over time, with grain (maize and small grains) production being much more tightly correlated with rainfall in recent years, and highly affected by climatic events. With longer-term climate change impacts likely to result in greater rainfall variability, this is concerning, and suggests the need for more drought proofing policies.

Graph 2: Maize production, 1961-2012 (tonnes)

Graph 3: Maize and small grain production and rainfall, 1980-2012 (thanks to Blessing Butaumocho for this graph)

The import figures are from FAOSTAT, with all the cautions and qualifications that go with that. They are therefore only official, recorded figures, and do not take account of informal cross-border trade. As we found out in Masvingo province during the 2000s, this is significant, involving all sorts of exchanges, with food flowing in often large quantities in both ways to Mozambique and South Africa. The grain production figures too are limited by the sampling approaches used, and are biased towards communal area production. Since 2000 sampling biases have meant that production from the A1 farms has not been accounted for sufficiently, although this is being corrected.

Bearing all these many limitations in mind, what should make of it all? Is the 'basket case' narrative justified? The data show that since Independence there have been three broad phases that have affected the overall food economy. Identifying these helps to focus attention on what needs to be done now, rather than harking back to an assumed golden era past.

In the immediate post-Independence period, there was much emphasis on food production. Government initiatives supported communal area farmers in particular through credit, loans and extension support. This was the much hailed phase of Zimbabwe's 'green revolution'. At the same time, large-scale commercial farmers continued to produce food, often through irrigation, as they had pre-Independence under the UDI sanctions regime.

Towards the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, especially following ESAP (the economic structural adjustment programme) from 1991, subsidies and other government support for communal area agriculture declined, and the nascent 'green revolution' collapsed. At the same time globally driven market incentives encouraged shifts of the commercial sector away from maize to higher value and often less land intensive production. This included livestock (with a big move of beef production to the Highveld), wildlife and game farming (for eco-tourism and hunting, including in the high rainfall areas), horticulture and floriculture (linked to supermarket value chains) and an expansion of tobacco. All of this meant that less maize was produced, although there was still a core irrigated production, increasingly of feed, that remained important. The impact of these changes on food production levels and methods was severely felt of course in the 1992 drought, but also in other years in the 1990s, resulting in an increasing frequency of imports.

After 2000, things changed again with land reform, and the maize production under irrigation more or less disappeared, with the exception of a few A2 farms being revitalised in recent years. Communal area production remained depressed, and increasing land competition meant that surpluses were rare. Season to season storage was limited as small grains that store well were replaced by maize. It has taken some years for A1 farms to gain momentum due to establishment challenges, but for much of the 2000s, the economic crisis affected production dramatically. After 2009, and the stabilisation of the economy, things improved, but droughts affected production for several years, including the last season. Without irrigation on any significant scale focused on food production, output has become more variable and imports have been necessary.

Thirteen years on, we would expect that the (no longer) 'new farmers' would be established. Most reflections on resettlement identify a decade as the minimum period for establishment and transition, but this assumes sustained support and investment. This has been starkly absent, both from government and donors who have shied away from development interventions in so-called 'contested areas'. The result has been a slower improvement than hoped for.

In our study areas in Masvingo, we see a progressive increase in the proportion of households producing more than their household food needs through the 2000s, with 30-40% regularly selling some surplus maize. However, the rate of growth has tailed off over time, as longer term challenges – of soil fertility and inputs, of infrastructure, of markets and so on – have hit. But overall production and levels of food security in the A1 farms remain significantly higher than in nearby communal areas. Unfortunately, as discussed last week, this dynamic is poorly represented in national figures on food production, as production from new resettlement areas often goes unrecorded, and increasingly such output, especially of maize, is channelled via informal channels, and so is difficult to capture in standard surveys.

Production of maize from the new resettlements is however highly vulnerable to rainfall variation given the lack of irrigation. In addition, price and market incentives will probably continue to see a drift towards contracted crops, such as tobacco and cotton, away from food production, meaning that overall food deficits and import requirements will persist, even if across all commodities aggregate agricultural production and income increases.

Since the 1980s, first large scale commercial farmers and now resettlement farmers have shifted from growing maize to other higher value commodities, for the same perfectly sound reasons. Since the 2000s, food production is even less resilient than it was in the 1990s, due to the lack of last-resort irrigation, either on state or private large-scale farms. The maize surplus era of the 1980s, when both communal and commercial farmers were growing large quantities, backed by government support, has long gone. But this does not mean that Zimbabwe's agricultural sector is a 'basket case'. It has restructured, and is confronted by new problems, requiring new solutions. Dreaming of the 1980s will not help.

What should we conclude? Here are four thoughts to end on:
  1. Zimbabwe has often imported food, and will continue to do so. This is not a bad thing if the prices are reasonable, and trade is efficient. However in times of regional drought, this is risky, and an emphasis on local production, and strategic reserves, is needed. As argued a decade ago by Thom Jayne and Mandi Rukuni, a simplistic policy approach to national food self-sufficiency does not make sense. Expensive, overflowing grain silos may not be the best indicator of a sound food economy, but instead there is a need for a resilient system that involves managed imports in times of drought combined with improvements in local production.
  2. Drought proofing such production is needed as a core policy to improve the resilience of the system. This includes improving storage systems, so that people can tide over from one season to the next; encouraging switching to drought resistant crops such as small grains, and continuing to invest in drought tolerant maize varieties; improving irrigation systems, including very small scale water harvesting systems, as well as 'schemes'; and focusing on livestock as an important asset for exchange in times of drought.
  3. Price and market incentives need to ensure that it pays to grow food crops, and there is a balance between maize and tobacco production overall. This includes extending contracting systems to food crops, and improving input supply and other support to ensure that food crops are profitable. Efficient grain markets are essential to avoid distortions.
  4. Investment should be focused on areas where surplus production is possible, and this must include first and foremost the A1 resettlement areas. Ensuring effective market links so that such surpluses can be exchanged locally and regionally will be important. This will mean investment in roads, transport and so on, and avoid any restrictions on movement of grain and agricultural commodities.
This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

17 September: China and Brazil in African agriculture: news roundup

By Henry Tugendhat

This news roundup has been collected on behalf of the China and Brazil in African Agriculture (CBAA) project. For regular updates from the project, sign up to the CBAA newsletter.

Brazil’s investments in African agricultureCBAAnews

In this IDS blog, Lídia Cabral looks at Brazilian motivations for investing in African agriculture. She presents the mixed diplomatic and business interests at stake, the tension between discourses on solidarity and self-interest, as well as the role of science and research.
(Institute of Development Studies)

ProSavana launches website
The ProSavana agricultural project in Mozambique has set up a website. Its aim is to be regularly updated with news and information regarding the project, presumably as part of an effort to counter criticisms of transparency. It has been registered under a Mozambican domain name and provides information in English and Portuguese. At present the information available is equally distributed between both languages, however the “latest news” just consists of a series of titled pictures with no text.
ProSAVANA website

Zimbabwe to develop economy with “new friends” like China
 Mugabe has identified agriculture and diamond mining as quick-yielding sectors of the economy towards which he intends to focus cooperation with China. He also threatened a “tit-for-tat” retaliation against interested companies from Western countries that have continued to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe.

Ugandan Agriculture Minister welcomes Chinese engagements
 The agriculture minister has welcomed China working with Uganda's agricultural sector to supply its own food security needs. In the article he describes China as having agricultural technology that is equal to the West’s, and sees China’s fertilizers of particular importance.
(China Daily)

New Cotton Delinting Plant opens in Zambia
In a speech given for the official launch of the US$1 million Acid Seed Delinting Plant for China–Africa Cotton Zambia Limited in Chipata, the Chinese ambassador praised Zambians for their use of arable land. He praised agriculture as being more precious than minerals, and stated that China has already been responsible for providing 2000 permanent jobs in Zambia’s agricultural sector.

China-Brazil research group launched  A group of academic researchers have set up the ‘Grupo de Estudos Brasil-China’ that looks at China’s emergence in the world, including a particular focus on Brazil. They are based at Sao Paulo’s Universidade Estadual de Campinas and provide regular updates on related news, events and journal articles.
Grupo de Estudos Brasil-China website

Update on China’s land reform plans
China’s Ministry of Land and Resources has been considering a land reform programme for the past few months whereby land would be tradable in China without having to go through the state. However, contrasting information about its plans have been emerging from the ministry responsible over the past few weeks. This is a sensitive subject in the wake of increased protests over the past decade, sparked by what were deemed unfair appropriations by local governments to sell to businesses following the appreciation of land values.
( – in Chinese)

The Rise of BRICS in Africa
 Padraig Carmody, author of the book ‘Rise of the BRICS in Africa: The Geo-Politics of South-South Relations’, has published the following article in the Guardian’s development section. In it he describes the BRICS as bringing new forms of globalisation that involve their state-owned business approaches, rather than purely unleashing their private sectors. The article highlights similarities between the BRICS, such as non-interference in domestic politics, and the appeal of these approaches for African leaders compared with traditional partners. He views the formation of these new relationships as the beginnings of a new world order.
(The Guardian)

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Technology for African agriculture: more than just a text message

mobile phoneby Jim Sumberg

For decades, agronomists and others interested in agricultural development in Africa prioritised the development and promotion of new technology. Across the continent, new crop varieties, soil fertility management regimes, pest control methods and the like have been at the heart of efforts to promote small-holder intensification.

Along the way, there was at least some (at first grudging) recognition of the social, political and institutional aspects of technology and technical change. These factors were brought increasingly into analysis of successful (and unsuccessful) cases of technology development and promotion. More recently, mainstream discourse around agricultural research and technology development in Africa has incorporated broader notions from innovation studies, including innovation systems and innovation platforms.

The message is clear: innovation is a complex, socio-technical process, the realities of which were poorly reflected in some older models of agricultural extension, technology transfer and one-way ‘messaging’. But this terrain seems to be shifting again.

Last week’s conference on Youth Economic Opportunities in Washington, DC had a particular focus on employment opportunities for young people in rural areas, and consequently there was much discussion of agriculture and related activities. The word ‘technology’ was on everyone’s lips, and once again the assumption was that technology would be at the very centre of a youth-led revolution in rural enterprise.

However, the technology everyone was referring to was information and communications technology – cell phones and SMS messaging in particular. Agricultural technology was seldom mentioned, and there was little sign of any sympathy with the new, much messier understandings of processes of technical change.

In fact, the take-over of the technology agenda by the cell phone and SMS promoters was so complete that we were asked to believe that the ‘know how’ and ‘how to’ of African agriculture could be reduced to a series of ‘practices’ to be pushed out through SMS messaging or accessed by one mobile platform or another.

My argument here is not with the potential value of mobile telephony or related communications technologies. Rather it is with the overly simplistic conceptions of agricultural technology and the processes by which it changes, which seem to underpin both private and public efforts promote agriculture revolution in Africa via SMS.

One of the hard won battles of the last three decades was the understanding that when it comes to agricultural intensification and technical change, context and fine-grained differences matter tremendously. Thus, the real challenge is to harness the undoubted power of mobile communication technology without losing sight of the fact that agriculture in all its forms is a socio-technical undertaking par excellence. Without a nuanced and situated appreciation of the complex dynamics of technology development and use in African agriculture, the much heralded gains from the spread of information technology may prove to be little more than pipe dream.

Further reading:
Photo: CIAT Kisumu 12 by CIAT on Flickr

This post first appeared on the Future Agricultures blog.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Food crisis in Zimbabwe: 2.2 million a risk. But where do the figures come from, and what do they mean?

The newspapers have been full of commentary on a looming food crisis in Zimbabwe. This has followed from the World Food Programme's press release that 2.2 million people will be in need of food aid in the coming months. The Commercial Farmers Union has called it a 'man-made crisis', the direct result of the 'chaotic' land reform, and a decade of inappropriate policies.

I wanted to find out a bit more about where the 2.2 million figure came from. It's a big number, and would mean a lot of food imports, way beyond the means of the Finance ministry. After a bit of digging I eventually found the figure, buried on page 122 of the ZimVac (Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee) livelihood assessment draft report for 2013.

Each year ZimVac, a coalition of NGOs, researchers and government agencies, undertake a major rural livelihood assessment, based on a sample of over 10,000 households across the country. The sample is drawn according to the latest ZIMSTAT 'master sampling frame', and the resulting data is aimed to be representative of the country as a whole. It's an excellent and important initiative, but it has its deficiencies, as those involved readily admit.

The process for deciding the headline figure is complex. It involves assessing for each household all the cereal production, and then adding in income from employment, remittances, livestock sales, and other sources of income that could be used to buy food (p. 120). Assumptions on prices and market availability are used to translate income into food and in turn energy (p.121). The food security assessment is based on the household's potential access to enough food from all sources, including purchases, to give each member a minimum of 2100 kilocalories per day in the consumption period 1 April 2013 to 31 March 2014 (p. 119). The total number in food deficit figure is then calculated as a sum of all of those experiencing any negative balance in the accounting period.

It's a complicated procedure with lots of steps and plenty of assumptions. What the headline figure doesn't indicate – although the report does, and the background documents for the ZimVac surveys over the years are quite transparent about this – is that the big number includes many people who may have a projected deficit for actually a very short period. Indeed, at the time of the survey in May 2013, over 80% of households surveyed had no hunger problems with only a very small proportion recording 'severe hunger' (p. 115). The report shows that there is a progression of food insecurity, with a peak of 2.2m people expected in January to March 2014 (p.124). 31% of the total (683,000 people) move into food deficit only in this crunch period before the next harvest; and some of whom may in fact be food insecure for only a very few days.

The 2.2 million figure is of course a good flag-waving number for the WFP to raise funds, and for the CFU to bash the government for the land reform (and even President Mugabe is now joining the critique of the 'new farmers'), but the actual implications are more complex. Here are five reasons why we need to be cautious about the figures.
  • First, there's geography: as the report shows the problems are concentrated in the dry south of the country which experienced the worst season in terms of rainfall and its distribution (p.125-6).
  • Second, there is almost certainly (as ever in surveys) an underreporting of income, and so purchasing power. Since in drought years, market purchases are essential for food entitlements, this is rather crucial.
  • Third, the assessment model allows for only limited sales of livestock to compensate for food deficits (households are assumed to retain a minimum of 5 goats and 3 cattle). Yet livestock is precisely the asset in the drier parts of the country that are used in times of drought to exchange for grain, and distress sales are common, and important for food security.
  • Fourth, remittances are especially important in drought-prone areas, yet the figures used in the model for this year are based on recall of last year's receipts. Last year was of course a relatively good year for rural production, and so remittance flows inevitably dropped. But this year, you can be sure, they will increase in response to the shortfalls. For perfectly good reasons, the model does not account for this, but it's another reason why we can expect things to be not as bad as predicted.
  • Finally, the assessment does not include early cropping – for example of green maize – which is often important in that crunch period before the 'proper' harvest.
For all these reasons and more, we should be cautious about the headline statistics, and understand in more detail what happens to whom and where.

One of the most striking figures in the report is the prediction that 98% of rural households nationally will hit a food deficit by next March if only cereal production and stocks were included (p. 123). Of course this includes those with no food production to speak of, such as farmworkers and other rurally-based non-farm households. But even discounting this group, this is striking, and does suggest a problem in agricultural production, as Charles Taffs of the CFU indicates. However, again we must be cautious in jumping to conclusions.

One big concern I have with recent national surveys is that they have been sampling according to old sample frames set before the land reform. This was the case for the 2011 PICES (Poverty, Income, Consumption and Expenditure Survey) study and the 2010-11 Demographic and Health Survey, both using the 2002 census sample frame. I have been assured that the ZimVac survey for 2013 used an updated sample, with 'enumeration areas' allocated proportional to population distribution derived from the 2012 census. If so, this would have included the significant populations, especially in A1 areas, who are – at least according to our data from Masvingo – producing more and doing better than their counterparts in the communal areas, where most the earlier rural samples are drawn from. And in our study areas on A1 sites we see between half and two-thirds of the households producing sufficient cereals for the year – not just 2%,

Following the 2012 census, ZIMSTAT is revising the national 'master sample frame', and hopefully from now on national surveys will be statistically more representative. Unfortunately it is still difficult to stratify the data according to land use types, and so distinguish between resettlement areas and others, so Taffs and co should probably hold off on their outright dismissal of land reform on the back of this data for now. As ever, it's more complicated than it first seems.

That said, last season was unquestionably a worse one than experienced in the last few years, including in Masvingo. It also hit some higher potential areas hard, with a very unevenly spread rainfall. Despite improvements since 2009, input supply was again erratic and untimely last year.

Also, maize area planted was again down, reflecting the shift from food crops to tobacco in some areas, perhaps especially in those food producing areas in the higher rainfall zones. This restructuring of the crop system is directly driven by incentives – tobacco, supported through contract arrangements – , is a much more profitable crop than maize, especially if marketed through the Grain Marketing Board. Over the last decade or more we have seen switches to small grains (although plantings were down this past year according to ZimVac), but these are still a small percentage of total crop output, and it remains maize that drives the food economy, although much of this circulates outside the formal channels, and so is difficult to capture in national statistics.

So what should we make of all this? Certainly there is going to be a problem of food deficits in the coming months. However, problems are going to be concentrated in a certain time period, and outside a few areas and for more vulnerable people, it's not going to be as bad as the headline figure and the media commentary perhaps suggests. Imports will certainly be needed, and targeted food aid will be important, but other coping strategies will also come into play to offset the worst.

Indeed this seems to have been the pattern over many years now. There is a ritualised flurry of activity around this time of year, with the aid agencies calling for funds to support food aid, and those critical of land reform saying that this 'proves' that Zimbabwe has gone for food producer to 'basket case'. Yet by the end of the season, the expected famine has not occurred and, although hardships unquestionably are faced, the scale and depth of the problem is not as expected. This can be explained due to both sampling and non-sampling errors inherent in the standard surveys; but also significantly because assessments have not got to grips with the new patterns of production (particularly in A1 areas) and marketing (mostly informal). This will require new, and better attuned, data collection techniques.

Unfortunately too often the emergency, humanitarian aid and disaster relief momentum overrides discussion of the developmental issues, and the scramble for food aid (and all the associated politicking) diverts attention and resources. As I have mentioned in this blog many times before, rural development challenges are many. They include the need to invest in irrigation to offset drought vulnerability, the importance of investment and reforms to ensure timely supply of inputs, a pricing and market policy to balance incentives between food and cash crops, a livestock policy that ensures such assets are secure and available in times of need, and, overall, more concerted support for the resettlement areas to ensure that they can indeed supply the nation with food.

Next week, I will continue this theme and look at the data on production and imports over time in a bit more detail. Since 2000 there is little doubt Zimbabwe is in a new era, and policy responses have to take this into account.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

Responses to frequently asked questions on genetically-modified crops and development

By Andy Stirling, co-director of the STEPS Centre

GM Rice / BASF / Flickr Creative Commons
Questions are never far from the headlines about how the world can farm more fairly, sustainably and productively. What is meant by these qualities varies greatly – including differing ways to raise income for poor farmers, improve nutrition, reduce environmental and health impacts or provide more food to feed growing populations. Almost irrespective of how to think about 'the problem', however, GM crops are often presented as a vital part of the solution. Fierce criticism is often dished out to any voices raising concerns – labelling them 'anti-technology' environmentalists, irrational media, nervous regulators or an ill-informed public.

But whatever side one is on, this kind of debate can easily miss the single most important fact. 'GM' is not one thing. And there exist a wide variety of other innovations – social and organisational as well as scientific and technological – for achieving the same ends (whatever these are). What is most irrational, is to focus disproportionately on 'GM' alone. Even more misleading, is to pretend that the issues are just about 'risk' – or that the solutions can be determined solely by 'sound science' or 'evidence based policy'. In the end, the answers depend on the questions. Science and evidence have absolutely crucial roles to play, But they are necessary, not sufficient.
The reasons why some GM technologies are often so strongly favoured by seed producers over other innovations, is more to do with commercial competition and profit than any other factor. It does not imply complete rejection of such interests, to see that the issues for society at large are much wider. The real issues are over which directions for innovation should be encouraged and which discouraged. This is not just technical, but a matter for ethical values, political judgement and clear democratic accountability. It is these qualities that are often most endangered by simplistic fixations with 'GM'.

The brief comments below respond to some questions about the part wealthier countries play in blocking or enabling GM technology, and the role that science and the public play in shaping decisions about GM and other innovations. To delve further in to these issues, take a look at the 10+ years of research in the STEPS Centre's Biotechnology Research Archive.

Why are GM crops stuck in the pipeline of regulatory approval?

The image of GM crops being 'stuck in a pipeline' presumes the role of regulation is simply to approve new technologies or products. In fact, as shown by a series of European Environment Agency studies, far from being over-restrictive, the history of European and wider regulation is at least as much one of being over-permissive.

Is the EU falling behind other regions in approving GM crops?

The idea that the EU is 'falling behind' presumes that there is just one direction of technological advance in this field (and that this is GM). In fact, innovation is at least as much a question of choosing directions to go in, as of how fast to proceed in any one of them.
GM is not the only biotech solution on offer. Marker-assisted selection and other genomic techniques offer important opportunities for enhancing conventional breeding through biotechnology. Investment in long-term, local, context-specific breeding and crop development programmes is needed.
This point is underscored by a major recent international assessment:

What role can science play in influencing policy and public opinion?

It is a foundational principle of science to provide a rigorous arena for engaging contrasting understandings and upholding the value of scepticism.
Like other groups of citizens and organised interests, the diversity of different kinds of science can of course exert influence in many different ways, both on policymakers and on wider public opinions. This is perfectly legitimate - but it should be recognised as a political activity and not something undertaken in the name of 'science' as a whole, let alone of 'objective truth'.

When any "science" organisation invokes the authority of the scientific process in general in favour of any particular technological product, it is being politically partisan. Frequently associated claims to objectivity are also spurious. The result is not only an undermining of reasoned democratic debate, but – by being less than trustworthy – amounts to nothing less than a betrayal of science itself.

Science as a process is equally implicated in a variety of contending innovation trajectories (see above), no one of which is inherently more 'scientific' than others.

The "Emerging Biotechnologies" report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics is a good illustration of this point.
There often exist more effective innovation pathways that do not rely primarily on science-intensive products. When they advocate science-intensive approaches as preferential to these, then scientists are also being more generally politically partisan.  In any case, scientific (and wider expert) understandings of the world can never definitively determine any single uniquely rational 'way forward'. The available evidence always admits a variety of contrasting interpretations.

Is the EU's treatment of GM is having a detrimental impact on developing countries?

In fact, the resources deployed in favour of adopting wider use of GM of various kinds dwarf those arrayed directly against it.
In some circumstances, some farmers have benefited from GM crop technologies; while others had bad experiences or were by-passed altogether.

A STEPS Working Paper by Dominic Glover (2009) shows economic returns are highly variable, dependent on a range of factors. GM crops only perform well in good varieties, GM seed start-up costs and technology fees are sometimes too expensive for poorer farmers, and major adopters are usually richer, with more land. Meanwhile the institutional and policy environment is vital: without support, credit and sustained backing, new technologies often fail.

How crucial is public opinion in the GM debate?

In this debate, as in other areas of political life, public opinion is crucial. Science and innovation present political choices, rather than one-track imperatives which supposedly have no alternatives. It is normally the case that business takes a pride in meeting consumer needs. And governments like that of the UK are usually very supportive of this. But in the field of GM, the pattern is typically oddly different. When consumers express a preference for other kinds of food or agriculture, the mantra is that they should change to fit the needs of producers, rather than the other way around. This is not only bad economics, it is undemocratic. Citizens should have a crucial say in decisions about the directions taken by innovations, including GM.

Find out more

This article was originally posted on The Crossing.

Zimbabwe’s election aftermath: what next?

The SADC report has given a clean (or nearly so) bill of health to Zimbabwe's elections, and despite protests from the MDC, it looks as if it is a done deal. The flaws were clearly very real, but the political context means further serious dispute looks unlikely, although political uncertainty continues (see earlier blog).

So, what next? There have been various commentators speculating. This blog is a round-up of some of these. Richard Dowden in African Arguments suspects:

"Mugabe will now go into reconciliation mode as he did after his first (also unpredicted) election victory of 1980 and again after he brutally crushed the Ndebele uprising in the mid 1980s. Now he will deploy his considerable charm and hold out a hand to African and western governments that have criticised him in the past….. He may not fully implement the indigenisation programme… just as he failed to implement socialist policies in the 1980s after he took power. In all these moves, the only question in his mind will be: will this keep ultimate power in my hands?"

Apart from "state control and manipulation of the election process", Dowden argues that Mugabe retained power because of the "do not upset a Big Man" factor. "If he is a Big Man and is president and wants to go on being president, then let him have it. Otherwise he will create problems. ‘I will vote for him because he is president’, is a phrase I have heard in many elections in Africa", he observes. Also, his victory will be applauded more widely he thinks: "many people in Africa feel that the relationship [with the West]is still not one of equality: multi party democracy has been imposed, resource nationalism is blocked by a Western-controlled economic system and attitudes to Africa are still patronising and sometimes bullying".

A Zimbabwean election is of course won or lost in the rural areas. The reconfiguration of political forces following land reform in particular has often been forgotten by the Harare-centric commentariat. Brian Raftopoulos observes:

The deconstruction of former white-owned, large-scale commercial farms and their replacement by a preponderance of small farm holders has radically changed the social and political relations in these areas. The new forms in which Zanu PF and the state have penetrated these new social relations have affected the forms of Zanu PF dominance in these areas. The rapid expansion of small-scale, "informal" mining companies has also brought a larger number of workers into the fold of Zanu PF's accumulation and patronage network.

This is a crucial point; one that all political parties should take note of. The rural areas are by no means uniform, and even with Masvingo province there are different dynamics, reflecting different factions, interests and coalitions: for example between the core land reform areas and the lowveld.
From now on, the political elite is going to have to take note of rural politics much more. And this is going to be especially important for the opposition to ZANU-PF, in whatever form it takes. The MDC's 2013 campaign focus on a liberal human rights agenda, combined with a western investor-friendly macroeconomic policy, often forgot questions of distribution, restitution and socio-economic rights, and in particular around rural issues. Also, with its focus on western powers and interests, attention to regional, African political realities was sometimes forgotten. Simukai Tinhu recommends a major overhaul, "embracing nationalism and a pan-African outlook" as part of a ten-year renewal strategy.

As Stephen Chan points out, one thing is certain about these recent elections: they will be the last for the great protagonists of the past 15 years, Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai. Who will take over and how will their legacies be settled have become the big questions. There has been plenty of commentary on this too. Will it be Emerson Mnangagwa or Joice Mujuru in ZANU-PF and Tendai Biti or Nelson Chamisa in the MDC-T? All sorts of internal contests are going on right now. For Zimbabwe as a whole, the sooner these are settled the better for everyone.

It's taking longer than billed for the new cabinet to be announced (I was expecting to be commenting on the allocation of the agriculture, land and finance portfolios this week). This probably reflects too a complex balancing act between groupings within, maybe even outside, ZANU-PF. Its final composition will be a strong indication to the country and, crucially, the wider world of how ZANU-PF intends to govern. We must hope that an inclusive and pragmatic approach is taken.

With the elections duly won (even if involving some foul play), hopefully ZANU-PF can tone down the rhetoric, take a more conciliatory stance and begin to deal with some of the big policy issues. What no-one wants is a return to the strife and economic chaos of the mid-2000s, a prospect that is genuinely feared on the streets. An accommodation with the international community will be essential. China may be the new 'development partner' on the block, but its support is insufficient. A further economic implosion would be catastrophic, so placating the western donors and international finance institutions is a must, while not conceding too much to their conditionalities.

Meanwhile, in the coming months, the new government must deal with a major food security crisis, some say of its own making. The complex issues of the food economy, food production vs imports and how to assess food security and what should be done will be turned to in the blog next week.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

Africa needs to feed herself first, then the world

This guest post by Adetola Okunlola first appeared on the PLAAS blog.

Meeting participantsAre Africa’s farmers ageing and young people turning their backs on agriculture? Can large-scale land deals and industrial farming address food security in Africa? How can smallholder farmers be supported to build food security for their own families, communities and countries? These were among the debates that took place at the Society for International Development’s (SID) ‘Africa Speaker Dialogue Series’ on the theme of ‘Rethinking Food Security in Africa: New Paradigms, New Approaches’, which was held at the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi on 12-13 June 2013. Present were key African thinkers from a variety of backgrounds from academics to government officials, farmers to activists, and, hearteningly, a large contingent of young people representing different forums. The Africa Speaker Dialogue Series aims to ‘promote reflection and conversation’ around key issues on the African continent.

The symposium consisted of five topics – Ideology, Technology, the African Farmer, Gender and Youth – with a speaker and respondents for each theme. From the outset, it became apparent that speakers, respondents and the audience were agreed on the need to give further attention to the role of women in agriculture, African identity and freedom from forms of dependence created by trade, economic and aid relationships.

Why is Africa food insecure?
The symposium was opened by Ali Hersi of SID East Africa, who introduced the opening round table discussion held by Dr Abdirizak Nunow (University of Eldoret and Future Agricultures), MagodeIkuya (Molo Integrated Agro-Farming Initiative Uganda), Gershon Nzuva (Past Chairman Central Agricultural Board) and Adetola Okunlola (Institute of Poverty, Land & Agrarian Studies). The discussants were challenged by Mr. Hersi to answer the question: ‘Why Africa is still food insecure even though she has enough people and resources to feed herself?’ A number of factors were mentioned including:
  • Unequal global trade regulations,
  • Poor infrastructure and linkages, resulting in food being available but not easily distributable to the masses,
  • A lack of youth interest in farming, partly due to the ‘Westernisation’ of African youth, resulting in the notion that farming is for those who are not successful, and
  • A lack of real focus by governments on ensuring food security.
The panel suggested that Africa needs to prioritise food security in a consistent manner – rather than focusing on short-term political gains and re-election. This should be done through including women and youth in agriculture and focusing on producing food crops for household consumption and local markets, rather than export crops.

The speakers and respondents on the theme of ‘Ideology’ were Situma Mwichabe (SID), Dr Alex Awiti (Director of the East African Institute of the Agha Khan University) and Oby Obyerodhianbo (Strategic communications Advisor at the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health, PATH), who spoke on ideologies around and of African farmers.

They exasperatedly reiterated the need for Africans to not be reliant on foreign aid, ideas and advice. It was strongly felt that the African continent was still held by forces of neo-colonialism in the guise of ‘technical advisors’ and World Bank/IMF financiers. One asked, ‘Who shall be the ones to change the African people’s ideology?’ as it was felt that those in power in African governments had no serious aspirations to address such issues. It was also noted that African farmers had ‘given up’ on dreams of success and were happy to partake in projects to save them from starvation but still keep them on the brink of poverty. The panel concluded that this mindset must be changed and African farmers must understand that dependence on projects and aid will never change lives… social organization and mobilization is what is needed to facilitate economic growth.

The ‘Technology’ speaker was Dr Nicholas Ozor (African Centre for Technology and Policy studies). Respondents Dr Paul Seward (Director Farm Inputs Promotion Africa) and Dr Hannington Odame (Director Center for African Bio-Entrepreneurship and Future Agricultures East Africa hub coordinator) discussed the acquisition of technology by African small-scale farmers. The roles of different types of technology were discussed such as mechanization, biological and indigenous technology. It was felt that many farmers were crop loyal and preferred crops they had always grown over other higher yield varietals. Dr Seward demonstrated the effectiveness of a ‘farm-inputs’ model in which smallholders are trained how to use appropriate amounts of inputs such as fertilizer and seeds, through simple methods such as a seed planting string which are low in cost and highly effective.

The African Farmer: agency and adaptation
‘The African Farmer’ session was presented by Dr Abdullahi Khalif (Country representative for FEWSNET Somalia) with responses by Dr Julius Gatune (African Center for Economic Transformation) and Adetola Okunlola (PLAAS). The discussion centred on African farmers’ agency and ability to adapt in order to access rapidly changing and complex global value chains. A warning was given against notions of an ‘African Farmer’; farmers are a highly heterogeneous group, both across the continent and within specific geographical areas. One of the reasons for so many years of development failure has been due to ‘one size fits all’ approaches, which do not recognise the differences between farmers. It was also noted that there are other ways to improve food security and economic success for small-scale farmers than including them in high-value export value chains. A further understanding and support of informal markets is also a viable and favourable option. The ‘African Farmer’ discussants echoed some of the points made within the ideology discussion, however, it was felt that hope does lie with African small-scale producers, many of whom are not plagued by dependency, but are rather economic actors producing despite constraints and utilising all advantages given to them, whether by NGOs, the state or charities.

Gender and Youth
The second day of the symposium saw a focus on ‘Gender’ and ‘Youth’. The Gender speakers included Okumba Miruka (independent consultant), Ester Mwaura-Muiru (Founder of GROOTS Kenya) and Elias Mutinda (agriculture and food security advisor, Action Aid Tanzania). The role of women in agriculture was a recurring theme throughout the two days. The fact that women do most of the agricultural work on the continent yet often are not recognised nor paid for their work was repeated and challenged. Often they are not able to own title deeds or be recognized as the rightful owners of their cropping land, and have little say as to what is planted. This needs to change: if the majority of African farmers are women, they need to be recognised legally and financially (and not just through micro-finance schemes!). A cultural shift must also occur which results in women becoming more empowered and able to be recognised for the work that they undertake.

Youth involvement in agriculture
 The last discussion was that of ‘Youth’ and ‘Youth involvement in Agriculture’. Katindi Sivi was the speaker (Program Director SID East Africa) with three respondents: Moses Mutungi (Farm Concern International), Olawale Ojo (Agroprenuer Naija) and Emmie Kio (Young Professionals in Agricultural Research for Development). The respondents spoke about their experience as young farmers and farming advocates. They argued that the notion of agriculture being a ‘last resort’ was passed on by the older generation who should refrain from such thinking and rather encourage their children to farm. As Emmi Kio of YPARD stated ‘We need to stop spreading the ideology that farming is a poor man's profession.’ In fact, with adequate support and information, young people are often inclined to get involved in agriculture. The youth respondents also demonstrated their use of information and communications technology (ICT) and social media as platforms through which to communicate, disseminate information and advocate for youth in agriculture, using twitter handles such as @emmiewakio and @agropreneur9ja to do so [editor's note: Emmie Kio has also reflected on the event on her blog].

Some conclusions
Overall, a sense of African pride and unity against outside forces was prevalent in the room, with many of the comments and suggestions coming back to this point. The need to prioritise food security on the continent was also key, with a call to those in power and the youth, our future leaders, to fully commit to ensuring this rather than ensuring food security for outside countries through growing export crops and selling land. Africa needs to feed herself first, then the world.

Follow Adetola Okunlola on Twitter: @AdetolaOkunlola

Has a 'policy space' for pastoralism been opened up in Kenya?

Kenya’s arid and semi-arid lands (known as ‘ASALs’, highlighted on the map - click for large version) have never enjoyed the kind of policy attention that takes account of their unique capacities and challenges. Pastoralism, the dominant production system in much of the region, has been especially misunderstood. Pastoralists and livestock move around; there is low population density but high population growth. Customary practices and indigenous knowledge play a strong role. National policy and practice has rarely taken account of these factors. The area is chronically marginalised and isolated, and literacy and vaccination rates are low.

The Ministry of State for Development of Northern Kenya and other Arid Lands was set up to address these challenges. A new working paper by Izzy Birch and Mohamed Elmi, Creating Policy Space for Pastoralism in Kenya (pdf), tells the story of how and why the Ministry was created, and some of the lessons learned.

You can watch the authors explaining the story in this seminar at the Institute of Development Studies in May 2013:

Formed in April 2008, the Ministry picked up on a growing recognition that the region’s economic potential had been overlooked. Its creation could be seen as opening a ‘policy space’, where new opportunities, relationships and directions are possible.

Pastoralism in Kenya has long faced policy and institutional challenges. A historical neglect of development in the ASALs, and repeated cycles of drought and conflict, reinforced the idea that pastoralism was unviable. But the region’s problems were as much a product, if not more, of political choices than of ecology. This framing began to be challenged by emerging narratives during the 2000s, including economic potential, diversity and equality, and resilience.

In this context, the Ministry had to choose its priorities carefully. From the early days the Ministry saw itself as time-bound, with a long list of expectations and demands. It concentrating its efforts on measures to re-balance policy and institutional priorities in the long-term interests of the region. In part because of a limited budget and timeframe, the Ministry decided to focus on strategic and systemic change: co-ordination, implementing selected programmes, looking to reform policy and institutions, and regional interaction across national borders.

The working paper also discusses the Ministry’s relationships with NGOs, development partners, parliament, the research community, the private sector and individuals. In the area of policy reform, the Ministry looked for strong evidence to back up its claims, and offered an alternative storyline – of opportunity and potential – to counter the dominant negative view of the region.

Progress in co-ordination efforts was variable. Some strides forward were made in the energy, education and health sectors, but road provision and security were less successful. In terms of the policy process, the Ministry broadened the focus of ASAL policy from food security to take in a wider range of sectors, putting the social, cultural, legal and institutional impediments to development on the table.

The ASAL Policy, approved by Parliament in December 2012, represented the end of a decade-long struggle. It was important for its symbolism as well as its content. Among other things, the policy established an institutional framework to oversee its interpretation and implementation, which provided dedicated and specialist attention to ASAL issues within government.

What next?
What future for pastoral development in Kenya? It is still early days, and the progress made so far needs follow up and support. Policy spaces close as well as open. Ahead lies a period of institutional change and uncertainty. As the ASALs are brought further into the heart of government they will become implicated in different power struggles. But some shifts have taken place. The challenge now will be to sustain the process of policy reform and continue to learn from this experience.

Further resources

Voices from the field: growing cotton in Nuanetsi ranch

This week again I am highlighting another of our videos from the series, 'Voices from the Field'.

Again, if you don't want to watch the intro sequence again, run it on to around 1 minute 11 seconds.

This week, I want to introduce Mr Chidangure who produces cotton in the Uswaushava area, part of the massive Nuanetsi ranch. While he focuses on cotton, his wife organises beer sales. Together they make a significant income, and have begun investing in purchasing cattle, and building their home.
While the cotton price has dipped in recent years, they are still committed to growing it, but are also diversifying into other crops. Mr Chidangure favours the former parastatal Cottco, as it reliably supplies seed and chemicals, but there are many other companies competing for custom in the area, and competition is fierce.

When the film was made this was still an 'informal settlement' with absolutely no formal tenure security. Despite this, investments such as house building have occurred, as seen in the film. Since then their claims on the land have been recognised with 'offer letters', and with this farmers feel more secure.

Thanks to income from cotton the family has finished the construction of the houses, with them all now plastered and painted.

For the full set, go to:

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

Our IDS Bulletin on China & Brazil in African agriculture quoted in The Guardian

The Guardian quotes our recent IDS Bulletin in an article on China and Brazil in African agriculture, alongside remarks made by FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva.

In an article published 27 August 2013, Mark Tran writes: "China and Brazil have identified agriculture as central to their development efforts in Africa, confident in the belief that they can make valuable contributions based on their own agricultural success."

Read the full article here: Brazil and China scramble for agricultural influence in Africa

Voices from the field: a successful sugarcane grower from Chiredzi

As I mentioned last week, while I am away on holiday, I am going to highlight a few of our videos, 'Voices from the Field'. If you don't want to watch the intro sequence again, run it on to around 1 minute 11 seconds.

This week, I want to introduce Mr Nago and family who have an A2 plot in Mkwasine near Chiredzi. He explains how difficult it was to start up. The land he received was uncleared bush. They have gradually cleared portions of the 66ha. They started with maize and vegetables that brought income, and then increased the proportion of land allocated to sugarcane. Now they have a large area, and Mr Nago is a member of the Sugarcane Development Association.

On-going disputes with the core estate at Hippo Valley resulted in problems for the new farmers, but relations have improved since the film was made, as has the water supply which was previously highly intermittent. Getting credit finance was also a big challenge, although now loan arrangements linked to sugarcane have improved.

Sugar production on these A2 sites is booming, and as Mr Nago explains, cane is bringing income, allowing him to expand the area under production.

For the full set, go to:

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Climate change: where stereotypes go to die

by Nathan Oxley, STEPS Centre

What do you mean when you call someone a climate sceptic? I went to a panel discussion last Thursday evening, “Tackling scepticism: How can we most effectively communicate climate change?” which despite the confrontational title, was an enjoyable debate touching on how people on different sides of a sometimes polarised climate debate think of, and treat, each other.

The event started with the audience being invited to name experiences of scepticism by the chair, Ed Gillespie (who’s also blogged about the evening here). This ended up looking rather like a list of types of climate sceptics (see picture). Initially, this exercise rang some alarm bells for me. It mainly served to demonstrate that, rather than one single stereotype of “climate sceptic” or “climate denier”, there are many possible stereotypes. But they are still stereotypes.

The list of types of sceptic.
Source: Futerra blog
In the event, though, I found it useful to see such a list out in the open. A couple of people suggested that many of the stereotypes could easily be turned on their head and applied to the green movement in general or advocates of low-carbon policies in particular. It reminded me that we all instinctively like to put people in categories. We can dish it out but it's a bit harder to take it.

It may be human nature to create them, but caricatures – whomever they are about – can easily do more harm than good, especially when applied to views about a complex problem. They can be fun, even affectionate, or cathartic, but not very productive in the end. What they leave out, or don’t address enough, is a proper engagement with people’s values and what they want the future to look like.

These are things that have been unjustly neglected in parts of the climate debate. Chris Rapley of UCL, on the panel, suggested that two people, given the same information, may end up with different views of what they think is happening and how to respond. I would add that in another scenario, two people with access to the same information might select or prioritise different parts of it. Rather than jumping to portray them as a ‘denier’ or ‘alarmist’, we might ask what politics, values and assumptions lie behind these different visions. The aim should not be to erase these differences or try to convert everyone to our values, or to pretend that climate is a technical issue that we can solve by the application of enough science.

The types of questions that the STEPS Centre specialises in are useful here, I think (although I guess I’m biased). Rather than simply asking “what should we do about climate change”, it’s useful to examine how the people in the conversation frame the issue, what their values and assumptions are, and what they imagine about the future. It also doesn’t hurt to recognise that none of us are in possession of the full facts, and the climate (like many other problems) is as complex and unpredictable as a toddler's birthday party in the way it interacts with other systems. Climate change may be a phenomenon where nature behaves in a way we wouldn’t wish it to: but it is also a human problem – we have to respond to it as citizens and communities with different desires, livelihoods and motivations. Climate change is political, as my SPRU colleague Alice Bell (also on the panel) put it. (Edit: Alice has summarised her opening comments at the event in a blog post for New Left Project.)

Climate change isn't always recognised equally by all as a problem. But even if it were, rather than just asking “what now”, we can ask (in Andy Stirling’s words) “which direction”, “who says”, “why?” and "who benefits?" This is not to say all opinions or options are equally valid, or that all commentators are innocently impartial (be they of the green persuasion or otherwise). If you’re in favour of action to mitigate climate change, for example, consider that climate is one of the justifications used to appropriate so-called “underused, marginal” land for biochar and biofuels projects at the expense of poor people. On the other side, an overly laid-back view of climate change can be an excuse for a stagnant, short-sighted energy policy.

As Chris Rapley pointed out, characterisations of the other as “sad, mad or bad” are usually over-the-top and applied too easily. Yes, there is extremism and ignorance among non-greens and greens alike. But ill-tempered arguments can quickly spiral out of control and it takes a disproportionate amount of time to rebuild trust. Politeness may be stifling, but respect is worth pursuing. This is not a recipe for a naïve debate where anything goes. It’s a reminder that sometimes it is worth stepping back and asking different questions before rushing to judgement.

This article was originally posted on The Crossing.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Arguing about agronomy: the changing politics of agronomy research

A new article in Outlook on Agriculture explores how agronomy has been affected by social change since the 1970s. The science of agronomy informs crucial decisions on development. It is often seen as a practical, problem-solving field, but like other areas of study is affected by politics and power.

The authors suggest a 'political agronomy' approach, which takes account of the contestations that can arise around the generation and promotion of new agronomic knowledge and technology.
From the article:

“…the creation and use of knowledge and technology – which are of course at the heart of agronomy – are embedded in complex political, economic and social worlds that are characterized by asymmetric power relations. In agronomy and agricultural research more broadly, power is (and has long been) exercised in the framing of problems and the setting of priorities, through funding decisions, through ‘partnerships’, through crop variety release procedures and through the peer review and publication process.”  

Image: Healthy barley despite drought under conservation agriculture by CIMMYT on Flickr

This article was originally posted on the The Crossing.