The fate of agriculture



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The fate of agriculture
V. BALAJI
THE Web 2.0 phenomenon is widely seen as revolutionizing communication and exchange all over the world. No wonder, participation in designing and using the tools of Web 2.0 is considered as attractive to the corporates as it is to civil society. The advent of what is called the social media is believed to contribute to the development of new forms of mass media, probably different from corporate publishing. Scholarly debates and publications on the information society or knowledge society, for their part, have implicitly assumed the access and availability of the tools of the Web (1.0 or 2.0) for very large numbers, even masses of people, although they do not make this dependence on instrumentalities explicit.

How far do agriculture and farming relate to developments in Web 2.0 and thus to ongoing debates on the knowledge society? I point to the near absence of agriculture and farming as distinct practices in the world of Web 2.0, and argue that such an absence, at least partly, is rooted in the structure of communication and exchange in a number of activities related to agriculture and farming (research, education, and extension, especially). Developing countries in general have a lot to gain by attempting to restructure of agricultural communication and exchange. A large developing country like India is in a position to build several models to bring together the new opportunities for multi-stakeholder communication in agriculture and farming, as articulated in the knowledge society debates.

The Wikipedia is put out as an exemplar of what the combined habits, attitudes and tools of Web 2.0 can achieve. As of late March 2009, the number of entries in the Wikipedia in English was 2.77 million and three Indian languages, Marathi, Hindi and Tamil, had entries greater than 10,000 each. The journal Nature published a study in late 2005 which revealed that (at that time at least), on the whole, the rate of occurrence of errors in the science articles of the Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica were nearly the same. Since then, a number of affiliate Wiki efforts, especially the Wikibooks and the Wikiversity, have attracted the attention of the more serious-minded contributors and have grown considerably.

Where does agriculture and farming figure in this non-corporate, global enterprise? The preliminary finding was that they hardly figured there. Through the last two years, a small group of scholars based in India have frequently analyzed the Wikipedia in English for the presence of entries related to agriculture and farming. They did so with somewhat elaborate methods: they used the main categories of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s global agricultural thesaurus called the AGROVOC to develop the search terms. There are no automated tools to do such an analysis, and the number of terms used run into thousands. Each analysis has led to the identification of unique entries on the English Wikipedia. Their number is less than 3000. As of early 2009, this figure has not changed significantly since mid-2007 when such analyses began. Thus, agriculture and farming-related topics in this collaborative, user-generated content space do not constitute even 0.01%.

Equally weak is the presence of this whole sector on a platform such as the YouTube; a simple search for ‘irrigation’ on YouTube leads one to ‘colon irrigation’ as a top destination, followed by nasal irrigation (in early 2009). Searches can be refined, yet drastic improvements in the results do not occur. So is the case with the blogosphere that is supposedly revolutionizing the business of news/views publishing. The news coverage of agriculture in the digital sphere in general is dismal; the well designed and well maintained site, agrifeeds.org, is among the small number of exceptions.

The celebrated sphere of social networking presents in this sense no surprises either: simple analyses of major social networking sites, the Facebook or MySpace, show that these are not flooded with profiles of agriculture experts (researchers or practitioners); similar is the outcome of an analysis of the trendy Twitter platform.

On a more serious plane, even well-known cutting-edge platforms for Open Educational Resources (OER), such as the Connexions, or the Gateway or the MERLOT or the ARIADNE, do not have agriculture and farming related content to any significant degree. The education related channels on the YouTube as of March 2008 do not have agriculture channels either.

The paucity of agricultural and farming content in the Web 2.0 sphere is compounded by their relative paucity in the ‘older’ web. The presence of content from the land grant college system of the USA is considerable in the older web, followed by the presence of international and inter-governmental agricultural organizations. However, the volume of agricultural content in the Web 1.0 sphere can be safely assessed as minor compared to business and/or research/education topics in the technology sector. Developing country agriculture content fares poor generally; for example, a census of India-based or India-centric web sites with dominant agriculture and farming content revealed just 96 sites in 2007, and the number is still below 150 in early 2009.

The paucity of digital information in relation to agriculture and farming is a global phenomenon, not limited to developing countries or to intergovernmental organizations. The normally vocal civil society organizations, including those advocating organic and alternative farming, have not focused on building and sharing agricultural content in the digital realm. Where or what are the causes? With its implicit assumption of a substantial digital presence of sectors and stakeholders, can the generic knowledge society debates fully ingrain agriculture and farming sectors, given their non-presence in the digital realm?

This has so far not been a point or a thread of discussion, generally speaking. It should be. The effects will be seen not just in quantity increases in content, but more probably in the way communication and exchange are structured and formatted in agriculture in general, especially in the developing countries. My understanding of these issues derives from the ongoing studies that invoke the innovation systems concepts in agricultural research, although this practice does not as yet relate to digitally mediated knowledge sharing in farming and agriculture.

The advent of participatory methods since the 1980s has exercised some, however limited, influence on the design of agricultural research. Studies on participatory processes in international agricultural research (this is a politer way of referring to agriculture in developing countriesthis is how focusing on developing country agriculture is referred to in the international discourse) started in the late 1980s, and have come up with a number of insights about the way international discourse on agriculture is organized for local interventions. One of them led to drastic changes in the way ‘slash and burn’ practices in crop production were understood and acted upon.

A number of ideas related to conservation agriculture have emerged from the thrust of such non-institutional approaches into a discourse premised upon approaches that emphasize the primacy of the expert in the institutional milieu. The influence is still marginal, but it cannot be ignored: non-institutional considerations do now get discussed in formal research design, although Chambers’ vision of ‘Farmer First’ is still far from being ingrained.

Similar influence of participatory processes in communication between institutional experts and the farmers and non-research stakeholders is almost nil. This is left to the consideration of ‘extension’ experts, a rather demoralized group shrinking in numbers, almost all over the developing world. Earlier designs of agricultural extension in the developing world proceeded on the basis of a linear, largely unidirectional movement of ‘knowledge’ from the research laboratory and the expert towards field-demonstration organizers and the extension personnel who were to induce changes in the farmers’ behaviour. The last step was deemed critical for technology ‘adoption’ and towards making an impact.

Following an assessment of the non-viability of such unilinear processes in the post-Green Revolution era, the discourse has edged towards promoting ‘pluralism’ in extension. Key global actors such as the World Bank or the FAO have floated what they consider to be different models of connecting the institutional sources of knowledge with the farmers, even while they retain the extension lore and imagery. Based on the newer models, the implied hierarchy in the older, Green Revolution era approaches has been moderated to project research, education and extension as the three vertices of a triangle, which goes globally and officially under the nomenclature of AKIS – Agricultural Knowledge and Information Systems.

The AKIS has maintained continuity with the earlier approaches by relegating other actors and stakeholders, especially the farmers, to a lesser status as non-sources of critical knowledge and information. Results of adoption of these models across the developing world are at best mixed. In spite of differences in the nomenclature (ranging from ‘Training and Visit’ to ‘farmers field school’ systems), the linear chain approach has remained active at the core. This appears to be closely linked to governance related matters, since in most developing countries food production is viewed as a non-military strategic issue.

Advancing further on the participatory approaches, recent studies on ‘innovation systems’ in international agricultural research have highlighted the opportunities for enabling multi-stakeholder participation in knowledge creation, and have suggested significant changes in the perceived linear continuum between the formal research systems and the farmer/agri-entrepreneur. This emerging trend is yet to acquire a level of equality in status with the more established ‘impact studies’ paradigm, but is believed to provide new ways at designing institutional research projects. The innovation systems approach can be thought of as applying in agriculture and farming sector the model of industrial innovation that emerged in the ’80s (with private-public partnerships at its centre) which accepted multiple sources of innovation as ‘legitimate’. This approach is yet to develop a comprehensive analysis of the AKIS vis-à-vis the use of the digital space.

There is thus a large-scale model of communication and exchange in agriculture and farming, and it enjoys legitimacy. Through unidirectional and linear processes, the model allows for a significant level of control that can influence or affect all the processes and actors involved. Like in many contemporary organizational systems, the control is often diffuse and pervasive than direct and personal. It is our conjecture that the control elements impact on agricultural knowledge generation in contemporary situations in the digital realm, where the dominant trend is to encourage multi-lateral, multi-stakeholder participation.

I believe it would be an interesting and relevant exercise to understand how different components in such a paradigm relate to each other, and how the control aspect influences or even limits flows of data and information externally, and how it limits non-institutional participation. This would be particularly relevant in the context of flattening of rates of increases in global food production.

While there are efforts ongoing that tend to apply manufacturing industry-derived methods to promote improved participation of farmers in research design, the smallholder farmer is emerging as the centrepiece of trend-setting investments in international agriculture. Dipankar Gupta earlier in these pages has dwelt at length on the rise of this category of farmers in India, and the implications for agricultural policy-making. With the smallholder farmer’s capacity to ‘absorb’ or change technologies constricted by the sub-optimal size of the holding and by the lack of access to institutional resources, the farmer is even further removed from influencing the unilinear model of communication and exchange in agriculture. Yet the emerging global trends move her/him to the centre stage of food security debates.

The recent debate on corporate farming as a solution to rural poverty and the smallholder farming as the alternate is a significant example. Equally significant is the just published International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology in Development (IAASTD), sponsored and implemented by an international group of governments and philanthropic organizations. The IAASTD sponsors and actors wanted a difference, and the expert groups on this effort had the participation of a wide range of non-government affiliates. The recent publications of the IAASTD tend to ask for a reconsideration of reconsider the character of conventional international agricultural research in the current context of ecology-related issues in agricultural production in the developing world.

Yet it is not clear whether the smallholder focus or the sensitivity to ecological issues in food production has produced a different model for communication and exchange in agriculture and farming, which will move away from the dominant extension model. Viewed on the whole, a recognition of the changing economic character of the producer or of the significance of ecology in global and local food production does not lead has not led to recognition of the need to effect changes in the character of knowledge sharing in farming and agriculture.

In making the knowledge society debates more inclusive of developing country farming and agriculture, India has certain advantages. They stem essentially from two developments: the first is in the ongoing efforts to revitalize the agricultural education and research system; the second is in the paradigm of applying contemporary information and communication technologies in support of governance and rural development.

India’s leadership in this new area is well known, in spite of the fact that few critical analyses exist of the investments, progress and meaning in such initiatives.10  What is interesting in this modest advance is that agriculture and farming are noticed through their significant non-presence. Continued observations on such projects since 2005 show that out of just over 100 projects, governmental or otherwise (including for and non-profit), no more than six had offered farming and agriculture-related services as one of the main outputs services. At least a couple of them could not sustain these services beyond the first three years (one of them was part of an agri-business operation). The disconnect between formal, institutional sources of agricultural information and such projects is more visible now, in spite of ongoing investments in the former to increase their capacity for ‘external’ communication. Bringing them together on a large scale is one way to begin a kind of dialogue between these two stakeholders.

The first opportunity lies in building platforms that enable the institutional experts in the agricultural domain to build collaboratively the architecture for a digital presence. My own exchanges with several of these experts convince me that unless they build something entirely from the scratch, they are not going to play the role of either contributors or participants. The reservations among them about the Wiki-style open review, commentary and editing are overwhelming. This is something one does not encounter in a comparable field of human and social development, such as public health.

The critical issue here is that formal institutional knowledge in farming and agriculture cannot easily be brought into the digital public domain unless the institutions are actively involved. This is rooted in the fact that the sStates in India have responsibility in India for food production, and they have authorized the agricultural universities as the only channels for publishing and promoting the ‘packages of (agricultural) practices’. Such an explicit control arrangement adds further to the limitations on public review, commentary and editing of documents, which are the hallmark of the world of Web 2.0.

Institutional expertise needs to be brought on board first at an architectural level. Given the diversity in farming and agriculture in India, a number of information aggregation models are required. Some of them can and should enable the simultaneous aggregation of information from institutionalized expertise as well as from expert practitioners such as recognized farm practitioners or small enterprises or farm and rural interest groups. (Similar models in material transfer and aggregation exist in the seed industry in India where the certification and public release procedures are stringent and elaborate.) A recent effort called Agropedia (www.agropedia.net) is an example of this sort.

The proponents of innovation systems in global agricultural research have pleaded for promoting and accepting diversity in models for participation in research of institutional and non-institutional stakeholders. This needs to go beyond and should cover the need to build dialogue and exchange among the host of stakeholders in knowledge sharing in agriculture. Sensitivity towards ecological aspects in food production should also be enabled to foster such a dialogue and exchange. This is easily started with new experiments and model building in digital mediation for information exchange in agriculture.

India has the advantages of the early starter, and given the extraordinary diversity of farming systems in India, and the presence of huge numbers of smallholder farms, a wide range of models can and should be developed. The equivalent of Science, Technology and Society Studies (STS) in agriculture and farming can contribute the critical analysis and building of many models of agricultural and farming knowledge generation, sharing and learning.

1. Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously, EC DG for Research, 2007.

2. J. Giles, ‘Special Report: Internet Encyclopedias go Head to Head’, Nature 438, 900-01, 15 December 2005.

3. M. Leach and J. Featherhead, Reframing Deforestation: Global Analyses and Local Realities – Studies in West Africa. Routledge, London, 1998.

4. J. Ashby, ‘Fostering Farmer First Methodological Innovation: organizational learning and change in international agricultural research’, International Workshop on Farmer First Revisited, Sussex, 2007.

5. A.W. Van den Ban and R.K. Samantha (eds), Changing Role of Agricultural Extension in Asian Nations, B.R. Publishing, Delhi, 2006.

6. A. Hall, ‘Challenges to Strengthening Agricultural Innovation Systems: where do we go from here’, UNU Working Paper 2007-038.

7. Dipankar Gupta, ‘The Changing Villager’, Seminar 589, September 2008.

8. D. Byerlee and others, ‘Smallholders Unite’, Foreign Affairs, March-April 2009 (viewed online, http://www.foreignaffairs.com).



9 E. Toby Kiers et al, ‘Agriculture at a Crossroads’, Science 320, 18 March 2008, 320-21.

10. IIIT-Bangalore, Report on Information and Communication Technologies for Development: a comparative analysis of costs and impacts from India, 2006 (available at http://www.iiitb.ac.in/completereport.pdf ).


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