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Neil Palmer/CIAT

The new 'golden age' of agronomy

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

Not since the Green Revolution half a century ago has there been such a golden age for agronomy.  But unlike the hey-day of new high-yield varieties of rice, wheat and corn, there is no consensus today about where the science of farming should be headed and what it should be trying to deliver.

Is the aim to maximise yield, to feed the world’s growing urban masses, to improve the lot of rural households, to rescue the world’s soils from rampant over exploitation, or to drive economic growth in developing economies?  

rice field uruguay
Rice production in Eastern Uruguay from the air.
Neil Palmer/CIAT

Can all be delivered at the same time?  Or is agronomy being taken over by fads – many with a green patina, such as conservation agriculture, agro-ecology, climate-smart agriculture and sustainable intensification – that promise all but too often deliver little.  Do they too often turn into a new imposition on the rural poor?  

Such questions framed a sometimes heated debate on Contested Agronomy at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), part of Britain’s University of Sussex, in February.

Empty promises

Ken Giller of Wageningen University waged war against those who proclaim the death of the plough.  So-called conservation agriculture, with zero or low-tillage of fields, promises reduced erosion, an accumulation of carbon in soils, better water use, improved soil heath and higher yields across farming landscapes round the world.

Sometimes it can deliver, he agreed.  On high-tech farms and with lots of herbicides, for instance.  But, despite heavy promotion by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization since its 2009 New Delhi Declaration on Conservation Agriculture, no-till “doesn’t fit with agriculture in Africa”, Giller insisted. Without access to herbicides, it just means hard-pressed smallholders must spent more time weeding.  And worse, unploughed and unmulched soils can form a crust which accelerates soil erosion.

He had never found a satisfactory source for an FAO claim that, in trials, conservation agriculture “increased maize yields six-fold” in southern Africa. And -- despite a suggestion in the name that it might be green or even organic -- successful conservation agriculture required high inputs.  

“Agronomic knowledge is being twisted and sold,” Giller concluded.  Why?  “Maybe we need an anthropology of agronomy.”

Breaking it down

In the new golden age of agronomy, everyone wants to sell their recipe for success, especially to Africa.  But success varied.  Lidia Cabral of the IDS said progress in transplanting the low-till high-input agriculture pioneered in the Brazilian cerrado grasslands to fellow Portuguese speakers in the African savannas of Mozambique often “depended more on personal attributes and epistemiological inclinations than on Brazil’s presumed agricultural successes or South-South credentials.”

And what did such new templates for agricultural transformation actually deliver?  Who wins? Is it, asked Bart de Steenhuijsen Piters of the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam,the rural poor?  “They feature strongly in funding proposals for agronomy research, but are strangely absent in impact evaluation reports on those projects,” he said.  “As the money is spent, the poor seem to evaporate.”

Agronomy conventionally seeks to maximise yields for profit, rather than to optimize outcomes for poor farmers.  It can, the meeting heard, often seem largely irrelevant to the lives of farmers who spent most of their time tending home gardens to feed their families, and whose priorities are secure food supplies.  

Examining the data

For income, most poor rural households depend more on selling their labour.  “Yet this is ignored in our research agenda.”  Likewise, few agronomists talk about land rights, even though the evidence is strong that farmers who secure their land live better and wealthier lives.  

And gender and generational divides rarely feature in agronomy research agendas either.  “Most of the rural poor are women, and most are young, yet we ignore both these groups,” said Steenhuijsen Piters.  

“I agree there is a need to intensify agriculture to feed cities,” he said.  “But do not claim that you are reducing rural poverty that way.” Farming systems that only maximise output may end up worsening rural poverty and driving the young to cities to add to the food crisis there. 

Are agronomists even investigating the right crops?  Sieg Snapp of Michigan State University made the case for research into perennial versions of grains, which can provide greater security against famine, and will often grow in poor soils where the agronomists’ recent favourite, maize, will not grow. 

Diversifying the portfolios

Perennial sorghum, rye, wheatgrass, Lima beans, pigeon peas, chick peas and many others are “completely ignored” by, among others, the Gates Foundation’s Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, she said.  They were once a feature of African farming landscapes, but “today there is no perennials research going on anywhere in Africa,” she said.

“I don’t imagine landscapes of perennials, but I do think we need a range of options for farmers. They have a role in sustainable intensification.  But the research vision is all about annuals.” 

Why this fixation?  Seed companies like annuals because they help avoid farmers recycling their own seeds, which is bad for business.  Agronomists like annuals because they fit their metric of choice, maximising yields.  Technology salesmen like annuals because you can harvest them mechanically, and all at once.  Economists like annuals because they slot into established trade markets. 

But do smallholder farmers like them?  Who knows?  As Steenhuijsen Piters pointed out, probably nobody asked them.  “They need a voice in setting the research agenda.  But we rarely sit round a table with them.”  

Time for a grassroots green revolution?


What a disappointing summary of this meeting!! So may things were discussed that had positive thoughts but were not mentioned in this biased report. I find it very frustrating that there are scientists who want to negate all the hard work that has gone in to developing with farmers technologies that can help them intensify their food production in a responsible way whether they are subsistence or market oriented farmers. It is so easy to contest, but I don't see any alternatives suggested by these negative people who only think their work is worth anything. We have been very successful in South Asia with no-till and mulch technologies with higher yields because of more timely planting, less costs, better soil health, less labor and in fact less weeds in the rice-wheat systems of South Asia. Weeds are an issue in the present farmer systems and unless the scientists are promoting the drudgery of hand weeding that they probably have never had to do, then use of integrated weed management with herbicides available if needed is a reasonable solution. Small landholders are also using this technology by using service providers since they obviously cannot own a tractor but can utilize the technology and thus free up time for other productive purposes. It is pity the person who wrote this piece could not be less biased.

My blog could not, of course, successfully summarise a whole intense conference with many parallel sessions. It did not attempt to. The aim was to stimulate some counter-intuitive thoughts, based largely on the stimulating keynote presentations make on the first day, and of those I do believe it is a good summary.

Great and very useful information

Farmer involvement in research has become a buzzword but is rarely implemented in a way that is meaningful. The Australian experience is interesting. In Australia farmers pay for a proportion of the research budget through levies on their production. Farmers have been appointed to the funding bodies for many decades but it took time for them to exert their influence. Initially they meekly followed the recommendations of the professional researchers. In more recent decades they have funded genuine farmer managed research. This has broadened the research into farming systems in a way that the research establishment has been frightened to touch because of the difficulties in statistical analysis. Professional researchers are more concerned about convincing other researchers than convincing farmers.
Farmers in Australia are also researching mechanization which is something that the research centres have failed to address over many decades. This is an incredible lapse as mechanization has become one of the major costs for farmers - not just in the developed world but everywhere. Algeria for example has more tractors and harvesters per hectare than Australia but no one seems interested in finding out why their productivity is so much lower.

I have called "farmer participation in research" as a buzzword because of my experience with IFS and IFAD. Their concept is to set up a research project and then involve the farmers. Of course the funding organization wants a detailed plan before it will approve the funds. What is left for participation by the farmers? The project cannot be changed in any meaningful way. Participation is really communication.

Over the last several decades we have seen a shift from public research to private research. Private research is constrained. It has to produce results that are can be patented and sold. For example I cannot see the great leap in productivity achieved in Australia with trace elements being privately funded. So far it has not proved possible to patent elements such as copper, zinc and molybdenum. For the small farmer this high input farming coming from private research is a disaster. They need low cost farming not the high input system that has become the ruling ideology. No where is this more important than in dryland areas. Drought is a common occurrence in these zones. One of the most effective strategies to reduce drought risk is to reduce costs yet that is not the thrust of agronomic advice funded from corporate research.
Of course it is not just small farmers that suffer from the costly input syndrome. The story of the water hyacinth on Lake Victoria is a perfect contrast between the high input and low input approaches.

The new theology is optimism or technological optimism to be more precise. Technology is going to solve the problems of food security. The problem with this approach is that it ignores completely the social and economic context that the farmer - particularly the small farmer works in. The technological optimists also advocate a globalized food market. The two are incompatible. Even if you lifted wheat yields in Tunisia and Morocco to levels higher than those achieved in similar conditions of soil and climate in South Australia the small farmers will still not compete with the larger farmers in Australia or the subsidized farmers of the USA. If you want to grow wheat in these countries in a global market you are going to destroy the social structure of the rural population and increase migration to the cities and probably to Europe. Agronomists cannot live in a little bubble and ignore the wider context.

Further to Peter’s comment, (first one above) about experiences with conservation agriculture – including zero-tillage – please see FAO’s new book on sustainable intensification, “Save and Grow in practice: maize, rice, wheat”. Would particularly recommend the study on CA in the Indo-Gangetic Plain (page 58) and Kazakhstan (p. 75) For Africa, see the study on maize/agroforestry in southern Africa (p.71).
Link to the book:

The base of Sustainability is Soil-C.
The final arbiter, judge & jury, accountant and pay master.
Every gram added holds eight more grams of water.
More C means less inputs & higher yields.

All political persuasions agree that building soil-C is good. As all BMPs or new technology that do.

Soil Biology is our only way to rapidly and massively draw down CO2 from the air to offset our ongoing and past carbon emissions, Safely and naturally restoring the hydrological cycles by increasing biogenic aerosols and cloud albedo that could readily cool the planet by the 3 watts/m2 needed to offset the now locked in greenhouse warming effects and avoid the Storms of Our Grandchildren.

The French have lead the way recognizing Soil Carbons' value and committing to build Soil Carbon by 0.40% annually. Putting them on the road to Carbon Negativity before any industrialized country. 25 nations have signed on to 4p1000. 100 of the 196 countries in Paris submitted plans to reduce CO2 via agriculture, forestry and replacing soil carbon into their programmes.

"Systems thinking" had always been an approach of those involved in any development process. This kind of common perspective often leads to simplification and a manner of thinking that the "shortest distance between two points is a straight line". Compounding this scenario is the contractual nature of finding solutions in addressing a continuing and evolving concern. There are just too many issues to concern with in agriculture and the ultimate need to feed the world. The Agronomy side of it is just one facet of this complex process of agriculture. The consumers must have a say about what they will consume, even if they cannot afford to and alternative means had to be brought into play. The Agronomist can only carry so much of this load of feeding the world. Coalescing resources in food production, too, is complex, if not very difficult. Everyone must take part in order to achieve "eating right" for all. "Complex systems thinking" may be the proper way of looking at finding our food solutions. For clearly, the golden age for Agronomy appears still afar in the horizon.